“Don’t forget to check out the galley. That’s real shag carpeting!” – Captain McAllister
The title of yesterday’s episode, “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again”, is a reference to a famous 1996 David Foster Wallace article for Harper’s, in which he embarked on a giant luxury liner to experience the narrow, selfish, and vapid thinking that underlies the modern cruise industry (as well as the bland and mostly uninteresting people who think of it as the height of fun). It’s an enjoyably cruel piece of writing (it was later used as the headline piece to a book length collection of essays he published), and you can read the whole thing in PDF format. The subtitle is “On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise”, and the main point is that cruise vacations are mercilessly inhuman.
Wallace held the cruise industry in utter contempt, and not without cause. It’s environmentally disastrous, ethically compromised, and generally unpleasant on anything deeper than a surface level. The spectacular sinking of the Costa Concordia in January is only the most high profile of the industry’s problems. Two years ago, they kept sending tourists to their fenced in resorts in Haiti while people were dying in earthquake rubble. Crew members, who work long and extremely stressful hours, routinely disappear without a trace. And just a few weeks ago, two fishermen died on their disabled boat when a cruise ship failed to rescue them even though the crew had been alerted by passengers to their presence. In other words, this is an industry that places a higher priority on cheesy lounge acts and shuffleboard than it does on human life, and it is ripe for parody and satire.
David Foster Wallace knew that the only way you could say something honest or interesting about cruise ships was by reveling in the ugliness that props up that gleaming facade of stark white hulls and perpetually happy people. Zombie Simpsons borrowed his title, and then did the opposite, making their cruise out to be so awesome and perfect that they actually wrote a song about how awesome and perfect it is. I realize it’s not their job to do exposes on irresponsible corporate behavior, but by sticking with such a sunny perspective they limited themselves to only the safest and most tame kinds of comedy (when they were bothering to attempt humor at all).
Of course, the episode did eventually descend into post apocalyptic chaos (and I thought we were done with the “Outlands”), but only after acting as an unpaid and unquestioning endorsement for most of its run time (and concluding that the only way to have a bad time on a cruise is to take one with Bart Simpson). And, it goes almost without saying, no part of the episode made the least bit of sense, from the completely unnecessary (and exposition filled) scenes where the family paid for the vacation, to Bart’s panic after the song, to the immediate descent of the ship into Mad Max 4: The Wet Warrior, to a quick sketch or two in Antarctica. Along the way, characters wander in and out of scenes for no discernable reason, the plot swings wildly from one idea to another, and most of the stabs at being funny are paint-by-number bricks like this:
Lisa: It’s so diverse! I’ve died and gone to a PBS kids show.
[Kids in wheelchairs roll up out of nowhere.]
Marge: You’ll never guess how many bath towels they gave us. Enough!
Bart: And there’s a DVD library of movies that haven’t been released yet! Whoa. Whoa.
The episode wasn’t completely without its charms, “Magazine Hater” magazine is pretty clever, and the cult of the lifeguard isn’t a terrible idea. But, again and as usual, the stuff that has a little bit of thought to it is drowned in a sea of garbage that can’t rise to the level of being semi-clever or even coherent. When this is your ending . . .
. . . the ship has irreversibly foundered.
Anyway, the numbers are in and they continue to be historically bad. Only 5.00 million viewers sat through last night’s infomercial for Carnival and company before hitting up the buffet. That ties last year’s “The Great Simpsina” for the fourth lowest number ever. The post-New Year’s episodes of Season 22 generally hovered around six million viewers. Season 23 is down to five million, and routinely fails to get even that many.