“Whoa, I bet the 8-Ball didn’t see that one coming.” – Bart Simpson
“Yeah.” – Milhouse van Houten
With so many years of backstory hanging over its head, Zombie Simpsons often resorts to the inane and bizarre to keep believable and long established relationships fresh. Once upon a time, Moe was Homer’s bartender. Sure, they knew each other a bit better than the average rag and coaster jockeys, but they never strayed too far from the recognizable baseline of bartender-customer. Along the same line, Skinner and Chalmers used to be junior and senior in a dumb bureaucracy and Lenny and Carl used to be office buddies. All of those have been trashed under a half-clever veneer of self knowing television tropes. Homer and Moe are best buddies when they need to be; Skinner and Chalmers are attached at the hip, and Lenny and Carl are . . . whatever they are.
In that same vein, Bart and Milhouse have gone from plausible boyhood friends to an overtly self-aware pair of co-dependent jokers. When The Simpsons still cared about its audience and characters, Bart was the dominant half of a realistic friendship and Milhouse was the forgiving and easily awed sidekick. That’s a pretty good basis for fiction, and it worked for a long time. But even an archetype that durable can only hold out for so many hundred episodes before it becomes a stereotypical hack job. At this point, their roles have gone beyond “well established” to “crap, how do we make this not a complete repeat?”, and that’s the real problem of their half told story in “Moe Goes from Rags to Riches”.
Bart and Milhouse have fought before, many, many times. Sometimes it was a minor part of the episode, like “Bart After Dark” or “A Milhouse Divided”; sometimes it was a major part of the episode, like “Homer Defined” or “Bart Sells His Soul”. But for comparison to “Moe Goes from Rags to Riches”, nothing is closer than “Bart’s Friend Falls in Love”.
In both episodes, Milhouse gets pissed at Bart for taking him for granted. And in both episodes, Milhouse eventually forgives Bart. The difference is in how those things happen, both the falling out and the rapprochement. In The Simpsons, Milhouse gets mad because of a serious betrayal; in Zombie Simpsons, Milhouse snaps with no warning for no real reason. On the other end, Milhouse in The Simpsons sees his beef with Bart resolved; Milhouse in Zombie Simpsons goes with the flow because he knows just as well as the audience that things have to get back to normal.
Sadly, this is what passes for normal these days.
In “Moe Goes from Rags to Riches”, the opening scene is a town meeting at Moe’s that becomes a dance party. (Of course it does.) In the course of said meeting, we see the two of them dancing together to Lionel Richie, and the following exchange happens:
Bart: That’s even sadder than being friends with Milhouse.
Milhouse: You know something, Bart, I’m getting tired of things like that.
Bart: Tired of what? I dump on you and you take it, that’s how friendship works.
Milhouse: Not anymore. Friendship over.
This comes from precisely nowhere. And while you might be tempted to forgive Zombie Simpsons this narrative shortcut because we already know Milhouse resents Bart in general, don’t forget that Bart has said plenty of worse things to Milhouse over the years with no reaction whatsoever. Based on what we know of the two of them, this sudden eruption of pique is entirely out of character. Zombie Simpsons doesn’t give us even a single line where we see Milhouse steaming up before he’s at full spurned-friend boil.
I’m asking for white hot rage and you’re giving me a hissy fit!
By contrast, in “Bart’s Friend Falls in Love”, Milhouse snapping comes with an entire episode’s worth of buildup and occurs even quicker. Instead of a tired, verbose and unexpected exchange, The Simpsons has Milhouse lose it with a single, exposition free word:
Bart: Listen, Milhouse, I got a confession to make. I’m the one who narced on your kissing.
Not only is this shorter and funnier, but it fulfills the prime commandment of screenwriting, “show, don’t tell”. In Zombie Simpsons, Milhouse tells us why he’s mad, even though Zombie Simpsons is taking for granted that we already know the reason. Here, no explanation is needed because we’ve seen the two characters build up to this over the course of the entire episode. Milhouse’s anger, and his subsequent death grapple with Bart, shows us how pissed off he really is.
Hallelujah, they’ve done it again!
Things get even more embarrassing for Zombie Simpsons as the two move from their confrontation to their inevitable reconciliation. In “Bart’s Friend Falls in Love”, the reconciliation happens quickly; The Simpsons had no illusions about pretending that Bart and Milhouse would end up something other than friends. The tension during their fight – the deliberately overwrought horn music, Bart contemplating smashing his best friend with scissors, a broken bottle, and a brick – is all comedy. The scissors? Sure. But there’s no reason for there to be shattered glass and masonry in Milhouse’s room other than as a gag. The show doesn’t even pretend to imply that Bart’s actually going to use them, so when he finally settles on the Magic 8-Ball as his weapon, it fits. It’s physically plausible and plot relevant (the 8-Ball having predicted their falling out back in Act 1).
Zombie Simpsons lacks anything even remotely resembling that kind of subtlety and relevance. Since they dove into their dead end conflict in the very first scene, they have no story to tell. All they’re left with is a few disconnected set pieces: Bart at Milhouse’s window, Bart breaking in to Milhouse’s room, Bart outside Milhouse’s front door. There’s nothing to these scenes except for Bart and Milhouse exchanging hackneyed, knowing banter like the predicable sitcom characters they’ve become.
Instead of giving us a fun reason for the two of them to be angry at one another and then resolving the unavoidable quickly, Zombie Simpsons creates a problem for Bart and Milhouse out of nothing and then expects the audience to care as they wrap it up with one glacial dead end after another. The Simpsons knew not to pretend that things weren’t going back to normal. Zombie Simpsons doesn’t (or doesn’t care), so they stretch out the worst part and are left with nothing to show for it but nonsense like Milhouse swallowing rocks, Bart falling to pieces overnight and reading a sappy poem Lisa wrote, and Drederick Tatum appearing from nowhere. They said the quiet part loud and the loud part quiet.