"Sir! I’m so sorry my grocer committed you. We’ll never shop there again." – Mr. Smithers
Like the practice of medicine in general, the treatment of mental illness has a longstanding history of cruelty, incompetence and abuse. People have undergone everything from lifetime confinement and mind changing drug regimes to electric shocks and lobotomies because of pseudo-scientific theories that often had (and have) more to do with the ignorance and prevailing prejudices of the people administering the "treatments" than they do with making the patients better. On top of that is the frightful prospect of a mentally healthy person becoming trapped in that system and subject to its tender mercies, a fear that has driven fiction of all kinds for more than a century.
Serious drama, horror schlock, dark comedy and more have long used that and related ideas to provoke and entertain. Some, obviously, work better than others, and there’s no way to guarantee success; but you can guarantee failure by using that powerful, well explored, and deeply rooted concept as a quick and haphazard plot twist to clean up a half-formed story and the flimsy character at its core. In a nutshell, that’s what happened to "Diggs", a Zombie Simpsons episode so ill conceived that they couldn’t even bring themselves to put a pun in the title.
You want to do an episode about a lonely boy who’s a one kid falconry club at Springfield Elementary? Fine. Weirder shit than that has happened at Springfield Elementary. You further want to reveal that said lonely boy is actually seriously mentally ill? Okay, that’s a bit heavy for a shamelessly stupid show like Zombie Simpsons, but isn’t necessarily a problem. Oh, you want to have the kid be involuntarily committed, have Bart find out, have Bart’s parents react with horror that he even knows such places exist, have Lisa(!) go along with it unquestioningly, then have the kid leave for a day to wrap up the plot before biking happily back to a life at the mental institute he clearly doesn’t want to be in? Those are gonna cause problems.
To see just a few of them, take a quick look at the dinner scene where Bart has printed out (yeah, I know, ignore it) the name of the mental hospital where Diggs is being taken. Bart can read. He can certainly understand the words "Psychiatric Hospital" on the page he printed. He hands it to Marge and this is what happens:
Marge: If this is what I think it is, it’s not a place we should ever ever take a little boy.
Bart: Then why is Diggs there?
Homer: Because it’s his home forever.
Marge’s reaction is bizarre in a couple of ways. First, she’s just accepting that some kid is being permanently taken to a mental hospital? That’s very un-Marge. Moreover, what’s with the weirdly callous and fearful attitude? Even if we spot them her acquiescence in this, the Marge we know and love would reassure Bart, tell him that the hospital is going to help Diggs, maybe even often to see about visitation. Instead, she not only views it as a hopeless place too horrible to even speak of, but makes Bart feel even worse about his friend going there.
And all that’s before we get to the glaring elephant in the room: how come nobody has asked about this kid’s parents? He’s supposed to be an elementary school student for fuck’s sake! And not only does he not have any parents, none of the adults we do see care about it either. Are they on vacation? Did he run away? Did Voldemort kill them in the Simpsons universe too?
It’d be one thing to overlook all that in a regularly nonsensical Zombie Simpsons episode that’s flopping all over the place anyway, but they play this seriously . . . over . . . and over . . . and over again, complete with sad piano music each and every time. Diggs and his bleak future are clearly the biggest element of the story now, but the episode spends most of its remaining time on a bunch of falcons we hadn’t seen before, then ends with Diggs riding off to his fate. How is the audience supposed to react to this? It’s like watching someone do bad stand up right next to someone who’s getting beaten and handcuffed.
Are you sad? Well don’t be, because here comes Milhouse!
Even topics as dour as getting hauled off for no cause can be funny, of course. For starters, it helps to not have it be about a little kid. (Unless it’s a Halloween episode and Bart saw a gremlin on the side of the bus, and even that made more sense than “Diggs”.) More importantly, it has to fit in with the universe you’ve created and the story you’re telling, which brings us to "Stark Raving Dad" and "The Old Man and the Lisa". In one, Homer gets committed to the New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting by his boss for wearing a pink shirt to work and flunking an obviously idiotic take home personality test. In the other, Burns gets committed to the old folks home because two grocery clerks decided he wasn’t capable of being in society.
Forget about what happened to Homer and Burns once they got where they were going ("Diggs" didn’t show us where its title character was going), and just compare the who and the why. Homer gets sent up by his boss, which is a pretty terrifying prospect for anyone who’s not in management. Burns gets sent up by a couple of dudes at the store, which is pretty terrifying for anyone. Both are egregious abuses of authority, but they’re also absurd. Real life grocery store employees cannot sign commitment papers, which is what makes doing it on The Simpsons so enjoyable.
Similarly, both Homer’s and Burns’ transgressions were ludicrously minor. Homer wore a pink shirt and checked some boxes wrong (or, rather, let Bart check them wrong); Burns couldn’t make up his mind about a condiment. Neither can get you committed, much less by people other than doctors and judges.
Both cases take that dark concept and make it funny by changing and exaggerating it beyond reality while leaving it recognizable. In other words, by satirizing it. Zombie Simpsons, by contrast, took a very sad real world situation and . . . left it very sad. I’m not sure what that’s called, but "boring" and "not funny" would be a good start.
As I said on Monday, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they dumped "Diggs" at 7:30 instead of the usual 8pm. Zombie Simpsons episodes are typically some combination of dumb, nonsensical, boring and just plain bad; but "Diggs" managed to stand out for not only being all those things, but also stapling them to a story that would’ve been hideously depressing if it weren’t so mind numbingly stupid.