“Mr. Scorpio, this house is almost too good for us. I keep expecting to get the bum’s rush.” – Marge Simpson
“We don’t have bums in our town, Marge, and if we did they wouldn’t rush, they’d be allowed to go at their own pace. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the middle of a fun run!” – Hank Scorpio
Though you’d hardly know it from how much screen time it got, the main plot of “At Long Last Leave” was the family Simpson moving to a new town. Coincidentally, this is also the main plot of “You Only Move Twice”. The differences between the two are too numerous to count, but to get a good approximation of how large the gap is, we needn’t look much further than the way the respective new towns are portrayed.
Start with just the basic mechanics. Cypress Creek is the main setting of almost the entire episode. The Simpson family gets there right after the first commercial break with nearly three quarters of the episode still to go. The Outlands isn’t introduced until the episode is already half over, and it doesn’t stay on screen long. Less than three minutes after we catch our first sight of it, Homer and Marge and back in Springfield. We don’t see it again until there’s only a few minutes left in the episode (and Homer and Marge’s trip to Springfield is longer than either of the times we see The Outlands). By contrast, “You Only Move Twice” doesn’t go back to Springfield until the very end.
Then there are the respective houses. In Springfield, 742 Evergreen Terrace is as much a part of the Simpson family as Grampa. The television, the bedrooms, the kitchen table, there’s a recognizable believability to the place (even if the floor plan is somewhat impossible) that makes the scenes that take place within better than they otherwise would be. The house in The Outlands shares none of those traits. Even if you set aside the fact that it makes no sense how they came by it, the shanty in The Outlands has no personality. It’s just a shack, and it has nothing to do with the rest of the episode. There’s never a clear shot of it, and the only thing the family does is walk out of it.
Blink and you’ll miss it. Near as I can tell, this is the only time you see the whole house.
But in Cypress Creek, the house itself is funny. It’s a funhouse reflection of the kind of palatial McMansions that were so vogue right up until 2008. Though the family is only there for the one episode, you get a sense of how vast the living room and kitchen are, of the tasteful upper-middle-class elegance of the back yard and dining room. This isn’t done purely for show either, the house is so self sufficient, cleaning and watering itself automatically, that Marge has nothing to do. This striver’s paradise even keeps Maggie busy for her.
This show can make a terrified baby funny. Suck it, Zombie Simpsons.
Moving beyond the house, the rest of Cypress Creek is just as well realized. The planned community is the opposite of Springfield’s broken down chaos. Everything works: the schools are good, the shops are trendy, and the activities are healthy. And, of course, we get to see all of these things and laugh at them and the real life counterparts they so closely resemble. Anybody who’s ever been through a resort town in America can recognize something like “The Spend Zone”. Ditto highly funded schools that have a program for everything.
The Outlands, by contrast, are so sparingly portrayed that I’m still not sure quite what they’re supposed to be. They clearly liked the whole Mad Max thing, with Mohawk Maggie being the prime example of that. But they also had it scaled back to something vaguely recognizable as backwoods America, especially with the nameless shotgun guy. That the rest of Springfield shows up would seem to support the “backwoods America” model, but then the whole town is abandoned and Bart smashes Skinner with a helicopter, which is much more “Mad Max”. They seem contradictory, but neither is on screen enough to be coherent or intelligible, so who knows?
What makes the relative paucity of scenes in The Outlands, indoors and out, so bad is the fact that the story is supposed to be about either a) the Simpsons adapting fine to their new home, never to return, or b) the townspeople deciding that they all want to leave Springfield (for some reason). The episode can’t seem to decide, but whichever it was going for, the ending hinges on this point. It’s the main conflict of your story, it’s not something you can breeze over or be vague about.
Cypress Creek, on the other hand, is on screen enough that it feels like a real place, and is tremendously funnier for it. The shops, the house, the school, the fun run, all of it is funny precisely because it’s an (only slightly) exaggerated version of a white collar, corporate yuppie utopia. That they would have a school so lavishly funded that Bart can do no harm and a house so automated that Marge feels useless is believable enough that you know the joke must have had some sting for the kind of people it was mocking. Lisa, irony of ironies, has the Edenic nature she craves turn on her. Only Homer wants to stay, which means his eventual decision to return to Springfield is the culmination of all those other events.
Even by Season 8, moving the Simpsons out of Springfield was something that had been done a few times already (“Dancin’ Homer”, “Cape Feare”, even “Deep Space Homer”). But it doesn’t feel played out or rehashed in “You Only Move Twice”, and a big part of that is because Cypress Creek is a fully thought through location. That its idyllic setting is all in support of things like Project Arcturus just makes it funnier. Compare that to the brief, confusing, and potentially contradictory sketchpad known as The Outlands. The place makes no sense and is hardly on screen, which is all the worse when you remember that everyone spontaneously decides to move there. As usual, Zombie Simpsons collapses under even the slightest scrutiny, while The Simpsons is built to last.