“You don’t need an introduction, you’re the worst kid in school.” – Bart Simpson
“Thanks.” – Jimbo Jones
Among the many, many things that made The Simpsons great that Zombie Simpsons has lost and/or squandered is any sense of relating to the characters or even simple reality. For all of its energy and outlandish plots, on The Simpsons you always knew that the people involved were reacting in a way that real people might react. The characters had character, and they stayed within those bounds. Homer gets involved in outrageous situations, but he’s still a bungling amateur. Even when Marge was in a desperate flight from the law, she turned the car to get her friend to safety, not to deliberately drive into the Grand Chasm. Lisa may have all the traits of a political crusader in her opposition to anti-immigrant Proposition 24, but she’s still a little girl who wants her mother to buy her licorice.
On Zombie Simpsons the characterizations that kept The Simpsons grounded are routinely ignored, and characters frequently fly off the handle or simply sit there like inert lumps. The last thing they do is act human. In “Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts” this is particularly apparent in the kids. It’s one thing for Bart and many of the school’s other troublemakers to be suddenly enraptured by Theodore Roosevelt, it’s a bit of a stretch for some of them, but getting instantly obsessed with something is an inherently kid thing to do.
What isn’t an inherently kid thing to do is to conquer the school, and what’s an even less kid thing to do is to have Bart, the smallest and weakest of the boys, become their unquestioned leader. Jimbo and his two sidekicks, Dolph and Kearney, were introduced way back in Season 1 as older kids who would never look up to Bart Simpson in a million years. On the contrary, Bart looks up to them, admiringly describing Jimbo as “the worst kid in school” when they first meet in “The Telltale Head”.
Bart copies Jimbo, not the other way around.
The entire plot of that episode revolves around Bart trying to fit in with an older crowd, just as real boys have done since time immemorial. To younger kids, slightly older ones are more familiar and less confusing than the towering adults, yet still clearly cool, more capable, and worth emulating. So when Bart’s initial joy at being included in Jimbo’s gang turns to bitter embarrassment when he’s dismissed for acting too childlike, he tries to redeem himself by doing something he explicitly heard Jimbo say would be cool.
His desire to fit in with the older kids, something to which anyone who has ever been a kid can relate, drives the entire plot. Bart makes a kid’s mistake in thinking that Jimbo and company would be impressed with him, and then makes a second kid’s mistake in actually taking the head. So not only is Bart too childish to hang out with the older kids, he’s also too young to understand that Jimbo and company were just shooting the shit when they talked about decapitating the statue. The entire episode displays an intimate knowledge of the reality of childhood even as it goes through its fictional story.
That was just cloud talk, man.
By contrast, “Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts” displays no such knowledge. Following its story requires you to set aside pretty much everything you know or remember about being a kid. Zombie Simpsons is so set on having Bart become a Teddy Roosevelt wannabe that it forgets that those other kids around him are supposed to be kids as well. So you have Jimbo:
1. Sitting with rapt attention in Bart’s treehouse as Bart runs their new club.
Remember when Jimbo picked up Laura for their date? Zombie Simpsons doesn’t.
2. Standing quietly in the back while Bart negotiates with Principal Skinner:
Jimbo once beat up Bart to take his specialty belt. Apparently, he cares less about hats and glasses.
3. Unquestioningly taking orders to get the students into the gym while Bart plots his next move:
Maybe Bart finally learned the Touch of Death?
4. Fearfully coming to get Bart so Bart can deal with the police:
It used to take a knife wielding maniac to make him scared.
5. Obediently standing by while Chalmers talks to Bart:
Pretty lame for a kid who’s been kicked out of all four Space Mutants movies.
This is Jimbo and the other bullies as props instead of characters. They don’t have any humanity and they certainly don’t act like actual kids. All Zombie Simpsons can think for them to do is stand there and watch Bart.
It’s not like the episode has to be all about them (it is Bart’s last name that’s in the title of the show after all), but The Simpsons knew how to have Bart interact with the other kids. Zombie Simpsons just stands them up like cardboard cutouts. The Simpsons also recognized the fact that Jimbo Jones was unassailably higher in the pecking order than Bart. With its atrophied storytelling skills and monomaniacal focus on what’s happening right now, Zombie Simpsons doesn’t care in the least about that kind of context or humor.
The Jimbo who would’ve beaten Bart to a pulp for cutting off the head of the Jebediah Springfield statue isn’t the same character as the Jimbo who eagerly takes orders from Bart. The same goes for Dolph, Nelson and Kearney. These are the kids who tossed rocks at Bart just after telling them he was their only hope in Utility Basement B. These are the kids who chased Bart out of the school when they found out he was doing ballet. These are the kids who were the ruthless guards at Kamp Krusty.
Zombie Simpsons is fundamentally narrower and shallower than its predecessor because it has a different set of priorities. It doesn’t care about its side characters, it doesn’t care about its setting, it just cares about winding up Bart and setting him loose to do zany things. That inattention and apathy to the kinds of things The Simpsons treated with exquisite care is a big reason why Zombie Simpsons has such a disconcerting air of unreality to it, even in episodes like “Bart Stops to Smell the Roosevelts” where it stays relatively grounded in Springfield.