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“Your no-frills, fumbling sales pitch has won me over.”
I was momentarily taken aback by the big, bold “TV-14″ content warning before the start of tonight’s Simpsons. But, after calming myself with the thought that no, there wasn’t a rogue Family Guy episode coming, I remembered that tonight’s 2020 episode of The Simpsons was venturing out into the stormy, controversial waters of . . . the pot. More specifically, the growing national movement toward marijuana legalization and the proliferation of cannabis-related legal businesses (no longer called head shops, thank you very much), a civic transformation that has brought untold decades of generational warfare and unfruitful hyperbolic debate tactics right into the mainstream. After all, when, one year, parents are telling their kids about the dangers of smoking dope (while shifting their eyes in grudging recognition of their own youthful recreational use), and the next they’re driving past three chipper-looking dispensaries with names like “Calming Harvest” on the way to Arby’s, it’s fair game for a show like The Simpsons to see just how Marge and Homer will approach the issue.
Still: Big, scary content warning. Review rated AV-14. Proceed at your own risk.
In the past, The Simpsons’ weed jokes have largely centered on Otto, Springfield’s most stoned school bus driver, so it’s natural he’d show up as catalyst for a second-act plot twist here. Once Marge innocently lucks her way into a sales job at Drederick Tatum’s post-boxing cannabinoid empire, thanks to her wholesome probity providing a reassuring face to the shiny, Apple store-esque Well+Good store, Springfield becomes so weed-friendly that Otto’s buzz is seriously harshed. Mumbling his way through an attempted Well+Good purchase with beaming store manager Desmond (a crisply funny Billy Porter), Otto’s usual allusive asides and winks are greeted with more tinctures, lotions, edibles, and other shiny cannabis products than he could have ever dreamed of, although he finds himself turned off when his talk of the cops sees Springfield PD officer Eddie making his own recommendations.
As with most of its audience, the whole marijuana issue’s been viewed as a wry joke on The Simpsons since the start, with reactionary, draconian enforcement contrasted against mostly harmless stoners and law enforcement types who are only too ready to partake when nobody’s looking. Now that the legal pot business is here to stay (at least for the mostly white, upwardly mobile types who can look to cash in), that the Simpsons (family and series) would incorporate it into the sweep of shenanigans, adventures, and whatnot feels, well, organic. And the script for “Highway To Well,” credited to the always-welcome Carolyn Omine, does an admirable job of making the marijuana element (underrated dispensary name) feel right at home as just another excuse for Homer and Marge’s differences to bubble to the surface, rather than reeking with “very special episode” staleness or sensationalism. As things turn out, legalized pot is just another new development in American society that reveals the characters, in a more or less satisfying manner.
For Marge, the aching, hidden need to feel valued and special is a defining trait. As much as her Homey loves her, he’s terrible at showing his wife those things, except in the sort of grand, often deeply irresponsible gesture that defuses an episode’s marital conflict. At Well+Good, Drederick, Desmond, and pink-haired saleswoman Lauren (Chelsea Peretti) are all using Marge for her guileless suburban sheen on their burgeoning business, but they also seem to like and respect her, and she gradually comes to see how her distribution of mood-altering gummies and $30 bottles of CBD soda make her customers’ lives a little better. (Even Mrs. Skinner returns happily praising son Seymour for being a big deal principal, which is the episode’s most convincing case for legalization and widespread use.) The problem for Marge is that, at first, she doesn’t know what she’s been selling, which is problematic on any number of levels. (Not a good look for the Well+Good staff, in that Marge is unwittingly handing out a sense-altering drug to people who also don’t know what they’re taking.)
Still, after a talk around the Simpsons’ dinner table, Marge decides to go back to the job, a decision presented as considered, adult, and even laudable, which is probably why the episode got that network warning more than any old stoner gags. The central parental dilemma is neatly summed up in Homer’s turn-on-a-dime encouragement/admonition, when he tells the departing Marge, “Now go sell that safe, legal drug our kids should never ever use!” As far as a TV institution like The Simpsons taking a stand on marijuana, pointing out that Marge’s new job (“legal in this state” is said several times for emphasis) is compared reasonably to her working in a liquor store is a similarly rational paradigm shift. Later, Moe—bummed about the rise of pot over his favored legal and lucrative intoxicant—bemoans the old days before these “tie-dyed bong-monkeys,” when people just drank themselves into dangerously needless fistfights, which doubles down on the joke.
But Marge isn’t going to be working at a cannabis business come episode’s end, so the test is in what conflict will eventually bring her out of the weed biz. And there, there’s one hit and one miss, although the miss is the funnier of the two, as Homer’s Otto-pleasing turn to the old school backroom weed-dealing business (although prefaced by a disclaimer that everything about to happen is now legal) sees him transforming Moe’s storeroom into a humorously observed simulacrum of every dingy, wet-bathing-suit-smelling den any self-respecting pot enthusiast recognizes only too well. Otto’s thrilled, what with Homer dressed like a “cool toddler,” unused hand weights, an exotic pet, and Lenny as “the weird friend who never acknowledges you,” sullenly playing “a (legal parody of) Goldeneye on a (legal parody of) a N64,” according to Simpsons EP Matt Selman’s Twitter.
Narratively, the couple’s final clash is handled with complicated but understandable motivations. Homer’s seedy side-hustle costs Marge her ability to project the squeaky-clean image Tatum needs to front his expanded, celebrity cannabis spa expansion, so she accepts an offer to rat Homer out—to the health department, for serving food while running a legal business. It’s a sly way to at least nod toward thew backdoor ways legislators and law enforcement have chosen to come after legal things they don’t like (cough—abortion—cough), although, like the completely unmentioned issue of the many, many, mostly non-white pot offenders still in prison, the episode doesn’t really delve into the politics.
Instead, there’s a cheese-balls sting as the culmination of the “drug war” Bart and Lisa term their parents’ dueling pot business squabble, with Homer left on the hook for a $25 fine. Of course, betrayal is a bigger penalty, with Marge’s late attempt to warm Homer about the sting still seeing Homer (having made his way past security by claiming to be other guest voice Kevin Smith’s dad) turning up drunk at Marge’s big opening. (Thus shocking the gathered, vaping celebs in attendance. See Selman again for hints—apart from Rainer Wolfcastle and McConaughey, I’m lost.) Homer’s right to feel hurt—not to come down on Homer’s side too hard, but him doing something independent of Marge that he couldn’t have imagined would hurt her new career is pretty low on the list of horrible Homer-isms. Still, it’s narratively fitting but pretty harsh for the drunk Homer to lash out with the one piece of information that will completely tank his wife’s career—Marge has never tried marijuana. (Here, having scoured my thirty years of Simpsons memories, I bow to the commentariat on whether that’s canon.)
With Marge’s apt switcheroo of a protest, “I can start anytime I want!,” one drop of what Homer calls her “oils and goos” sends the neophyte Marge, to steal a phrase, tripping balls. (Sadly, both the chicken pot pie and napkin she attempts to clear her palate with are both heavily weed-infused.) Here, Omine’s script walks a mostly successful line—Marge has to be genuinely disconcerted by her experience, while, at the same time, Desmond, Lauren, and everyone else’s good time is shown to be equally likely and valid outcomes. Again, for anyone worrying about the Disney-fication of The Simpsons should take comfort in that “Highway To Hell” takes a middle road on the whole pot subject, the middle road being more daring than one might expect under the circumstances. And if the Homer-ex-machina of the CBD oil conflagration that toasts the spa derails a substantive resolution of Homer and Marge’s main conflict, it does demonstrate a quiet elegance in how quickly Homer casts aside his sort-of earned anger as soon as he spots just how freaked out Marge is by her first-ever drug experience. Acknowledging that he is happy she found a place that made her “feel special” (even as he accidentally burns it to the ground), Homer talks down the jittery Marge with the knowing advice, “You’ll be fine in two hours—that’ll seem like 12.” All in all, a Simpsons take on legalized marijuana could have been disastrously squarer.
- Speaking of observations, the episode pops with funny offhand references the characters keep throwing at each other. Desmond reassures the wheeling-and-dealing Otto with the admonition, “Pump the brakes, jorts.” And in the smoky aftermath of the spa’s destruction, Moe and Tatum commiserate, Moe telling the champ, “Cheer up, neck-face,” and Tatum returning a weary, “Thanks, monster-man hallucination.”
- Marge, on discovering what her job really entails: “Pot is for Cheeches! And Chongs!”
- Lisa drops in one line about the tax revenue Springfield will now lose after the fire spooks the town into outlawing weed once more.
- That will also cost Maggie her new, progressive “pre-toddler” learning center, where, as we see in some subtitles I could use help in translating, she’s learned Mandarin.
- Additional reading: For more on those still imprisoned for what soccer moms and former craft brewers are being profiled in their hometown paper’s lifestyle section for.