The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Twenty, “The Trouble With Trillions”

I’m finishing these reviews with the end of season nine (after which I will follow up with an essay that both finishes off The Simpsons as a whole and analyses the pilot of Futurama), but when I announced that, people pointed out that season ten picks up in quality a little. I found that convincing on the face of it, but upon further thought, I realised most of them will probably come off the same way this one does, and what is interesting to look at as a one-off novelty will become less interesting when it dominates the proceedings. This has much of the fast plotting that’s been present in the show since at least “Home Sweet Home-Diddley-Dum-Doodly” and it definitely has much of the same morality, satire, and absurdity, but it feels like it’s lost its edge, which is something I find really interesting to analyse. ‘Losing one’s edge’ is a common accusation thrown at artists as they age, and sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s something an immature person is throwing at an artist who has grown and matured beyond their audience in some way*, and sometimes it’s something people throw around because they heard it somewhere and think it sounds clever. Kevin Smith is always the big example to me of an artist who genuinely lost his edge; whatever you might think about the themes or qualities of his early movies, they were undeniably thoughtful products of a mind that observed the world, considered its observations, and delivered something nuanced and original that had a real effect on movies and the culture at large and changed what the world could be. But for a long time now, he’s been churning out lowbrow dick and fart jokes with little social or cultural commentary that made his earlier works lasting. His lack of edge comes not from doing less gross or violent stuff but from not delivering poignant truths that, up until now, had not been acknowledged in a mainstream context.

(*The reverse is also possible, of course – an audience ‘maturing’ beyond their favourite work and then getting upset at it for no longer entertaining them. There’s a large portion of the South Park audience that has moved away from their particular strain of libertarianism and gotten frustrated that the show hasn’t followed them there. I never could stand South Park and always found its stance smug, superior, and lacking in empathy, but I can’t help but feel sympathetic to the creators for suddenly having people mad at them for doing what they were always doing.)

This episode shows The Simpsons heading down the same path. The craft is still there; the comic timing, the acting, and most of all the visuals are, if anything, tighter and clearer than ever before. It’s the inspiration that’s lacking – Lisa gets the worst of this, with her disapproval of the government using Homer as a stool pigeon feeling like arbitrary knee-jerk anti-government sentiments that don’t really mesh with her sense of justice – I’m as much a red-blooded leftist as she is, and this really doesn’t feel like a violation of anyone’s civil rights, especially in the ways Lisa cares about. Outside of that, this feels like a Greatest Hits episode where it gestures towards the same old ideas it’s been running on – mainly the laziness and shortsightedness of the American citizen – without exploring any real new areas. I must admit, I do love the way it turns Burns into a Capitalist Folk Hero for Laffs; one of the strangest things about the 2020 pandemic and the general mood of the USA the past four years is the discovery of just how many people really do laud the qualities Burns represents and espouses and the way the Homers of the world – overworked, underpaid, undereducated, and generally trod on by the rich and powerful – have been convinced that people who make more in an hour than they’ll ever see in their lives being forced to pay taxes and serve their community is a spiritual violation. It’s just a shame they kind of give up when the characters land in Cuba.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not demand what I’m worth.
Couch Gag: The family run in to find three old guys sitting at the couch like it’s a steam 

This episode was written by Ian Maxtone-Graham and directed by Swinton O Scott III. The first draft of the episode was about Homer learning he was Native American and using it to avoid paying taxes, which was dropped when the staff discovered Native Americans do, in fact, pay taxes. Mike Scully’s brother Brian suggested the trillion dollar bill. 

I gripe about this episode but I do want to draw attention to how many great lines it has. I also feel like the opening scene with Ned is so perfect at drawing a new spin on the character with him as the only conscientious Springfieldianite, so concerned about being on time that he starts rushing through his taxes so he can get to the post office when it opens (“Here I am, yappin’ away like it’s 8:35!”). Like Skinner contemplating cheap laundry powder, I laugh because I can see myself. Speaking of seeing myself, I’ve often used “Because I’m an idiot. Happy?!” I also enjoy the very Seinfeld conversation the barflies have.

It’s an iconic moment, but the dig at America’s allies in WWII bothers me for not being true in the slightest. It feels like cheap cynicism that the show is usually above. Burns is the character who holds up the best in this; I’m deeply amused by him heating up that water in a pot, especially with how goodnatured he and Homer were about it (“Still cold.” / “Ugh. Well, let me get you a towel.”). 

The title is a reference to the Star Trek episode “The Trouble With Tribbles”. The scene of Homer sitting with the FBI agent is a reference to JFK. Burns believes Homer is a representative of Collier’s Magazine. That iconic image of Che Guvera is shown in a Duff advertisement.

Iconic Moments: “Oh, will this horrible year never end?!” | “American tax dollars will help our allies who fought so poorly and surrendered so readily.”
Biggest Laugh: