Who is watching the watchmen?
What is a father’s legacy? How can a mother ever be sure her children will grow up to be fully functioning, accomplished human beings? These are the questions that drive Homer and Marge (and Abe) in “A Father’s Watch.” All this reflection is prompted by something that has been true about The Simpsons since time immemorial: Bart is severely lacking when it comes to academics. The catalyst for this latest round of hand-wringing – majorly goofing off while dissecting a frog (they do that in 4th grade?) – is nothing groundbreaking, but it is still an evergreen inspiration for satisfying storytelling.
It all kicks off with Marge going into action mode to finally get Bart into fighting shape. Supposedly having never encountered mommy blogs before, she wonders if anyone talks about parenting online (“I wonder if anyone talks about parenting online,” she types). This leads her to call in Dr. Clarity Hoffman-Roth (Vanessa Bayer) for a school assembly, which preaches the power of participation trophies for building self-esteem. This sets off a town-wide trophy craze, which sets Lisa – who has actually earned her metal – on a counter-craze to tamp down this overly eager praise.
Lisa realizes that Springfieldians will quickly switch their loyalty to the newest expert to prance into town, and the writers realize that this is a reliable source of social satire. So she books another parenting expert (Rob Riggle), one who preaches “G.R.I.T.,” which is an acronym that stands for several things, but all they boil down to “TROPHIES BAD!” The town switches sides right on schedule, but now Lisa must reckon with the fact that some of her own trophies may not live up to her ideals. Smashing her first place trophy in protest when it is the smallest of all the trophies is a powerful image, but she is ultimately cowed by the winds of personal compromise
While there is plenty of meat to the Marge and Lisa material, it may actually be the side dish to the Simpson men. This one feels years in the making, at least as much as a show that is always necessarily treading old ground can feel like a new fulfillment of an old promise. Homer is capitalizing on the craze with his own trophy-selling business, which takes off like gangbusters, but he does not let his own son benefit from it in any way. So Bart finds his way to Grampa, who expounds upon the long line of Simpson men who have struggled with fatherhood, falling into the easy trap of strangulation.
But there is meaning to be found in the Simpsons’ most prized possession: an heirloom timepiece, which has been in the family ever since it was “stolen off a dead body in Gettysburg. In 1982.” Grampa bequeaths it to Bart, which annoys Homer, who has been angling for it for years. Because we need a conflict – and a means for reconciliation – Bart drops it off a cliff. So Homer tracks it down, allowing for the heartwarming realization that the meaning of a dad is the meaning he makes by putting in the effort to forge meaning between him and his son.
I have harped heavily this season on The Simpsons’ unfortunate habit to needlessly split episodes up into multiple storylines that could easily stand on their own. “A Father’s Watch” is similarly multifaceted, but each plot element springs from the same source, and they all wrap back around together (if not narratively then certainly thematically). As for any overarching comedy purpose this episode serves, Homer keeps singing his own version of “You’re the Best.” Or maybe that’s not really comedy it’s a just a pronouncement that someone really, really loves The Karate Kid.
Memorable Lines and Random Jazz:
-The other guest stars are Brian Posehn as a Chumlee-esque pawn broker and NBA commissioner Adam Silver as himself (however briefly).
-This Week in Sight Gags: Bart got an “Incomplete” in Lunch, Lisa’s trophies include ones for “Smallest Carbon Footprint” and “Tofu Hot Dog Eating Champion.”
-“Moe says a third thing to feel a part of the group!”
-Parenting trends that Springfield missed out include: the timeout, the diaper
-“If you want to protect your head, grow your hair long!”
-“Well, uh… ribbit?”