You can probably guess who guest-starred in Sunday’s Simpsons episode, “The Musk Who Fell to Earth.” And not just because it’s in the headline of this post. And the name of the episode. Whatever, you could have predicted it because Elon Musk is everywhere these days. He’s a major face of innovation. But The Simpsons has a lot more to say about him.
The premise of the episode is that Musk is out of radical futuristic ideas and has come to Springfield in his SpaceX Dragon V2 spacecraft. “I’ve hit a dry patch,” he tells Homer. “I’m blocked. In my personal drought, I’m traveling the country quietly by spaceship, looking for inspiration.”
As has happened before, Homer’s simplistic worldview and childlike wonder inspire Musk, and he quickly gets his world-changing mojo back. At one point, Homer proudly says, “Wow! Between your genius and my nothing, we make a great team!” Whenever Homer’s rambling inspires a Musk idea, the opening of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat minor plays.
Musk gets to work partnering with C. Montgomery Burns (who, as you ought to know, owns the nuclear power plant that employs much of the town) to electrify everything, including self-driving cars—a nod to Tesla. The idea is that if everything runs on electricity, Burns will make a fortune selling power to the town. The problem is that the setup doesn’t turn out to be commercially viable, and Burns loses money. He has to do massive layoffs at the power plant, and Springfield sinks into a serious economic depression. “But Musk was our savior!” Homer’s buddy Carl yells. “Your so-called savior isn’t interested in saving anything but the world,” Burns replies.
And that’s how the whole episode goes. Musk is lauded for his (real-world) intelligence and achievements, and for sparking extensive technological progress, but as always, The Simpsons is wary of grandiose promises about the future. In Springfield, people love their self-driving cars because they can drink alcohol while driving around town. Terrified hamsters demonstrate how fast you can go in a Hyperloop, and later, citizens made homeless by the power plant layoffs are forced to live in the half-constructed loop. Spaceships, like the one Musk comes and goes in, seem to have been perfected, though as Lisa points out, Musk sure burns a lot of rocket fuel for someone who promotes green electrification. “I don’t care how much he likes me, I don’t want to be friends with him anymore,” Homer says. “None of his pie-in-the-sky ideas ever work out. Sky pies are lie pies.”
The Verge argues that Musk gets “the usual celebrity treatment” and that “it’s mostly just compliments dressed up as criticisms.” But to me, the episode seems like more of a condemnation of obsessive futurism than a glorification of Musk. Sure, Musk comes out of it looking smart and self-assured, but that’s his public persona anyway. As his character tells Mr. Burns, “We sacrifice now to take care of the future in a way totally determined by me.” It doesn’t sound so great.