For all the griping about The Simpsons overstaying its welcome, it doesn’t take much for the show to win back viewers’ trust and affection. The characters and pieces are all in place, just waiting for the right tune to start moving in a semblance of their former hilarious harmony. For the second episode this season, credited writer Carolyn Omine pitches her script with a deftness and an understanding of the Simpsons that makes an episode fairly sing. Of course, it helps that there’s some actual singing.

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When Bart, bailing out before his toboggan can break through some ice, accidentally takes out the shopping cart carrying the worldly possessions of a bedraggled homeless woman, he invites her home in penance. When Lisa finds out that the woman is a talented guitar player and singer, she demands that music teacher Mr. Largo help her arrange a concert to help reveal Hettie Mae Boggs’ gifts to the world. Meanwhile, Homer spends the episode wreaking havoc around the house in an attempt to free Snowball II, who got trapped in the walls while Homer was trying to fix the kitchen floor. As a skeleton of an episode, all this is standard stuff. In Omine’s treatment of it, there’s a sweetness, a consistent string of good jokes (from Homer’s pratfalls to Lisa and Bart’s performance-based sibling rivalry) and, most crucial of all, a commitment to storytelling. Throw in a pair of excellent guest stars (playing the same person), and “Gal Of Constant Sorrow” is another pleasant surprise in a season that’s had its share.

In this season’s “Halloween Of Horror,” Omine showed the key to a great Lisa-Bart story. She remembered they are kids, and siblings. There, as here, the episode sees the kids’ necessary precociousness couched in age-appropriate behavior, and it does wonders in keeping the Bart and Lisa fresh. Bart is really sorry for sinking what little this unkempt old lady has (Nancy Cartwright makes his “I’m sorry, ma’am” quite genuine) and his decision to have Hettie live in his closet is his 10-year-old’s logical solution. (The fact that he starts charging her rent is specifically Bart.) The same goes for Lisa’s decision—after she hears Hettie’s musical lament to her lost cart—to let Hettie stay with her rent-free. If Bart’s a mercenary 10, Lisa’s an idealistic 8, her vulnerability to the needs of a down-on-her-luck musical genius of a piece with her relationship with the late Bleeding Gums Murphy, whose picture we see still adorning Lisa’s dresser. Plus, her logic in crowing, “You’re a human being! You can sleep in my closet!” is adorably Lisa, allowing her to one-up her brother’s more pragmatic generosity (Bart’s uses Hettie’s one dollar a week rent to go on a dollar store spending spree) while keeping her scope realistically childlike.

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As in the Halloween episode, Omine clearly loves Lisa, and her attention to detail in crafting the character gives Yeardley Smith a chance to do some great work. Throughout, Lisa’s enthusiasm for saving this woman whose music has touched her makes her more and more desperate to ignore anything outside her conception of her new hero. When the burnt-out Mr. Largo confesses that music doesn’t move him any more, Lisa demands he help with Hettie’s concert, pleading that “deep down there’s still a part of you that remembers.” When Bart balks at her plan to have Hettie do an interview with NPR’s Bob Boilen, her alternating fury and idealism is, in Smith’s performance, deeply funny. (“That’s it—get out! Then get dad’s keys and drive us to the radio station and then—get out! Wait for us, then drive us back and then—get out!”) And, once the interview uncovers Hettie’s past history of drug addiction and possible face-shooting violence, Smith makes Lisa’s appeal to the jonesing Hettie just as deeply affecting.

Please tell me that you’re talking about heroin because you don’t want anyone to follow in your footsteps. Please reassure me because I am frightened!

When Bart—who, naturally, holds up an “I was right!” sign outside the booth—tries to warn her, again, against caring, Lisa’s fevered “She is not gonna let me down, she is not! I am saving her!” is so powerful because, in Lisa’s world, Hettie’s ability to touch her with her music so eloquently means that her story must end just as beautifully. Lisa’s the smartest person in Springfield most of the time, sure, but Omine writes her at the same time as the little girl that she is, which makes her highs and lows that much more alive.

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Bart, too, has some great moments, his li’l bastardy reined in more than is usual by a realistically juvenile sensibility—and just the right smidgen of heart. His idea of blowing his “slumlord” riches is amusingly silly—I like that he bribes Lunchlady Dora into actually using the food-handling gloves to scoop out his cole slaw—and his spending montage set to Drake’s “Started From The Bottom” keeps his schoolboy coolness on the cute side. Similarly, Bart shows enough genuine concern for his sister’s well-being to make him a believable big brother. Yes, he rats out Hettie to Marge and Homer as soon as they get home from NPR’s Springfield affiliate, but, for one thing, he’s a little kid who’s just learned that he and Lisa have allowed a drug-addicted possible murderer in the door. For another, he seems to be actually looking out for Lisa tonight, warning her earnestly, “She is going to break your heart.” (And following up by reminding Lisa how shattered she was when her plant died. She’s still pretty broken up, once he mentions it.) And his act in taking a picture of Lisa “with unshot face” so they can remember what she looks like if, as seems to have happened more than once, Hettie ends up shooting Lisa in the face is snotty, but he’s also trying to wise Lisa up to actual danger that she refuses to see. Like the little exchange later in the episode where Bart teases Lisa about stalling the concert audience with her saxophone (to which Lisa replies with a drawn out “Shut uuuup”) the love-hate nature of the sibling dynamic just feels lived in, and funny.

As for Hettie herself, both SNL’s Kate McKinnon (speaking voice) and Dixie Chick Natalie Maines (singing) make the troubled singer something more than a raggedy bundle of clichés. McKinnon adopts a slushy Appalachian twang without overdoing it, hinting that Hettie’s not the cuddly project Lisa wants her to be even before she starts spilling her secrets. (Speaking of her mother: “It was winter and she caught a fever and she got shot in the face.”) Even though most of the emotional heavy lifting is done by Maines’ achingly lovely renditions of Hettie’s half-beautiful/half bananas folk songs, McKinnon (and Omine) don’t go for many easy laughs at the expense of this woman whose inner demons have clearly left her not all there. (The closest is her response to Lisa’s offer of a wet nap with, “I just woke up from a wet nap.” “Okay, conversation over,“ replies Lisa.) Bart and Lisa have taken in homeless folk before (there’s not much they haven’t done before at this point), but the introduction of both mental illness and drug abuse in Hettie makes the character a lot harder to pull off than, say, when Kirk Douglas was comically nattering on about his millions of dollars, his gold house, and his rocket car, and McKinnon and Omine pull her off nicely. And Maines’ songs are uniformly delightful, their soulful roots music homages liberally undercut with the alternately silly and sad snatches of Hettie’s existence running through them. (She bemoans the loss of her Playstation 3 along with her shopping cart.)

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So when Lisa, bereft at Hettie’s late arrival to the concert, childishly turns her back on Hettie, crying “I am never, ever going to forgive you,” Hettie’s a cappella rendition of “Down In The River To Pray” (complete with references to Burger King crowns and half a Twix) strikes a lovely balance of sentiment and nonsense. Predictably, Lisa is won over—both the facial animation and Smith and McKinnon’s performances make their reconciliation quite touching—but, as Maines’ Hettie sings the concluding line, “And down is where I think I’m gonna stay,” it’s easy to see why. (The townsfolk are lured back to listen as well.) The wrap-up is too rushed, with a hug and a promise of the Simpsons’ couch for a little while (and all notion of Hettie being an unstable addict forgotten for the moment), but there’s a humanity to it that vindicates Lisa’s innocent faith, and the power of a song to find a little heart—even in the 27th season.

Stray observations

  • The episode depicts Lisa’s absorption in Hettie’s initial song by having the world around her be transformed into The Grapes Of Wrath-style black and white photographs of Springfield transformed into the Dust Bowl. The picture of Apu and two of his children is the spitting image of the famous Dorothea Lange photograph captioned, “Destitute peapickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936,” for one.
  • “You just made a very powerful enemy—NPR. Our revenge is made possible by listeners like you.”
  • Lots of NPR smack tonight. Bart, while scribbling out the “Gl” on Ira Glass’ coffee mug, asks a velvet-voiced technician, “Does anyone at this station talk like they’re not at a funeral?” Plus, posters advertise “Gross Air” featuring Terry Fresh, and a show called “Left Left Left And Middle.”
  • The Homer-Marge plot was funny—less a B-story proper than some agreeably silly business around the edges. I liked the weird visual gag as Homer tries to squeeze inside the basement wall where his flab seemingly allows him to morph right though an impeding pipe. And Homer and Marge’s argument about whether she put a pause in the word “handyman” is pretty great: “There is the profession handyman and a man who is handy. Which one are you saying I’m not?”
  • I also loved how Homer—trying to locate the cat with a stethoscope and a can of tuna fish—gets sidetracked by Lisa’s distress, asking, “Come on, you can tell Dr. Tuna.”
  • Homer is able to communicate with the sloshed Hettie thanks to his facility with drunk talk. It’s funny work from Dan Castellaneta and McKinnon.
  • The Springfield Squidport features a “Guess Your Prejudice” carnival booth.
  • “No one can tell me what to do—not you, not the po-lice, not even the police.”
  • Lisa sells her Malibu Stacy dolls to fund Hettie’s concert, an act, she concedes, is long overdue from a feminist perspective. She is holding onto a Ken doll who’s transitioning, though. I love Lisa.
  • Some of the roots music bands Lisa loves: “Snug And The Cousin-Huggers,” “Bloody Mary And The Coal Mine Canaries.”
  • The end credits see Hettie seemingly content in rehab, singing another pitch-perfect song, this time a version of “The Big Rock Candy Mountain” about the Simpsons (“The House Next Door To Flanders”). Moe leads a breakout of the other residents, including Barney, Disco Stu, Mrs. Hibbert, Krusty, and Captain McCallister, but Hettie stays behind singing, a suitably hopeful ending for such a sweet Simpsons.

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