In the long history of Springfield’s questionable milk products, “Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles’” introduction of Buzz Milk, a hormone-heavy milk-like beverage from the makers of Buzz Cola, might not be up to the comedy standards of malk, or Squeaky Farms Brand Genuine Animal Milk, but the product’s effect of bringing “precocious puberty” upon Bart and Lisa is also the catalyst for a surprisingly sweet, funny episode. The idea of everyone’s favorite perpetual ten and eight-year-olds getting a patchy ‘stache (Bart) and pimples (Lisa) could have opened the door for a lot of the cynically “risqué” jokes late-run Simpsons has been known to throw around. (Bart making “beer goggles” jokes to a lady pig puppet comes to mind). Instead, while the episode does suffer from a nondescript guest star and could use more time to fill out Bart and Lisa’s adventures in temporary teenager-dom, Joel H. Cohen’s script makes the kids’ confusion about their new state both character-appropriate and charming.
As far as high-concept episode-starters go, the hormone-laden milk device is abrupt, but the show milks it (last one of those, I promise) for some solid laughs. Sent for $16 organic milk, Homer gets swayed into taking home an equivalent amount (in plastic bottles “that’ll last a hundred years”) of a suspicious new substitute by an amusingly slick piece of corporate video propaganda. Sure, it’s just plain jarring (still) not to hear Troy McClure pitching the benefits of Buzz Milk, but after the child actor says he likes the milk, the non-Troy pitchman’s enthusiastic, “You said milk! We can’t, legally” is a McClure-worthy laugh. Add in the later revelation that Homer’s complaint to Buzz’s customer service line goes right to Snake, answering phones as part of one of those prison labor corporate deals, and The Simpsons’ tradition as light but incisive corporate gadfly carries on, ably.
And while guest-star Sofia Vergara doesn’t make much of an impression as Miss (formerly Sergeant) Berrera, Bart’s new teacher and post-milk Bart’s crush, there are a decent amount of laughs squeezed (last one, honestly this time) from the fact that Principal Skinner’s inexplicable success in wooing her leads to another fine Bart-Skinner battle of wills. (Indeed, the show goes out of its way to make a joke about Vergara’s flatness in the role, having Miss Berrara’s inner voice be that of an unaccented, more cultured-sounding woman. It’s an offputting choice whose point seems to be that Vergara’s voice is an ill fit for the gig in the first place.)
But the real meat of the episode is seeing Bart and Lisa first freak out, then accept, then ultimately reject their newfound totems of adulthood in favor of being themselves again. The episode’s tag, with them back to themselves, teasing each other and wrestling childishly on the kitchen floor, is just the right note to leave on—of course the show always reverts more or less to the status quo, but this bit of playful sibling silliness brings the characters back where we want them.
For Bart, sprouting that first, unfortunate lip fuzz is a kick at first (calling it his “starter ‘stache,” he excitedly traces his future through loser, creep, all the way to perv, exclaiming, “I’ve gotta buy a van!”) It’s tougher to connect to Bart at this point in the series, his emotional starting point as “li’l bastard” making him less amenable to development than his sister, for one. But when, as here, an episode makes his delight in deviance spring from a childish glee in misbehavior rather than too-calculated malevolence, Bart can still be an engagingly hilarious li’l bastard. Embracing even the need to comb his hair and behave for his teacher/love object, Cohen’s script yet keeps Bart’s jealously rooted in the fact of his age-appropriate immaturity. He fills Skinner’s gift of chocolates with the conveniently delivered classroom pets (which Miss Berrera—in another unfortunate joke dependent on her ethnicity—refers to as “chupacabras”). And his master plan, involving sticking a firework down Skinner’s pants, partakes of the old Bart, too, mustache or no. (Admiring his scheme, Bart gloats, “I just have to get Skinner to hold still while I stick a firecracker up his butt.”) And Skinner and Bart make a great comic team when handled right, Skinner’s petty rundown of everything he knows about Miss Berrera to Bart just specific enough to give him the win (before his mother ruins everything, naturally). I especially appreciated that the thing to finally set off Bart’s despair is that Skinner knows all about Miss Berrera’s cat—it has two different colored eyes, and its name is Bowie. (Bart: “Noooo!”) When they end up bonding over a campfire made up of Bart’s permanent record, their love-hate relationship is restored to its proper balance.
Lisa’s initial horror at her overnight acne (“I’m not ready for my awkward years—this is my happy childhood for crying out loud!”) is just one of the moments tonight that gives Yeardley Smith an opportunity to make Lisa’s dilemma so feelingly funny. Smith’s been having a great year as Lisa, and she fills her performance here with all manner of touches, large and small, that provide Lisa’s appropriately swinging emotions with big laughs. (Her little hesitation in describing Bart’s sudden dedication to being “punk-tual” is the sort of thing that makes a Simpsons character stay vital after 27 years.)
Discovering that Marge’s judicious use of concealer and blush has made her popular, she muses, “I hope this doesn’t go to my head,” before letting out an immediate interior “It went right to my head!” And while her brief embrace of adolescent insufferability had to end, the fact that she decides to head off the inevitable humiliation of a rainstorm revealing her secret shame is so right yet so unexpected that I wanted to clap for it. Knowing the jig is up, Lisa’s self-realization, “You’re not actually popular so you’re playing with the house’s money” is the sort of emotional intelligence writers who get Lisa put out there, as is her understanding that her little moment of bravery isn’t going to get her anywhere in Springfield’s inherently unjust world. The way Smith draws out her exit line (“Admitting you’re not cool is probably the coolest thing you can do, right? I’ll see myself out”) was just right, as was her brief connection with one-time suitor Ralph. After agreeing with Ralph’s assessment that they are both “ba-lonely,” she takes his hand and sticks it out in solidarity as long as she can. (Ralph’s a sweetie, but his guileless, crayon-eating obtuseness really doesn’t give Lisa much to work with on the friendship front.)
Groaner of a title aside, “Teenage Mutant Milk-Caused Hurdles” is a pleasant surprise in a latter-day Simpsons season that’s had its share of them.
- The couch gag is an energetically silly goof, as couch-potato Homer is transformed into a buff, Miami Vice (or Moonbeam City)-esque 1980s cop with a super-intelligent sofa for a partner. As ever with the extended couch gags, the test is to see how annoyed I get at the time stolen from developing the main episode, so this one’s fine. I especially like that the couch was played by “Chaise Long.”
- Sofia Vergara doesn’t make much of an impression here, but those are some solid, old-school Simpsons satirical jabs at Miss Berrara’s military background. “How many hospitals did you help build?” “Negative three.”
- Marge heard about precocious puberty in Thing magazine. We later see Homer reading its last issue, which proclaims the magazine itself is no longer a thing.
- Lisa, musing on her last, poorly attended birthday party: “That’s when I realized just how big a bowling alley really is.”
- Bart, happily, upon hearing Lisa scream: “What happened? Did jazz die?”
- Newly glammed-up Lisa, practicing her sophisticated putdowns on Sherri and Terri: “I usually don’t see double until an hour into the party.”
- The visual of Lisa sucking carrot sticks through the tiny mouth hole of her shame-hoodie was a great piece of animation design.
- Apparently, at Springfield Elementary, owies can only be kissed by Willie.
- Yes, Homer taught Bart how to shave way back in season two, but his delighted “Well hello, Billy Zane!” upon discovering there’s a butt-chin under his perpetual five o’clock shadow made me laugh. A Billy Zane reference is always funny.
- Marge’s organic milk boasts that it is “gently yanked from a cow.”
- Homer, talking up Buzz Milk: “It’s from cows that are smart enough not to get turned into hamburger.”
- And sticking up for it against Marge’s criticism: “It’s not just soda Marge, they also make industrial foam!”
- Bart, upon asking Hank Azaria’s delivery guy if he shampoos his mustache: “Of course—it’s a must-stache, not an if-you-feel-like-it-stache.”
- Some great Milhouse tonight. Him annoyedly leaning in to respond to Bart’s assertion that he can push back his 3:30 freeze tag (“Just cancel it!”) is good, but this, when he sees Skinner and Berrera kissing, “Ew! I mean cool. I just turned a big corner, Bart” is some prime Milhouse indeed. (Plus, he reveals he always had a crush on Mrs. Krabappel, as did we all.)