Hello Sunday night animation lovers/haters/ambivalenters. Steve is out for the night, so I've returned to the ol' blog for this one-night-only opportunity for you all to tell me how wrong I am about that one show you love/hate/don't really care about but have an opinion on nonetheless. But what a great night to come back for; this week's episodes came about as close to a four-pack of winners as we've seen this season. Yeah, there was a low point or two–mostly clustered around The Simpsons, sadly–but the hits definitely outweighed the misses tonight.
The Simpsons started things off on the wrong foot, though, with what has become one of my biggest late-period Simpsons pet peeves: fucking with the backstory. Last season's "That '90s Show" pissed me off royally for its blatant disregard for any continuity at all–though many of you defended it–and "Dangerous Curves" looked ready to do the same thing. The minute I saw the honeymoon-era Flanderses roll up to rescue the young, stranded Homer and Marge, my fangirl ire flared up: "Homer didn't meet Ned Flanders until the day they moved into the house on Evergreen Terrace," I protested, citing "Lisa's First Word," episode 9F08, original airdate Dec. 3 1992, as evidence. I know when a show is well into its second decade it's more than a little obnoxious to demand strict adherence to continuity, but when The Simpsons diverges from a timeline that was established during the show's golden age for the sake of a cheap gag–see "That '90s Show"–it really chaps my hide.
Thankfully, aside from that little blip, "Dangerous Curves" didn't continue to sully the legacy of Homer and Marge much further. The three-tiered structure, and how the segments wove in and out of each other, was a nice deviation from the standard "three stories" format. It was also nice to see some deviation from the old "Homer screws up, Marge gets mad, Homer redeems himself" format, which has become the go-to pattern for Homer and Marge stories. Tonight's episode flashed back to a high point–the newly coupled duo on a "romantic" cabin getaway chaperoned by the recently hitched Ned and Maude–and a low point–the almost-infidelity of both Homer and Marge at the same cabin years later following a fight at a fancy party–in the couple's relationship, connected by their present-day vacation to the same cabin. (Though was all that luggage necessary if said vacation was close enough to Springfield that Bart and Lisa would run into Jimbo, Kearney, and Dolph during their pedal-car ride?) While it wasn't a laugh riot, there were a couple of nice moments ("I never thought I'd say this, but stupid Flanders!"; the wedding bungees; Alberto not saying a word for 45 minutes to get in his one-liner), and Homer and Marge's near-death and reconciliation was adequately sweet, if a little too cartoon-y. (Did the bark really have to spool and unspool like that?)
King Of The Hill also fell back on one of its go-tos–the obnoxious namby-pamby liberal straw man–but took a nice tack on it, spreading equal blame to the No Child Left Behind-addled school system and lazy kids looking for a free ride. The ever-incompetent Principal Moss is the instigator, placing the "dumb kids," including Bobby and Joseph, in a fake special-needs class in order to keep them from bringing down the school's standardized test scores (shades of season four of The Wire?). Hank is understandably ready to kick someone's ass upon learning of Bobby's new class schedule–which revolves mostly around making macaroni necklaces and taking "beanbag time"–but he's, as always, temporarily stymied by an obnoxious namby-pamby liberal straw man, this time Mr. Turkelson, who's never found a kid who wasn't special-needs (and seems to have an unusually high amount of state funding, if that ice-cream cart is any indication). Peggy and Bobby happily buy into the whole mess too, with Bobby delighted for an excuse to coast by and Peggy relieved to have an explanation for Bobby's ineptitude besides "he's a bad test-taker."
Of course, things go awry, as they usually do, when the "special-needs" kids run amok at Alamoland after they're left under the supervision of Dale at the flume ride. ("Feel free to wet yourself. The splash at the bottom will cover your shame.") As usual, Hank's protests are finally heard once shit has hit the fan, and Principal Moss is forced to take his original advice to just push the kids harder so that they can pass the test and prove they weren't special needs at all, thus sidestepping the bad press of letting them run around a theme park without proper supervision or headgear. Academic training montage ensues, kids pass the test, and all is right once more thanks to Hank. But not exactly. In a nice bit of realism, the school's scores actually go down–thanks, no doubt, to diverting teaching resources to bring the dumb kids up to speed–and a suspended Principal Moss is reduced to selling "J Bone" steaks to keep up his medical coverage. ("I have that disease where you wake up in strange places drunk.") Though it was a little light on the neighborhood antics that are usually the best part of King Of The Hill, "No Bobby Left Behind" showed that the show can still do relevant social satire without the knee-jerk anti-modernity preaching and with a good dose of humor. (My biggest laugh of the night: Dale, alone on the flume ride, tagged as "Unidentified Special Needs Child.")
Like tonight's Simpsons, this week's episode of Family Guy started things out on the wrong foot with an oh-so-relevant Jackass storyline. (Man, those guys are just begging to be parodied, aren't they? Way to ride the cutting edge, Family Guy!) It seems that the show's writers have discovered a new trick–meta-commentary on their own foibles–and they've been using it the past few weeks to excuse some pretty lame gags. Having Peter comment on the irrelevance of your target doesn't make it any less irrelevant, okay guys? Most of the Jackass stuff was way too stale–Peter jackknifing Quagmire into the crate of bees notwithstanding–but thankfully it was just setup for a far superior storyline, the introduction of a younger "New Brian." While it may have seemed a tad "Poochie" at the outset, the introduction of New Brian actually provided some of the best laughs of the night, I think because his talent for "making you feel really good about yourself" staved off some of the mean-spiritedness that occasionally ruins the show for me–or at least placed it in a different framework. New Brian waking Peter and Lois with a sweet flute melody, vowing to make Meg "a little less gross every day," and even his stupid song about farts: See, there is a place for niceness among the dancing aborted fetuses and songs about AIDS that permeate the Family Guy universe!
Of course, such niceties cannot last long in the Griffin household. When Brian leaves following an unsuccessful attempt to win back his family with adorable home movies of him as a puppy, Stewie quickly realizes that New Brian is a total douche, and not in the fun way Old Brian is. Of course, that means New Brian has to go. But how? Why, with a brutal murder and dismemberment by Stewie–set off by a rape joke, no less. And thus Family Guy's brief, halfhearted flirtation with good-natured humor comes to an end; but we'll always have the fart song.
American Dad pulled the meta trick as well in tonight's oddly Steve-centric episode, having Stan remark that it was nice of Steve to acknowledge the rest of the family, even if it was only that one brief scene. An episode devoid of any Roger or Francine sounds some warning bells for me, but "Escape From Pearl Bailey" was surprisingly rich despite the fact that it focused exclusively on Steve, his occasional girlfriend Debbie, and his pimply geek squad of friends. A lot of the nonsensical funny that's usually Roger's milieu came courtesy of fat friend Barry–"They're making puberty!"–but a robust storyline, buffeted by a couple of nice parodies (The Warriors and Kill Bill, I think, though I might be confusing Kill Bill with some movie that it ripped off) played to American Dad's strengths of working within familiar plots to create a kind of warped take on the traditional American sitcom.
I can't say I didn't find myself wishing for a brief reprieve from Steve's whine about halfway through the episode, but it maintained momentum thanks to the episodic structure of Steve's revenge on the popular crowd following their (supposed) attack on Debbie's student-council election, and the obstacle-course structure of the gang's escape from the angry hordes of students looking to avenge said revenge. And even though there was a lot going on–there were really three different stories being told–it didn't overshadow quite a few good gags. (My favorite: Debbie reaching out to the underdogs in her speech, calling out the Dr. Who fans, the Christian weight lifters, and the league of red-headed gentlemen.)
The Simpsons, "Dangerous Curves": B
King Of The Hill, "No Bobby Left Behind": A-
Family Guy, "Man With Two Brians": A-
American Dad, "Escape From Pearl Bailey": B+
— Okay, I know the Simpsons ending had to be a film homage of some sort, but I'll be damned if I know what it is. Cinephiles, help me out?
— Hey, Maude's back! And she's got her granny's sexy flannel PJs.
— The added bonus that comes with a KOTH focusing on the losers of Tom Landry Middle? Lotsa Dooley and Clark Peters.
— KOTH fans saddened by the show's imminent departure following next season: Be advised that ABC has made noises about rescuing the show. Thoughts?
— Quintessential KOTH gag: Hank's pursuit of Carl being thwarted by an Emergency Exit Only sign.
— Seeing the videos of Brian as a puppy made me want to go visit Puppy Cam. So I did. Maybe you should too.
— I laughed way harder at that crocodile at an alligator rally gag than it probably deserved.
— "No Steve. When we win, a fiscally sound marching band will be our revenge." Yes we can, Debbie.
— That wasn't really Tim Gunn doing the voice of the buffalo groomer, was it? If it wasn't, it was spot on; if it was, hey everyone, it's Tim Gunn!!
— The sign outside Pearl Baily High: "Erections Today. Someone stole our last L." HAH!