Maybe it’s a food thing.

In the quality roller coaster of last season, one of the standouts was “Super Franchise Me,” an unassuming little episode whose modest but undeniable charms emanated from Marge’s desire to open a chain sandwich restaurant. Tonight, Homer’s devotion to barbecuing various meats in the new smoker he bought from a mysterious roadside street meat-merchant (Edward James Olmos) kicks off another low-key episode that shows the virtues (and a few of the vices) to be derived from the Simpsons’ formula.

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Look, it can’t be easy to be a longtime Simpsons writer. Apart from jerks like me picking the show apart with our boring (but accurate) “not as good as it used to be “ chorus, it’d be impossible not to feel like all the Simpsons stories have been told. (Honestly, if someone in the comments points out that they did a “Homer gets a smoked meat machine” episode in season 17 or so, I’d take it on faith.) And so we get big, splashy guest stars and high concept “event” episodes designed to shake of viewer lethargy and, one assumes, writer burnout. (See the reappearance of Bender’s inert body in the Simpsons’ basement tonight for evidence.) But there’s a virtue in finding a small, family story and telling it pretty well. Episodes like ”’Cue Detective” that grab an unremarkable but serviceable hook and hang a handful of decent gags on it, while staying true to the main characters, is a pleasant, above-average Simpsons with just the tantalizing scent of past greatness.

Not that there aren’t the usual latter-day Simpsons storytelling issues. Apart from the ghost of last year’s misguided Futurama crossover, the episode begins with a baffling incursion of the outside world (us) glimpsed traditionally only in “Treehouse(s) Of Horror,” as Skinner shows the kids of Springfield Elementary a (live action) screening of the stifling and baffling 1967 Doctor Dolittle. While I’ll leave the logical questions posed in this (maybe, since they’re animated, live action films are like their animation?) to… others, I will say that the fact that neither the movie itself nor its reality-breaking existence reappears after its use as plot device, with the other kids in the auditorium noticing that Bart and Lisa’s clothes smell because of the Simpsons’ moldy washing machine.

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Putting that aside, there are some decent gags at the screening—and all through the episode, really. Upon hearing the film’s staggering two hour-plus running time (it really is a dog of a movie), Nelson proclaims, “The running time is now!” before making an unsuccessful break for it. When Rex Harrison’s Doctor takes forever giving a horse an eye chart exam, Milhouse wails, “It’s a carrot stupid!” in classic Milhouse-ian despair. And the fact that Martin loves Dolittle’s co-star, warbly singer Anthony Newley, but dismisses the film as “Newley at his worst,” also both makes sense for the character and, importantly, gets a laugh.

So when Homer, dispatched to buy a new washer by Marge, ends up following his nose to the smoker (across four lanes of highway traffic) and contemplates buying the thing (supposedly made from a crashed meteor), he muses at Olmos’ character, “Should I do the thing I’m supposed to do, or the thing everyone knows I’m going to do?” It’s a funny line, and coming after Homer’s enthusiastically nonsensical “Everything tastes better when it’s near a road,” the episode (credited to Joel H. Coen) finds the sweet, meaty spot of Homer’s susceptibility to temptation.

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Even the fallout from Homer’s decision follows logically—and pleasantly—along, with Marge (while justifiably put out that they have to wear “attic clothes”—she’s in her wedding dress), and the family won over by the fact that Homer’s new gizmo actually makes something they can all enjoy. (Even Lisa concedes that her smoked carrot is delicious.) Here, too, everyone gets a few funny lines that don’t depend on winking at the audience or violating who the characters are for cheap laughs. Homer protests to Marge, “It’s not a grill! It’s a smoker—that you can grill on,” and Marge, won over by Homer’s new cooking skills, praises Homer’s “selfish choices,” prompting Homer to reply with pitch-perfect Homer logic, “I make them all for you.”

When the whole town becomes smitten with Homer’s barbecuing and Chew Network celebrity chef/jerk Scotty Boom zooms up to challenge Homer to appear on his cooking competition show, it also makes breezy Simpsons sense. And Homer, again, has a response that’s prime Homer. (“I challenge you to an eatdown.” “What’s that, some kind of eatdown?”)

And when Homer’s smoker is inevitably stolen the night before the competition, Bart and Lisa swing into action to find it, after seeing how its loss has turned Homer comatose with grief. A good Bart and Lisa caper can be delightful, especially when, as here, they’re allowed to retain something of their childlike qualities, and their gumshoe work includes a few more well-thought-out sight gags. Santa’s Little Helper getting his head stuck in a peanut butter jar right after Lisa praises him for being such a smart dog comes off with perfect timing, and their attempt to steal back the located smoker is just as good, their efforts ending up loading the thing directly onto the truck of the kid stealing it.

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In the end, when guest Chew Network judge Alton Brown busts Boom for supposedly cheating and awards the trophy to Marge’s inedibly over-seasoned but ethically prepared brisket, the ensuing chase sees Bart and Lisa executing a few more funny little gags (covered in an avalanche of ribs, Lisa screams, “I’m covered in death!”) before Bart prods Homer into action with the solid Bart line, “No one’s asking you to care, just trip a stranger!” Reunited with his beloved smoker (and ill-advisedly hugging it), Homer delivers the perfect, nonsensical Homer summation, “Thanks for not giving up, then giving up, then not giving up, then I forget.”

“’Cue Detective” is the sort of well-told, modest Simpsons story that the show can still pull off. It’s not flashy, the sort of everyday Simpsons story that tends to get lost in the din of both subpar late-career Simpsons episodes and people complaining about subpar late-career Simpsons episodes. But if there were more episodes like it, the clamor would die down a bit.

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Stray observations

  • That’s the always-funny pair of Bobby Moynihan as Tyler Boom (Scotty’s son, who steals the cooker to get his dad’s attention), and Ben Schwartz, as the seriously ear-gauged health food store clerk Lisa pumps for information. In keeping with the episode’s low-key charms, they (and Olmos) aren’t on hand for stunt casting, but, instead, simply deliver good performances that fit their characters and enhance the episode.
  • No couch gag at all tonight, which allows the episode to breathe a little.
  • The whole town picks up on the Simpsons’ collective ripeness and christen them the Stinksons. Homer: “They called me Stinkson. That’s not even my name!” He’s even madder later on when he figures out the wordplay behind it.
  • The scent of smoked meat sends Homer (and then Marge) to a pork-based wonderland whose look and theme music recall the Land Of Chocolate.
  • Bart finally becomes alarmed at Homer’s depression when this doesn’t work: “C’mon, you know your life sucks, just get drunk like you always do.”
  • Lisa unsure about helping find the smoker: “I don’t know, the whole barbecuing community is pretty pro-meat.”
  • “He’s meeting with someone—that’s always a sign of guilt!” It’s refreshing when Bart and Lisa are written with their proper ages in mind.
  • “Buddhism is just quitting in yoga pants.”—Lisa, losing hope.
  • Hank Azaria does one of his fast-talking New York jerk voices as Boom, inspiring Marge to call him an “Empire State jabroni,” and Bart to insult him as “garlic-sucking tunnel trash.” He really is not very nice.
  • Oh, there’s another of the Simpsons’ periodic sci-fi endings where the smoker survives the end of Springfield (and, human civilization I guess), only to be reclaimed by its wasp-like former space masters. But let’s not ruin a decent episode talking about it.

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