Image: Fox

An emotional journey on The Simpsons is bound by both the show’s running time and the fact that, in the show’s reality, nothing and no one can ever really change. That’s not the handicap it seems, though. The Simpsons may have traveled far afield from its initial conception as a satire of the typical American family in its now 604 episodes. (Tonight’s “Dad Behavior” uses Bart’s chalkboard gag to tout the Thanksgiving week marathon of them all on FXX). But, no matter how many times the characters go to space, or to almost every continent, or survive disasters natural and manmade, their archetypical roles and relationships always revert back to their starting places. In one way, it’s standard sitcom boilerplate—the “situation” in sitcom can stretch, but not truly violate its boundaries. In another, this stasis lends a vein of thematic melancholy to the proceedings. Every lesson learned will be forgotten, every triumph will be undone, every advance pushed back to square one. But there’s something sweetly heroic about the fact that the family keeps on trying to do the right thing.

When a story makes perfect emotional sense but doesn’t truly engage, as in tonight’s episode, it’s tempting to say that The Simpsons is out of gas, that all the stories have been told. You can point to the fact that the “Homer and Bart bond with other son/father figures” plot’s been done before (and even that each episode had a similar, melodramatic jealousy scene), but recycling the family’s dysfunctional dynamic has produced some of the show’s best episodes over the years. You can look at tonight’s thin and frankly baffling B-story about Grandpa thinking he’s knocked up his much younger (but still late-middle-aged) girlfriend, but, even there, there’s some connective thematic tissue, as Abe’s supposed impending late (late, late, very late) fatherhood causes him to question his relationship with his son just as Homer is doing with his. Even a larger-than expected role for parallel father-son duo Kirk and Milhouse makes sense, as they, too, find themselves momentarily jolted out of their familial rut by switching partners with the Simpsons boys.

In short, there’s nothing especially wrong with “Dad Behavior,” the first credited Simpsons script from series producer and New Girl writer Ryan Koh. It sails along without violating the characters or the show’s world in any objectionable way, it has a handful of decent, low key jokes (like how Homer—accidentally inhaling an Allen wrench while trying to put together some furniture—keeps coughing up completely different Allen wrenches throughout the episode), and there’s a serviceable symmetry to the overall narrative. That the episode doesn’t turn out more memorably for all that is one of those elusive near-misses that’s maddeningly tough to pin down.

Homer’s use of the smartphone app Chore Monkey might be one of those “trendy” plot devices that always age badly, but the idea that you can push a button and have an army of helpful strangers (Homer thinks they’re free) get you unstuck from the furniture you’re building, clean your house, fix your ice machine, and argue with Marge for you is a real world invention pretty much made for Homer Simpson. The fact that Homer recruits Blake, a former hostage negotiator, to anticipate and defuse Marge’s objections according to his practiced conflict resolution playbook gets funnier the longer the joke goes on, especially with Harry Shearer’s silky-smooth voice acting. (He meets his match in the tag, eventually being broken by Maggie’s unwillingness to ditch her pacifier.) That Homer would then outsource his parenting with Bart to a Chore Monkey ringer (played by Heisman Trophy winner and NFL bust Matt Leinart as himself) makes sense, too, as does the officious little guy Homer subsequently recruits once he starts to get jealous. (“There’s no specified time, sir,” the young Tyler responds to Homer’s impatience, “And you did get progress alerts.”)

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Image: Fox

Bart’s journey from delighted to resentful tracks just fine, as his joy at having a supportive adult who can throw perfect spirals without getting winded (or crushing Flanders’ zinnias) and who praises his every achievement goes sour once he discovers Leinart’s Chore Monkey instruction list (one item reads: “Do not let him see this list”) revealing that Leinart’s job is to let Bart think he’s doing better than he really is. Once the lonely Homer (Chore Monkey cuts him off for non-payment and jerkiness) takes up with the always lonely Milhouse (“Hello Milk Dud,” greets Homer, my biggest laugh of the episode), it scans that Bart would cruise by and befriend Kirk, too. And that Kirk, seen steaming stamps off of envelopes (which he calls “stamp mining”) would immediately see how hanging with Bart Simpson will make him look cool. (Sadly, the passing Wendell is unimpressed. “Aw, I built it up too much,” sighs Kirk.)

In the end, the lack of stakes is what undermines the story. Bart and Homer’s estrangement just doesn’t feel weighty or immediate enough, their conflict overcome with a twist as abrupt as Kirk’s go-kart braking that sends Bart hurtling out of their Itchy and Scratchy racer, and Homer to Bart’s rescue. It’s sweet in theory, perfunctory in practice, the episode’s all-around easygoing vibe sanding down their dilemma to a smoothly forgettable sameness. (At least Milhouse telling Kirk that he’s “the nicest guy Mom ever brought home” has some of that old Van Houten bite to it.)

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Stray observations

  • I’m not against dark comedy, but what was the point of that couch gag again? Watching all of the Simpsons except Bart being killed off in more or less realistically painful ways (especially the long beat before Marge’s dead body floats to the surface of a lake) was not an especially smooth way to transition to wacky Homer furniture building time.
  • On the other hand, while unconnected to the episode, the tag bidding goodbye to retired and beloved Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully was sweet, and gave Harry Shearer a chance to whip out his always-aces Scully impression.
  • Also, in an episode about parent-child conflict, Marge and Lisa’s story is thrown away with one line. Marge should have known not to throw out Lisa’s Utne Readers, though.
  • Kirk, after Milhouse points out flaws in his America’s Funniest Home Videos stunt: “Why didn’t you bring that up in any of the production meetings?”
  • The “It gets better” inspirational poster at the retirement home is a picture of a grave. Now that’s dark.
  • “Look Dad, I would visit you more if I hadn’t put you in such a depressing place.”
  • Homer, skipping out to go fishing with Milhouse: “Well, I’d better get to work.” Bart: “On a Friday?”
  • No offense to Leinart, who does a serviceable job as himself, but that’s a lot of Matt Leinart for an episode, isn’t it? As when the show basically turned the show over to Elon Musk a few seasons ago, it feels like someone on the show just really likes Matt Leinart, to the extent that he’s given a bigger role than his performing talent warrants. Odd, although his Monopoly challenge to Milhouse, “Oh yeah? What history of board games class did you take?” shows that the former college star has a sense of humor about how challenging his USC classes were. Still, sometimes, it’s best for a visiting athlete to just talk vapor lock and hit the road.

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