(Photo: Fox)

Of all the Simpsons’ associates that were really important that one time but hardly get referenced ever again, Plopper (a.k.a. Spider-Pig) is at least a triumph of design, if nothing else. Simpson-izing an animal is a tricky business, and Homer’s beloved (when he remembers) pig pal is just right, from the fact that he’s never anthropomorphized too much (he’s just a pig), to the persistent worry-lines under his eyes (perhaps due to his proximity to prominent pork-vacuum Homer). In the commentary for The Simpsons Movie (where Plopper was introduced), the creators reveal that Homer’s fascination with the li’l guy was something of an afterthought that caught a wave once they started playing with it. Indeed, Homer’s improvised Spider-Pig theme song turned out to be the most memorably repeated part of the film’s marketing. You remember it, don’t you? Everybody!

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Spider Pig, Spider Pig,

Does whatever a spider-pig does.

Can he swing from a web?

No, he can’t, he’s a pig.

Look out! He is the Spider-Pig.

There was just something about Homer’s delight in showering this uncomprehending barnyard creature with affection that was quintessentially Homer in its randomness. For some reason, I think back to Homer’s awe when first seeing one of those dipping bird toys (“It’s drinking the water!”)—Homer Simpson’s mind latches onto things, and you just have to accept that.

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(Photo: Fox)

So an episode devoted to watching Homer re-establish his bond with Plopper isn’t a bad idea. It even makes sense that, in the world of the show, Homer would have essentially forgotten he owns a high-maintenance pet whose leavings once indirectly caused the entire town of Springfield to be encased under a government-issue dome, or that Marge has been dutifully taking care of Plopper’s wallow the entire time while Homer has to be reminded what the word “wallow” refers to. And there are some great jokes in “Pork And Burns” that stem from the relationship—especially since the pig, as has been noted, remains just a pig. (Apart from one moment in the B-story where Tress MacNeille’s admirable pig-noises rise in alarm to echo Marge’s shock when Lisa reveals she’s lost her love of the saxophone.) When Homer—after Mr. Burns, in one of his trademark changes of heart, absconds with Plopper—gives his pal a set of overly elaborate escape instructions, it’s some great Homer (and Simpsons) comedy. Homer over-thinking something is as reliable a source of laughs as Homer impulsively under-thinking something, especially since, again—just a pig.

As much as he loves his pal, even Homer is uncomfortable leaving Plopper in charge of a nuclear plant. (Photo: Fox)

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But why graft three full stories (and possibly a fourth) together into one resultingly cluttered episode? It’s a common complaint, but a lot of recent Simpsons episodes waste promising storylines this way. You’ve got Homer and his pig buddy, coming back together before a barbeque sauce-and-hounds mishaps leads to Mr. Burns taking a shine to the injured Plopper. But that’s only set up by Marge’s enthusiasm for a Japanese anti-cluttering book/philosophy that sees her urging the family to toss out anything that “no longer brings them joy” (that’s an episode), which leads to Lisa discovering that, once she’s given away everything but her sax (and her Bleeding Gums Murphy poster), she’s lost all joy in playing. “I finally feel about my sax the way you all do!,” she wails in horror. And that’s another episode. Throw in some promising emotional beats to that story—Homer comforts the confused Lisa during an anxiety attack, Bart hijacks the school’s PA system to restore her love for jazz—and there’s an abundance of good ideas not given enough time to come to fruition.

Still, the jokes are here. Marge’s appreciation of The Japanese Warrior Monk’s Guide To Tidying Up (something of a late swipe at Marie Kondo’s 2011 organizing guide) sees her amazed that it’s a best-seller “and nobody went to heaven.” The family meeting sees Lisa sussing out that her supposed college fund isn’t in as good a shape as she thought. (Her repeated, mournful “Oh man…” registers with Lisa-like precocious sorrow.) Lisa’s de-cluttered goodbye to her feminist Malibu Stacy dolls (businesswoman, plus-size, and non gender-normative) sees Comic Book Guy respond to her “Ah-ha!” when she catches him trying to cheat her, with a dismissively sarcastic, “Because up until now I’ve been such a great guy.” I don’t know what laughs the writers were hoping for when they booked Joyce Carol Oates (pointedly refusing to sign Lisa’s quickly procured restaurant menu), but Bart’s horror that she gave away her autograph book elicits Lisa’s angry “I know I had Dean Cain!,” so it was all worthwhile. Homer at least equals his previous misnomers for Lisa’s chosen instrument with “honkamaflute,” and Marge marvels at how Plopper’s reimagined purpose as Homer’s therapy animal keeps him calm even when Bart douses him at the dinner table. (“Spilled gravy is one of your top three strangulation triggers!”) And that’s not even getting into Homer’s fanciful vision of just what goes on at the so-called Mayo Clinic. (So sue me—Homer imagining lands made up of sentient food makes me laugh.)

But the episode keeps nodding toward some genuine heart, too, only to whoosh by in order to keep other plates spinning. Lisa’s story—from her college fund to worrying about Homer’s plan to lie to his doctors, to her potentially devastating loss of interest in her one true passion—is teased throughout the episode as if it’s going to take off. Only it never does, leaving just sweet little scraps along the way. Sure, Homer doesn’t really get why Lisa’s freaking out, but his confused comfort-hug is played for heart—and it lands. Same goes for Bart’s decision to help his little sister out of her funk. Yes, Springfield’s favorite l’il bastard relishes reminding his brainy sis that that ‘B’ in Phys Ed will keep her from ever achieving a 4.0 GPA, but The Simpsons knows the power of the infrequent Bart-Lisa bonding story, and there’s a lovely visual component to Bart’s actions here. Lisa’s despair and ennui see her in an overhead shot, lying on a raggedy towel in the center of her denuded bedroom, the starkness underlining Bart’s generosity. And his offer to “put their heads together” sees him lying on his back opposite, their signature craggy hair-lines syncing up, for once, in perfect alignment. It makes Bart’s choice later to broadcast a recording of Lisa’s playing to the whole school that much more rounded and resonant. Lovely.

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“Pork And Burns” has a lot of fine little pieces, but lacks the same elegant way of matching them up.

Stray observations

  • In one of the most unexpected returns in Simpsons history, that’s Michael York as the veterinarian taking care of the hound-savaged Plopper on Mr. Burns’ lawn. He does a fine job, it’s just—Michael York, recurring Simpsons character. Maybe you just have to have been alive when Michael York could open a movie.
  • He does give an fine reading of the line, “I always enjoy a chance to get my hands inside a pig,” though.
  • Lisa’s demo says, “If found, please send to Wynton Marsalis.”
  • Homer is shocked that Smithers knows about Plopper’s “secret identity” as Spider-Pig. Smithers: “And your son is El Barto. These things are very easy to figure out.”
  • Japan is all robot workers, seppuku, and those tiny fairy ladies from Mothra to The Simpsons. At least they left out Godzilla this time.
  • Homer tries to attract Plopper’s attention with Romeo brand window-throwing pebbles.
  • “Whatever you’re going to withhold, anything but that!”
  • With a guy in a gimp suit and a Marge covered in pig poop joke in the same episode, I’ll go ahead and call “tonal issues” on this one as well.

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