“This is terrible! I look like I actually feel!”
For Simpsons fans, each character gets frozen in time. I have a niece who’s loved The Simpsons for most of her 14 years, and, even though her crabby old uncle keeps trying to tiresomely point out “the good years” that aired decades before she was born, it’s impossible to begrudge her the show she grew up with. Even if the characters have often been stretched into shapes I can barely recognize at times, or “timely” plots ring with the lazy laughter of a writers room still clinging to some of “the good years’” worst impulses.
At the end of “Hail To The Teeth,” Marge consoles a once-more disappointed Lisa, who’s just lost the student body president election (to a gun-totin’, grammar-eschewin’ Spuckler boy) because she didn’t smile enough when the moment came. To be fair, her two-part braces saga in the episode first endowed her with an unwanted but crowd-pleasing smile before turning things upside down once the second procedure grafted a worried frown on her kisser. Marge, no stranger to a world of misogynist slights and expectations, counsels her bereft young daughter sincerely, telling her that things are changing and that the future will be different, eliciting Lisa’s despairing, “The future is a long way away.” Then Marge sprouts robot-insect wings, scoops up the condescending, lecturing old guy who’d been telling Lisa “You’d be more popular if you smiled more” all episode and soars away, announcing happily, “The future is now!!”
But let me back up.
The first credited script by former Crazy Ex-Girlfriend writer (and new Simpsons producer) Elisabeth Kiernan Averick, the episode is precisely the sort of latter-day Simpsons I’m excited my niece will slot into her growing databank of Simpsons fandom. Readers who—niece-like—have endured this critic’s grumpy dissertations concerning The Simpsons and how, with the right writers, “the good years” could be now, dammit, should recognize that this is the sort of new blood I’ve been talking about. Averick clearly loves The Simpsons, and understands them. There are fine jokes that have nothing to do with the episode’s “message” alongside ones that grow out of Lisa and Marge’s specific arcs. Lisa finds a Mad Men-era instructional video for women in the workplace to shore up her wavering acceptance of her newfound smile-authority that warns it’s not to be shown to students, thrown away, of kept on a shelf too high for students to find. And in the VHS tape, a smarmy man tells a woman thwarted in advancement because of her glumness about being treated like second-class garbage, “Let me touch your body and show you the problem.” Both good jokes, combining craftsmanship with satire.
But still, how did we get to that tender moment with the insectoid Marge, you might ask. Fair enough. The Simpsons has an overstuffing problem, too many episodes mistaking non-stop plotting with narrative energy or story cohesiveness. And that’s something in evidence here, as what seems like Lisa’s initial A-story (kicked off by that old fart telling her to smile more, which, if you’re a guy saying that’s a cliché, you’re proving the point) is getting muscled aside by a more high-concept one. That since Marge’s lifelong suitor/pest/attempted date-rapist Artie Ziff barges into her life once more via a delivered hologram wedding invitation. Now here’s the thing about Artie Ziff—he sucks. Not that three-decade guest voice Jon Lovitz’ archly self-regarding work as Ziff isn’t still amusing as hell—Lovitz’s energy is essentially cartoon-level already, and giving him a diminutive billionaire twerp to channel it is just good comic sense. But characters get frozen in our minds at their most indelible moment, and Artie’s first and most revealing act was trying to force himself on Marge Bouvier on their prom night, tearing her dress before, soundly rebuffed, launching into the sort of practiced, self-absolving, weaseling excuses that all entitled male sex creeps learn seemingly from the cradle.
Now Artie—having failed to swoop in and wow Marge away from her admittedly humdrum life of compromise and infrequent (but consensual) snuggling with her decidedly non-billionaire husband over the years—appears to have finally moved on. You know, apart from showily demanding that Marge and Homer attend his lavish wedding to a mystery woman who—wait for it—looks and sounds eerily like Marge. The big reveal is skillfully teased out over the episode, with Homer eating himself into a food coma at Artie bachelor party before he can meet the bride, and then being asked to walk the suspiciously veiled and guest-less woman down the aisle, just so Artie can rub things in, super-villain style. That, as it turns out, Artie Ziff has spent untold millions perfecting an eerily blank Marge-bot only embroiders upon Artie’s inherent, squirmy loathsomeness, his incel-creepy self-entitlement reaching its apotheosis in an impressively elaborate technological quest whose high-toned sophistication can’t obscure the fact that the grimy little jerk who ripped Marge Bouvier’s dress has spent his fortune so he can fuck a sex doll fashioned to look like the one woman who turned him down. Ew.
Still, Marge Simpson is and always was better than Artie Ziff, and her decision to take Homer along on her mission to warn what she thinks is Artie’s human new wife about Artie’s obsession comes across as genuinely kind, and brave. Discovering Artie’s secret (alongside a roomful of horrific, half-realized robo-Marges), she even manages to find a little pity in her heart for her onetime beau, urging him, basically, to get a life. (Marge is nicer about it, telling Artie to use all this pent-up self-obsession energy for the greater good, but that’s Marge for you.) And, sure, we later find out that Artie is still trying to score nightly with his army of Marge-bots (who, thankfully, have evolved not just wings but also self-respect), but he does seem to be using his wealth and robotic workforce to build an orphanage in Marge’s honor, which is about as much as one could expect from such a stunted little male monster.
Lisa’s story (creep-snatching denouement aside), like Marge’s, dovetails thematically more than narratively, although both land solidly enough to make that final gag work with surprising effectiveness, so it’s tough to argue. (Still, Marge’s high-concept adventure and Lisa’s more pointedly grounded one in the realm of elementary school politics are promising enough to have warranted more screen time, especially as the episode springs for the long opening credits sequence and an extended end credits photo gag.) Still, whenever an episode respects its characters enough to yoke their inevitable sitcom dilemmas to some real character elements, it’s deeply refreshing. And Lisa’s arc here has the added dimension of being a referendum on Lisa the Simpsons character.
It’s not groundbreaking to point out that “likability” for a female politician is a loaded, calculatedly self-defeating trap. Except that, as “Hail To The Teeth” shows, in the post-Hillary, post-Kamala political landscape, that ground isn’t anywhere close to being broken. Lisa’s braces-forced smile makes her usual complaints about injustice, the environmental crisis, and Springfield Elementary’s anti-intellectual, bully-strewn halls suddenly palatable, a joke that legions of anti-Lisa commenters and complainers should feel right in their gripe-holes. The fact that Lisa eventually succumbs to the very double standard she decries is the sign that Averick knows what the hell she’s doing with Lisa Simpson the character, allowing her to remain the little girl so lonely in her seemingly isolated principles that the merest glimmer of popularity can undo her. At first horrified that her tearful report on Charlotte’s Web is greeted with laughter and applause by her classmates (“She died alone at the saddest place on earth, a deserted fairground!”), Lisa allows herself to compromise.
So what if she has to have her face painfully propped into a Fox anchor’s glassy grin, as long as her newfound sway leads to school-wide recycling, a zen garden for students (“Springfield Ele-zen-tary”), and bullies transformed into smoking jacket-wearing aesthetes. Except that, once the smile wears off (or, in this case, her lower bridgework wrenches that smile right off her face for six months), Lisa discovers that positive change based on superficial populist appeal is a fairy tale castle built on mushy sand. (Part of her recycling dream did, in fact, introduce a happily enviro-conscious unicorn.) Seeing Lisa’s ineptly Skyped-in debate performance reveal her new perpetually unhappy countenance, Ralph responds to Lisa’s desperate plea that her ideas haven’t changed by pronouncing, “All I hear is ‘nag, nag, nag.’”
That brings us back to that bench outside the school. Lisa is crushed, once more, by the harsh realities of the world. Marge urges some gentle perspective, and hope. And then, in the Simpsons’ own cartoon fairy tale, Marge sprouts wings and carries off the representation of smirking, belittling old school patriarchy right out of the story, presumably to his death. There’s a prankish, poetic unity to that, one that only a show with The Simpsons’ elastic reality can pull off. And “Hail To The Teeth” pulls it off.
- Gripes about length aside, that final slideshow gag actually works to conclude LIsa’s story with even more of a triumphantly poetic flourish. Imagining a scrapbook of Lisa defiantly frowning her way through a life of principled activism and Oprah’s book Club success (for her book Smiling Is For Suckers), the final image is of a meditating little Lisa smiling as she imagines her future—in the lotus position.
- Less heartwarming is how the episode is bookended by Lisa unhappily reading the same environmental magazine with a picture of a dying polar bear on the cover. The older Lisa’s copy reads, “Final Issue.”
- Bart, acting as Lisa’s pollster, has a funny run explaining how the “swing voters” (on swings) are back and forth, while those on the teeter-totter “could go either way.”
- Lisa does reference the fact that she’s already (and traumatically) had to get braces, to which Marge explains that that work was, in fact, done by “a rogue periodontist.” That’s how you do a continuity joke.
- As if his robo-Marges weren’t evil enough, Artie has dragooned the Tupac hologram into his automated wedding invite. Marge, thankfully and finally, frees him.
- On Wild Card weekend, the episode tosses in an NFL CTE joke, if for no other reason than to bite the hand that feeds it. So, points there.
- Even an act-break gag is funny, as Wiggum, balking at paying the $500 to replace Ralph’s retainer, hijacks Lou on a mission to garbage island to find it, telling him ominously, “Let’s just say you’re on retainer . . .”