It’s an episode about Homer losing big at poker and costing Lisa her chance to go to High Notes Music Camp (motto: “Memories! Mosquitoes! Mozart!”) Oops, my bad—it’s about Lisa going on the road with 80-year-old Springfield Playhouse trouper Laney Fontaine (Tress MacNeille) in order to cancel Homer’s poker losses. Or it’s about Lisa’s perpetually thwarted desires to be a musician, or about Laney’s desire to have a daughter of her own. Then there’s the side plot about Homer running out of gas in Amish country and, coincidentally, finding that the first door he knocks on belongs to Flanders’ cousin Jacob. And all the many, many New York jokes once the Simpsons chase Lisa to Broadway.

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Could this heap of half-realized plots coalesce into a satisfying episode of The Simpsons? Sure—if any of them were funny on its own, or if they all somehow tied together in the end. Instead, “Lisa With An ‘S’” just sort of exists, the final description of a lot of latter-day episodes (although there have also been a couple of genuinely great episodes this season). It wasn’t abysmal or infuriating—at least that would leave something to talk about. This episode was just… there.

Look at the Broadway jokes. Some of the funniest, most clever gags in Simpsons history have been seemingly throwaway signs on the edge of the screen. In a great Simpsons, sometimes it’s like the writer’s room simply had too many good ideas for the story at hand and had to literally tack them up around the sets to squeeze them all in. It’s become something of a lost art, sadly, and the sign gags here were plentiful, labored, and obvious. Some examples of Broadway shows:

Candy Crush: The Musical

Spider Pig: Turn Off The Pork

Hedwig And The Furious Foot

Lafayette: The Musical

Don King & I

Those are not technically jokes as much as the writers play Mad Libs with real plays and call it it a day. It’s lazy. (Other signs around NYC: “Priceless memories: $20,” “Real massage parlor—only sad endings.” Take that, Big Apple!)

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At least the title of Laney Fontaine’s show, “Laney Growls Sondheim” is accurate, both to the aging chanteuse’s infinite-packs-a-day vocal stylings and as tribute to Laney’s clear inspiration, the late Elane Stritch. From the tights, mens’ shirt, and fedora look to her desire to stay on the stage right up ‘til her last raspy breath, Laney (introduced last season, and described accurately as “the brassiest piece of sass in this whole damn town”) mirrors Stritch’s persona—with a lot of joyless old broad jokes thrown in. Seen as Moe’s current girlfriend here, she’s described, along with his beloved liquor license, as “the two most precious wrinkled yellow things I know.” She forgets the lines to the songs in her well-worn repertoire, she’s an alcoholic, passing out in her own drool at the poker table. The Simpsons has done an admirable side business in old person jokes over the years with Burns and Grandpa, but Laney’s just a bummer. A shame, as MacNeille is one of the best voice actors out there, and old brassy pieces of sass are right up her alley in the Groening-verse.

It’s especially disappointing how little impression Laney’s bond with aspiring musician Lisa makes on the episode. Lisa’s always looking for someone to appreciate her perennially overlooked gifts, and there’s a lovely little piece of animation when, waiting for Marge’s decision about going on the road, Lisa keep literally shaking with anticipation and hope, until her pearls start rotating through vibrational motion around her neck. Unfortunately, both Marge’s worry at allowing her daughter to, as Homer puts it later, “go on the road with an 80-year-old diva and some sketchy jazz guys,” and Laney’s affection for Lisa come to very little. I had to rewind to make sure I wasn’t missing the big emotional swerve where Laney pretends to be jealous of Lisa so she’ll go back to Springfield with her family. I didn’t, but the glance between Laney and Marge that sets it up is over in an instant, and the move barely affects Lisa at all, as the family rushes back home so that Homer can wrap up that whole “Flanders’ Amish cousin” storyline in time. Whew.

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Stray observations

  • One of my favorite underrated Simpsons characters is Hank Azaria’s fast-talking all-purpose salesman guy (the one who sold Homer the TV complete with “durable outer casing to prevent fall apart”), here working as ticket-taker at Laney’s show and telling Marge and Homer, “The show is sold out, for reasons that elude me.”

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  • I liked Lisa’s sweetly transparent attempt to get Homer to pay for music camp: “I’d like two things, a hug and a favor. To save time I’ll start describing the favor while we hug.”
  • Bart, after Marge asks him how he knows what discotheques are: “We have Disco Stu in this town, Mom. He’s a resource, use him.”
  • Homer, on Laney’s offer to take Lisa: “You can’t take a daughter from her mother. Unless you’re a bigger star and this is a third-world country.”
  • “If you ever have any doubts how a show biz kid will turn out, just look at all of them!”
  • Marge being a worrywart is a cliché, but it’s always nice to glean what you can about who she is based on what she’s actually worried about. Hearing the music being played by jazzbos Sonny and Sticks over her Skype with Lisa, she blurts out in alarm, “Is that syncopation?!”
  • Another great Marge-ism, admonishing Homer as he goes to play poker, “Don’t lose all our scrimpings!”
  • It took me a second to figure out the insult, but Hank Azaria’s Roy Scheider-looking theater director is referring to the shape of Lisa’s dress when he asks, “Who’s the lampshade?” Solid.
  • One funny sign gag—when Lisa is hired to play sax in Laney’s show, the spinning newspaper declares, “Little girl forces 40-year vet out of job.”
  • When Homer’s trying to bluff during the poker game, we flash to a version of the Inside Out characters inside his head, where Disgust (Comic Book Guy, naturally) scoffs, “Worst… jammed in movie parody… ever.” Maybe.
  • The Star Trek/couches vs. donuts opening? Most pointless… couch gag… ever.

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