This one got so close.

At this point in Simpsons history, there’s nothing inherently wrong with recycling plots, especially when the family’s weekly adventure keeps them close to home—trip to Jambowski Island (formerly Haiti) excepted. So when Lisa’s new friend Harper (guest star Kristen Bell) turns out to be a spoiled rich kid whose me-first behavior sours the relationship—forcing Homer to choose between his daughter’s happiness and the VIP bracelet, swim-up movie theater playing Back To The Future lifestyle of his dreams—the stage is set for a classic Homer-Lisa bonding story. That “Friend With Benefit” never quite gets there isn’t a function of familiarity—it’s just that the conflict isn’t adequately established before the end. You know what they say about The Simpsons—it never loses, it just runs out of time. Okay, no one said that, ever. Not even in the good old days. But, with a little more room to work with, this episode (credited to Rob LaZebnik) could have taken its place alongside such “Lisa’s got a new pal” episodes as the one with Lisa’s prematurely grown-up friend, Lisa’s friend who’s better at everything, or even Lisa’s summer friend. (It is significantly better than the one about Lisa’s Republican friend—man, Springfield could have a club of just one-appearance Lisa friends, come to think of it.)

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This season has seen the show rediscover how fruitful it can be to bring Lisa back down closer to her own age. Sure, she’s almost always the smartest person in the room, but here, as in the truly, restoratively excellent “Halloween Of Horror,” that intelligence, when coupled with an eight-year-old’s emotional intellect, has freed up the show to make Lisa more vital than she’s been in a while. A lot of that has to do with Yeardley Smith’s performances, naturally. Even in the most indifferent of episodes, it’s evident how committed Smith is to her signature role, but when, as here, more care has been taken to establish Lisa’s character—and keep it consistent throughout—she can really make Lisa come alive. Too often, Lisa’s the killjoy, telling everyone what they’re doing wrong. Here, she’s a smart, nerdy little kid who’s thrilled to have a new friend but also age-appropriately quick to recoil from injustice.

So when Lisa is gifted super-platinum VIP access to see the new non-threatening Aussie boy band Doe-Eyed Boys, her near-speechless amazement at being ushered into their company is as funny as it is adorable. (Smith makes a delicious meal of Lisa repeating her favorite’s name: “Wadonga!”) And when Harper starts trampling Lisa’s feelings by treating her as just another accessory (and, to be fair, giving her a 35-speed bike with a diamond bell), Smith finds just the right note of slightly irrational peevishness to Lisa’s pain and disappointment. Again, Smith nails the core of Lisa’s sense of fairness when she appeals to Homer to take the family away from idyllic Jambowski Island, explaining, “’Cause she wants things her way instead of the right way!” It goes a long way toward making her decision understandable.

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A standing complaint against Lisa the character is that she constantly costs the family by being a stick-in-the-mud. Indeed, I’ve seen it pinned exactly to the moment when she refuses Mr. Burns’ multi-million-dollar check in “The Old Man And The Lisa,” which, okay, it was a really big check. But there, too, Lisa’s essential little-kid decency had a purity to it that made it work. In lesser hands or off-model episodes, Lisa can be strident, preachy, or a bummer, but here, LaZebnik’s take makes her intransigence feel right on target, especially in dealing with Homer.

Homer-Lisa stories are some of the series’ best showcases for the mix of family comedy and heartfelt emotion it can do so well. It worked beautifully in that Halloween episode, where, as here, Homer—always admiring his precocious daughter’s brain and her moral compass—leveled with Lisa when something important was on the line. Here he does the same, telling her to try to overlook her objections to her rich new friend’s lapses because, “The world is full of wonderful, priceless experiences, and I can’t give you any of them.” Sure, Homer wants to continue to pal around with his absurdly generous tech-billionaire new pal, Harper’s father, Mike—what with the yachts and box seats, and truffled popcorn—but he’s also tuned into his daughter’s well-being in a way that makes his eventual capitulation another touching chapter in the show’s father-daughter saga.

Urged to tell Lisa to bury her feelings after Harper turns a sea turtle on its back for no reason (“Just tell your kid to let my kid have her way this time—and every other time”), Homer, casting one last, longing look at the easy-up leather beach recliner he never knew he wanted (after his crowdfunded living room model is destroyed by Springfield’s fickle populace), gives it all up with the touching speech, “You don’t deserve Lisa. She’s the sun, the moon, and the other thing to me.” It echoes Lisa’s riposte to Harper earlier in the episode, where she defends her “crappy” old bike, by explaining to the uncomprehending rich girl, “My dad assembled it on Christmas Day. Which is why I have to pedal backward to go forward, but I love it.” In finding the emotional throughline for the story, LaZebnik illustrates what an endlessly renewable resource such well-established and beloved characters the show has at its disposal. It doesn’t matter that The Simpsons has done similar stories many times before (even Homer’s helper chair recalls the vibrating recliner from “Brother Can You Spare Two Dimes”)—if a new episode, even in season 27, is true to the characters and tells a funny story, the show can be as good as it ever was.

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So why isn’t “Friend With Benefits” better? Time’s a factor—taking a minute or so for the (undeniably sweet and adorable) Santa’s Little Helper opening stole running time that could have been used to flesh out the Lisa-Harper conflict. As unfailingly bright and lovable as Kristen Bell is, her Harper doesn’t make much of an impression, her pampered mood swings and thoughtlessness too sketchy and ill-defined as a motivator for Lisa’s actions. Homer’s parallel friendship with Mike is a lot better realized, with Hank Azaria giving the billionaire an energetically strange persona to go along with his bottomless wealth. There’s an edge of hysteria to Mike that suggests he’s being driven mad by the loneliness of his newfound riches. Azaria’s manic explanation for why Mike’s ramming his head into the wall of his luxury suite —“When I’m happy, I make holes! When I’m sad, I buy a hockey team! They cost, like, nothin’, man!”—goes a long way to establishing character in brief, very funny strokes. (Homer, drawn irresistably to the promise of sharing Mike’s lifestyle, cautions, “Be careful, I love you.”)

There are a few minor further quibbles—the Bart-related shenanigans once they get to the island are broad in a careless way endemic to a lot of latter-day Simpsons. (Homer chums the water to try to get Bart eaten by shark, Bart rides Great White back up onto deck, etc.) Bart hasn’t had the same character resurgence as his sister—there’s just not as much to the li’l bastard—but he does have a good line responding contemptuously to Lisa’s assertion, “She was so condescending,” with, “Yeah, she was kinda-sending you a new bike.” Good one, Bart.

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In the end, “Friend With Benefits” is a good—even quite good—modern Simpsons episode. But it was so close to being better than that, it’s hard not to feel disappointed.

Stray observations

  • Homer, after unsuccessfully emulating Mike’s joyful head-smash: “Did I make 80 million dollars?” Mike: “Nope! But you made a fool out of this doctor who said you died!”
  • Mike, pitching the island getaway to Homer: “The only problem will be the sand in our whatevers!”
  • Homer, pitching the island getaway to Marge: “Lisa’s not gonna fall behind and Bart’s not gonna catch up.”
  • Mike buys the kids out of school for a $10 donation. Skinner on the phone to Marge: “This is Seymour Skinner. We’re just calling all parents, starting with you…”
  • There is some lovely, careful animation in this episode, especially in the Santa’s Little Helper scenes. Who’s a good boy?!
  • Derivative of not, Homer’s infatuation with his chair is ground for some solid Homer-centric laughs. Using the dog and his sock to pull himself up from the couch, exclaiming at the chair’s price (“Eleventy-hundred dollars!”), trying to deflect his crowdfunders’ anger onto Lisa (“That crowdfunding video you starred in is causing a lot of problems”)—all prime Homer.

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  • The people of Springfield, too, have a good outing. The Rich Texan objects to the crowdfunding model (his pistol fire accidentally bids), ranting that Homer should rely on “self-made Americanism, as espoused by Russian weirdo Ayn Rand.” After Homer leaves in Lisa’s onscreen flub by saying they’d fix the video in post, Krusty exclaims, “He couldn’t even afford to fix that in post!” And Lenny is on fire, preemptively advising Homer “the third season of anything is the best,” before extolling the crowdfunding example of “Zach Braff’s generation-defining dud, Wish I Was Here.” Rainer Wolfcastle bemoans, Gibson-style, about how “I got that DUI and said all those things I secretly believe.” And, when Harper takes Lisa to see David Copperfield, her whims see Krusty sealed in a glass case full of cotton candy with a crocodile, leaving Krusty to complain, “What’s the trick here?!”
  • And, to close it out, here’s Braff and Copperfield—together for some comedy gold!

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