“Friends And Family” takes forever to get going, but, after a turgid opening act that sees Burns seeing his shrink, watching his shrink die, attending his shrink’s funeral, offending his shrink’s family, and then running over Professor Frink, this second episode of season 28 finds a nice little groove. Unfortunately, since everything after the first ad break is so compressed, the two storylines therein are clipped abruptly, but there’s enough funny stuff to put this one in the “what might have been” column.
Looking at the synopsis of the episode, a viewer (or reviewer) might be forgiven for some misgivings. One storyline (both carry enough weight that there’s no proper A- or B-story) sees Marge and the kids being drafted to provide the motion-capture template for Burns’ ideal virtual reality family. See, Frink was distracted by his new VR headset’s visions of winning a Nobel Prize (complete with a sash-wearing Nobel-winner kick line) when he got plowed down, and Burns, entranced by the possibilities, sets out to craft a group of people who can actually stand him. Whenever an episode hinges on a high-concept idea like this, it usually comes off feeling hokey and square—as if there’s been an index card marked “virtual reality” in the writers room for a long time, or like someone at Simpsons central read about this cool thing and just had to write an episode around it.
In the other story, Homer, after a largely nude montage of him dancing around the house to Cream’s “I Feel Free,” winds up lying blissfully on the roof (“Snoopy knew what he was doing, all right”), until his heretofore-unseen neighbor, Julia, spots him. Since she’s chilling on her roof with a cooler full of Duff (and is utterly unfazed by Homer’s nudity), the two become best friends, especially since Julia likes food, bowling, beer, and is voiced by Allison Janney, who’s ideal pal material even in animated form. Here, the synopsis brings up the classic “Homer tempted by another woman who acts like a guy” episode, provoking fears of an ill-advised retread.
Thankfully, while “Friends And Family” never quite comes together, each story has its charms. In the Burns episode, there’s not much depth. Like last week’s premiere (which also saw Burns auditioning children for a harebrained scheme, oddly enough), whatever insight we’re meant to get into Burns is superficial. What does work is the comedy, with Harry Shearer and Yeardley Smith, especially, mining the absurdity of Burns’ plan for some solid lines. Lisa and Burns are funny antagonists, with Lisa constitutionally unable to overcome her revulsion for Springfield’s most evil human, even in virtual form. Smith and Shearer make their standoff a hoot, squaring off over Lisa’s performance like longtime theater rivals.
Lisa: “The existence of my chops is not for you to ascertain, my good man.”
Burns: “Would you like some eggs with that ham?”
Similarly, Shearer always seems energized when Burns is allowed some archaic insults, here referring to the Simpsons as idiots, mountebanks, featherwits, and poltroons, and raging that they’re “a bunch of land apes who aren’t worth the ping pong balls stuck to their untalented asses.” Never bashful about his decades-long dissatisfaction with the show, Shearer’s seen Monty Burns be the driving force behind the first two episodes of this season, so perhaps there’s some placating going on. (Alternately, perhaps he wanted to get his biggest roles out of the way.) At any rate, Shearer-as-Burns is a lot of fun when he’s engaged in Burns’ villainy, and he nails down his malediction to the fed-up Simpsons with the absurdly specific “You’ll never work in single-viewer virtual reality family melodrama again!”
As for Homer and Julia, their story is cut far too short to make the impact of Homer and Mindy (or Homer and Lurleen, for that matter), but the fact that the two genuinely are just buddies is a refreshing take. When Marge flies into an understandably jealous rage upon finding out that Homer’s spent her time away bonding with another woman, it looks like their fight will devolve into clichéd bowling-pin territory. (“All we do is share our deepest thoughts and feelings,” explains Homer, cluelessly.) Instead, there’s some too-quick but affecting communication between the two, with Marge expressing hurt that Homer considers another woman his best friend and not her, and Homer—with some carefully over-explained help from Julia—realizing that sometimes all Marge needs is for someone to know what she’s feeling. (As in the VR storyline, part of the joke is how little Marge settles for as a rule.)
There are some crisp laughs here, too, of the satisfying “dumb Homer” type. When Marge knocks over his breakfast in anger, Dan Castellaneta’s delivery of Homer’s horrified “Why are you mad at those eggs?!” hits the sweet spot. Same goes for the “mind blown” shriek of recognition when Julia explains that the bike metaphor she and Marge have been bandying between them is about to him. I like “dumb Homer” best in these rapid-fire, stressful situations, where his often-blunt stupidity is leavened by genuine panic and confusion.
“Family And Friends,” as mentioned, could have been better with just a few tweaks. Latter-day Simpsons has a bewildering tendency to jam two possible A-stories into the same episode, shorting them both. Here, the blame lies more with how damned long it takes to get to the plot(s), but, by the time the sweet ending rolls around—with future Marge and Homer using the now-ubiquitous VR technology to fantasize about kissing each other while they’re asleep and holding hands—the consistent gags and smidge of heart wore me down.
- Comedy coincidence… or is it? On last night’s Saturday Night Live, Darrell Hammond’s Bill Clinton fantasizes about his carefree life as First Husband, made up of visions of a Police Academy marathon in the White House. Tonight, Homer, freed from all familial responsibilities, lines up eight TVs so he can simultaneously enjoy… all the Police Academy movies. This means something.
- Credited writer J. Stewart Burns seems bound and determined to wrench the Simpsons out of their reality. Sometimes his high-concept premises work, and sometimes, they are outright disastrous. Or at least half-baked, which is where I’d slot this one.
- See above concerning the flashback where Maggie talks but, since everyone is too busy in therapy screaming at each other, she decides never to do so again. No thanks.
- Also, when Burns is trying out new heads for the family, they’re briefly transformed into Dr. Zoidbergs which, considering the limpness of that crossover, no thanks.
- Burns, seeing how fascinated Frink is by what’s in his VR goggles: “Is there a milkmaid skipping rope?”
- The prototype VR, according to Smithers, only comes loaded with porn, a roller coaster, a Burger King ad, a Marvin-the-Martian-eque death ray fantasy, and something with dragons—which also turns out to be porn.
- Speaking of, it’s both funny and deeply creepy that naked virtual wife Marge has a black bar censoring her ankles.
- When the family is decked out in their ping pong ball-covered mo-cap suits, Bart and Lisa play ping pong with a green ping pong ball that has a white mo-cap ping pong ball stuck to it.
- After Homer and Julia pass Luigi’s Lady And The Tramp platonic friendship spaghetti test, Homer toasts “to no one getting hurt,” leading to a great “smash cut to Marge” editing joke from VR director Smithers.
- In the VR future, Skinner and Chalmers enjoy a virtual picnic, only Skinner is imagining a nice day out together, while Chalmers is raising a glass at Seymour’s grave.
- Even in VR, Lisa can’t escape her fate of attending Vassar.