There are times when the need to grade a TV episode just doesn’t apply. It’d be nice to say I’m flummoxed by “Puffless” because it’s transcendent, or bafflingly terrible. However, it’s more accurate to say that I have no idea what to grade it because it’s irrelevant.
Back in 2012, The Simpsons franchise made “The Longest Daycare,” a short film about Maggie escaping the gulag-like Ayn Rand School For Tots which originally ran in front of one of the Ice Age movies (it was also an expanded version of a sequence from “A Streetcar Named Marge”). It was a clever, cinematically minded doodle where the youngest Simpson’s long-implied preternatural competence and intellectual superiority was the driving force behind a crowd-pleasing goof. (It was tacked onto the end of the 2013 episode “Hardly Kirking,” if you’re dying to catch it.) It was cute.
In “Puffless,” ostensibly a story about Patty and Selma finally quitting smoking after their mother reveals that their father Quincy actually died of lung cancer (and not “shrugging motion,” as the episode handwaves Marge, Patty, and Selma’s ignorance here), Maggie befriends a squirrel. The squirrel introduces the at-times abnormally ambulatory and self-aware Simpsons infant to an owl, a parrot, and an opossum, who take to the child. Then Cletus and his brood capture the opossum and Maggie leads a woodland army (including the returning Spider-Pig from The Simpsons Movie) to rescue him. They do. Meanwhile, Patty and Selma try to quit smoking. They don’t.
The whole “Maggie is a genius” runner on The Simpsons is a “to each his or her own” situation for viewers. Me, I tune out whenever an episode takes time to show that she can actually understand the theory of relativity, or write, or, as here, use her jack in the box to catapult her out the window to play with her animal pals. It’s a different, more precious and, to me, duller show that those gags are on. Her Lord Of The Rings-meets-Looney Tunes adventure tonight is, like “The Longest Daycare,” carefully made (there’s a nice use of light and shadow), peppered with moderately clever touches (Cletus’s dog listens to his master’s instructions before the subtitles explain “I don’t understand a word you say”), and—cute. It’s cute.
It’s also exactly half an episode that seeks to tell a character-based story. That’s a steep hill to climb under any circumstances, but especially when trying to make us care about two one-note characters like Patty and Selma. Not that there haven’t been interesting, affecting Patty and Selma episodes in the past—honestly, Selma’s rejection of her sham marriage to secret ichthyophile Troy McClure is one of the most improbably heartbreaking endings in Simpsons history. (Plus, it gave us Jub-Jub, who makes a cameo tonight as a pawn in the sisters’ schism once Selma chooses her smokes over Patty.) But, Julie Kavner’s always-stellar voice work as the sisters aside, the show has a lot of heavy lifting to do to make Marge’s chain-smoking siblings central characters for a whole episode. Or, in this case, half an episode minus commercials. It doesn’t.
Instead, we get another in The Simpsons’ snowballing number of episodes where the lack of payoff is meant to be—what, ironically satisfying? After Selma renounces cigarettes so that Patty will return to their apartment, Patty realizes a home filled with “two single women, an infant, and an iguana” (remember when Selma adopted a Chinese baby?) really smells, so she offers her sister a cigarette and they both light up. A flash-forward shows that they do, in fact, get cancer (throat cancer, by the look of their matching tracheotomies), and are buried side-by-side, smoke coming from their graves. “Is this a happy ending?,” asks one. “It’s edgy,” returns the other, while Rick Astley’s “Together Forever” plays them out. It might not be the official Rickrolling anthem, but the message comes across just the same—nothing that you have just seen or heard means anything whatsoever.
- Homer, after Marge snaps off his reality program (about Dr. Nick’s many malpractice suits): “Ohhh—have you ever turned on a TV?”
- Mrs. Bouvier’s birthday sees her once again wooed by both Abe Simpson and Monty Burns, as in the classic episode “Lady Bouvier’s Lover.” Only here it’s dispatched in a 30-second gag about Burns only shipping himself to her in a huge, gift-wrapped box so Abe won’t win her over with his posies before the whole thing is forgotten. Oh, and Patty and Selma accidentally burn their mother’s house down.
- Told by Marge that Patty will be sleeping on their sofa, Homer whines, “Ohh—but that’s where we do all our couch gags!” in the sort of joke that the show should do far, far less often.
- “I brought you an old-fashioned music player—Yo-Yo Ma!”
- Yo-Yo Ma is playing the same piece of music as he did in the West Wing episode “Noël.”
- Marge, confused about whether Maggie should sleep on her back or her tummy: “Whichever is the comfortable one, don’t do that.”