First, a word about the Frinkiac. As you undoubtedly know, and have wasted a lot of time on, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the scientific philosophy of Springfield’s resident mad scientist Professor John Frink, the central figure driving the plot of tonight’s episode, “Love Is in the N2-O2-Ar-CO2-Ne-He-CH4.” Sure, it’s no death ray, or even frog exaggerator, but it is an invention that took an enormous amount of time and brain power, is sort of cool, and ultimately pointless. (That’s not a knock—it’s a lot of fun.) Carving up much of the Simpsons run into innumerable screen shots (complete with handy quotes to liven/clutter up your Twitter feed) it’s also a perfect metaphor for Frink himself. Hank Azaria’s excitable, language-mangling Frink is a Simpsons quote machine, his strangled, Jerry Lewis-isms best experienced in tiny, entertainingly silly sound bites. It’s made him popular, but, of the myriad Simpsons bit players, he’s at the bottom of my list for those likely to anchor an entire episode.

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Which makes “Love Is in the N2-O2-Ar-CO2-Ne-He-CH4” (and that’s the last time I’ll make you read that title) doubly disappointing, since it both suggests that there could be an improbably affecting episode built around Johnatan I.Q. Neidelbaum Frink, Jr., B.Sc., Ph.D. M.R.S.C., C.Chem, and that this incarnation of The Simpsons doesn’t trust itself (or its audience) enough to tell a single story from start to finish.

On the Frink front, it’s undeniable that hearing Azaria run his voice around the roller coaster of the Professor’s syntax is always a treat. In speculating with Homer about the qualities women find least attractive in him, Frink finally realizes, it’s his voice that’s the deal-breaker, “with the up and down and the extra words and terminal nonsense and the [Frink Noise, which I translate to the best of my ability as ‘hoiven-cliven-bingin’].” Like his earlier offer of ”some lemonade which I just squeezed nicely,” it’s impossible to render in words the way Azaria has Frink follow a sentence down strange, unmapped streets, running some phrases together, trailing others off into loopy tangents. So far, so Frink. But—putting aside his periodic references to a wife and child that have been lost in the mists of continuity indifference—the idea that this undeniably brilliant if slightly mad egghead is terribly lonely isn’t a bad starting place for a story, one that the episode hits on here and there. Confiding in Homer after he wakes up drunk at Homer’s workstation after striking out at the nuclear plant’s Sweetheart Dance, Azaria strikes a chord of humanity when Frink bemoans, “When I saw that Stephen Hawking movie, all I could think was, ‘He’s got a girl? Give me a break!’”

Gullible women of Spingfield, Frink (Fox)

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Even the main thrust of the plot, with Frink performing a Julius Kelp-to-Buddy Love scientific transformation of his entire self (via blue contacts, lifts, and a voice modulator that makes him sound like early ‘60s Sinatra) has a certain amount of built-in pathos. Sure, he’s built himself a suspiciously Ex Machina-esque female android that he’s programmed to only say yes (it turns him down) but that’s the “mad” part of that whole “mad scientist” equation, so we’ll let it slide. And, yes, he does use his newfound smoothness to bed a large number of Springfield’s eligible (and dishearteningly gullible) women—including but not limited to Ms. Hoover, the Crazy Cat Lady, the Elvira-looking “Booberella,” plus Cookie Kwan and her identical twin Nookie Kwan (ugh). Again, his womanizing ways could have been woven into a story about a suddenly popular man acting like a dick in the face of a wave of unaccustomed female attention. But the story gets short-changed by the B-plot (and another overlong couch gag, plus the long version of the credits), leaving Frink underdeveloped. There is a lovely resolution of sorts, when he applies his lovelorn but mighty brain to develop an algorithm to match up most of the town’s eligible singles with their perfect romantic partner (Ms. Hoover ends up with Duff Man—we’ll see how long that lasts). That Frink still winds up alone is sad, that he finds solace in the pre-programmed metal arms of his own android is borderline creepy-sweet, and the final joke that he also ill-advisedly built his sex-bot a complaining mother-bot is hacky and dispiriting.

But the real problem is that the episode clomps back and forth with that B-story about Grandpa and the rest of the old folks at Springfield Retirement Castle losing themselves in romantic hallucinations thanks to their suspicious new green pills. Here, too, there’s no reason why this couldn’t have been fleshed out into a separate A-story, especially since, like Frink’s, it contains a few lovely little touches. Grandpa is genuinely glad to see Mona, and the episode deftly waves away the fact that she looks different by having her be Abe’s idealized memory of his late wife. That also explains why she transforms further into something like a Betty Boop flapper as Grandpa goes deeper into the past. (There’s also a funny gag where another resident is seen slow dancing with his beloved hardware store.)

But there’s a lot of clutter in even this truncated plot, as Bart opens yet another fake casino to bilk the tripping oldies, and Marge battles the Nurse Ratched-like caretaker to stop abusing her charges. Again—all of this could have been a solid main story with some time to breathe. ( I especially liked the runner that everyone at the home is afraid of “the cat that can tell if you’re dying.”) As far as fitting together in perfect A- and B-story unity, um, they’re both about love and loneliness, I suppose.

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This episode (fine, Love Is in the N2-O2-Ar-CO2-Ne-He-CH4) is a moderately amusing mush of good and bad ideas making up two half-realized stories. I found things to like in both, and wished each were better, and longer. Apologies if those are sentiments you’ve heard from me before in these reviews of present-day Simpsons.

Stray observations

  • “The thing about men and women—It’s not science, it’s chemistry.” “Which is science.”
  • Homer and Marge slip away from the dance to do it on Burns’ desk. Thought his overture about a secret fantasy was going to lead to a joke but, nope—just a surprisingly suggestive silhouette. (Burns does fall down his own trapdoor, and is pissed the pit beneath is not bottomless, as the contractor had promised.)
  • Frink’s ideal voice combines elements of Clark Gable, Walter Cronkite, and Rush Limbaugh. Frink doesn’t agree with Limbaugh’s positions, but his body “is a natural echo chamber.”
  • The definition of a shitty latter-day Simpsons joke from writers who don’t care: Cupid is real, and Cletus shoots him.
  • And, if you like Cletus incest jokes, this is at least a clever turn of phrase: “Of all the cousins I could have married, you were my sister.”
  • While waiting for Frink to finish hitting on women at yoga class, Homer reads Time Dissolve magazine, which I irrationally thought was a reference to some print version of The Dissolve. RIP, The Dissolve.
  • Homer has figured out a way to deal with him forgetting his anniversary: “Then I settled on making Lisa remember, and my relationship with Lisa has never been better!”
  • “Grandpa, you’re not allowed to take dangerous drugs unless they come in a little paper cup!”
  • Ms. Hoover tracks Frink down at Moe’s because his “Hovertronic Frinkamacar” is right outside.
  • Other things we learn at Moe’s: Moe has instituted “apron-only Tuesdays,” Carl has a domesticated wolverine.
  • According to the couch gag, the corpse of Simpsons’ cat Snowball (1, I assume) is embedded deep in the living room sofa. But it was just Homer’s dream, so who knows. It sure took a solid minute from the main story, that I do know.
  • Professor Frink was named for episode writer, um, John Frink. Even though the writer John Frink didn’t start writing for The Simpsons until after Professor Frink had already been around for years. Don’t think about it too much—there’s probably some sort of John Frink time travel shenanigans involved. The Professor John Frink, not the writer John Frink. You get it.
  • The Simpsons’ Daytona 500 commercial midway through the episode had me taking notes and wondering how it fit into the flow of the story before I realized I was reviewing an ad, so here goes—don’t do that, Fox.

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