Sometimes you watch an episode of The Simpsons do a number of little things well and realize that, by the end, you’ve seen a really solid episode of The Simpsons. As “There Will Be Buds” is a sports-themed episode, wherein the fickle fans of Springfield switch their allegiance from youth football to youth lacrosse, let’s go to the scoreboard.
The episode looks great. The cozy familiarity of Springfield’s yellow-dominated color scheme is so universal that it’s easy to overlook the show’s visuals. But the design and blue-and-gold palette of the kids’ uniforms is striking, and there’s a nicely thought-out fluidity to both the brief snippets of in-game action and movement all through the episode. The clearly defined motion and purpose of the lacrosse sticks makes for some truly funny and excitingly-designed sight gags, too. When Kirk Van Houten sheepishly pitches that the town’s concerned adults (or “smothering parents who mainly came to hear themselves talk,” according to Homer) consider the joys of his once-favorite sport, he convinces them by whipping a lacrosse ball at Milhouse, who deftly scoops it and hurls it back to his dad. Kirk’s comically excited “Everybody feel free to whip stuff at my son’s face!,” sees Milhouse fielding everything that comes his way (including the squid Captain McCallister brought, because of course he did). Milhouse’s handiness with his stick is mirrored by Bart and Lisa who, in a funny sight gag, pelt the slugabed Homer from off-screen with balled socks (and then Maggie), before using the sticks as a ramp to roll him out of bed. Matthew Faughnan’s direction makes it all crisp and fun to watch.
It’s one story, well-told. A Simpsons episode with a little time to breathe (this one skips the theme song and couch gag entirely) is often a good sign. Here, Kirk and Homer’s reluctant (on Homer’s part, anyway) friendship could seem awfully rushed in the too-traditional A-story/half of a B-story structure of latter-day Simpsons. Instead, there’s time to establish why the town switches from football to lacrosse. Over-fogging the dramatic pee-wee football entrance puts every mom in town into concussion-terrors and, because this is Springfield, Dr. Hibbert’s assessment that lacrosse has the second-highest rate of concussions after football is good enough. And, cut short, the elevation of perpetual sad sack Kirk would have been too rushed. Here, the flashback to his days as Gudger College’s dashing (but already balding) star lacrosse player sets up his arc nicely, letting us see that, even then, his neediness was going to be his downfall. (“I’d never be left hanging again,” he reminisces, leading up to him accepting that one, fateful, final high-five from the iron-gloved hand of Gudger’s mascot, Sir Gudgealot.)
There’s an economical use of shorthand in Matt Selman’s script, seeding in Luanne’s contempt for her husband and Marge’s pity for him, both of which provide motivation for Homer’s position as assistant coach and grudging best pal. It’s been a while since there’s been a decently ambitious musical number on The Simpsons (a former strength, and something lead-in Bob’s Burgers does exceptionally well). But Kirk and Homer’s dueling duet where Kirk’s ideal buddy activities (including Blues Brothers concerts, renaissance fairs, ”man caves,” and co-hosted Oscar parties) are exactly why Homer can’t stand him. Homer’s lyric “that waitress wasn’t into you” sets up Kirk’s later fondness for strip clubs and light, boys’ night debauchery perfectly, and the choreography of Homer’s ferris wheel winding up right next to the crestfallen Kirk singing on a balcony is great.
Extra points for using Springfield’s vast resources creatively. Kirk has his best episode since the legendary days of “Can I Borrow A Feeling?,” giving the ever-humiliated guy a day to shine, without ever losing sight of the reasons why he’s no one’s best bud. (Or husband, father, party guest, Pictionary player, or employee.) Empowered by the kids’ success under his skillful coaching (and strategic carbo-loading), cocky Kirk lets his inner lax bro out, calling Homer “bra,” forcing him to listen to his Big Bad Voodoo Daddies mix CD (consisting of naught but the once-ubiquitous “You Me and the Bottle Makes 3 Tonight,” but some of them are live versions), and instigating deeply unwanted bro talk about their sex lives. (Counting down to the answer to “what’s the weirdest place you and your wife ever did it” sees Homer shouting “Don’t!” just as Kirk happily shouts “Chipotle!”) And the reveal that his desire to bro out with Homer at strip clubs was an excuse to get the strippers to pretend they liked listening to his tutorials about whiskey-making is both sad and reluctantly endearing. Like Kirk.
There are good quick-hit bits from Professor Frink, telling Kent Brockman that concussions in kids’ sports is bad because kids will need un-bruised brains in their future of “polishing and buffing our robot masters.” While, providing counterpoint, Nelson’s brutish jock dad knocks out Frink with the eccentrically bullying insult “smart-nuts” and berates Nelson for “deking” when he told him to “juke.” The hairtrigger moral panics of Springfield are always a funny way to get a story rolling, and is it just me, or was it deeply satisfying to watch Marge haul off and slap the sententious Helen Lovejoy for having the gall to question Homer’s ability to remain faithful while retrieving Kirk from the strip club? (Sure, he was seduced by the free buffet, but that’s not cheating as far as Marge and Homer are concerned.) Plus, Harry Shearer got to trot out his Keith Jackson sports announcer voice a few times, which is always a plus in my book.
It’s just funny. Nothing groundbreaking about this episode, but nothing needs to be. The setup looked like a rehash of “Lisa On Ice” from the “good years,” but it’s nice to see Lisa and Bart both enjoying the fun and success their new sport gives them. (“I’m a jock!,” says Homer’s vision of a happy Lisa, while vision-Bart confesses that he’s enjoying himself so much he doesn’t even spit on his hand before shaking the other team’s hands.
Get your Homer right. Getting Homer right is hard. Too often he drifts into too-dumb Homer, jerkass Homer, or just plain contradictory Homer, but, here, Homer is just… Homer. Responding to his dilemma, that voice in Homer’s head tells him, “Look pal, I don’t like Kirk either, but look how much fun the kids’ heads are having,” and that’s just about where you want him to be, especially in a character-driven story like this one. His devotion to Marge is spot-on, too, his aversion to strip clubbing with Kirk expressed in the perfectly worded Homerism, “Why would I want to go to a strip club? I’m married to a naked lady!” Tonight’s Homer strikes just the right balance of warring elements, and that’s nothing to be overlooked.
- Naturally, drunk Kirk (as revealed on his self-pitying YouTube channel) is a resentful, morose drunk, his tutorial on making rice sandwiches gradually turning into a 9/11 truther rant.
- Homer, on strip clubs: “But those places are filled with creeps. And all the chairs face the same way. What If I want to engage in conversation with another patron?”
- And, retrieving Kirk: “All I have to do is go in, get the pervert, and bring him back to a park full of children.”
- And, asking the bouncer if he’s seen Kirk, Homer asks unhelpfully if he’s seen “a middle-aged bald guy, paunch, looks like he’s given up on life.”
- Lots of strip bar name jokes. Favorites: Saddy’s, The Tassel Castle, Ultimate Frustrations, NOT Hookers.
- Any time you use the Friday Night Lights theme music in your episode is a plus.
- Kirk, not making the case for lacrosse: “It combines America’s two last-watched sports: soccer and hockey!”
- Mayor Quimby, panicking over his bet of Springfield apricots with Capital City: “We grow no apricots!”
- Take that, Jim Harbaugh! (The author has no personal feelings about Jim Harbaugh.)
- “Child Soldier Field” is a one of the funniest sign jokes I’ve seen in a long while.