Possessed of a unity of purpose, “Super Franchise Me” allows its characters to breathe. Written by Bill Odenkirk, the episode sees Marge opening a franchised sandwich restaurant. No guest stars, no special events, no B-story—the episode avoids much (if not all) of the clutter that’s been distracting in many of the Simpsons episodes of the last few years and focuses on the story at hand. If that story isn’t anything special, it’s at least peppered with enough funny little character touches and low-key laughs to make the show resemble itself at its best.

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When Homer’s theft of Flanders’ electricity (to run a Ferris wheel) leads to Ned’s discovery of Homer’s theft of Flanders’ deep freezer, Marge is forced to cook up Homer’s enormous meat stash. She makes the meat into a mountain of sandwiches which Bart and Lisa introduce to the ravenous students of Springfield Elementary, which draws the attention of a representative of a national sandwich chain. Marge accepts the deal to open her own “Mother Hubbard’s Sandwich Cupboard,” roots out the terrible employees she’s hired (including the squeaky-voiced teen and poor old Gil), and ends up enlisting the whole family to run the business. Cletus opens an “express” version of the same franchise across the street, and Marge is on the verge of bankruptcy before the family bands together to blackmail the corporation into giving Marge her money back. If those details seem straightforward, they’re also a refreshingly grounded framework for the episode—and support a healthy dose of strange little gags that are just weird enough to be funny without stretching the show’s reality too far.

When Grandpa, seeing Mr. Burns’ hitting on the two-dimensional Mother Hubbard’s standee, proclaims, “Homer, if I ever seem that senile, get a gun and…” only to protest when he sees a shotgun poking at him from offscreen. When Homer comes to visit Marge at work, an employee yells, “Mrs. Boss, some fat blob is here to see you,” cueing Marge to yell excitedly, again from offscreen, “Homer!” When the Mother Hubbard’s exec tells Marge to seize the opportunity because it will disappear the next time she blinks, Marge blinks and gasps because the woman is gone—only for the exec to say, “Just kidding, I’m right behind you.” When the same woman asks Marge about her future and Marge has a vision of Homer telling her how he’s saved exactly nothing in case something happens to him, the exec’s response, “If that flashback you just described is true, you can’t afford not to open this franchise” exhibits a patience to wait for the joke to turn a corner. Cletus jokes might truck in the same hillbilly clichés, but the descriptions of his “express” sandwiches are funny in their specific randomness: “bread sandwich,” “yesterday’s whatzit with ketchup,” and “the thing what ate our chickens—it looks like a fox, but ain’t.” Homer loses weight working so hard that, when his unbuttoned pants fall down without a struggle, he has to ask, “Marge, have you ever seen pants do this?”

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For such an unassuming episode, there are a lot of little moments like these that indicate a light touch, and an attention to detail—I credit Odenkirk, whose tenure on Futurama yielded some of the same sorts of laughs. Freed from extraneous distraction, “Super Franchise Me” finds the time for gags to happen in their own time. When Gil, in his typically sweaty job interview, explains that he’s wearing a dead guy’s suit, there’s a beat before he adds, with inexplicable pride, “corpse suit!” When a customer is guilted by Maggie into leaving a tip, he responds, after a pause, to Marge’s “Good baby!” with a sarcastic, “Oh yeah, real good baby.” There’s no set formula for a good Simpsons episode. Sometimes, the craziest premises (see Erik Adams’ review of one of the most insane—and best—classic Simpsons ever from earlier today) are the catalyst, and sometimes it’s an emotional core that spurs an episode to classic status. In the best episodes (I’m thinking “The Summer Of 4 Ft. 2,” among others), it’s a miraculous balance of both. Tonight’s isn’t a classic episode, or even a particularly memorable one. But it’s a funny episode, and one that finds the virtue in telling a story of the Simpsons family with a care for the jokes and a nimble wit. In this late date, the show could do much worse.

Stray observations:

  • I haven’t heard any reason behind the couch gag other than, perhaps, someone at the show really likes Cat Stevens’ Tea For The Tillerman album. Which is fine, since the bit doesn’t go on too long, and the title track heard here really is quite pretty. Plus, the delayed gag where Ralph finally blinks while frozen in mid-swing is the sort of odd detail worth waiting for.
  • Ned, seeing his whirring electric meter: “That’s more power than even I believe in!”
  • Homer, waiting on the fate of his meat hoard, reads both Time Passes and Can’t Focus magazines.
  • “Once again, you’ve taken one of my screw-ups and turned it into food. If only you could do that with Bart.”
  • I love that Marge was so proud to have an offset spatula in her new business.
  • “If you want fairness, work at a Sunglass Hut. This is the sandwich game.”
  • “It’s ‘tell you their real name Tuesday!’”
  • Ned being Ned: “I felt a little guilty for taking back what belonged to me.”
  • As part of their blackmail scheme (involving Homer being scalded and then stabbed in the groin with multiple surgical instruments), Homer’s backstory is: “I was just about to become a million-dollar crotch model!”
  • In a perfectly timed gag, Marge’s earnestly shocked proclamation, “It’s like they don’t care if you make money as long as they make money. What kind of company does that?” is interrupted by a truncated version of the Fox fanfare and logo.
  • Perhaps unable to break with recent tradition completely, the last few minutes are given over to “great moments in sandwich history,” wherein caveman Homer and a similarly slothful giant sloth engage in the slowest pursuit in hunting history. Even here, there’s a neat little twist with Homer not grasping the concept.
  • The news about Jan Hooks’ sudden death still smarts, so the episode’s salute to her (in character as Manjula Nahasapeemapetilon) was most welcome.

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