Every week before I watch these shows, I read the synopses provided by FOX about each new episode, because I take these cartoons seriously, man. Based on the write-ups of tonight's shows, I was expecting a good-to-really-good Simpsons (a Bart and Lisa storyline! Score!), and a ho-hum-to-ugh King Of The Hill (oh God, Enrique AND hipsters? Why, why, why?). Turns out I was 100 percent wrong on both counts.
Actually, the part of tonight's Simpsons that excited me in the preview, the Bart and Lisa story, was quite good. It's been a while since there was a good Bart-Lisa team-up on The Simpsons (or much Lisa time at all, for that matter–I get the impression that a lot of you commenters don't like Lisa plots, but I tend to enjoy them, and I've missed that whiny little overachiever this season). But the episode's other plot line made me realize that if Homer and Marge were actual living actors, they would have zero onscreen chemistry left. All of their recent stories seem to focus on them acting in exact opposition to each other, with varying degrees of zaniness/malevolence, before a vague, last-minute reconciliation that's supposedly meant to reassert how much they love each other. There have been very sweet, even complex, Homer and Marge episodes in the show's history, but rehashing the same formula over and over again has left it more than a little limp. While I did like how it contributed to the episode's overall theme of secrecy, Marge's suspicion of Homer cheating on his diet, and her enlistment of a shady gotcha-type reality show to prove it, seemed ham-fisted and trite (especially compared to other classic "is Homer cheating?" episodes like "Colonel Homer" and "The Last Temptation of Homer"–probably because this plot was at least 200 percent more asinine than those). And that montage of Homer's tryst with a lamb roast in a shady motel was so uncomfortable it actually turned my stomach a little bit–thankfully, it was reprised, with an even higher degree of absurdity, a few moments later. (In case you can't tell, I'm being sarcastic.)
Maybe that's why the Lisa and Bart story line was so much more watchable–its weirdness never crossed the line into awkward lameness (except, perhaps, for that final inexplicable Mystery Movie parody). Even with the specter of a supposedly dead Martin Prince and a suddenly sharp Nelson Muntz investigating the Simpson kids for his murder, there was enough innocent silliness to keep it grounded (Bart's incessant bell-ringing to drown out his guilt, the return of the Happy Little Elves). Of course, the fact that Martin had obviously survived–thanks to a wedgie-resistant waistband and a particularly springy tree–was also a significant factor keeping the whole thing from getting too dark (that and a fabulous slo-mo memorial montage, courtesy of the Springfield Elementary A.V. Club. )
King Of The Hill, on the other hand, managed to prominently feature one of its creepiest auxiliary characters, Enrique, without becoming too cringe-inducing. The last Enrique-intensive storyline, "Enrique-cilable Differences," was probably one of my least favorite episodes ever, simply because he's weird and awkward without being particularly funny about it, like Bill or Dale. At first I was afraid this episode was going to go in a similar direction when Enrique asked Hank to speak at his daughter Inez's quinceanera, despite the fact that he hardly knows the girl. (I do like how Enrique's inexplicable adoration of Hank mirrors Hank's own Strickland-worshiping tendencies.) Thankfully, even though he hovered throughout the episode, Enrique's odd behavior acted more as an accent to the main goings-on, rather than being the focus of the episode.
Hank and Peggy got equal play tonight, with Hank developing a friendship with Inez and an appreciation for her Mexican neighborhood just as Peggy (suddenly in realtor mode again) proceeds to sell it away to giblet-headed hipsters looking for "authenticity." (You knew they were hipsters because they wore scarves and glasses and liked weird music.) Suddenly, rents are going up and they're putting "saaalmon" in the fish tacos, leaving Enrique and his family without affordable housing or a decent lunch. When Enrique drops an awkward bomb at Inez's party, calling out Peggy for selling away his neighborhood, Hank decides to sic the Rainy Street Gang on the neighborhood, driving the hipsters away with jogging suits and promises of American Idol viewing parties. It was a very narrow, singular plot that could've just as easily been pretty damn bad, but I thought it succeeded based on a good ratio of sane Hank to insane everyone else. Peggy was obnoxious without being overblown, and the alley guys and Bobby provided for some throwaway humor.
However, it wasn't the most carefully executed episode: A hell of a lot happened in what was supposed to be a few weeks, the hipster humor was a bit too easy, and HOLY CRAP were Luanne and Lucky really pushing a baby stroller? If I may channel Gob Bluth for a moment, COME ON! But even though the show has gotten a little lazy this season, it's still capable of constructing very solid episodes–even if they're becoming increasingly isolated from the overall series arc/continuity.
The Simpsons, "Dial N For Nerder": B-
King Of The Hill, "Lady and Gentrification": B+
–Seriously, what was that Simpsons ending about? So out of the blue. Someone called me out in the comments last week for bemoaning the "pop-culture riffing" on the show, pointing out that The Simpsons has always included pop-culture reference points. THIS is what I'm talking about when I say "riffing"–throwaway references that have nothing to do with what's happening in the episode. I really, really don't like them. *EDIT* I worded that poorly, I realize now; it's not necessarily that they have nothing to do with the action onscreen, but that they just don't fit with the tone or pace of the story. This felt like such a blunt and tacked-on way to hammer home the subtler, nicer Columbo references throughout the episode. It's not a reference or an homage; it's a straight-up recreation, and it's lazy.
–And SERIOUSLY, did the KOTH producers just shuffle up this season's scripts and let them fall where they may in the schedule? Not a great strategy when one of your show's biggest strengths is its continuity, and also when one of your main characters is FREAKING PREGNANT.