"How The Test Was Won"/"Master Of Puppets"/"Live And Let Fry"

"How The Test Was Won"/"Master Of Puppets"/"Live And Let Fry"

Well, that was a close one, huh? I turned on my TV at 7pm like a diligent TV Clubber to find NASCAR coverage still going strong after 19 hours or so, and the thought crossed my mind that this most mindless of "sports" would eclipse all the cartoons for the night. But thank the lord for Seth MacFarlane's negligence—his lack of a new Family Guy (again!) saved the day for FOX, allowing tonight's new Simpsons, King Of The Hill, and American Dad to cram into a quick hour-and-a-half slot before the local news at 9pm.

But when it comes to The Simpsons, I wonder… why bother? I'm sorry, but "How The Test Was Won" was about as low as things get these days—the worst of the season by far, and quite possibly one of the worst episodes I've watched in this brave "new" era of yellow people. It all starts with the premise: Springfield Elementary has standardized testing on its horizon, so Superintendent Chalmers hides the kids he thinks will do poorly (doing up a school bus to look like a helicopter, and claiming they're going to a party) and throws Principal Skinner in for good measure. We saw roughly the same thing a few weeks ago, when King Of The Hill covered  testing ground—and sure, it wasn't exactly the same, but there have been quite a bit of coincidences happening between shows lately (the hall of fame repeat last week, for example). You'd think with this group of shows, that are all similar in tone and marketed as a unit, that they'd at least have a rough idea of what the other is planning, and try to avoid it. But then again, The Simpsons has been running for 20 years, so there are only a handful of things they still have yet to tackle.

Regardless, now that there are four commercial breaks during each episode, I'll say it again: Nothing happens. This week was particularly thin, as there were three (!) stories being told in what amounted to, probably, 18 or so minutes. In one, Skinner and the malcontents find themselves stranded without a bus in Capitol City, and they do everything in their power to get back; this mostly includes rescuing Ralph Wiggum from certain danger (riding a garbage barge, pianos raining from the sky), with every scene ending on a cliffhanger, resolving it, then bringing up another. In another, Lisa gets stage fright working on the test, and struggles to answer even the first question. Then rounding out the thing, Marge asks Homer to mail the insurance form, which he doesn't do; then when he remembers, he finds himself trying to avoid injury until 3pm, when presumably everything will be covered again. And in each one, that's all that happens. It'd be easy to forgive the show for going in so many directions if the gags were plentiful, but other than the Footloose inspired ending, nothing worked. Skinner belabored a "number two," is-he-talking-about-poop-or-pencils thing until it was dead and gone, and Homer stabbing Burns brought on the blood spout previously seen in the episode where Lenny got a penny to the head. Ugh.

King Of The Hill wasn't much better, though this one had some great potential. It starts when Hank learns that Dale takes his wife out every Friday night for a date, and decides to do the same with Peggy. Only problem is, Friday is game night in the Hill household, something Bobby looks forward to. Bobby agrees to let this one slide, in exchange for a ride back from the mall at 9pm sharp. But the Hills are so into the evening they are having at poor man's Olive Garden (seriously, how much did they pay for that?) that they completely lose track of time. Nothing major, but it's enough to send Bobby over the edge. Here's where it gets interesting: Peggy realizes the only chance she has to make good with her son is to peg the whole thing on Hank and his 20-minutes-required chocolate dessert; Hank, meanwhile, decides to enter the bidding war for Bobby's affection by showering him with gifts, and calling out Peggy for her decision to get coffee at the restaurant. Game on.

Once I saw this coming, I got pretty excited. Hank and Peggy rarely ever really square off, and this turn had a lot of potential, particularly once they realize what the other is trying to do. But instead, the episode takes a weird turn, and the parents team up and go the other way—not leaving Bobby's side, not even for a second. (Peggy even sings to Bobby while he's in the bathroom.) This, of course, makes Bobby angry; he admits he was playing the parents off each other, and both parties strike a balance of time apart/time together. My problem with this ending, though, is that it's so predictable—and King Of The Hill is certainly not a show that would benefit from more predictability. I would have liked to see the episode focus more on the rift between the parents and how it affects their relationship to Bobby, rather than having its second half rely solely on ridiculous examples of how lame the more senior Hills can be in public: "This is my son Bobby, and I love him so much!"

Yet there was, and is, hope. American Dad was stupendous, for a number of reasons. Actually, just one reason. And his name is Klaus Heisler.

Heisler!

Hey, that's my name!

(I don't know what it is, but Heisler stuff crops up all over TV in the oddest places. For example, on My Name Is Earl, they drink exclusively Heisler Beer, which is a brand found only in the show's universe. Not sure why they choose that name, but after a quick Google search, I've learned that there's someone named Keith Heisler who writes for American Dad, which I'm sure is where this comes from.)

Really, though, Klaus was a welcome addition to tonight's episode; he so rarely gets solid screen time. He and Roger embark on a scheme to claim Klaus's inheritance—he can't do it, on account of being a fish and all, and Roger is just the master of disguise he needs. We learn more about Klaus's method of teaching ("Maybe I should tell you all this stuff first"), and see just how invested Roger gets into his characters (his absolute disappointment at not needing to tell more childhood stories was priceless). All in all, this is the kind of segments these animated shows should use as their B-stories—just the right balance of new, fun stuff for regulars, plus one-liners even newbies will get.

The rest of the episode involves Stan, and his always questionable ethics. Francine has purchased a deep fryer, and the family is delighting in all the delicious, fried goodness. But then the town has to go and ban trans fat, so nothing is tasting as it should. And even after lecturing Hayley about how important it is to uphold the law—even if you think it's dumb—he decides to circumvent this new mandate because, well, he thinks it's dumb. He begins driving to an out-of-town grocer to buy his fat, but Turlington, back from his extended spa stint, is watching the road and searching every car. Stan gets the brilliant idea of enlisting Steve and his bicycle for the sneakery, which works like a charm, until Steve has to avoid Turlington by eating an entire shipment—quite possibly one of the most disgusting American Dad turns ever.

I enjoy this show so much more than the others because, as flimsy as it may be, there's always a singular, undiluted story that serves as an anchor for each joke. The other shows in this animation line-up have got years on American Dad, but this show is quietly playing the game much better than its senior compatriots.

Grades:
The Simpsons "How The Test Was Won": C-
King Of The Hill "Master Of Puppets": C+
American Dad "Live And Let Fry": A-

Stray observations:

  • "It's time for 60 years of kegel exercises to pay off."
  • "What happened to pitching a tent?" "That was part of pervert awareness!"

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