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"Lisa The Drama Queen"/"Chimdale"

Welcome back, everyone, to another edition of Fox Sunday Animation Good Times Variety Blog. I trust everyone had happy, restful holidays/New Years's/inaugurations. Me? It's been so long, I almost forgot these shows were still on the air. A few weeks ago, I decided to check and see when duty would once again call, so I headed to The Futon Critic and looked up, oh, King Of The Hill—you know, something in the middle of the line-up. Nothing till February. Curious, I checked again, this time with Family Guy, and the same story held. I think I would have missed tonight's Simpsons and American Dad completely had I not spent a good deal of time this weekend changing all my scheduled DVR recordings to tape HD channels (a long awaited upgrade in these parts). "Crisis" averted.

And as much as I've ragged on The Simpsons in past entries, it felt good to return to Springfield after so much time away—not to mention with tonight's halfway decent episode. It starts when Homer drops off the kids at the Springfield Rec Center ("A place to be dropped off at"): Bart goes to kung-fu class and is duly forgotten, and Lisa winds up in a painting studio, where a fellow classmate is being chewed out by teacher for flaunting her creative side with wild abandon. Always the free spirit, Lisa finds herself fast friends with this girl Juliet (voiced by actress Emily Blunt). Lisa is obviously thrilled, as she now has a buddy who will take her to folk art museum exhibits and pen a fantasy novel about fictional kingdom Equalia; Marge is also pleased because, well, for the first time in a while, Lisa is doing things normal girls do—namely, "have a friend."

Two things get in the way. First: Juliet's life isn't nearly as perfect as Lisa expects it to be, despite all the culture and scholarship-free private schooling. Turns out, Juliet uses her right-brain side to escape the normal preteen grouses she harbors towards her father. So she thusly ropes Lisa into the fantasy world of Equalia, and the pair whisks away to an abandoned castle-shaped restaurant to hang with imaginary faeries. Lisa can't say no—she never does anything halfway.

Eventually, Lisa wises up to the fact that Juliet is probably not the best influence—and that she's very demanding when it comes to spending time together. It's understandable that Lisa would want to hang out with Juliet so much—she's excited about having a best friend—and Juliet with Lisa—nuts—but we really see a lot tonight, don't we? Perhaps the writers of the show were insinuating… more than just friendship, if you know what I mean. Like, okay, did they really have to show the girls dancing together dressed as princesses and to a song about romance? Plus, the countless—countless, I tell ye!—shots of hand holding. Friends, or friends? Surely, this is not a big deal, but I for one didn't think the episode benefited from any, um, ambiguity.

But thankfully, this was a fun episode for Homer who wasn't distractingly dumb tonight. As is evident by his scene quoting the specifics of UN proceedings, he needs to be all-too-casually brilliant more often.

Tonight's American Dad was the other side of the coin: Lisa was perfectly okay embracing the life of an outcast so long as she had a partner in crime; Steve felt the same way, but his brother-in-arms never came through. See, Steve receives a diagnosis of scoliosis from his doctor, and is forced to wear a brace his doctor refers to as the "chick magnet" ("ironically of course… girls aren't gonna want that"). He's immediately ostracised at school, even from his own friends. So, dejected, he turns to Stan for support and a lecture about how it's what's on the inside that counts.

But Stan's got a secret—after taking experimental acne medicine in college, he was rendered permanently bald, and now wears a toupée no one knows about. Will he face the world as he truly is, to give his son the courage to do the same? Only in theory: Stan returns from the office, crying about the horrible names, like "Leukemia Skywalker," he was called. In reality it was all a ruse for Steve's benefit. Stan is shallow, man, and refuses to let anyone know the truth.

This episode works for a number of reasons. Because the rest of the crew is off on a spa weekend, we get a good chunk of uninterrupted Stan/Steve screentime, showcasing Stan's supreme subbornness and Steve's fondness for outwitting everyone around him. They're a natural foil for one another, and the ensuing race to the spa—in which Stan steals a car from a woman in a wheelchair and Steve has ribs with an antisemite—is one for the ages. The Roger, Francine, and Hayley spa stuff, while not very plot-driven, provides enough humor to stand on its own (the whole Nickelback exchange, while wildly lame, was great).

My only complaint comes in the form of the spa detective stuff—special guest voice Forest Whitaker. Sure, they probably had to tack that character on to give Mr. Academy Award something to do, but every time he comes on screen, Roger has to hide Hayley in some new way. By the time he's dunking her in the mud bath, it became clear enough was enough. But aside from that minor hiccup, this was a well-honed American Dad with a satisfying ending to boot.

The Simpsons "Lisa The Drama Queen": B-
American Dad "Chimdale": B+

Stray observations:

- The more Groundskeeper (er, Doctor) Willie flashbacks, the better.

- Nice to see little jokes thrown into The Simpsons for good measure, like Homer's use of the "Ned" mug.

- L'chayim, Dolph.

- "Oh, I think I raped a guy."

- Okay, seriously, how is it possible that any of those Pink Panther 2 ads are in any way enticing?