"Sex, Pies and Idiot Scrapes"/"Dia-Bill-ic Shock"/"Love Blactually"/"1600 Candles"

"Sex, Pies and Idiot Scrapes"/"Dia-Bill-ic Shock"/"Love Blactually"/"1600 Candles"



First off, I want to thank Genevieve for covering this Sunday block last season, and she'll be picking up Pushing Daisies coverage later this week. I'll be taking things from here, and I'm pretty excited. My DVR fills up fast, so in recent years I've only been able to occasionally catch The Simpsons and Family Guy, and I've been forced to neglect King Of The Hill and American Dad. I'm one of those "every conversation could benefit from a few good Simpsons quotes" kinda guys, and most of what I reference took place seasons 3-8 or so; but while I definitely find most of the newer episodes painful to watch (jokes get explained to death, Homer does stupid things for the sake of being stupid, etc.), there's certainly been some improvement in recent years. I feel the same way about Family Guy, though the learning curve has been greatly condensed due to the extended "hiatus" the show took. And to be honest, I pretty much gave up on American Dad's obvious Family Guy rip-off after the first few episodes. But this week has reminded me of one important thing: King Of The Hill, despite little fanfare, is still immensely likable–I'm starting to wonder why I stopped watching in the first place.

But more on that later; first, the ever-frustrating Simpsons kicked off its 20th (!!!) season tonight with an episode set, strangely enough, on St. Patrick's Day. (The Futon Critic has this episode listed as part of season 19 though, perhaps this was a casualty of the strike?) The family is out enjoying the festivities and admiring the green river–caused by the nuclear plant, as Homer points out–when a fight erupts between dueling Northern and Southern Irish parades. Homer's arrested and charged with $25,000 for bail; Marge's cupcakes are stolen by a band of kids and rescued by a gentleman passerby. He tries her sweets, loves them and offers her a job in his bakery. "Me? A professional baker's employee?" Marge wonders aloud, in a moment that had me groaning at its blatancy.

And thus the story splits in two. Homer is bailed out by a bondsman, and finds himself intrigued by Wolf the Bounty Hunter, charged with bringing in clients who skip their court date. (This kind of thing seems to happen often to Homer; plus, how many times has he lost his job now?) He decides to become a bounty hunter for himself, but gets in trouble when taking Snake in. Ned Flanders saves his life, and thus begins yet another attempt to bond the two neighbors.

Meanwhile, Marge is oblivious to the fact that her top-rate sweets are actually being sculpted into erotic baked goods. And of course, she finds out, and gets upset with the bakery owner for lying to her. And of course, he turns her around immediately.

Which brings me to the problem I've always had with the Simpsons since season 9 or so: Who are these people anymore? Is there any character-based reason why they do what they do? If this caricaturey B-story teaches us anything, it's that Marge opposes things that seem morally ambiguous, but is easily swayed by discovering that she's making a difference–all roughly within a 30 second interval. This isn't something about Marge we couldn't have already guessed; her reaction seemed predictable the moment we discovered she was working at an erotic bakery. Her propensity to state the obvious doesn't help: Recall when her boss tries to show her a cake she helped make, done up as an exact replica of one of Dr. Hibbert's body parts. "But it's not the one you're thinking," he warned. "It's his penis." To which Marge replied, "That's exactly what I was thinking!" Well, duh.

Homer's the same way. He and Ned are working just fine until Ned's called in to capture Homer for skipping his court date. In an instant the newfound friendship turns sour, and Ned chases Homer down parkour-style until the pair finds themselves trapped in concrete. Then the healing process can begin. With only precious minutes dedicated to this side of the episode, the progression of Homer and Ned's relationship feels forced. Rather than letting Homer put a taser in his pants and repeatedly shock himself–a gag that was funny the first time, not so much every other time–I found myself wanting to discover something unexpected between the two partners, like we saw back in the day when Ned tried to baptize Bart, or Homer wouldn't leave the Flanders' alone. It's been 20 years, you'd think they'd have figured out new ways to take that story.

On the flip side, I was hugely grateful for the subsequent King Of The Hill. The story was fresher, and much more focused: Bill faints at a carnival after consuming too much junk food (including what I thought sounded actually quite good, in a guilty-pleasure sorta way, a lollipop with a cotton candy "wig" on it) and is told at the hospital that he has diabetes. Attempts to clean up his diet fail, and he finds himself face-to-face with a blunt doctor who says loss of legs is imminent. So Bill–poor, pessimist Bill–decides to live life like he's already lost them and buys a wheelchair.

But one day in the park, Bill meets Thunder, an avid wheelchair polo player and perpetual optimist. He turns Bill around with a spot on his team, a swanky new ride and confidence to finally dance with girls at bars. ("Women find men in wheelchairs non-threatening," he claims. "Suckers.") Things take a turn for the worse when Bill, drunk after a game, accidentally stands up to use the bathroom.

As happy as he was with Thunder, Bill's equally as disappointed when the team kicks him off and Thunder refuses to hang out with him. In a chair, he was part of a supportive group and felt like he could someday be an inspiration to others like him. But walking around, Bill's just as he always was–poor, pessimist Bill.

But unbeknownst to him, Bill made an impression on everyone around him, a nice way to blend the A-story and B-stories together. Peggy decided to pack Bobby healthier lunches and cook vegetarian dinners–a carrot with a "wig" of sprouts, for one dish. And Bobby, despite his best efforts to trade away the seaweed bars he's given, ends up not minding the new lifestyle. Plus, Bill got to kick the doctor's ass, so that must have felt good.

Speaking of breaking out of a rut, this week's Family Guy found Brian, as he usually does, struggling to meet women, then possibly blowing it by sleeping with them too soon. But in a rare move, the episode has Brian actually taking Stewie's advice: Don't sleep with the new atheist girl he meets. It works, I think, because, well, Stewie has a real point here–Brian wouldn't have listened otherwise. So even on this oft-cartoonish show (in more ways than one), I found myself really rooting for the guy.

But all this platonic hanging out has driven her into the arms (and, er, other parts) of Cleveland. And they sleep together, dictating every move out loud, all the time–on TV at a baseball game, in a pastry shop that Brian finds himself in later in the episode. (Second bakery of the evening.) Luckily, the gag ends quickly and we get to the interesting Cleveland-Lorretta stuff shortly thereafter, which leads to the pretty surprising (at least for me) conclusion that the girl Cleveland and Brian were houding was a hound dog herself.

The episode was pretty funny overall–the Family Guy style cutaways mostly worked, including my favorite, the 37-year old woman on a blind date. It's funny that, despite not being around for thatlong, the show gets away with some great meta-commentary, like when Brian and Stewie argue at Lorretta's doorstep about whether or not she's a central-enough character to not hear what Stewie's saying. And the fact that Cleveland and Brian wind up alone, bonding over shared misery and small talk, made for a nice button ending.

And then there was American Dad. Steve has finally hit puberty, and his parents are none-too-pleased. Especially Francine, who in the world's most gross overexaggeration, tries to pack up and escape the impending storm of hormones and insecurity. So in a series of set-ups for pretty straightforward age-related gags, she and Stan use government serums to turn Steve into a toddler, then an old man, then back again. And the fuss over Steve is overshadowing Roger's 1600th birthday ("The big one six double bagel"). It was satisfying to see Steve own his newfound puberty (and pube, singular, for that matter) by hitting on the hottest girl in school with as much charm as he can muster (and I loved his friends' reaction to his new super-cool wardrobe that included "Khakis! A braided belt!), but everything else about the episode felt flat, even for American Dad standards. A collection of throwaway gags does not a memorable episode make.

But in any case, I'm looking forward to watching more, and hearing what you all think throughout.

Grades:

The Simpsons, "Sex, Pies and Idiot Scrapes": B-

King Of The Hill, "Dia-Bill-ic Shock": A-

Family Guy, "Love Blactually": B+

American Dad, "1600 Candles": C+

Stray observations:

- Okay, there was another American Dad thing I forgot: the fact that old Steve had "pendulous nads" made me laugh like I was in junior high.

- Nice duet by Flanders and Homer in the car to Christian rock band AD/BC: "Kindly deeds, done for free!"

- No matter what happens on Family Guy, the show can always milk humor from having Brian simply act like a dog, like when he eats the bunny on his date.

- Also enjoyed Dale calling out Winnie the Pooh as a diabetic, plus his own meta-moment when he's amazed none of them get tan standing out by the fence all the time.

- In addition to The Simpson's odd St. Pats referencing, Brian at the end of Family Guy says, "Summer's coming on…" I'm starting to wonder if all these episodes were holdover strike casualties.