I think it speaks to my very long tenure as a Simpsons and King Of The Hill fan that I I'm starting to really enjoy new episodes whose plots retread familiar territory. Wait, what? Yes. Bear with me.
By this point in both shows' runs, it honestly feels that they've covered all the ground they were meant to cover, story-wise. This ain't Lost, this ain't The Wire, these characters and situations have really developed as far as they were meant to, 19 and 12 seasons in, respectively, so when the writers reach for a new twist on the old familiar, it can often (though not always) feel disingenuous. I realize from a critical standpoint it may seem odd to praise these shows for rehashing older material, but the fact is, I enjoy (in the vegging-on-the-couch-in-my-jammies-and-eating-chips sort of way) seeing another take on Lisa's latest fixation and another visit from a Souphanousinphone in-law than I do, oh, I don't know, learning how Homer invented grunge. Does anyone else feel this way, like it's better to ride out the receding waves of these long-in-the-tooth shows than to struggle to find anything new and innovative to get excited about? Or have I just been jaded by spending this season seeking out the faults in shows that I've loved for years?
So yes, it was a Lisa Learns A Lesson night tonight on The Simpsons. Upon discovering that she has "naturally perfect posture" (is that a thing people have?), Llewellyn Sinclair, I mean, Chaz Busby, enrolls Lisa in his ballet academy, where she quickly discovers the secret to all ballerinas' (and models, and actors, and writers) success: deadly, deadly nicotine. As is Lisa's wont, she faces a personal crisis when she discovers that secondhand smoke renders her a better dancer. Further complicating matters is Marge's instant ballet-mania and Homer and Bart's discovery of her new vice. There was also some nonsense with beef jerky and raccoons over in the Homer-Bart camp, though what initially seemed like throwaway side-hijinks worked its way into the main story when their new raccoon friends steal the dancers' sin-sticks mid-performance, leading to a silly climax and a Lisa Speech. Was it original and instantly memorable? As Mrs. Krabappel would say, "Hah!" No, it was exceedingly familiar, but it provided the framework for some pretty decent gags, from Marge's box of stethoscopes and shattered dreams to the fiending ballerina trying to smoke the "No Smoking" sign. Sure, they weren't all winners (Apu's crowbarred-in cameo), but the lack of a distracting, huh-inducing plot made it easier to sit back and enjoy a good ol' fashioned Simpsons Quotable ("Homer, I'm going to become a dancer!" "Go-go or boring?" "Boring!").
Now to throw a kink in the whole familiarity-breeds-success question: King Of The Hill has been treading water this season with one rehashed plot after another, to mostly underwhelming effect (hooray, Hank fixed everything, again, snore). With a show like KOTH, which distinguishes itself by its attention to plot and pacing more than its fellow Sunday-night shows, it's frustrating to see the storylines being phoned in. A lot of you have expressed disappointment with this season in the comments, characterizing it as an undignified, wheezing end to a great show. And I share that concern, to a degree–I'm getting pretty fed up with the ol' Hank vs. Jackasses routine. But, on the other hand, working within the old, familiar territory has led to some pretty great gags this season. This episode wasn't the best example of this, as it was a little light on the laughs, but it was still funny in a way that I can only describe as "comfortable."
Tonight's episode was the second Souphanousinphone-centered plot of the season, indicating that perhaps the writers are realizing they've wrung pretty much all the indignation out of Hank possible at this point. But it still took on another familiar, yet slightly less worn KOTH trope: Kahn gets humbled. While the Hank-vs.-Jackasses formula can lead to some pretty wild and weird fluxuations, you pretty much know what you're getting with a Kahn story: Kahn is a boastful jackass ("Go home! Eat some butter!"), Kahn is humiliated by someone/something he fears/admires (Minh's poetry-reciting warlord of a father), reacts to said humiliation in asinine way (becoming a karaoke superstar) before being reeled back in by either Minh or Hank and resuming his jerky ways. If you enjoy Kahn storylines, which I do, tonight's episode was funny in a familiar way–ridiculously accented outbursts, Hank-style incredulity ("That's asinine. Work and home were intended to be enjoyed separately."), and some supporting silliness from the rest of the cast (Peggy and Bobby's competition for "bragging rights"). Sure, it's kinda disappointing that the writers seem to have run out of ways to manipulate these great characters, but I have to say I don't entirely mind seeing more of what works. Do I want to see three more seasons of it? No. But I can appreciate that I'm still able to enjoy one of my favorite shows in a slightly different, yet oddly comforting way.
Now, I'm well aware that this could all be the result of some animation-induced fatigue–you'd be surprised what thinking too hard about cartoons can do to one's mind–and I might be back to bitching about these formulaic old shows next week. It's my blog, I can do that. But if anything, writing about these shows has forced me to consider how I watch them, and why I enjoy what I enjoy. So I'm asking you guys, not out of defensiveness but genuine curiosity: Is it so bad for a show to fall back on its history if it's a good, solid history that still provokes laughs, if not necessarily excitement?
The Simpsons, "Smoke On The Daughter": B
King Of The Hill, "Pour Some Sugar On Kahn": B
--I have to express my appreciation for the opening bit on tonight's Simpsons. As someone who has lived through Potter-mania and survived to tell the tale, I took more than a little bit of glee in the Angelica Buttons gags.
--Watching Kahn sing karaoke, I couldn't help but be reminded of Wing, who I was, um, I guess lucky enough to see at this year's SXSW.
--I was a little confused by the Nine Rivers Country Club karaoke extravaganza. Do thinks like this really exist? Do people actually enjoy watching others perform karaoke? I thought it was just something you had to suffer through while waiting to foist your own caterwauling onto an cringing audience.