When I unfavorably compared this season of The Simpsons to Bob’s Burgers last week, I had no idea that “Hardly Kirk-ing” would feature an alternative take on one of the latter show’s funniest episodes, which aired just three weeks ago.
On Bob’s Burgers, Louise intentionally turns Gene into a mini version of Bob, bald spot and all, just to see what kind of havoc it would cause. On The Simpsons, Bart accidentally discovers that when he shaves Milhouse Van Houten’s head (trying to repair the damage after spraying his hair with an epoxy gun), his poor sap of a best friend looks just like his dad, maybe the only father in Springfield more pathetic than Homer. All it takes is a suit, a tight necktie to lower Milhouse’s voice, and some paint cans as makeshift stilts, and Bart has built his own Kirk Van Houten, ready to do adult things like renting, driving, and crashing trucks.
The boy-as-man plot on Bob’s Burgers resulted in some great “family-gathers-in-a-room-and-goes-crazy scenes,” as Rowan Kaiser wrote in his review, with each character acting delighted and/or confused in distinct ways. The Simpsons hasn’t been strong on family dynamics lately, and the Milhouse Man plot mostly sticks to sight gags and dark, uncomfortable humor. “I can reach the poisons now!” Milhouse says when he’s on stilts. He says something nice to his clueless mother and gets a little bit of physical affection, causing him to lament to Bart, “I wish my dad could have been here to see my parents kiss.” When Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse Man go to a condo-buying seminar to get free food, a real estate agent interrupts her pitch to make a pass at the 10-year-old. (“Looking for a casual hook-up?” “Yeah, for my Thomas The Tank Engines!” “Ooh, I love how I don’t know exactly what you’re saying.”) This comes after a couple of jokes about sex with minors on last week’s Spuckler Family-centric episode.
We’re still a long way past Simpsons episodes with emotional resonance, but plain weirdness works better than the constant cutaways and pop-culture-dropping of last week’s episode. Milhouse is not an overused character, and he still has kind of a Charlie Brown quality that allows us to see humor in his adult-like, well-articulated neuroses, so that it doesn’t feel as if we’re laughing at an actual little boy.
Still, before he transforms into his father, he tells Bart, “I couldn’t get through a day without Doctors Oz, Phil, and Gupta.” That line about the daytime TV stars could have been given to Manny on Modern Family (maybe even Brick on The Middle), and it would have come off as a more affectionate poke at the prematurely adult character, as opposed the “isn’t he a freak?” tone that can be tough for a cartoon to get past.
The subplot of the episode goes back to a frequent Simpsons theme, as Marge tries to wean Maggie off insipid children’s DVDs (the “Baby Poindexter” series) and television shows. She drags the family to a family bookstore (the CLOSING IN THREE WEEKS banner is a nice reminder that it’s 2013), and Homer gets hooked on find-the-hidden-object books meant for pre-schoolers. Nothing new here, but it’s an opportunity to bring out the pleasant running gag in which Homer puts on dignified, half-moon reading glasses to read something like Where’s Waldo?
This episode was followed by the five-minute Simpsons short “The Longest Daycare,” which was released theatrically in 2012. The dialogue-free cartoon puts Maggie in the Ayn Rand School For Tots, where she tries to save a butterfly from being crushed by the sadistic, unibrow Baby Gerald. There are some images that would be fun on the big screen, notably the hundreds of tiny bugs that jump off Gerald (and into your face!) as he goes through the “lice detector.”
- Joke most likely to have come from the Simpsons writers watching TV, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style: In a documentary show about ice fishermen, one says, “This has been our way of life since we were pitched the idea by reality show producers.”
- Homer likes the Baby Poindexter videos that are nothing but shapes floating across the screen: “Finally, a kid’s show that isn’t trying to sell me something. Which reminds me: We need to order more rectangles.”
- Bart and Milhouse Man make a stop at Moe’s: “We’d like two milks, and then you can tell us where babies come from.”
- The bullies outside Apu’s Quickie Mart may have come up with an alternative to rock-paper-scissors: fist-switchblade-tarantula.