A quick pace, a brace of committed and funny guest actors, and a smidgen of heart combine to make “The Girl Code” an unassuming but above-average episode of The Simpsons. While the flaws therein are so endemic to the show at this point as to be as dull in description as they are disheartening in practice, a little care in the jokes and the performances goes a long way these days.
First to the dull/disheartening stuff. In theory, the very longevity which threatens to make The Simpsons prone to rehashing old material is the thing that makes an episode-long arc like Lisa’s invention of a new computer app that shows you the consequences of your online actions before you hit send so easy to tell. A quarter-century of storytelling and character work can be an asset, not a hinderance, and Lisa’s well-explored characteristics—her feminism, her insecurity, her smarts, and her essential decency—all spark both feelingly and humorously throughout her storyline here. It’s just too bad that the episode gets sidetracked onto another, less-promising story along the way.
Naturally, Lisa would respond to her new female computer coding teacher’s brash, take-no-crap confidence and genuine praise for Lisa’s skills. And of course she’d just as powerfully respond to the fact that her newly self-aware program Conrad (short for “consequences eradicator”) is afraid to undertake the enormous public responsibilities its impending unveiling will entail. And while we can argue about how far afield the show’s reality travels by having Lisa essentially crack the secret to artificial intelligence, the show’s elastic world has always lived and died by the inviolable rule that, if it’s funny enough, then it’s not too much. Here, Lisa’s journey to the brink of Silicon Valley success and “Steve Wozniak craziness” (both subjects of middling jokes tonight) is couched comfortably and humorously in who Lisa is.
Those two outstanding guest performances aren’t doing the story any harm, either. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson is the perfect choice for Quinn, the computer teacher who unashamedly latches onto Lisa as the only girl in Springfield Elementary’s coding class. Firstly, no one is better than vastly underrated comic actress Olson at hurling out nimbly filthy insults—even in primetime, the way she spits out phrases like “dongle donkeys” is hilariously uncompromising. And Quinn—brushing aside Martin’s (little) boys’ club insults (“A woman? I thought this was coding, not web design”) by literally hurling poor Milhouse, desk and all, right out of the classroom (“Someone send me their nooootes!”) is a solid role model, even as the episode (credited to Rob LaZebnik) keeps her comically blinkered enough to be more than just a pillar of sisterhood solidarity. Encouraging Lisa to express herself via a stereotypical “punky coder girl” makeover, she advises, “Being tough comes from the inside. First step—change your outside.” LaZebnik’s script keeps a nicely spiky take on Quinn and her all-woman (but for “token male” Comic Book Guy) coder crew spinning through the episode—they’re great at what they do, but their banding together comes with a generous side of hidebound didacticism. (When Comic Book Guy complains that literally everything he says offends them, one coder asks, “Who are you calling ‘them’?”)
Stephen Merchant is used to perfection as well, his signature awkward vocal verbal style finding a home in Lisa’s BBC-inspired Conrad, a Jeeves-esque advisor whose sentience can’t hide his stereotypically “British” insecurity. (“We didn’t even program him to stammer,” marvels an impressed Quinn.) Throughout, Merchant and Yeardley Smith make a great team, their matching intelligence and self-doubt making sweet, silly music. (After Conrad begs, “Don’t ignore me like I was just some update from Adobe,” Lisa muses, “Only I could create a program more neurotic than I am.”) And while the episode’s bafflingly inessential B-story (we’ll get there) means that Lisa’s foray into the tech world is truncated, Merchant, like Olson, brings his all to his part, making Conrad’s final summation before Lisa frees him into the cloud (“Humans need to learn among themselves to think before they post… You’re on the verge of becoming complete and utter wankers”) all the funnier because Merchant makes Conrad so vivid. There’s no guarantor of success with Simpsons guest stars—sometimes a great actor and/or hilarious comedian comes across flat and stiff. Having two such talented performers as Merchant and Olsen both nailing their parts lifts “The Girl Code” up quite a bit.
Which is good, as Homer—fired once Marge’s “Facelook” caption about Homer’s melting ice cream cone (“Meltdown at the nuclear plant”) finds its way to Mr. Burns—gets shunted off to a tossed-off job washing dishes at a Greek restaurant. Again, it’s fine that Homer’s never mentioned this “favorite former job” before—except that there’s not much meat on the bones, so to speak, and that it takes away from a Lisa story that could have been great with a little more time to breathe. Instead, the writers just dust off their Greek jokes for some lazy if affectionate ethnic humor, as Homer sprouts extra body hair, people do Greek folk dances and yell “Opa!” a lot, and everyone makes fun of the Greek economy. (Marge reveals that his paycheck of 2000 drachma is equal to “zero dollars.”) Still, as far as fleeting B-stories go, there’s enough connective tissue to the main narrative here—Marge’s picture leads to Homer having to take the dishwasher job leads to Lisa inventing Conrad. And there’s nothing especially mean-spirited about Homer’s Hellenic hiatus, as he genuinely comes to appreciate his new coworkers’ lusty love of life, “non-sexual guy-kissing,” and ouzo (“liquorice-flavored gasoline”). And that’s some nifty wrapping-up, as Homer labels the episode’s necessary return to the status quo (thanks to Conrad’s grateful hacking getting Homer’s old job back) as a literal deus ex machina.
- In his doodle on the report to the nuclear regulatory officials, Homer draws himself dunking on Frankenstein’s monster, which is weirdly specific enough to be funny.
- Not a lot of Marge in the episode, but the slow reveal that her effulgent praise of Smithers’ crafting skills is all a scheme to get Homer off the hook ends in a stellar Marge-ism. (“Like I would ever have glue soak-through.”)
- Mr. Burns is apparently throwing a birthday party for his hounds (of “release the” fame). Guests are advised to bring meat.
- “Siri, tell Amazon to drone me a beer.”
- Quinn has a “SUDO” tattoo. (And yes, smarties, I had to look it up.)
- “I was asleep! That shouldn’t happen by the way, you should look into that.”
- Among the online embarrassments Conrad claims to be able to prevent: a work picture of the Squeaky-Voiced Teen (aka, Jeremy Freedman) licking a stack of taco shells, Selma taking a nude selfie with only poor Jub-Jub obscuring her breasts, Nazi costume parties at the “Museum Of Tolerance,” Carl posting a photo of himself firing off a bazooka while supposedly on medical leave, and lots of confederate flag birthday cakes. (Oh, and Bob Belcher, whose burger of the day is destined to offend little people.)
- Homer, aghast at the coders in his living room: “Computers? Spacey weirdos? Backslashes?!”
- Burns, aghast at the number of likes Marge’s photo has received: “Fifty-five? That’s a baker’s half-hundred!”
- When Burns disdains Marge’s caption, he exclaims, “Wordplay is for crosswords and Kazurinskys,” which I can only assume is a reference to playwright, character actor, and former SNL-er Tim Kazurinsky? Genuinely hope there isn’t a more rational explanation for that joke, as the reference is obscure enough to make me laugh.
- Sideshow Mel, expressing his appreciation for Conrad: “I’d pay a fortune for that app—$1.99!”
- The Crush Crunch Epic Hack Disruption Dynamic Convention Dispruting Award for Achievement In Disruption is given out by Professor Frink, naturally.
- I can’t think of a single joke where someone on The Simpsons interacts with an “our world” picture or figure that’s ever made me do anything but roll my eyes (with the exception of the end of the 3-D Homer “Treehouse Of Horror,” just because it was so jarring at the time). Here, Homer’s pinup photo of the actual Elizabeth Warren did nothing to break that streak, coming across, as such gags always do, random for the sake of random. It’s not so much that they break the show’s reality as they seem the work of writers who care less about the show’s reality than the audience does.
- Apologies for the lack of high-res illustrations, everyone. Fox—apparently taking that holiday TV hiatus thing right into 2016—simply didn’t post any promo pics for this episode. Assuming they snap out of it for next week, there’ll be plenty of crisp yellow in the next review.