I have to admit, I did a bit of whining this week when I found out that all four FOX shows were new this week; after nearly three months with truncated schedules, I've gotten a bit spoiled, not having to write up four (sometimes any) shows every week. I tell you this not to demonstrate what a lazy little brat I am, but as evidence of the overall quality of tonight's shows: Despite going into tonight's lineup in a bit of a huff, I found my curmudgeonly, critical heart warming to all four of those damn shows. No, they weren't all classics, but each one managed to eke out at least a couple of laughs from my pursed, sneering lips.
I know I've been a little hard on The Simpsons this season (unless you're one of those people who thinks I'm being too easy on the show, in which case, stop confusing me). While I used to be firmly in the "a bad Simpsons is still better than a great anything else" camp, having to write some 400 words on every episode has a way of highlighting a show's faults. And many of those problems were present in tonight's episode. But the vignette format generally has a way of putting those faults in an acceptable, entertaining context. Judging by the comments I've read here, many of you don't care for the "three stories" episodes, so I'm expecting a bit of ire when I say they're generally some of my favorites (at least of the latter-day Simpsons). But I like that these episodes, like tonight's Valentine's-centric "Love, Springfieldian Style," never have time to devolve into confusing plot turns or extended/poorly timed gags. They tend to get in and out, like a good knock-knock joke: set 'em up, knock 'em down, with just a skosh of embellishment to make it interesting. I also like that they allow us to deviate from the standard Simpsons universe without fucking with the show's foundation (which, judging from the response to my post on "That 90s Show," many of you don't care about, but I still find it grating when the show's writers throw out nearly two decades of character development for the sake of a lame gag).
Tonight's vignettes were all wild diversions into fantasy-land (Marge and Homer as Bonnie and Clyde, then as "Sh(L)ady and the V(Tr)amp," then Nelson and Lisa as Sid and Nancy), but were all fun in their novelty. As a product of a "Disney family," I took particular glee in the Lady And The Tramp parody–the Simpsons as dogs! Neat!–though the gassing of Goofy seemed a little, um, Family Guy to me (*ducks*). It also featured what I think may be the first decent song parody we've seen in a long time, of Colin Hay's "Waiting For My Real Life To Begin." I also enjoyed seeing how many ways chocolate could act as a G-rated stand-in for smack in the Sid and Nancy bit–even though my initial reaction to the chocolate shenanigans was to balk, "Oh, they can pretend to kill Goofy but they can't show 10-year-olds doing drugs." Then I realized, "Duh, of course they can't, shut up you nerd-bird," and giggled at Nelson cutting up lines of cocoa powder. The Bonnie and Clyde bit was a bit bland by comparison–and I'm still a little disturbed by the three minutes of dialogue while Homer and Marge are being riddled with bullets–but still managed to sneak in a good Pearl Harbor gag (now there's words I never thought I'd write).
King Of The Hill was also front-loaded with two of my favorite devices: Bill gets a new girlfriend, and Dale has a wild conspiracy theory. The fact that these two well-used plot turns combined into an extension of a long-running KOTH storyline proved to me that, despite a mostly repetitive season, the show's writers aren't completely out of ideas yet. When Bill's new girlfriend ("A woman who is perfect for Bill… ugh, that's a disturbing image," notes Dale) introduces the Rainy Street crew to her kids, Dale is oddly disturbed by her daughter, Kate. One covert DNA test later, he discovers that she and Joseph have the same father. This is of course a brilliant continuation of Dale's "aliens impregnated Nancy" theory as to Joseph's dubious paternity, and brings John Redcorn back into the fold. (I've never loved John Redcorn as a character, but I love the setups he provides for Dale's shenanigans. I also love Dale's blind, enthusiastic bro-love for the man who was boinking his wife for 13 years).
After a season that's been a little too Hank-heavy for my liking, I was delighted to see almost all of the characters (with the exception of Luanne and Lucky) being utilized to relatively equal degrees, and being played to their strengths. Dale and Bill were allowed to digress to their mutually pathetic extremes, with Hank acting as straight man and reeling them in, while Bobby, Peggy, and even Joseph had a silly yet related B-story to keep them in the action. It was also infinitely quotable, thanks mostly to Dale ("I have 85 channels at home, and none of them beats watching Hank use a crescent wrench"). I critiqued last week's episode for seeming too familiar, but I find myself coming back to the same word for this week's episode, this time with approval instead of scorn: All the best elements of the show combined into a believable, interesting continuation of one of the show's ongoing arcs, a satisfying reminder of why those who love the show keep coming back to it.
Oddly enough, the usually tangential Family Guy also returned to an old-school plot this week–a sequel to the fourth-season episode "Peter's Got Woods"–that found Peter having his identity stolen by a revenge-driven James Woods. I always enjoyed the weirdness of Woods' cameo the first go-round, and this episode ratcheted that up a few more degrees (though perhaps crossed my personal line when Woods encouraged Meg to give bulimia a whirl). More so I enjoyed what I've come to think of as the show's meta-moments, when it blatantly makes fun of its own tics. (At first I saw these as kinda-pathetic whining on the writers' part, but now I think of them as a logical progression of the show's humor.) I definitely smirked at Peter's promise that he would return to Lois so he could "set up all the flashbacks just like I used to," and I have to show a little respect to Seth MacFarlane's (I'm assuming) continuing utilization of the Fuck-You Vaudeville Singer, despite everyone's apparent hatred of that gag. There were also two separate instances of "Oh yeah, Brian's a dog," which is probably my favorite stupid-silly Family Guy ongoing gag. The story did begin to drag a little toward the end, though–and yes, I grasp the incongruity of calling out a Family Guy episode for having too much plot–and the aren't-we-cute ending, which basically re-used the original episode's conclusion, didn't have enough panache to make up for its inherent laziness.
American Dad also suffered from the good-gags-meh-story syndrome this week, returning to the Stan-has-a-secret device that we saw, um, three weeks ago ("Oedipal Panties"). My notes for tonight's episode consist almost entirely of silly quotes (some favorites: "I'm glad that whorebug is dead," and "To force a rainbow angers God"), but the plot was pretty standard-issue for American Dad: Francine and Stan have a seemingly trivial conflict that escalates into something far more sinister (usually with the help of a be-wigged Roger) before resolving into a twisted-yet-sorta-sweet ending, while Steve, Haylie, and maybe Klaus, do something wacky in the meantime. It's not a bad formula, though, and it's worked well before this season ("The Vacation Goo," "Frannie 911," "Big Trouble In Little Langly"). However, my two favorite elements of that formula, Roger and the Steve/Haylie/Klaus b-story, were a tad weak this time around. I never thought Roger in a costume wouldn't be hilarious, but his psychiatrist antics were merely amusing this time around. And while I initially enjoyed Steve mourning his murdered bee friend (especially him pouring out honey in memory of the fallen), it wore out its welcome pretty fast. Though the time-out for the show's "1000th Vagina Joke" won back some points (I'll never be able to eat a pomegranate again without thinking of the term "baby cannon").
The Simpsons, "Love, Springfieldian Style": B+
King Of The Hill, "Untitled Blake McCormack": A [This can't be the real episode title, right? But both my DVR and the FOX website have it listed as this.]
Family Guy, "Back To The Woods": B
American Dad, "Widowmaker": B
--My favorite moment of the night, from King Of The Hill, cannot be fully captured in print, so I took the liberty of providing audio of Bill explaining the joys of having children, with an assist from Joseph.
—Family Guy offers further evidence that everyone likes the Manilow, at least a little bit.
—Great visual gag on The Simpsons as the punk-kid's hair wilts into sissy emo bangs.
—Homer makes the worst machine-gun noises I've ever heard.