The was something very reassuring about this episode's couch gag on The Simpsons. Mostly, I think it was the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner reference in the opening sequence. It was a great reminder of the early, innocent days of cartoon comedy, where smashing into a painted wall was all you needed (or wanted) for a laugh. But the couch gag was able to give the joke a smart, modern Simpsons twist by having Homer crash through the painted couch while the rest of the family was able to comfortably sit. It was a genius bit, combining your basic pratfall with something far more surreal. And that, to a great extent, defines what The Simpsons is all about.
But an episode of The Simpsons does not live by its opening couch gag alone. "Smoke on the Daughter" started very, very strongly, with jokes hitting their mark almost nonstop. But after the first act, the pacing slowed, the funny stuff became more spread out and the overall result was a decent, though not entirely satisfying, episode.
Fictional preteen female wizard Angelica Button made another appearance in this episode (I believe it's just her second), and the results were hilarious. The Angelica Button series of books is, of course, a parody of the Harry Potter series, and in this episode, The Simpsons delivered a send up of fans lining up at midnight to get their hands on the latest edition. This segment had everything you could want: numerous Springfieldians dressed as their favorite Angelica Button character, Skinner complaining that the line should be a "spoiler-free zone," and Comic Book Guy "flying" his broom away in embarrassment. All the necessary jokes were here, from the frenzy of the crowd trying to get the book, to reading said book as quickly as possible. The Simpson family finished (and discarded) theirs on the car ride home.
But this fantastic opening had nothing to do with the remainder of the episode. Instead, focus turned to Marge's desire to become a ballerina -- it was a goal she had stored away in her Shattered Dreams Box, which she kept in the Disappointment Closet. But when Marge didn't qualify and Lisa was touted as having the balance of a natural, the focus shifted to Lisa. At that point, it appeared the theme of the episode was going to be Marge living her dream through Lisa. Though there were a number of such references (my favorite being the line "Lisa the dancing Marge girl"), the actual plot revolved around Lisa thinking she needed to smoke to stay focused and thin and be a better ballerina. The smoking storyline walked the line between funny and preachy, though the preachiness was diminished a bit by the fact that everyone pretty much agrees that smoking is bad for you.
Meanwhile, for no clear reason, Homer and Bart had befriended a family of raccoons who had stolen all of their beef jerky. Yeah, I know. That sentence doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The beef jerky storyline was quite weak, saved only slightly by the fact that the raccoons resembled the members of the Simpson clan. Tying the two stories together was a stretch -- Homer used daddy raccoon to steal the ballerinas' cigarettes -- and was ultimately a let down.
Some of the other highlights from this installment:
Apu and Flanders. I have barely seen these two characters this season, so it was good to have them back if only for a short period of time. I like how Ned was blacking out all of the 'hecks' and 'darns' from the Hardy Boys book.
Bart rising up from the piles of sweaty leg warmers in a parody of Martin Sheen's Captain Willard character from Apocalypse Now.
Chazz Busby = Bob Fosse -- the great musical choreographer who directed the Academy Award winner All That Jazz.
Overall, this was an episode that began very strongly, starting with a classic couch gag and a lot of quality, rapid-fire jokes skewering fan culture, but when the main story began, the comedic pacing just couldn't hold up. There was still plenty to make me laugh, it was just more evenly spread out, making this a good episode, but not great.