(Photo: Fox)

Writing The Simpsons must be incredibly hard. Hell, writing about The Simpsons is hard. There’s just so much of it to draw from, to amplify, to ignore, to reference, to try not to repeat. And the “not as good as it used to be” chorus can’t be the most encouraging soundtrack to the task—it’s one thing to have to live up to ten or so seasons of one of the best and most culturally influential TV series ever, and still another to have the world dismissively warning that you never will.

But The Simpsons is still The Simpsons, as hard as it is to remember some seasons. These characters, this world, they’re all still waiting for the right people to look at the pieces and assemble them into what they can still be, dammit. Who are the right people? If I had to make a checklist of attributes, they’d be those writers who recognize the show’s history without feeling daunted by it. People who get that the show’s limitations as a world where nothing ever really changes are actually part of the show’s thematic strengths. Writers who delight in mining the series’ ridiculously long run for jokes and character moments without seeming to shout, “Look how clever I am!” It’s tempting to say that loving the show is the prime quality for a writer to have, but I think it’s more than that. A great contemporary Simpsons writer wants to show us how great The Simpsons still is, and how much he or she still loves it.

“The Last Traction Hero” is credited to longtime Simpsons writer and producer Bill Odenkirk, and it’s a really good episode of The Simpsons. Like his fine, low-key “Super Franchise Me” from a few years ago, Odenkirk builds a story around the emotional heart of the characters, finds funny angles on old jokes, and populates his script with delightfully weird touches that make “The Last Traction Hero” plain funny from start to finish. There’s nothing flashy about it. It’s just a fine episode of The Simpsons whose virtues appear effortless because of how well it just clicks into place in the show’s world.

The setup gives us some signature Homer rashness, as he—recalling that Mr. Burns is away on his anesthetized-animal hunting trip with his cronies from the Order of the Knights of St. Caucasian—steals not only Burns’ plum parking spot, but his life as well. Naturally, Homer is not thinking things through (“Quick now, before I think things through!,” he urges himself), and all the fun of trying on Burns’ suits, being spooked by his creepy executive bathroom/lair, recommissioning his statue into a Homer statue, and the like, eventually sees him plummeting through Burns’ trusty office trap door. (I especially appreciated the episode taking the time to have Homer discover Burns’ elaborately pro-Burns animatronic tiki bar, the sort of eccentrically patient joke that the show can pull off so memorably.) And, since the current incarnation of the device is under construction, Homer winds up in a full upper-body cast, nursed by Marge (and her hanging halo of remotes, beer, and pizza), and taunted by Bart. Whose teasing claim that he’s written something “beginning with ‘f’ and ending in ‘ck’ unreadably on Homer’s chest turns out to say “Father good luck,” the sort of half-sweet thing that makes Bart entertainingly Bart. (To be fair, he does drop a tarantula down Homer’s cast later on.)

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There’s some eye-pleasing and inventive animation all through these sequences, whether it’s the Rube Goldbergian path of the errant golf shot that drops Homer down the trap door, or the ping-ponging violence of his descent down the chute itself, a painful journey of freeze-frame jokes and vivid character modeling and sound. Also, Homer’s blinkered point of view in his cast makes for some uniquely entertaining angles and visual gags.

Homer’s enfeeblement leads gracefully to the emotional core of the episode, as Homer finds Marge’s attempts to keep him entertained (via yarn-balling and puzzles) boring, and Marge, feeling unappreciated, turns to the visiting Smithers for someone to commiserate with. Smithers has been dispatched to get Homer agree not to sue Burns for his most recent villainy, and, as Marge realizes, is the only other person in Springfield who might understand how hard it is to love someone who takes you completely for granted. Before we get to the emotional heavy lifting, though, this whole storyline is loaded with great jokes, like Smithers attempting to trick Homer by printing out the settlement offer on a cake (the line “Your wife needs to eat this cupcake” is just outstanding), and Homer dismissing Marge’s too-hard puzzles in preference to Maggie’s. (“Cow goes in the cow-shaped hole. Boom—next case.”)

(Screenshot: Fox)

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Last season saw Smithers finding some peace with his realization that he will never leave Mr. Burns. (No matter that Burns is the kind of guy who reassures his lawyer that he doesn’t need to upgrade to a bigger, wheelchair-accessible trap door because he never hires the handicapped.) But Smithers’ peace of mind was rather expertly tied to the sad realization that not only will he never truly have Monty Burns’ love, but also that Monty Burns’ love probably isn’t worth having. When he—exhausted at trying to trick the Simpsons at Burns’ bidding—finds an all-too-sympathetic ear in Marge, the pairing makes such sense, even as the episode veers into troubled territory.

Reading the synopsis of the episode (which made it sound like Marge and Smithers would contemplate a for-many-reasons ridiculous affair), the way their relationship is handled is actually quite emotionally grounded. While Marge is shocked to realize that she’s drawn to kiss Smithers (or Waylon, as she endearingly chooses to call him), and Smithers admits that maybe Marge would look all right with a mustache, there’s no cheap joke about Smithers “changing sides.” Instead, their attraction comes across as that of two lonely, disappointed people who momentarily mistake emotional intimacy for physical attraction. When Smithers guiltily confides, “More than anyone you understand the horrible words, ‘What do you see in him?,’” Marge, just as sadly, confesses, “I’ve never said this, but did you ever think we cling to these guys because we’re afraid to admit we were wrong?”

Marge being disillusioned with her marriage has always been one of her defining, if intermittent, traits, but Julie Kavner and Harry Shearer find a startling intimacy here. That Marge takes all her guilt and her relief at having her emotional needs taken care of and transforms that into sheer, growling lust for Homer makes sense, too, as does Homer’s gratitude, as he happily realizes, “Marge is getting her emotional needs met by another man and now all she needs me for is sex!”

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But, for good and bad, quick patches and workarounds aren’t what Homer and Marge need from each other. Once Homer sees how even Marge’s new friendship leaves her feeling unsatisfied in their relationship (and that Smithers’ failure means he’s being exiled to restart Burns’ Chernobyl plant), he does what he does best—make a grand, stupid gesture. Hearkening back to one of his best (gestures and episodes) Homer makes a real sacrifice, here turning down the chance to sue Burns in order to ensure that Smithers will remain in the picture. (Burns, delighted, asks, “Are you fool enough to think a man’s handshake means anything?”)

Sure, Homer—attempting to placate his disappointed ambulance chaser lawyer (Kevin Michael Richardson, very funny)—accidentally drags Marge painfully down with him while trying to pull off a lawsuit-worthy slip-and-fall. But, now both in body casts, their exchange that ends the episode is the sort of emotionally plain, honest conversations that reaffirms what we’ve always known about Marge and Homer—life’s perpetual disappointments aside, they really are meant for each other. When Marge tells Homer, “I like you. And I adore you. You sacrificed yourself for my happiness. There’s nothing that makes a woman feel so secure,” Homer’s delighted “This is going great!” is so affecting because it’s true. Even stuck in bed having Grandpa spill lava-hot soup on them for six months, Marge and Homer are going great.

Stray observations

  • The B-story, with Lisa going power-mad while in charge of organizing the school bus seating chart, might not connect to the main story, but it’s full of both good jokes and a fine little arc for Lisa. After a bus rebellion convinces her that trying to use her smarts to improve things only makes her unpopular, it’s also deeply satisfying to see her unable to keep from reverting back to her “know-it-all” self when Miss Hoover can’t be bothered to teach properly.
  • Even Milhouse gets in an affectingly wise observation, that the school bus is sacred space because it represents “a brief respite between the twin nightmares of home and school.” Damn, Milhouse.
  • Being Milhouse, he also signals his essential Milhouse-ness, responding to the first hint of bullying with a panicked, “Asthma! Glasses! Asthma! Glasses!”
  • The opening credits pay tribute to Bob Fosse, the couch gag to Goya’s “The Third Of May 1808.” This means something…
  • It’s not showy, but the joke that Burns’ reflection remains in his office mirror after he walks away is subtly, comically eerie. It’s just there, staring.
  • Similarly, that Burns trap-doors himself in order to talk to the foreman in charge of the remodel is a quick joke that completely works. Especially nice touch to have him take a moment to put on a hard hat first.
  • Homer, turning down Smithers: “It’ll be three months before I can scratch my ass! Six before I can really go at it.”
  • “You can’t bribe me with cake, I just ate several pies.”
  • Smithers, caving in on his frosting gambit: “Fine, enjoy the cake. Just don’t eat it in front of a notary public.”
  • The idea that Smithers’ recites the A.A. prayer to get him through his relationship with Burns is devastatingly specific.
  • “It’s such a pleasure to pour tea for someone and not have to help him chew it.”
  • Burns, roleplaying facing Homer’s lawyer, keeps imagining siccing his dogs on him. Sleazy lawyer: “Seriously sir, it would really be wise not to mention the hounds.”
  • Burns’ reference to Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown and the Brooklyn Tip-Tops is the sort of old-timey joke that always works for me. (Brown, indeed, played with the Tip-Tops, in 1914.)
  • And the specialties of Homer’s lawyer, one Maxwell Flinch, are injuries at work, school, museum…

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