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“An amiable guy who makes everyone suffer through his hellish process.”

If The Simpsons is going to be around forever—and it is—stretching the boundaries of the show’s world might be a viable strategy to keep things at the venerable comedy institution at least interesting, if not wholly satisfying. In that spirit, an episode like “The Clown Stays In The Picture” isn’t the worst sort of story to build a two-parter or even (I’m saying it) a movie upon. Partly that’s a reference to how this story of Krusty’s sci-fi dream-project-that-wasn’t doesn’t stick the landing (in the blood sands after the rust wars). But it’s also the sort of visually expansive, character-driven story that—unlike other episodes whose incompleteness engenders only dispiriting aggravation—leaves me wanting to see it done bigger, and a little bit better.

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And the episode—credited to longtime Simpsons maven Matt Selman—seems to agree, as it pushes at the modern network 21-minute limit by ditching the opening credits entirely and getting into the meat of the beast. Or at least a wraparound story where Bart and Lisa discover Marc Maron’s podcast (WTF, although it’s not named here), where a typically discursive interview with Krusty reveals that Krusty’s long-lost 1990s Dune-esque science fiction labor of love The Sands Of Space also formed an important part of Marge and Homer’s early relationship. And I know—the show’s impossible longevity means this tale invalidates enough timelines to give Grant Morrison a migraine. But as long as the premise is used to tell a decent story that doesn’t do undue violence to the core of the characters, it’s fine, so shush.

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I suppose the Maron wraparound stuff could have been jettisoned without much trouble, but, honestly, he’s funny in his Simpsons-ized incarnation, and the way that Lisa and Bart come home from school to confront their parents with something like awe over their role in this infamous Hollywood (well, non-union Mexican equivalent) debacle is genuinely affecting. For a high-concept premise, the kids’ reaction is decidedly human, and brings the story back to the family nicely. Plus, there’s something acutely compelling about a story based on the discovery of forgotten film culture that just resonates. With a middle-aged movie geek whose second-hand purchase of Danny Peary’s Cult Movies books and Psychotronic Magazine, surely. But also as the episode’s way of engaging with a new generation’s relationship with technology and pop culture.

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There’s a whiff of “those darn kids and their darn cell phones” sourness in the initial sequence of Springfield’s youth ignoring each other for lingo-laden group texts and whatnot. But that kids have a little rectangle of unlimited learning potential in their pockets (alongside their slingshots and frogs and so forth) has also changed how those same kids are experiencing older culture. Bart initially dismisses Lisa’s fandom of Maron’s podcast as nothing but a lot of old has-beens (and Loudon Wainwright) self-indulgently reminiscing about boring stuff—before excitedly twigging to the fact that his favorite has-been, Krusty, has done exactly the same. Jamming one of the grossed-out Lisa’s earbuds into his squishy ear canal, Bart and Lisa then share the experience of listening to someone whose work has informed their cultural universe expound upon the things that informed his cultural universe. In such ways are young fans transformed into cultural archaeologists, miners of abstruse entertainment trivia, and, may god help them, potential professional cultural critics. Linking their cultural journey to their personal one here is a canny way to tie the story together, and to make its concept of the week structure feel right at home.

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And the throwback show business elements nearly all work, too, as Selman gazes back over a movie era besotted with such premise-driven, elevator pitch flicks as Nun-Jas, Pope-And-A-Half, My Uncle The Nephew, and Krusty’s own Turner And Hooch (but with a twist!)-esque Good Cop, Dog Cop franchise. The 90s-fashion execs all feel glibly jargon-y and lived-in, with one turning Krusty’s dream adaptation down by citing Joseph Campbell and claiming it just doesn’t “land” for her. (I know I used “land” earlier, but these types would definitely call for Poochie to be more proactive.) And studio vaults are, indeed, littered with bankable stars “hippy-dippy vanity projects,” funded just so yearning leading men and women (well, men) will get all of that pesky artistic integrity out of their systems and sign on for the next lucrative franchise installment. Think Christopher Reeve getting Cannon to bank Street Smart so he’d don the Superman tights once more, or Colombia locking down Bill Murray for Ghostbusters only by giving him The Razor’s Edge. (Which I maintain is a fascinating little movie, as far as vanity projects go.)

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What drives this story—for all the south-of-the-border wackiness of The Sands Of Space’s ill-fated production—is that Krusty is shown to actually care about his movie. He fires the old-timer, one-take specialist hired on the cheap by the studio (who boasts he once shot a two-hour movie in 90 minutes), and goes the poorly-thought-out auteur route because he’s not willing to compromise something that actually means something to him. The quote that clearly sold him on the book is a little sci-fi purple in its “strive for the stars” inspirationalism, but not so exaggeratedly as to lift it out of the realm of pseudo-profound big screen plausibility. That Marge—dragooned into service as Krusty’s unflappable assistant director and moral compass once Krusty realizes he’s in over his head—quotes that same passage back to the disillusioned Krusty at the climax hits just the right note, too. In this 20-something flashback Marge (who’s still childless—just go with it, continuity patrol), we see flashes of the idealism and decency that still marks her all these years later, even though, as Krusty predicted, she winds up married to “chubby, selfish” Homer.

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And the Homer-Marge love story is so sweetly sketched that, again, a longer dive into this version of them wouldn’t go amiss. It doesn’t make sense that Marge and Homer are together and childless here—I guess I am part of the continuity patrol after all—but it’s also freeing to see them as young, free, and yet still in love and devoted to each other. When the jealous (albeit not romantically) Krusty turns Machiavellian mastermind by sending Homer on ever more dangerous and demeaning on-set tasks, Marge eventually chooses Homer and reminds Krusty of how his dopey sci-fi epic’s inspirational genesis applies to her love for Homer just as strongly. (“Let the light between me and Homer give light to our universe,” delivered with utmost earnestness by Marge, could be sappy if not for how genuine is her connection with Krusty over Krusty’s silly space opera.)

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When the film company (recruited from younger versions of seemingly everyone in Springfield) bands together to rescue Homer from the Breaking Bad-style Mexican gangsters who are holding him for unobtainable ransom—oh, Homer gets held for ransom—the slapstick action sequence, too, is something I could see more of. With its elements of The Road Warrior and the sort of “actors finding the true hero inside them” climax I’m a sucker for, the truncated sequence still works. For one thing, the episode looks great. For another, Marge’s bond with Homer and Krusty both feel true to her character, the story’s empowered Marge angle lifting her to just the right level of competence and decency without going so far as to make the eventual table-resetting return to normal out of reach.

Even Krusty’s fate of never giving one-millionth of a crap about artistic integrity ever again lands more gently than usual, as he and Maron find out that The Sands Of Space (handed over to liberate Homer) has become a Mexican cult classic (entitled El Bozo Loco). Even though Krusty waves off the rhapsodic Maron’s attempt to graft an uplifting coda to the story of his one, true, pure artistic endeavor turning out to be a forgotten, space-bound Mexican version of The Room, Maron’s description of the nobility of Krusty’s overreaching folly still leaves them bathed in the tiny Mexican movie theater’s warm glow. Like the rest of the almost-but-not-quite “The Clown Stays In The Picture,” this late-game Simpsons outing is a heartening glimpse of inventiveness, and improbable near-success, in defiance of show biz machinery.

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Stray observations

  • “That’s off limits, soul patch!”
  • The studio head, after fobbing off Krusty with a no-budget The Sands Of Space, gloats, “Now we can make all the dog-cop movies they want—two more!”
  • The ancient director boasts that he’s been making movies “since they were called ‘stillies.’”
  • The Sands Of Space apparently co-starred Judd Nelson (who wouldn’t come out of his trailer), and Christian Slater (who wouldn’t go into his trailer). It was also in negotiations for an end-credits song from Peabo Bryson, but Peabo was notoriously hard to pin down.
  • The episode is dedicated to Simpsons production manager Trista Navarro, who died earlier this month.

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