In an anything-can-happen setting like The Simpsons’ Springfield, it’s a good creative move to establish some rules. Not for the entire show, necessarily—the series’ animated world allows its characters the freedom to conform only to what the writers think they can get away with. But within an episode, internal story logic can make or break a promising premise. Or even the oldest of premises.

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Homer is a lousy husband. A lousy most things, but we’re focusing up here, as Homer lurches home from Moe’s, tiny, mobile green hat on his bald dome, extolling the license afforded by St. Patrick’s Day. It’s not St. Patrick’s Day. Seeing his excuse go nowhere (“On the real day, the price of green hats goes through the roof!”), and his hastily purchased gas station apology flowers wilt—possibly under the heat of Marge’s sorrow and anger—Homer is stuck in a familiar, but more dangerous-seeming place. (Calling after Marge as she goes dejectedly to bed: “Honey, when you were talking about those flowers was it a metaphor for anything? Honey? Metaphor?”)

But, as we’ve seen through the years, Marge loves her Homer. She also loves the comfort of denial, and of the occasional burst of self-awareness that tells her it’s time to take drastic action. In this case, she shows up with a picnic lunch at the power plant and informs Homer plainly, “This is the part of the marriage where the needle is on ‘E’ but we have a little more gas.” Homer, as he’s occasionally capable of doing, makes the merest smidge of effort (Marge’s amorous groan when he pretends to eat an actual vegetable eloquently speaks to the point), which seems like just the ticket to keep the Simpson marriage sputtering along past his latest transgression. “The brink of doom, where I do my best work!,” exclaims Homer excitedly, knowing how to save his bacon. (Mmm, bacon, etc.)

And that’s when the plot kicks in, and where, a lot of the time in latter-day Simpsons episodes, things go awry. The Simpsons isn’t a family drama, it’s a sitcom. And, being a cartoon, it can play around a lot more, which is one of its enduring strengths. But without story discipline the effect is as dulling as “a whole lot o’ crazy crap on the walls” of a hastily retrofitted family eatery, in the words of Moe, the third main character tonight. Luckily, “Moho House,” the name of the upscale high-rise bar an eccentric billionaire chum of Burns’ buys for Moe as part of a bet to break up Marge and Homer—well, you can see that plot kicking in right there. But seriously, credited writer Jeff Martin knows this world like the back of his five-fingered hand, having penned some genuine classics in his day. True, his one foray back into the show after a few decades’ absence didn’t quite reach those heights, but it came close, rooting a Marge-Lisa story in some pretty deep character stuff. Here, it’s the same story (if a different plot), with the storied Homer-Marge dynamic actually feeling like it has some stakes.

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The Trading Places-style bet between British boyhood pal Nigel (Michael York) and Burns is classic sitcom silliness, except that Martin takes the time to let Nigel’s motivations—as rich person-loopy as they are—echo a little. Toting along a much younger, gold-digging wife (Burns, with typical old-timey bluntness refers to her as “a Piccadilly Circus walkup”), Nigel’s got no illusions, marveling that the ever-attentive Smithers is “one of those truly devoted people who make one forget love is an illusion.” York’s lovely gravelly voice lends weight to the old man’s mischievous sadness—even when he bets Burns he can sunder the Simpsons, with Smithers as his prize. (”I really need a better lawyer,” grouses Smithers upon being presented with his employment contract.)

And so the game is on, with Nigel’s first attempt to get Homer in Dutch falling short when all Homer can think about is Marge, in spite of Nigel’s prompt to imagine all the women Homer’s never slept with. (A grade-school stick figure with boobs and Mrs Butterworth are all he can come up with anyway.) Spotting Moe’s ever-present pining for Midge Marge, Nigel whisks Moe away to the newly-opened Moho House, where Moe gets to talk down to Rainier Wolfcastle, Krusty, Bumblebee Man, Sideshow Mel, and Kent Brockman, among other C-listers. Invited to the grand opening, the still-shaky Marge and Homer find themselves drifting away from each other, Homer on the arm of an on-the-make starlet (he’s really more interested in the fact that Moho House doesn’t charge for extra cherries in his drink)—and Marge into the arms of Moe.

High-concept stuff, except that Martin’s touch with the characters is as sure as with the plotting, Marge’s ennui (she’s seen reading Numb Housewife magazine) leaving her susceptible, not to an affair (Moe’s still a weirdo), but to allowing a man who truly cares for her to treat her to a slow dance or two. (I say slow, but the spectacle of Moe’s Riverdance-flapping legs flopping up into frame while his and Marge’s upper bodies embrace on the dance floor is a great sight gag.) Same goes for the logic in Smithers attempting to thwart the Burns-Nigel bet, as he would never leave his beloved Monty unless said beloved had thoughtlessly had it written into Smithers’ contract that he could be discarded on any number of whims. (There’s talk of a “tiger chew-toy” and “thrown into volcano” clause, among others.) Plus, there’s real care taken in setting Moho House’s mood, with swoony Douglas Sirk-esque melodrama music when Marge first comes to Moe in the night, and some atmospheric lighting provided by a late night rainstorm.

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And Moe, who opens the episode with some hard-boiled narration, makes an intriguing third point of the romantic triangle. Yes, Moe can’t keep Marge’s name straight (“I don’t know what’s with me,” he confesses after Marge confronts him about the whole Midge thing), and he’s, well, Moe—creepily obsessed with his friend’s wife and not above some light stalking and unsavory imaginings. And he’s not without temptation, musing, “This night when I opened up a fabulous new bar just got interesting,” once he contemplates getting Marge there for an after-hours chat. But here, he’s also the one who straightens Homer out, luring him to Moho House to lecture him, in Moe fashion, “You don’t leave the lid off a pickle jar like Marge.” He also, touching Marge, remembers the song she played on the Moe’s Tavern jukebox once, seven years earlier. Hank Azaria is always great at finding some shred of humanity in Moe when necessary, and when Moe confides to his trusty new piano player, Stogie (Simpsons guest all-star Kevin Michael Richardson), “Homer don’t treat her right. She should be loved,” it resonates, too.

Homer and Marge aren’t going to break up. The Simpsons is the American nuclear family stretched out of shape, and it can be stretched pretty far, but never really snapped. Homer’s solution—after an especially painful and futile knee-walking apology—is childish and sweet, a flip book of the two of them, eventually flying off to the moon. It’s a gesture, something Marge needs to take the needle the tiniest bit out of ‘E’ so life can continue as before. If Marge and Homer can never break up,they can never be truly content either. But, in their life together, there’s something to be said for putting a few bucks in the tank.

Stray observations

  • Michael York has now played three different characters on four different episodes of The Simpsons. It’s such an odd thing that it suggests there’s some story behind his reappearances. But it’s such an odd, neat thing—and York is always so good—that I don’t want to hear it.
  • The same goes for Valerie Harper, who has been in two episodes this season, and one back in season 24. Unlike York, though, her roles have been so small this season that I have trouble picking her out.
  • Moe, narrating us in past the theme song: “Interesting fact: The singers that sang that song are all dead. Enjoy the show.”
  • Nigel’s wife is having an affair with her tennis instructor, Ronaldo, and I could listen to York contemptuously roll that ‘r’ for a long time.
  • “Now, I’m an old friend of your boss’, and if you and if you turn me down, it won’t go down favorably.” “Will it go down unfavorably?” “It may.” “AHHH!”
  • Marge’s sleek new ‘do for her big night out is very becoming, adding to the vibe that things are very different between Marge and Homer.
  • Moe brings up the infamous talking bar rag which, thankfully, turns out to speak only in his imagination. And they never spoke of it again.
  • Speaking of, Smithers saves Nigel’s fortune after the bet is lost, convincing Burns that he’d been talking to nobody the entire time. It’s a funny twist, followed by another, as Moe—narrating us out—busts up the requisite Shining photo gag by pointing out that the bar was just built, so him appearing in a Prohibition-era photo doesn’t make any sense.
  • Still, Nigel thanks Smithers with a kiss on the mouth, once again affirming that Smithers’ doomed love for Burns is robbing him of other, more rewarding toadying elsewhere.
  • Homer’s flip book has a Gracie Films end card.
  • Seriously, the show should lock up Kevin Michael Richardson. (Although the budget probably doesn’t allow adding another full cast member.) His Stogie, with his smoky voice singing songs “that may or may not be a commentary on [Moe’s] situation” is a funny, rounded side character. Sure, he’s stuck in the “wise black sidekick” role like Bill Cobbs in The Hudsucker Proxy, but he’s aware of it, telling Moe of his pining for Marge, “Sounds like white people problems.”
  • “I just have to accept that you’re never going to change.” “No, I changed before! I lost my hair and got fat!”

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