Screenshot: The Simpsons

“Made in the finest Filipino sweatshops by the cutest kids you ever saw!”

Fox’s synergistic Simpsons programming saw FXX run a mini-marathon of Moe all Sunday leading up to this Moe-centric outing. And, sure, there was that episode in there, and The Simpsons’ longevity means that there’s more mediocre Moe (and, well, everyone else), than certified Moe classics. But “King Leer” manages to mine Springfield’s least-reputable barkeep for enough quality Moe to at least remind us why he’s always been one of the show’s most reliable side characters.

First, let’s chuck continuity out the window, as is increasingly necessary considering the show’s “anything for a gag” approach to character and story consistency. Yes, Moe was a Little Rascal, soap opera star, Dutch immigrant, Italian immigrant, famous boxer, and the son of a Yeti (look it up) at various times and through various writers’ whims. At the risk of my “Genius At Work” shirt being used to mock me for watching a children’s cartoon show, there’s a time and place for continuity (I think the show’s better when it seems the writers care at least half as much about it as fans). But, if the resulting jokes or storylines are funny and/or affecting enough, then go ahead and chuck it out the window for an episode. “King Leer” is hardly great, but the story of Moe’s relationship with his horrible, mattress-slinging family stubbornly refuses to give up on either front.

A lot of the credit goes to Hank Azaria’s performance. Apart from the ongoing controversy (that’s not going anywhere, despite Al Jean’s Twitter finger) over another of his characters, Azaria’s Moe is both a reliable joke machine and a sneakily soulful presence in Springfield. Here, Moe’s innate talent for hair-trigger violence and creatively scummy verbal abuse gets a funny workout as he confronts his dirtbag businessman father for shunning young Moe for not infesting their mattress store competitors with a jar of bedbugs. (The dreaded “Hungarian mattress mashers.”) I laughed that the Szylak clan’s go-to fighting move is a shoe attack, and Moe’s threat, “I’m one loafer-smack away from tearing off his whole hair system!” is nicely specific. (Marge’s alarmed, “There’s no reason for this to come to shoes!” got me, too.) Azaria just seems to get Moe, bringing out the deep, dark, squirmy, lonely soul of the poor schmo, even as the show never forgets that Moe’s loneliness drives him to ultimately unforgivable creepiness. (A consistent aspect of Moe’s continuity is his stalker tendencies, apparently up to and including being required to register as a sex offender of some stripe.)

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Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

And yet, through all his shifting backstory, Moe, in Azaria’s gravelly voice, is defined by damage, and the isolation that comes from being so damaged. Here, he’s given that flashback where grudging decency triumphs (barely) over familial loyalty. And, once his retiring father’s offer of reconciliation (and one of his three remaining mattress emporiums) is snatched away by the machinations of his even more Moe-esque siblings (Debi Mazar and Jonathan Schmock), his heartbreak is so human that it almost causes Marge to offer him some “platonic physical comfort.” She can’t bring herself to touch him in the end, but Moe’s appreciative, “You got closer than most” doubles down on the pathos.

Of course, this is Moe, so the resulting revenge spree escalates quickly. I especially enjoyed Moe sabotaging his siblings’ waterbed sale with a well-tossed porcupine. (Homer joins in by tossing paint on the brunching Patty and Selma, just because.) When it turns out that the whole “split your mattress kingdom in three” idea (see: episode title) was his father’s way of testing which of his grimy offspring could reach down to his level of chicanery and awfulness, Moe relents—at least until he accidentally drops those Hungarian mattress mashers on his siblings’ entire inventory. Still, before then, Marge, who’d been characteristically invested in bringing the Szyslaks back together, realizes that Moe’s too good for these creeps. (Not, you know, a lot better, but still.) She gives him that physical contact after all, a genuinely sweet gesture whose necessarily problematic nature manifests in everyone fleeing into the night, frantically scratching away at the mattress mashers infesting their clothes. “King Leer” finds the sweet-and-sour spot of Moe Szylak. He’s not completely unworthy of love, but make actual contact at your own risk.

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Stray observations

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
  • Puzzlingly, the episode ditches the opening credits and couch gag entirely in order to set up an elaborate plot about Bart’s new violin—in order to explain why Homer goes to Moe’s? There’s nothing especially funny in the five minutes of Bart shenanigans (if he breaks the loaner violin, Homer has to pay for it), the storyline never comes into play in the main story, and Homer can go to Moe’s without much prompting, as a rule.
  • The whole mattress conceit sees the credits tag taking the form of a recreation of the disastrously low-rent Mattress Man commercial from Punch-Drunk Love. Watch it and get bummed out that Philip Seymour Hoffman isn’t around any more.
  • That’s Ray Liotta as scurrilous Szyslak patriarch Morty. His running joke about referring to the rapprochement with his son as “a reach-around” is a gag about which viewers will need to make up their own mind.
  • Homer tries to outwit his ignition breathalyzer with a dog—who also turns out to be drunk.
  • Sign on Moe’s: “Closed on account of family crap.”
  • The Szyslak mattress empire includes locations in the likes of “East Scum Street,” and “Greek Chinatown,” which made me laugh.
  • Moe’s sister is introduced inexplicably eating Chinese takeout with a pair of scissors, which, understandably, wigs Marge out.
  • Homer spends the episode trying to stop himself from saying “I told you so” to Marge’s inevitably futile attempt to heal the Szyslak schism. And while it produces another of The Simpsons hacky “Marriage, amirite?” asides to Bart, Homer does literally strangle himself in order to keep from making Marge feel bad at one point. Which is nice.

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