The Simpsons is plagued by its longevity as much as it’s enriched by it. For all the ready-to-go talent in every aspect of the production team and voice talent, there’s also an old guard of gatekeepers whose sensibilities have calcified as the show’s creaked forward. From tone-deaf defensiveness in response to any criticism of said mildewing old-school notions of, say, racial stereotyping, to—perhaps more damaging to the show’s yellowing reputation—a cantankerous refusal to admit new voices into the show without filtering them through the same narrow lenses, The Simpsons trudges on in a still-lucrative, spongy irrelevance the old show would have had a field day mocking.
There are bright spots, still. Each season offers up one, perhaps two episodes that you could slot into a 20-year-old DVD set without raising suspicions, current pop cultural markers excepted. Sometimes those faintly glowing little gems are the result of a willingness to experiment, or to turn the show over to a longtime fan—now established in the comedy world in his or her own right—without overmuch meddling. And sometimes, it’s a question of turning the show over to one of the old pros whose work suggests that he or she (all right, he) hasn’t checked out of the hope and promise that The Simpsons can still be something.
Now, “The Fat Blue Line” isn’t one of those rare gems, sadly, but it’s certainly possessed of some unalloyed warmth and affection for the characters and the subject matter thanks to one of the Simpsons vets whose name in the credits can at least guarantee an episode a decent shot, Bill Odenkirk. Longtime comedy writer for the towering-more-with-time Mr. Show, and the stayed-past-its-time but still often stellar Matt Groening joint Futurama (and don’t overlook the short-lived Tenacious D series), Odenkirk’s scripts, as a rule eschew gimmickry and deadening self-referential exhaustion in favor of a stubborn professionalism. If this particular tale of Fat Tony being framed as Springfield’s number one pickpocket (as opposed to being definitely guilty of being Springfield’s number one every other kind of crook) never rises above a sort of cozy familiarity, it at least earns its place as a Simpsons episode that seems to remember that The Simpsons is worth remembering.
And that’s even if the Simpsons barely register in the story, as the battle of two old nemeses in Fat Tony and Chief Wiggum takes up the bulk of the episode, a structural anomaly that nearly works, again thanks to the script’s reliance on a single narrative throughline that—in deference to Springfield’s boss of all bosses—pays its respects to two of The Simpsons’ longest-tenured supporting characters. Naturally, having Hank Azaria’s Wiggum and Joe Mantegna as Tony squaring off doesn’t hurt, one of the aforementioned benefits of having old pros on board for three decades. And Odenkirk’s credited script tosses the whole show over to these two would-be representatives of crime and punishment, not so much shoving the Simpsons themselves aside as gambling that enough people will want to watch the dangerously incompetent Wiggum and the dangerously competent-ish Tony in a battle of, let’s call them “wits.” And he’s nearly right.
Whether as a result of demographic research or just grumpy old TV executives’ belief in those darned kids today and their darned short attention spans, so many modern Simpsons traffic in a hodgepodge of half-cooked subplots that the guiding principle seems to be “Look, shiny!” Here, though, the story follows at the unhurried pace of Homer strolling through an Italian street fair (the feast of San Castellaneta, amusingly), sampling literally every vaguely Italian foodstuff in sight. (“Can you make it all one thing and fry it?,” Homer asks Luigi hopefully. Luigi can.) Finding his wallet stolen, along with those of literally everyone else in attendance, Homer turns to Wiggum, which is about as effective as one might expect from a cop with a bulletin board of the mounting number of people actual evidence has freed on his station wall. (There’s at least one infant on there.) A tough-talking outside investigator (Futurama’s Dawnn Lewis) takes moderately more competent coppers Lou and Eddie out from under the shamed Wiggum’s supervision and raids a warehouse heaped high with wallets—and Fat Tony and his visiting uncle hovering nearby. Open and shut case, except that Fat Tony, praying to whatever God Italian gangsters worship, proclaims his innocence. And the disgraced Wiggum believes him, at least in part thanks to an old interview where the young, slightly less Fat Tony swears he will never, ever pickpocket anyone. (Since his mobster father died, shamefully, of natural causes after someone pickpocketed a necessary donor organ.)
Meanwhile, Homer is enlisted (because of his giant, irresistible-to-pickpockets butt) as an ass-decoy, while Marge speeds by at a few junctures to offer up some encouragement to the despondent Wiggum. And that’s really it for the Simpsons tonight, barring another Sopranos finale parody near the end, when Homer strays into the climactic Mafia shootout between Tony and his traitorous colleague Johnny Tightlips. (“You mistook my taciturn nature for fealty,” explains the formerly tight-lipped Johnny before things go south.) Along the way, there are a few smile-provoking lines like that, like the inspector’s awestruck reaction to Homer’s dextrous bottom, “Thank God that thing is on our side.” And Wiggum responding to Lou correcting him yet again by asking, “Oh yeah, when’s the Feast of St. Knowitall?” (“There isn’t one!,” he snaps triumphantly as Lou starts to answer.)
In prison, we see Fat Tony make toilet spaghetti (and toilet rigatoni), while Lou once more has to deal with his boss’ incompetence by shouting, in alarm, “We don’t have a gun range!” at Wiggum’s dejected post-demotion announcement that he’s gonna shoot out his feelings. Jason Momoa’s on hand for reasons having something to do with something or other, presiding over the gory tale of the spumoni-themed triple-martrydom of San Castellaneta before failing to Aquaman the pickpocket, despite Mayor Quimby’s panicked command, “Do something, Wet Panther!” (I laughed harder at Quimby saying, “Thank you, Superfish,” to be honest.)
These aren’t huge laughs, but they’re earned ones, steeped in obvious respect for both some increasingly rare competent storytelling and two characters whose place in the show’s history have at least earned them some time in the spotlight of a better-than-average detour episode.
- And, yes, I know that this Fat Tony is actually Fit Tony, but, upon advice of counsel I have decided to leave that particular sweaty character cul-de-sac in the trunk where Armin Tamzarian lies.
- This is the second appearance of Fat Tony and crew already this young season, testing Joe Mantegna’s long-stated allegiance to the show and the character.
- Harry Shearer, on the other hand . . .
- Bill brought along brother Bob Odenkirk to play Fat Tony’s suspiciously shifty mob lawyer.
- Fat Tony discovers Tightlips’ frame-job thanks to knowing just which goon to brace. When will they learn about Frankie the Squealer?
- Tightlips gloats over taking over Fat Tony’s gang, relying on his sycophantic cronies Jimmy Kissass, Sonny Goalong, and Willy Whatever, with only the aptly named Joey Cant-Read-The-Room abstaining.