(Photo: Fox)

Almost every bit of promotional material for “The Town” did not look promising. In what’s undoubtedly an effective marketing move, Fox made this “Simpsons go to Boston” episode look like a non-stop parade of New England Patriots-bashing, something at least, let’s say conservatively, 85 per cent of Americans who give a damn about football can get behind. Plus, scheduled or not, the fact that this episode airs on the very day that Patriot’s quarterback/lighting rod Tom Brady came back from the “Deflategate” suspension to stomp all over the hapless Cleveland Browns can’t help but work in the show/network’s favor. For proof of intent, only look at the promo pictures Fox provided for the episode, most of which feature suspiciously Patriots-esque caricatures of the likes of Brady (described by the game announcer as “dropping sexily back to pass”), the silently glowering, hoodie-wearing coach who never smiles (even in victory parade float form), and a hulking, slack-jawed goon named, um, Bonkowski. (Seriously, sometimes The Simpsons just seems to go first draft on parody names these days.)

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Luckily, while “The Town” is another in the long line of Simpsons travelogue episodes, it’s at least an exceptionally lived-in one. Credited writer Dave King (Parks And Recreation, Workaholics) went to Harvard with, and co-founded the bitingly funny sports geek blog Fire Joe Morgan alongside, fellow Parks vets Alan Yang and show creator Mike Schur. And the Simpsons’ legacy of hiring Boston-area writers (like Dana Gould, who guest-voices here tonight) is well-known, and joked about. The Boston that that show visits tonight (after Bart’s adopted fandom of the “Boston Americans” football team provokes Homer into buying tickets for a “hate-cation”) is dense with nearly every Massachusetts stereotype and reference that you can imagine.

But, unlike some other such vacations, the show’s intimacy with the location at least means all the swan boats, Friendly’s and Dunkin’ Donuts references, packy stores, candlepin bowling, the former Combat Zone, Afflecks, Wahlbergs, the Dropick Murphys inescapable “I’m Shipping Up To Boston,” and Doris Kearns Goodwin feel affectionately authentic in their mockery. Unlike the ill-researched, borderline offensive stereotyping of, say, former Simpsons vacation spot Brazil, among other places, the show’s Boston is both well-realized and well-integrated into the characters’ journeys tonight. When Homer, scoffing at every Bostonian cliché surrounding him, realizes that the uniquely New England sport of candlepin bowling offers him a third ball compared to the two he’s used to, it makes for a fine metaphor for the second (well, third) chance everyone but Bart comes to see Boston as. There’s something poetically just right about Marge’s “fate is giving us a third ball” as she, Homer, and Lisa all find that Boston’s cultural legacy offers them all something they didn’t know they needed.

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Marge is wowed by the free sunscreen stations, museums, people “who are outdoorsy but still pallid,” and a populace that’s “progressive, but not stupid-progressive.” (After she’s reassured that a local mother vaccinates her kids.) Homer gets a more-forgiving form of bowling, a job in a candy factory (even if it is obviously just Necco Wafers), and a local dessert that might not technically be pie, but is still delicious and plentiful. And Lisa finds that the local charter school values learning and intelligence, and boasts Pulitzer-winner Goodwin as her new history teacher. (Goodwin still leans toward a macaroni-portrait-based curriculum.)

It’s only Bart who finds the Boston experience a letdown, his movie-fueled visions of Southie hoodlum heist crews dissolving into a spectacle of heavily accented charity workers talking juice cleanses. Amidst all the dropped ‘r’s and humorously broad voice work from visiting Massachusetts types like Rachel Dratch, Bill Burr, Michael Chiklis, and Gould, the Bart and Lisa rivalry registers as strongly as it has in a while.

Even though Bart’s signature li’l bastardy (marbles and slingshot—classic) only gets him banished to a detention room where hyperactive kids work off their restlessness with choreographed acapella singing, he’s stifled by all the culture and jealous that, in this environment, his little sister’s going to thrive—both academically and socially—more than he will. It makes sense at the start that Bart would jump on the Americans’ bandwagon. For one, it pisses off Homer to no end, to the extent that he ends up crashing through Flanders’ fence like a bull at Bart’s provocation. (Flanders characteristically gives Homer a restorative drink from the hose when he collapses.) But the root of the show’s mercifully briefer-than-expected Patriots-mockery rests on the idea of being both a sneaky and a sore winner, something that Bart would naturally respond to. And lash out against, when he finally loses.

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So Bart brings the story full circle when he lures Homer to the Americans’ victory parade. Homer—third ball and Boston cream pies or no—simply can’t put that Americans cap on his head (a nice extended bit of physical animation). The Simpsons go back to Springfield, with only Lisa, as usual, paying much of a price. It’s a funny cut to Lisa staring into the Evergreen Terrace fridge after imagining the light gleaming from the classroom where Doris Kearns Goodwin stands waiting to impart the wisdom of the ages, but it’s also enough of a painful, human moment to make the briskness of the Simpsons return carry some weight. Same goes for Homer and Marge’s rumination on the downside to the episode’s rosy depiction of the city of Boston. (“Not to mention the unspoken racism.” “It wasn’t that unspoken.”) Throw in the welcome fact that the show stretches out the single A-story by ditching both the opening credits and couch gag, and “The Town” turns out to be a funnier and better-realized episode than its promotion made it seem.

Stray observations

  • “Homer, can we really afford to live in a place with a Symphony and a Pops?”
  • Homer, after he and Marge decide to move to Boston: “I knew I didn’t pay this month’s mortgage for a reason!”
  • The chicanery the Americans are alleged to have engaged in: magnet-manipulating the coin toss, using a volleyball painted brown in place of the regulation ball, listing the mascot as an eligible receiver. Says Burr’s Boston fan at Moe’s, “You gotta cover the mascot. That’s a no-brainer.”
  • Among the Boston insults the writing room clearly takes a lot of delight in: “clam-gargling tea-tossers,” “they aren’t exactly ugly, but they’re not sexy, either,” and “PC maniacs in fleece vests.”
  • The species of nerd Lisa is delighted to see on a campus quad: a jester-hatted ferret-breeder, a Wild Westafarian, yo-yo boys and yo-yo girls, chainmail ping-pong-ers, VR Oculus Rift-ers, and a Magic: The Gathering gathering.
  • The bowling alleys Homer frequents: Paddy O’Murphigans, both Yankees Suck and Lakers Suck lanes, The Lanes Of Eddie Coyle, Taxachusetts Bowl, and the brilliantly named Just Huck It Already. Also, one that seems to be owned by Whitey Bulger.
  • Lisa, after Homer is buried in a pile of Boston-themed bobbleheads (including Steven Wright, Aimee Mann, and Bel Biv DeVoe): “Don’t struggle, it only makes them bobble harder!”
  • Yes, this reviewer is originally from the Boston area, and does root for the Patriots. Although I do find it difficult to refute any other sports fan’s depiction of the Pats in the Bill Belichick era as an organization that has both a, shall we say, flexible approach to gaining a competitive advantage, and an insufferable smugness when winning. And an even more insufferable propensity for whining, excuses, and logic-mocking spin when they lose. Taking the cue from Bart’s “sucks to be a loser” once he adopts the Americans as his team, I flash back to the controversy about Tom Brady having a Donald Trump campaign hat in his locker. There are parallel mindsets at work, is all I’m saying.
  • That being said, Homer’s defense of the Springfield football Atoms being the town’s beloved team since they snuck out previous host city Portland in the middle of the night effectively points up the absurdity and sour grapes involved in sports fandom as a rule.
  • And, since we’re exorcising here, the show’s portrait of the state as a haven for theoretical progressivism existing side-by-side with everyday, closed-minded assholery rings true, too. (The author no longer lives in the land of his birth.)
  • Homer’s complaints that Fenway Park’s seats are too narrow and that an awful lot of them face center field are completely accurate. Still, bug off, Homer. Fenway’s not a “teardown,” it’s the best park in the country. May still be some Masshole left in me. (And, in my head, that ‘r’ in “park” may have disappeared, just for a second.)
  • As far as “Ben Affleck-directed movies that depict Boston as a crime-ridden hellhole” go, The Town’s solid, but Gone Baby Gone is still a legitimately outstanding movie. (And it was better in every way than The Departed. Bring it.)

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