At the core of “Sky Police” is a satisfying Marge story, capped off by this lovely rumination on faith, delivered as a prayer to God (since Homer’s been kidnapped to the local casino’s “beating room” after Marge and the churchy types get caught counting cards):

I don’t know if you watch us all the time, or if we’re just like an ant farm you got for a birthday once and left on the shelf only to take us down every once in a while to see what kind of crazy tunnels we’ve dug. Maybe we’ve got it all wrong praying for things we selfishly want. Maybe prayer is taking a moment and telling yourself there’s some good in the world. So I’m going to stay here and focus on that good and maybe my husband will be retuned to me.

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Faith on The Simpsons has been an effective source of both satire and emotion over the years, but while Marge’s journey tonight has its moments of the latter, “Sky Police” is another dispiriting example of the show going for broad, lazy laughs instead of finding anything unexpected in an episode’s comic premise. Instead, Chief Wiggum gets a jet pack.

The fact that the episode begins without either chalkboard gag or theme music had my hopes up—in the past, those facts, more often than not, mean that the episode is running long and the preambles are sacrificed to let the show breathe. Here, however, it appears that the writers were just too enamored with opening and closing montages of the jetpack-sporting Wiggum foiling crimes and casually murdering graffiti taggers. There’s no reason an episode of The Simpsons couldn’t find a place for a “Wiggum has a jetpack” B-story (or, hey, A-story if they’re feeling particularly ambitious), but I question the need for both the length and the callousness of the absurd story as constituted here. Wiggum pureeing those two guys takes place in a musical montage, sure, but there’s no indication the incident isn’t as real as him pulling over a 747, or smashing through the jailhouse wall. Wiggum’s inevitable crash landing that destroys the church roof kicks off the story proper, but Homer getting raped by a panda thinks him cheerfully killing a couple of guys violates the spirit of the show. And it’s not the only one.

The one edgy laugh in the episode comes when Marge enlists Apu to help the Lovejoys, Ned, Sideshow Mel, and Agnes Skinner raise money to fix the church by counting cards. Lovejoy’s insult to the Hindu Apu (he calls him a “heathen”) finds the show essentially coming down on the intolerant Lovejoy’s side:

Apu: Could you not call me a heathen? It’s an insult to Hanuman the monkey-headed lord of winds who believes the sun to be a ripe mango..and, okay I hear it.

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Apu’s always been a problematic character, Hank Azaria’s exaggerated Indian accent warring with his interpretation of Apu as one of the most sensible people in Springfield. And while his faith has traditionally been regarded with as much ambivalence as every other religion adhered to by the people of Springfield, his Hindu deities get used as a punchline more often. And here (despite an end credits appearance from Hanuman himself), Apu’s religion is the joke, while Marge’s—as ambiguous as her gesture is ultimately left—is the impetus for something sweet and touching.

The casino plot Apu leads—cribbing liberally from the movie 21—is actually quite energetically directed by Rob Oliver, the two sequences where the card counters ply their trade under the watchful eyes of casino security clipping along smartly, if not with any great humor. What undermines even this segment of the show, though, is the fact that Marge’s famous gambling addiction (from season five’s “$pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling”) is never alluded to. I’ve said it before, but there are times when present-day Simpsons episodes appear to be made by people who don’t like The Simpsons as an institution as much as its fans do, and this is one of those times. (And, yes, I am prepared for the “Dennis as Comic Book Guy” comparisons—I don’t care. Writing an entire episode about Marge reentering a casino and not even mentioning a classic episode on the same subject is pure indifference.) Even if the episode edges up to examining Marge’s mixed feelings about what she’s doing (manipulating Bart and Lisa into keeping her secret), there’s still no nod to continuity. Viewers have gotten used to mediocre late-run Simpsons episodes—but they tend to bristle if the episodes trample on better ones.

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Stray observations:

  • The 21 references in the episode make another level of sense, as the movie whitewashed the real-life card counting scheme (as outlined in Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down The House), where the mostly Asian real world M.I.T. student conspirators were played by hot, young white people.
  • Just because because it represents one of my favorite examples of Homer-logic, here’s Homer’s speech from that classic casino episode: “No, Lisa. The only monster here is the gambling monster that has enslaved your mother! I call him Gamblor, and it’s time to snatch your mother from his neon claws!”
  • “I can’t believe it but the church is going to have to ask people for money!”
  • “I used the winnings to buy S.A.T. answers to get into the real M.I.T. where I failed every class, got thrown out, and had to move to Springfield.”
  • “If gambling’s okay, then I’m getting health insurance for the kids!”
  • Reverend Lovejoy’s worst case scenario for the church is that it becomes an “Atheist Strip Club,” featuring the stripper Crystal Hitchens, which is a pretty funny joke.
  • As is the name of Springfield’s budget hotel, “Quantity Inn.”
  • Homer’s areas of esoteric knowledge apparently include revue direction: “How do you transition between scenes, hard blackouts or spotlight fades?”
  • After Marge, flush with her winnings, wakes Homer up for late-night snuggling: “Okay, but if I’m sleepy at work tomorrow I get to tell everyone why.”
  • Homer’s new insult for religious types: “Church-os.”
  • While it’s conceivable that their goth disguises might free up Reverend and Helen Lovejoy (a.k.a. Asphodel and Belladonna) for some wedded role-playing, both Helen’s desire for a Marge three-way and Marge’s resulting disgusted barfing aren’t.
  • Both Homer’s reasonable objections to casinos rousting gamblers for being too good at gambling and their subsequent kidnapping of Homer for ransom are not the best advertisement for the industry.
  • That’s Nathan Fielder as the eminently reasonable guy in charge of the casino, his unmistakable delivery creating a specific, funny character of corporate functionary Doug Blattner.

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