This episode worked like gangbusters, assuming that gangbusters refers to something that is actually entertaining and successful. The element of surprise is the key here, and The Simpsons did something quite surprising tonight, combining a parody of heist movies with a sharp satirical look at book mill publishing. With the successful guest appearances by both Neil Gaiman and Andy Garcia, this episode delivered an increasingly rare treat for Simpsons fans: a well-written and well-acted half-hour that gets better and funnier as it goes.
It starts with a dinosaur show too realistic for most of the kids who are present. Most panic, while Milhouse throws his Barney doll at them and Ralph sticks his head under his mother’s dress, saying, “I want to go back in Mommy!” At the gift shop after the show, Bart and Lisa get into a quite realistic argument where every line starts with the two words that make parents shudder: “no fair!” (That joke brought to you by the Committee To Bring Bill Cosby Back To Television.) Bart chucks fossil poop at Homer from a bin marked Coprolite Blowout! (ok, ha), but it knocks the mask off of a dinosaur in the hall. Lisa thinks that the lady underneath looks familiar, but she takes off in a hurry. Lisa and Homer follow her into a backstage area where they run past the recreation of a rather famous Far Side cartoon. When Lisa finally catches up, she exclaims that the lady is her favorite author, T.R. Francis. The lady tries to pass it off, but quickly admits that she is an actress hired to be the face of T.R. Francis. In fact, she tells Lisa, childrens’ novels are created in executive boardrooms with plots based on market research, and the actual work is churned out by “pill-popping lit majors desperate for work.” We cut to a line outside of “Bookaccino’s” (ha!) with, as the actress puts it, unsuspecting kids who are getting ten books a year from their favorite author. This is a lot of convoluted set-up, yes, but it’s going somewhere.
While Homer reads JetSki Wanter magazine, Lisa rails against writing books by committee. This gives Homer idea for the perfect crime: The Book Job, which is splashed onto the screen in a jaunty font that somehow makes Steven Soderbergh an even richer man. We cut to Homer recruiting Bart, both spitting out some pretty hilarious faux-con-man dialogue. (“Chapterbook crowd? That’s a juicy peach. But what’s the cream?”) Homer reveals that he needs Bart to be “the Zephyr.” After both agree that it won’t be like Kansas City, Bart is in.
More stylish font announcing The Crew. First, there’s Seymour, who knows how tweens think. Then there’s Patty Bouvier, who’s read enough fantasy lit to choke a hippogriff. Her shelf proves it to be true, and she accepts in Parseltongue. After bringing in Moe and Professor Frink, they have their team. Lisa overhears Homer and Bart talking about their scheme and pledges to write her own book to show them how it’s done. However, just like a real writer, she procrastinates like a champ.
Cut to The Setup, as the group meets at a Bookaccino’s to figure out their story. Patty explains that the hero is always an orphan. Skinner adds that the setting is somewhere that kids can relate to, like a school, except that it is magic. Frink says that by the end, the hero discovers that he is supernatural. The stick-figure drawing as they explain their idea is primo entertainment. Homer quickly decides that the kid will be a vampire, but Patty points out the many, many examples of Vampire Lit around them. It is so prevalent that one shelf changes from Vampire Cheerleaders to Vampire Babysitters in the time it takes for her to swing her finger across the room. After some kids mistake Moe for a troll, the team decides to make their hero a troll who goes to school under the Brooklyn Bridge. Neil Gaiman happens to be hanging out nearby and he wants in. They quickly dispatch him to find them some lunch. Meanwhile, Lisa is still procrastinating like a real writer. She continues to build pencil forts, watch online videos of kittens on the toilet, and catch up on Friday Night Lights on DVD while the team plans and writes their book.
After The Commercials, we cut to The Heist, with the team slickly walking together in suits into the Springfield Book Fair. They head to a back room where they meet with the head of TweenLit, Inc., voiced by Andy Garcia. He points out that they are missing their fake author with an inspirational tale, their Stephen King. The team decides to find a sap to be their fake author. Cut to Lisa entering the book fair and a splash screen marking her as The Front. Homer approaches her and she is in, as long as she doesn’t have to do any actual writing. This should go without saying at this point, but I’ll say it, anyway: just like a real writer. We cut the The Score, where Lisa lays on a thick story for Garcia’s character, and he cuts them all a check for a cool million and 00/100. Cue the splash screen proclaiming The Payday.
When the advance copy arrives, however, the trolls have been changed to vampires. The team is aghast that the publisher could change the singular vision of seven people like that. Gaiman points out that the team is feeling pride of authorship. The team decides to steal back their book. Cue The Actual Heist. Their plan is to switch the vampirized version of their novel for the original before publication. The split screens of various heist-style shenanigans are the least amusing part of the episode. While the rest of the gags have some thrust to them, they cross the line into cute pandering to the audience. Fortunately, they are over in about ten seconds. As they make their way to the computer to upload their manuscript, Andy Garcia steps out with a bunch of thugs and tells them that they have been betrayed by one of their own. Lisa steps out from the shadows, admitting that she could not resist the allure of being a famous author. It's Kansas City all over again.
Lisa hugs Bart and then inserts the thumb drive while Garcia enters his password to make the novel print. The team leaves, dejected, but they notice that the Bookaccino’s across the street is stocking their original novel. Lisa shows up and reveals that she pretended to betray them, but secretly switched the thumb drives while Garcia was entering his password. As she explains, “I got the idea from every movie ever made.” HA! There is a scene straight out of Ocean’s Eleven as the team looks down at happy people reading their book. However, as Lisa checks the jacket, she realizes that Neil Gaiman has double-crossed them all and listed himself as the author.
Generally speaking, late season Simpsons episodes work best when they stick fairly close to the family and do not try to work the wacky jokes into the ground. This episode managed to play against that rule of thumb and still beat the bank. When the heist parody started rolling, the writers rose to the occasion, filling the screen with good-to-great gags and making a pretty good argument for the type of creativity that can result from writing by committee. They satirized the con-man cool of the Ocean’s Eleven movies and made publishers of childrens’ books out to be heartless gangsters who laugh cruelly when they decide to abridge the audio versions of their books. It wasn’t quite as sleek a machine as the greatest of the great Simpsons episodes, but this was a worthy entry into their pantheon. And that, my friends, is truly saying something.
Stray observations (Ah, who am I kidding? This is for funny lines):
- “These aren’t dinosaurs! Dinosaurs sing!”
- “The point of the dinosaurs is: no matter what we do, an asteroid is going to wipe us out. So we should party hard and wreck the place!”
- “Everybody knows you got the idea for the series after an explosion at a crumpet factory knocked you off a double-decker bus. How could that be made-up?”
- Angelina Buttons and the Mystery of Secrets
- The Winkles of Elfinshire
- The Winkles of Elfinshire 2: Blood Rage
- Nursing Home Gnome Goes To Nome
- The Body Snatcher in the Rye
- Percy Sledge and the Olympians
- Cloud Atlas 2: Cumulus Rising
- Finnegan’s Wake and Zombies
- “You’re group-writing a book? But the only reason anyone would ever do that is (gasp) profit!”
- Polyamorous Android
- Are you there Glycon? It’s Me Alan Moore
- Being and Nothingness and Zombies
- To Kill A Mockingjay
- Death To Freezeframers
- Vampire Cheerleaders
- Buffy the Vampire Be-er
- Southern Vampires
- As I Lay Undying
- As I Lay Undying II
- A Condeaderacy of Dunces
- Chat Roulette with the Vampire
- Vampire Frankensteins
- Vampire Babysitters
- The Vamp That Rocks The Cradle
- Shaun White: Snow Vampire
- Vampire Princesses
- Angela Button and the Marmalade of Destiny
- ‘Troll Sexting Called Texting’
- The Frying of Latke 49 by Thomas Pynchon (It’s a recycled joke, but still a good one)
- The Girl With the ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ Tattoo
- Cocktail Party Make-You-Thinks by Malcolm Gladwell
- What To Expect When You’re Expectorating
- Evil Woman by E.L.O. Doctorow
- My Standup Act In Bookform by Jerry Seinfeld
- The Porpoise Driven Life
- The Barefoot Contessa’s Ringworm Solution
- Sit Stay Love by Rufus
- “Is R.L. Stine here? Because you just gave me goosebumps.” “Ha ha, good one, boss!”
- “If you don’t want your words changed, write a screenplay! We own your book! So why don’t you go cry into your million-dollar check?”
- “British Fonzie is right.”
- “Rule Number One of book heist: never fall in love with the book!”
- “I got the idea from every movie ever made.” Maybe it was the delivery, but that line killed me.