For the second week in a row The Simpsons turns into the Moe Szyslak Show. And for the second week in a row, that works out very well indeed—even better this time out, as there’s no extraneous B-story in “The Princess Guide” to pull focus from Moe’s surprisingly affecting tale, where Springfield’s most irascible barkeep has one, nice day with a visiting African princess.
Credited to Brian Kelley (who wrote the excellent Lego episode last season), “The Princess Guide” understands the value of character comedy over busyness. Too often, modern Simpsons episodes are a cacophony of gags and unrealized storylines, which would be less of a problem if the jokes were better. Here, as in Bill Odenkirk’s “Super Franchise Me” from earlier this season, Kelley’s script gets that there’s virtue in slowing down and turning an episode over to a character for the duration. The Simpsons’ actors have been inside these characters for so long now, and know them so well, that they can make them interesting without the episode strapping them to a pair of unrelated plots and relying on the gags to keep viewers entertained. There’s a reason why, even in these later seasons, the characters still have the ability to carry an episode—even Moe.
Last week, Moe’s journey to nuclear plant inspector and back again rode on the back of Hank Azaria’s energetic performance, with Moe’s fast-talking, self-loathing jabber striking comic sparks all episode. Here, with no feeble “Marge as an Uber driver” side story to distract from all the sweet, sweet Moe, “The Princess Guide” is fully given over to watching this miserable, disreputable toad of a guy discover an ability to simply like someone and have some fun. Resting the show on Moe’s shoulders has been done before, sure—but never in so gracefully funny a manner as this. While never sacrificing Moe’s inherent and necessary misanthropy and general creepiness, the episode nonetheless builds a refreshingly warm and funny story around him. Honestly, it’s the best episode of season 26 so far.
The episode is set up ably, with Mr. Burns, still smarting from the economic disaster caused by guest billionaire Elon Musk’s do-goodery in the truly limp “The Musk Who Fell To Earth,” looking to shore up his fortunes via a uranium deal with a Nigerian king (an always-sharp Kevin Michael Richardson, last heard two weeks ago in “Walking Big & Tall”). The fact that Homer is tasked with looking after the king’s adult daughter (Yaya DaCosta, last seen as Whitney Houston in the recent Lifetime biopic) might seem nothing but a boilerplate Simpsons plot device, except that the script makes it make sense, with Smithers imagining a ruined Burns being forced to retire with him to a tropical island. (The intermittent dream sequences thereof are sort of sweet, peppered with Smithers’ wish-fulfillment. Says a blissful dream Burns, “I’m so sorry I pretended not to be gay for all those years.”)
When Homer’s plans to entertain the Princess Kemi (involving lots and lots of TV) prove inadequate to the willful young woman’s needs, he naturally takes her to Moe’s, where she and Springfield’s grubbiest barkeep proceed to have one of the sweetest relationships in recent Simpsons memory. There are a lot of potholes to steer around, something Kelley does deftly. Moe, self-described in the past as a supporter of “most any prejudice you can name,” confines his suspicions of Kemi to her nation of Nigeria, thanks to his recent swindling at the hands of a fake Nigerian scammer on the Internet (“I was sure the guy was on the level because of his bad spelling and grammar.”) And Kemi’s kindness to Moe even makes sense, as Moe’s constitutional inability to defer to anyone regardless of social status is a tonic to her desire to see the real world. But what sells the pairing more than anything else is the performing chemistry between Azaria and DaCosta as they play off each other with a genuine warmth (while maintaining Moe’s status as grumpy, irrational weirdo, and never abandoning Kemi’s royal remove entirely.)
There’s no way these two crazy kids are going to end up together, and they don’t, with Kemi’s innocent, grateful smooch to Moe’s forehead being blown up into scandal by a loathsome paparazzo. (“Oh, this is vague stuff! Vague stuff!,” crows an excited celebrity reporter.) What does happen is that they both enjoy each others’ company, Moe takes Kemi on a tour of Springfield’s singularly unimpressive sights, and she expresses a sincere appreciation to Moe for treating her like a regular person. It’s sweet, while never abandoning how odd Moe is, allowing Azaria, for the second week in a row, to make the case that Moe is his best character on The Simpsons. After Kemi falls asleep in the bar’s backroom, Moe tucks himself in (under the pool table felt) on top of the bar, and Kemi overhears him repeating Moe’s sleepytime lullaby poem to himself:
Goodnight jukebox that won’t play a tune.
Goodnight bugs crawling up my legs.
Goodnight princess who treats me nice.
It’s the simplicity of that last line that—despite all the Moe-tastic grossness of the other details of Moe’s life—wins Kemi over, and cements just why the core of loneliness and diminished expectations at the center of Moe’s otherwise lousy personality can be so affecting. Moe and Kemi have some great exchanges throughout the episode, with their give-and-take banter believably affectionate (and funny) without ever losing sight of the fact that they’re not meant for each other in any meaningful way. She’s happy to find someone who won’t bow and scrape to her (“Okay, just one scrape,” concedes Moe), and he likes that she talks to him like a person (unlike every other woman in the world not fascinated by the new and very, very unusual.) When Moe, offering to take Kemi on a tour of the town, asks if she likes hanging onto a guy while he drives a vintage scooter around, he responds to her “yes” with an excited, “To the scooter store!” Moe doesn’t have a scooter, but clearly his conception of having a nice time with a woman he likes involves a scooter ride. So, off to the scooter store. Perfect.
Meanwhile, Burns’ negotiations with the king (less a B-story than something funny going on at regular intervals) plays out with similar comic freshness. Aided immeasurably by Harry Shearer and Richardson’s interplay, there are unexpected laughs everywhere, from Burns happily slurping the monkey brains the king mistakenly thought an insulting stereotype, to Burns genuinely insulting the king by offering him one goat in exchange for Nigeria’s mineral rights. (They finally settle on 20 million goats, a gag whose absurdity escalates with the king’s, “Okay, but no dogs described as goats.”)
In the end, Kemi goes back to her life, leaving Moe with some of Nigeria’s “most beloved, albeit depressing literature” (including Things Fall Apart, which is pretty great), and Moe comforts a depressed Smithers over the impossible loves they know, deep down, they’ll never realize. “Here’s to suffering in silence,” he says, a closing epitaph all the sadder for the glimmer of happiness both of them got.
- “And she trashed my bar! Oh, wait, she actually cleaned up a little bit.”
- The king, horrified at Homer’s news that he has two daughters: “A woman has allowed you to sire her children?” Homer: “Well, there was beer involved.”
- This week in Springfield Nuclear’s incompetence: at one point there’s just a guy pulling endless cats out of a pipe in the background.
- “Yes! That prayer I forgot to say has been answered!”
- Jezebel, jumping on the royal scandal bandwagon: “Woman Kisses Man, Yuck!”
- Moe’s perfectly elongated “Whaaaaaat?” after Kemi reveals she is not romantically interested in him is followed by the king’s equally on-target, “Why has he made the ancient tribal sound of confusion?”
- Moe, after Kemi describes her kiss to Moe’s forehead like Snow White kissing Dopey: “Not this comparison again.”
- Hardly any Simpsons in this episode of The Simpsons, but Lisa’s response to Smithers is just right:
Never dream big, it’ll blow up in your face.
You’re talking to a girl who wants to pursue a career in jazz.
- And Homer’s Radar O’Reilly-style lunchroom finagling to turn his one corn chip into a lovely salad for Lisa is quite sweet.
- Mr. Burns’ old-timey awfulness is always funny. Here, his contributions to “bring your daughter to work day” are a lunch of “bison with lake beaver, and a piece of orangewood to bite down on during childbirth.”
- “Don’t eat those eggs! We don’t know what kind of bird they turn into.”
- The tag, with a seemingly-aged Moe still sighing over his one, perfect day looks like another of the Futurama-style sci-fi gags this season’s been prone to before Moe reveals that it’s only been three years. “Man, have I been aging badly.”
- That being said, Burns apparently has a warehouse full of clones of himself.
- However, this season’s infatuation with billionaires continues apace, with Richard Branson showing up as Burns’ chipper, Flanders-style neighbor. At least he’s more enthusiastic than Elon Musk was.
- “I can’t even trust you to watch an impetuous adult who does what she wants!”
- In addition to Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Home And Exile, Kemi leaves Moe with Ben Okri’s The Famished Road and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s The Thing Around Your Neck, all genuine works of Nigerian literature. Honestly, I imagine Moe’s going to read them.