A MESSAGE TO those mockingjays who insist that “The Simpsons” is never as inspired as it was back in the days of yore and Season Four:
On Sunday night, they could eat Bart’s shorts.
In its 23rd season, the show can still put down the Duff beer and flex its satiric muscle. And over the weekend, with “The Book Job” episode, Fox’s historic comedy reminded that sometimes, for the full 20-plus minutes, it can lick any animated upstart in the bar.
“The Book Job’s” narrative structure was built on the intertwined DNA strands of twin targets: fantasy lit and creativity by committee. And deftly threaded throughout was a parody of the recent “Ocean’s” heist films (themselves remade from the Rat Pack’s swingin’-by-supercommittee cinematic teaming). Nodding even to such big-con films as ”The Sting,” the parody was a fount — and font — of wit.
And what guest voices do you get if you’re lampooning both Steven Soderbergh and Stephenie Meyer (among others)? “The Simpsons” landed two ideal draft picks: author Neil Gaiman and Andy Garcia (aka casino heavy Terry Benedict in “Ocean’s”).
From the one-liners of the episode’s dinosaur-show opening (reminding that a prime-time ”fossil” like “The Simpsons” still has sharp comedic bicuspids) to the final trick up “Neil Gaiman’s” dark sleeve, “The Book Job” is worthy of the show’s DVD wall of fame. To know why, let us count the reasons. To wit:
1. THE TIMELY TARGETS: With the latest “Twilight” flick debuting over the weekend to big-time bank (nearly $300-mill globally), the “Simpsons’ ” pointed swipes at the glut of vampire kid-lit had especial resonance. (Didn’t hurt, either, that George Clooney — aka Danny Ocean — was back in theaters this weekend with the critically well-received “The Descendants.”)
2. THE ICONIC CARTOON NOD: In an era when extinct print comic strips are too readily forgotten, there was a particularly sharp visual jolt when the viewer briefly saw several dinos huddling over a lighter and smokes. To most anyone so Paleolithic as to be post-kid-lit age in 2011, the image surely rung familiar: It was a swell doff of the cap to Gary Larson’s immortal “Far Side” cartoon captioned: “The real reason dinosaurs became extinct.”
[NEIL GAIMAN: On the Barnes & Noble showdown]
3. THE ZING OF TRUTH: “Simpsons” executive producer/writer Matt Selman told the LA Times that “The Book Job’s” skewering of much youth-lit publishing was based on a 2009 New Yorker piece (by Rebecca Mead) about Alloy Entertainment, the “teen-entertainment factory” behind “Gossip Girl” and “Vampire Diaries” that reportedly relies on market research, youth trends and (ghost-)writing by committee. In “The Book Job,” Homer and Bart draft an “Ocean’s”-like team of kid-lit “experts” (Skinner, Moe, Patty Bouvier) to cynically engineer a young-adult hit for profit. (Orphan? Check. Magical school? Check.) To Gaiman, by the way, they give the great “Coraline” and “Graveyard Book” writer the job of food fetch-it man; this “British Fonzie” delivers the pizza slices like so many literary morsels.
4. THE SELF-EFFACING DINOSAUR: At its best, “The Simpsons” turns the heat of the magnifying glass upon itself, as well. Although “The Book Job” was conceived by Selman and written by freelancer Dan Vebber, the executive producer has said in interviews that this was, as always, an episode written by committee. Thus, as Lisa struggles for inspiration like the very cliche of the lone, procrastinating writer, Homer and Bart’s committee approach can’t help but reflect back on the Fox comedy’s own group-room approach to creativity. The fun-house effect makes the double-edged barbs all the funnier.
5. THE WELL-CRAFTED CAMEO: Gaiman’s role is so much more than mere walk-on. Like the show’s very best guest voice performances, here Gaiman is called upon to lend true dimension to the episode. When the fantasy master is found frequenting a Barnes & Nobles-esque bookstore, offering his services as a soulless creative like some anti-Gaiman, the effect draws more satiric blood than anything that has ever circled Bella or Edward.
6. GET THEE TO A PUNNERY: Since the beginning, for viewers paying attention, the wordplay’s the thing — especially on the most excellent signage. True to classic form, “The Book Job” is a moveable feast for the visual senses. Some of our favorites from Sunday night: The title “The Girl With the ‘How To Train Your Dragon’ Tattoo”; the chain store “Bookaccino”; and the cheeky signage behind New Yorker writer (and former Postie) Malcolm Gladwell (to bring this thing full circle): “Cocktail Party Make-You-Thinks.”
7. THE EVER-QUOTABLE KILLER LINE: It’s an early guffaw when a terrified Ralph scurries under Mommy’s dress and says: “I want to go back in!” But the best line delivery of the night comes from Lisa, who — after (semi-spoiler alert) swapping flash-drives — says with gusto: “I got the idea from every movie ever made.” The joke is so insanely refractive — it nods even to Soderbergh remakes and to writing-by-committee cliches and to tired criticism of “The Simpsons” itself — that it is darn near pitch-perfect.
If you’re dodging “The Simpsons” these days only because you believe Homer and Co. should have retired by Season Nine, then you’re missing out on a resurgence. “The Simpsons” is finding immortality not by being a creative zombie, but rather by sinking its satiric teeth into fresh comedic meat.
QUOTABLE: The 20 Best Things Homer Ever Said