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Monday, November 21, 2011

The Simpsons: "The Book Job"

I’ve never reviewed The Simpsons in this space before, mostly because it’s settled into an understandable rut in its third decade on the air. But on those exceedingly rare occasions when the writers find a new story to tell and a new way to tell it, The Simpsons shows why I and so many others will be so upset when it finally does go off the air.

The Book Job combines two elements, a satire on young-adult literature and a pastiche of heist movies, to fantastic success. The episode kicks into the main plot when Lisa discovers that the author of her favorite book series (the Potter-like Angelica Button books) is actually a fake, a hired actress paid to front for an anonymous hive of out-of-work lit majors crowd-sourcing bestsellers formulated along market-tested guidelines. (This isn’t so far off from the truth by the way, as evinced by the recent magazine articles about James Frey’s factory-produced teen lit.)

Lisa is devastated that anyone would write just to make money, but Homer, his head full of big ideas from his Jetski Wanter magazine, smells an opportunity. He and Bart concoct a plan to produce their own publishing sensation. After a very cleverly written scene at the arcade, where Homer cryptically promises Bart that this scheme won’t be “another Kansas City”, father and son gather Principal Skinner, Selma, Moe and Professor Frink into a superteam. With the guidance of guest star Neil Gaiman they discover that all the big book world hits are about orphans with special abilities. Dismissing vampires as overdone, the gang hit on an idea about twin trolls who attend a high school under the Brooklyn Bridge.

Along the way, The Simpsons also takes shots at so-called “real” writers. Lisa, spurred by her outrage, sets out to write a true novel of her own. Right after she finishes Friday Night Lights on DVD and plays a few more games of Boggle online. Lisa’s self-recriminations and rationalizations (“A hard deadline will be just the thing to get me to do some real writing.”) will sound familiar to everyone who has stared at a blank computer screen, not sure where to start.

Eventually the show settles into a fairly rote and predictable twist ending, which it then rescues by pointing out how trite that ending is. (Lisa: “I got the idea from every movie ever made.”)

The Simpsons is well past its prime, but it still has many of the elements needed for a great comedy, and it’s cause for celebration when it marshals them together as well as it did in The Book Job.

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