Last night, Fox aired the best Simpsons episode in at least a few years. I’d know, because I’ve been watching most of them.
Unlike most people, I don’t think The Simpsons should go off the air. Of course it’s not as good as it once was, but I’ve come to like Springfield and its residents enough that its mere continued existence doesn’t cause me great anxiety, and I don’t need a rift in the space-time continuum to help me pretend like the last 10 years or so never happened. The occasional hits and familiarity with the characters is enough to keep me coming back for 22 whole minutes a week without spontaneously causing me to forget the show’s glory years. Last night, Groening and Co. hit it out of the park.
Like anyone writing anything about late-era Simpsons, I must start by saying that last night’s episode, “Steal This Episode,” is not as good as anything from the season 3-9ish heyday, but it avoids most of the pitfalls the show has fallen into of late. There’s no extremely long couch gag (there’s none at all), there’s no B-story that doesn’t get fleshed out enough to complain about, the guest stars complement, rather than dominate the story. In fact, I didn’t even realize Will Arnett—one of acting’s most distinct evil-guy voices—was in the episode until I read about it online. It even managed to use, but not abuse, guest starring roles from Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow.
A very quick recap in case you didn’t see it (and you probably didn’t, because who watches The Simpsons anymore?): Lenny and Carl are excitedly discussing the new Radioactive Man movie around the water cooler when Homer walks up. Like seemingly half of the Internet when it comes to hit movies, TV shows, or whatever, Homer desperately tries to avoid hearing spoilers. He takes the whole family to see the movie ($72 for 2 adults, 2 kids, and a senior citizen with a mind like a baby so he should be free) and is outraged when there’s in-movie ads he can’t skip (if he wanted that, he’d buy Hulu Plus).
Bart then teaches him how to illegally download movies (is that legal?) from Bootleg Bay, and Homer is soon screening the latest Judd Apatow flick at his backyard Cinema Pirate-diso. After Marge and her oversized conscience tip off the FBI, Homer goes on the run, eventually seeking asylum in the Swedish consulate (or embassy, depending on who you ask). Homer is eventually wrangled by Arnett’s character, the head of the FBI’s Movie Piracy division, and only gets off when Apatow decides to turn Homer’s underdog story into a Hollywood blockbuster.
The episode is a smart commentary on the state of piracy today: Everybody does it from time to time, right? But people are increasingly skittish about talking about it. With cheap, legal means of consuming media like Netflix, Spotify, Steam, and yes, Hulu Plus, consumers are finally at the point where they’d generally rather go through legal means rather than pirate something. When Homer causes a riot in a police wagon when he tells a drug trafficker what he’d done, I was instantly reminded of several recent Reddit threads where piracy was actively discouraged or slandered.
It also takes a swipe at spoiler-phobia, a word I just made up but that you’ve all encountered, a thing that’s got to just go away eventually, right?
Add in a classic letter to movie execs from Marge, who wants to thank Hollywood for its “terrific ratings system (‘G’ for “good,” “PG” for “pretty good” and ‘R’ for “rotten") and pay for watching the movie (the neighbors said they’d never pay for a movie again), the always-good Simpsons sight gags (Elon Musk-flavored Axe Spray, an FBI sign that says STOP VHS Copying, DVD Ripping, Internet downloading), and a Swedes-like-death-metal gag (it reminds them of death), and you’ve got the smartest, most cohesive episode of The Simpsons in recent memory.
You can watch it on Hulu Plus or, you know, download it illegally.