Don’t panic. Character continuity emerges triumphant in “Dark Knight Court,” in which Mr. Burns becomes a crime-fighting superhero named Fruit Bat Man. He’s not in the game for truth or justice, but for the chance to strut around in a cape and collect huzzahs from the hoi polloi. When he does something useful at the end of the episode and is on the verge of collapsing from exhaustion, he asks his sidekick (or enabler) Waylon Smithers, “Which side won, good or evil?” Told that good has prevailed, he’s genuinely curious: “And which side was I on?”
Aside from Mr. Burns’ mockery of Batman tropes and superhero ethics, “Dark Knight Court” busies itself with a parody of legal dramas, as Bart is hauled in front of a “youth court” (i.e., a shadow legal system that puts regular characters in roles that ordinarily require law degrees) and tried for filling certain instruments with raw eggs ahead of the marching band’s Easter concert. (Martin Prince: “Who could have shoved eggs up our brass?”) The judge is former attorney general Janet Reno, a past-sell-date celebrity guest who has irritating, kind of self-deprecating lines like, “God, I love gavelling.” Reno does set up one of the better “open the door” courtroom jokes I’ve seen, telling defense attorney Lisa, “Your grandstanding summation contained a grievous error. By calling your brother ‘sweet’ and ‘lovable,’ you opened the door to testimony from anyone who doesn’t think he’s sweet and lovable.” Prosecuting attorney Seymour Skinner is unusually quick on the uptake: “The prosecution calls everyone in the world.”
For a moment, it looks like we’re in for a reprise of the Seinfeld finale, but the Simpsons writers show some restraint and go no further than putting Moe in the witness box to relive the trauma of Bart calling his bar and asking for “Mike Rotch,” leading Moe to call out to his inebriated patrons, “Has anyone seen my crotch?” Moe’s testimony drags on more than it needs to, but it’s funny because it would be in character for Moe to put on a clutching-of-pearls act just to screw with Bart. (Which is why I could have done without the later gag that repeats the revisionist idea that Moe is terrified, rather than incensed by Bart’s prank calls.)
While this is going on, Mr. Burns living out his childhood fantasy of traipsing in tights, thinking that he’s foiling robberies and kidnappings all over Springfield when Smithers is actually paying people to pose as hapless victims and hopelessly inept criminals. There are some groaners in the Batman parody department. When the Bat Signal is turned on, there's the far-off image of a plane flying into it, and we hear “What the hell is that?” as the aircraft plummets into a ball of flame. This is part of the lazy sick humor I’ve often criticized this season, with people falling to their deaths as a placeholder joke. (The bird’s view of Springfield that opens the title sequence often goes this route; this week the Easter Bunny and a leprechaun collide in mid-air and apparently disintegrate.)
More original is the way Mr. Burns’ long-established physical frailty is built into his superhero persona. He can swoop safely to the ground from the top of skyscrapers because he has the body weight of a damp leaf, an attribute that compensates for the pieces of his costume that keep falling off or down. “I am the squeak in the mirror, the flutter in the chimney, the tiny teeth marks on the peach,” he boasts to an alleged evil-doer. “Feel the weightless tickle of justice,” he tells another.
The two storylines merge when Lisa calls upon Mr. Burns to help unmask the real person responsible for the fusillade of raw eggs at the Easter celebration. In Fargo fashion, he’s discovered tending a wood chipper. (You get one guess.) Fruit Bat Man delivers the culprit to the courtroom and saves Bart from… well, the marching band has earlier formed the image of Bart and a noose on the Simpsons’ front lawn, but I don’t know if Principal Skinner would go that far.
Mr. Burns returns to form at the end of the episode, when Lisa suggests that tenting his fingers and uttering his trademark exclamation of “excellent” may not fit his superhero image. “Maybe I should wrap them around your gabby little throat,” he responds.
Earlier this season, I wrote that Mr. Burns was getting tiresome as a character. So though “Dark Knight Court” isn’t necessarily the funniest episode of the season, it is one of the most pleasantly surprising.
- “Fruit Bat Man” is the spelling in a newspaper headline, so I’m going with it. I don’t know why he still has a capital “B” on his chest.
- We get a rare flashback to Mr. Burns’ childhood in this episode: His father, angry over little Monty’s infatuation with superheroes, buys a comic book publishing company just to burn it to the ground. (“Why did you have to lock us in?” calls out someone from the inferno.) I don’t know who voices the father, but he looks and sounds to me like John Cullum. Could this be an homage to Mr. Cladwell, the Burns-like villain that Cullum played in the musical Urinetown?
- More better sick humor: Mr. Burns at the Easter celebration saying, “Look at those delightful children, Smithers. All those healthy organs ripe for the harvest.” Also to Smithers, when he’s spotted half out of his costume by Lisa: “A civilian! She mustn’t know I’m a superhero. Gouge her eyes out.”
- Are my ears going, or did Skinner accuse Bart of “wantonly egging this town with Milhouse aforethought?”
- Justified spit take of the episode: Bart, after Lisa proclaims, “Just remember this: A Simpson never gives up.” Even Marge finds this hilarious.
- Cletus holding a feathered victim of the egg attack: “Eggs don’t belong in a chicken’s eye. It belongs in her pee-poo bird’s hole.” Please go off and die, Spuckler Family.
- I never watched The Cape, so it’s up to you guys to point out any affectionate or snide allusions to it.