The strongest episode of The Simpsons’ 25th season so far, “Steal This Episode” avoids a few pitfalls the show has been more prone to stumble into in later years, provides a double-handful of funny lines and gags, and actually seems invested in telling a coherent story from beginning to end. Not classic Simpsons by any yardstick, but certainly a welcome respite from what has been a streak of fairly dire late-run episodes.
The setup has Homer, desperate to avoid the incessant spoilers from coworkers, media, and passers-by about the new Radioactive Man movie, finally breaking down and paying multiplex prices, only to see his movie experience ruined by the various crimes against humanity that constitute contemporary cinema etiquette. Texting, sexting, talking, pre-movie commercials, babies at a 9 p.m. screening—Homer’s mad as hell and, snapping his 3D glasses in protest, he’s not gonna take it anymore! [Not to go off on a rant here, but as a lifelong film geek to whom the theater is as close to a sacred space as I have (well, maybe Fenway Park), it’s hard not to both sympathize and to hope that Homer’s crusade will shame some of you people into shutting the hell up and leaving your damned cell phones at home. Ahem.]
Anyway, while Homer has certainly been egregiously guilty of similar offenses in the past, his zeal here is at least logically consistent with his desire to see this particular movie. Homer’s character from the start has been a template upon which the show has projected its satirical takes on the adult American male—here, as is often the case, it’s Homer’s entitled desire to have something be just the way he wants it that drives the plot and his characterization. From there, it’s an easy leap to have Homer corrupted (by Bart, of course) into illegally downloading the presumably dark ‘n’ gritty Radioactive Man Re-Rises—Homer wants what he wants, thinks he deserves it, and rationalizes his actions by harping on all the things that weren’t exactly as he’d have them be. That, underneath all the jokes about Homer being fat/dumb/a food monster/etc., is the satirical sweet spot that the show can strike when guided by a strong hand—in this case, credited writer J. Stewart Burns.
Not that there’s not plenty of silliness. It’s The Simpsons, after all. But it’s encouraging that the episode made surprisingly deft use of what could have been a surfeit of “celebrities playing themselves” cameos, incorporating them into the story in a way the show sometimes fails to do. When Homer, emboldened by his initial download, sets up a neighborhood pirate theater in the backyard to screen Judd Apatow’s new comedy Life Is Funny, the expected jabs at Apatow’s writing and directing foibles also serve to further the plot. Because it makes sense that this fictitious Apatow would take personal offense that bootlegged copies of his movies omit his signature director’s commentaries, to name but one egregious crime. Sure, Homer’s description of the film as “based on his life, starring his family and ad-libbed by his friends” (and three-and-a-half hours long) is the joke we are expecting, but the fact that noted Simpsons fan Apatow is game for such pointed (and, yes, accurate) criticism is, like the Apatow-produced This Is The End, both funny and cathartic. (The running gag about Apatow continually casting Paul Rudd as his handsomer screen surrogate lands nicely as well.)
So when the crack government anti-piracy squad (humorously voiced by Will Arnett in full sinister guy mode) raids the Simpsons’ backyard and hauls Homer away in order to stand trial in front of a gallery full of Hollywood bigwigs, the ensuing debate over the relative evils of pirating/bootlegging movies allows for a fruitful skewering of both sides. Hollywood studios’ creative accounting claims that nearly all movies lose money. Homer doesn’t see why his hard-earned money should go to pampering all of Hollywood’s “Air Buds and Ray Liottas.” Studios pretend that making only billions and billions of dollars rather than billions and billions and billions of dollars makes their cause as important as, if one may say, real crime. (Arnett’s commandos have better accommodations than do anti-terrorism and anti-drug units, for example.) Homer thinks he deserves the full moviegoing experience for free because, well, people talk at the movies and studios make a lot of money.
There’s no clear winner, which, as is usually the case, makes for more interesting comedy. As in a previous episode this year, The Simpsons demonstrates the virtue of taking shots at all sides of an issue, puncturing hypocrisies and sloganeering as opposed to simply honking away on a pet issue. Instead, the episode uses go-to punching bag FOX as the villain, having the parent network hastily edit in NASCAR footage whenever anything too anti-corporate rears up. And the denouement, with Homer’s impassioned plea to the court swaying the judge (and more importantly, Apatow) with its movie-friendly narrative of a little guy fighting a big corporation, which is then turned (by a big corporation) into a movie about a little guy fighting a big corporation—well, that’s the sort of satirically clever ending the show hasn’t pulled off all year.
- In a move clearly inspired by my season-long griping about overlong couch gags, the episode dispenses with the opening sequence and couch gag entirely, launching into the story immediately. Sure, it might have been because the football game ran long, but, nope—I’m sure it was due to my incessant complaining.
- Seriously, though, I can’t recall that being done before. Anyone?
- Homer, trying to avoid spoilers while at the urinal, tries to talk down his suddenly shy penis, promising, “I’ll do that thing you like,” which could have come off as smutty, but Homer’s desperately earnest bargaining instead seems just right for the character. He really is at war with most of his organs.
- Even Milhouse’s Happy Meal toy is spoiler-rific: “I turn out to be a good guy—I die but come back to life after the credits!”
- Homer, angry at the theatergoing experience: “What happened to movies? First they got worse than TV, and now this!”
- Burns gets all my admiration for the term “deboot”—a movie that undoes all the things we didn’t like from the previous movie. Much more accurate and necessary than “reboot.”
- Signature Arnett line reading goodness: “I’m here to arrest and hopefully stage the prison suicide of Homer Simpson.”
- Bart disarms the copyright commandoes by starting up the pirated movie: “Aaaah—copyrighted material! Someone sell me a ticket!”
- “It’s not even the worst kind of pirate Dad’s ever been.”
- “You promised to love, honor, and abet me!” “I never wanted to say funny vows!” “But you did! And they got laughs—solid laughs!”
- Carl and Lenny like the new James Bond reboot since: Bond is ugly now, he doesn’t use gadgets, he can’t shoot well, and he doesn’t do James Bond-type things.
- Sweden really doesn’t respect film copyrights? Live and learn.
- I leave it to my more metallic readers to debate whether Judas Priest is actually death metal. I’ll just be over here.
- Lenny also likes pirating movies as it “combines the wonder of moviegoing with the rush of stealing.”
- As hinted at in today’s What’s On Tonight, I do indeed work in one of our nation’s few remaining video stores. What’s really killing us (and theaters) is less piracy than the desire expressed by Homer for entertainment devoid of human interaction—a sedentary, controlled, complete isolation. It’s creepy (and creeping), America—come on outside! Go to a movie, talk about it afterward, get a recommendation on what to see not from an algorithm but that nice, scruffy film geek at your local video store! C’mon outside, people—entertainment is meant to be a shared, communal experience!