“I can only solve impossible crimes if I’m seducing an amazing woman. It’s my process.”
At this point in its record-setting run, The Simpsons is entitled—encouraged, even—to muck about with its format all it wants. Here, the series’ traditional linear sitcom storytelling style is upended, from the classic theme song right on through. Starting out with Homer, fancy duds and ping pong paddle at the ready, bidding millions of dollars for Joan Miró’s abstract painting The Poetess, being outbid by first Mr. Burns and then “billionaire tech mogul” Megan Matheson (Cecily Strong), and, enraged, being dragged out by security bellowing, “Don’t take that painting, I love it!”—clearly, there’s a mystery here. Both as to the hows and whys of Homer J. Simpson being involved in high-end art intrigue, and to what form this rejiggering of the Simpsons formula is taking. It’s neat.
Now here’s where we refresh our memories on the 1970s TV series Banacek.
Played by a pre A-Team George Peppard, Banacek was a swinging seventies insurance investigator. Sort of like a TV copy of 1968's The Thomas Crown Affair, but with Banacek basically being a mix of Steve McQueen’s stylish, slick art thief and Faye Dunaway’s investigator out to catch him. That tracks beyond the fact that Banacek’s cool bachelor mansion was the same one McQueen’s Crown hung out in, and because it makes sense that the roguish, self-impressed Banacek would fall in love with himself during the chase. He drove a groovy antique roadster, loved all the lovely ladies, and roamed through the halls of the wealthy cracking wise in all his turtlenecked, polyester splendor.
Yeah, I remember Banacek. Vaguely.
So refashioning a standard Simpsons episode around one Manacek (voiced with signature entertaining commitment and mellow verve by Bill Hader) investigating the theft of The Poetess is... a choice. As a stunt, it’s fun enough, especially with Hader channeling every 70s cool shamus cliché. There’s a running gag about suspects responding to Manacek’s cocksure questioning with hostility (usually at gunpoint) before invariably softening with a begrudging, “I like you, Manacek.” As an aficionado of such shows (well, Columbo mostly), the episode’s recreation of overlong, time-gobbling establishing shots is a nicely observed touch. And Hader gets to say snappy stuff like, “For a woman with a head for numbers... it doesn’t add up.” Having the requisite showdown with the local fuzz, Manacek does the same to Wiggum who responds angrily, “See? He put that pause between those two words deliberately!” That Manacek.
So far so good, and the episode’s attempt to have a Lisa-Homer bonding story bloom in the midst of all this form-busting silliness isn’t bad, either. As Manacek’s investigation proceeds, we see how Homer came to be enraptured with the Miró, a round of reluctant and incompetent field trip chaperoning at the Springfield Museum Of Fine Art seeing Homer neglecting his predictably destructive charges as the abstract colors and patterns of the very real painting keep him rooted in place. Homer’s not immune to such flashes of higher feeling, and it’s always an affecting respite from his usual pell-mell stampede toward disaster and slothful buffoonery. The episode (credited to Kevin Curran) even takes the time to dive into Homer’s dreaming mind under the influence of 1940s Spanish abstraction to explore what those evocative shapes represent in his still Homer-esque interpretations. There are TVs and TV remotes, a drinking cup, a basketball—but the journey Homer’s mind makes in relating to this work feels real, and sort of touching. Even if Marge, upon waking the thrashing Homer, gets tetchy that he’s rejecting her chosen, representational artistic metiér. (“Was it grapes? Flowers? Peaches?”)
Coming to Lisa for advice in that case only makes more sense. I’m a sucker for a great Homer-Lisa adventure, and, if their shared trip to SMOFA (“Stop saying SMOFA, it never caught on,” snaps an annoyed Mayor Quimby at one point) isn’t anywhere near their most affecting, it’s sweet nonetheless. Yeardley Smith makes Lisa’s “I just want to take a moment to recognize that, for once, you’re dragging me to a museum,” encapsulate their relationship with joyful eloquence. Finding SMOFA permanently shuttered due to Springfield’s un-Homer-like indifference to beauty, and The Poetess being packed off to Gavelby’s auction house, the pair’s shared heartbreak feels real, too.
Naturally, being Homer, Homer’s plan involves using Moe for a financial reference, that ping pong paddle, and not much else, which brings us back to the beginning. As Manacek follows the clues, he sees through Homer’s plan, along with the more venal plots of both Burns and Matheson (knocking them out with a swift sock to the kisser once they pull guns on him). It’s a long-winded summation of the sort that all 1970s procedurals’ wrap-ups are made from. Except there’s one more, actually clever twist, as Manacek casually busts the frame of the priceless artwork he’s just recovered, only to reveal Lisa’s SMOFA Miró tote bag in its place. Lisa confesses that their admiration for The Poetess is “the first thing my dad and I ever had in common,” which is verifiably, irritatingly not true from a continuity standpoint, but a lovely little way to put a button on this throwback caper nonetheless. That the painting receives a place of honor at the new Springfield sports stadium Quimby bought with the proceeds of the museum’s art auction, allowing father and daughter to share their favorite things all at the same time, is, again, nice.
And if the unusual, moderately adventurous structural experimentation of the episode has to be tied to a little-regarded, short-lived TV show that someone in the Simpsons writers room had a particular soft spot for, well, okay that’s a little puzzling. But “Homer Is Where The Art Isn’t” at least tries something weird, which is encouraging enough to hope for some more of the same.
- Bart, hearing Manacek making suggestive cracks at Marge: “Hey, front-pockets, quit hittin’ on my mom.” Lisa: “She only loves one stocky man in tight pants.”
- Also Bart, upon discovering the anxious Homer has gone on the lam: “Mom! Lisa! 1970s horndog!”
- In the lovingly recreated Manacek credits, it’s revealed that Manacek is played by one Dick Pompeii, which checks out.
- Wiggum, trying to turn the rhetorical tables on the taunting Manacek: “Well two can play at that... pause.”
- After Burns refers to his ever-present snifter of booze, Manacek replies suavely, “It’s inflatable. I got it at Brookstone.”
- “Mr. Simpson, there’s more to your story than you’re letting on. And I’m gonna find it.” “Please don’t.”
- A funny joke: After Manacek sleazily suggests dinner to Marge, she agrees. Cut to: Manacek eating Frito pie at the Simpson house while the family squabbles all around him.
- Kent Brockman, announcing SMOFA’s closing, reveals that the museum’s “docents will be released into the wild.”
- “You’re freelance, you don’t get paid unless you submit an invoice!” “Which lets me control where my corporate year ends…” Right on, Manacek.
- And if you were wanted to learn more about Banacek, here’s Noel Murray on the paunchiest detective the 70s had to offer.