(Photo: Fox)

“What did I tell you about blood-toasts, Bob?”

Time for a critical confession. Watching a present-era Simpsons episode is often a checklist exercise. The show has always worked from a certain template, but, when the show was better, its programmatic narrative nature was either obscured by great jokes or used as a launching pad to inventive variation. As time’s gone on, however, that framework has become more visible through the often thin, patchwork skin of the mediocre, perfunctory stories and jokes laid over it, and evaluation turned into the impatient, irritated checklist of the skeptical inspector. As someone who loves The Simpsons—and someone paid to hide his irritation and evaluate each outing on its own merits—I feel like I’ve done an okay job at maintaining a disinterested remove over the past five seasons of reviews. But sometimes a good deal of effort goes into that.

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Watching “Gone Boy,” I started my usual checklist—and then saw that I was using the wrong one. Or, rather, I was continually checking off boxes that too often just don’t come into play. A coherent narrative throughline—check. Carefully nurtured extended gags—check. Lines that actually made me laugh out loud—a handful of checks. Couple all that with a refreshing lack of atonal jokes that either violate the show’s spirit or pander glibly to pop cultural ephemera, and even a halfway decent repurposed Christmas couch gag, and I found that, by the end of “Gone Boy,” I’d had a uniformly good time watching The Simpsons.

And none of that takes into account that this is a Sideshow Bob episode, something even the weakest Simpsons seasons can’t ever completely screw up. Kelsey Grammer makes his 21st appearance as Springfield’s most erudite would-be murderer (he’s never successfully killed anyone, right?), another reliably funny, tongue-tripping treat. It’s a pleasure enhanced by the fact that Bob’s story here, while marked by his signature oversized villainy (there is an ICBM involved), is contained in a more-or-less logical overall narrative, and contains just enough of glimmers of the self-awareness that keep pulling the ex-sidekick back from outright monstrousness. Even the callback to his most rightly famous physical gag isn’t sour, since Bob, thinking his chance to kill nemesis Bart has irrevocably passed him by, brings it down on himself. Grammer bellowing to the heavens, “Lord, why do you kill things that I want to kill!? Take me now, vile rake!,” followed by Bob repeatedly raking himself in the coconut and uttering that inimitable sound of utter contempt? Priceless.

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But for a Sideshow Bob episode to take place, we’ve got to get Bob out of Springfield Penitentiary, and the script (credited to John Frink, who deserves some sort of medal) bothers to come up with a better excuse than “Bob escapes, again.” Picking up highway litter as part of a prison work gang, Bob is incensed when the sleepy Homer scatters the convicts’ hard work all over the place with his rental SUV. (Cue patiently constructed banana peel on the head gag/inimitable sound of disgust/slip on banana peel/repeat inimitable sound of disgust joke structure.) The episode has to set Bart and Krusty on a collision course, and Frink puts effort into the necessity, having Homer’s anger at accidentally leaving too much gas in his rental send him on a very Homer-like quest to run the needle down to the halfway point out of spite. Why are the Simpsons in a rental? No reason, except that it allows Homer to similarly relish in the “little guy” freedom from responsibility of caring for the machine, leaving it littered with trash and asking Marge if she wants to trim Santa’s Little Helper in it. (He even produces some dog-clippers, which is the right sort of absurd Homer gag.)

So Homer takes the bored Bart on a jaunt far into the Springfield-adjacent woodlands, so that Bart can fall down a long-forgotten SAC missile silo while taking a pee. Sure, your tolerance for “Bart taking a pee” jokes might vary, but even here Frink tosses in the fact that Bart’s first preferred spot is right in the view of a life-drawing class, and that the manhole he uncovers has a stern “Do not jump on” legend on it. It’s the little things. With Bart stuck in an underground bunker (his way initially lit by one of his gimmicky illuminated sneakers, in another nice touch), Homer has to break the news to Marge that he’s lost their son, soft-pedaling the announcement with the strategic feint about that sewing room she’s always wanted. The ensuing search sees Wiggum similarly attempt to ease Marge into the bad news, as he asks her gingerly, “Can you describe your son’s skeleton?” Springfield’s incompetent cops might be a running gag, but the fact that Wiggum has laid out his search grid with actual, searcher-crippling tripwires finds a clever new way to make the old joke, too.

(Photo: Fox)

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So, too, when Bob learns of Bart’s disappearance, as Frink allows Grammer plenty of chances to express his conflicted agony at the news. The script also flanks Bob with a couple of well-realized minor characters who provide more shades to his prison existence than we usually get. The chain gang guard who’d been belittling his charges as “ladies,” switches to “maggots,” leaving Bob to question the change. “You’re lady-maggots,” the guard answers, defensively. And Bob’s comically even-tempered prison therapist, after his well-intentioned arts and craft technique finds him stabbed by the apologetically fleeing Bob, muses wryly, “Why do I keep giving them scissors?” (He also thanks the repentant Bob for checking in later, saying, “Most prisoners rarely follow up after leaving me to die.”)

Bob finds Bart with Mihouse’s help, a briskly sketched confluence of events that plays like economy rather than glibness. Milhouse, having found Bart’s underground prison (and accidentally smashing his cellphone—it is Milhouse) is derailed in his mission to get help by a longed-for hug from the grieving Lisa. When he’s intercepted by Bob (“Hello, Bart... ’s friend,” Bob catches himself upon catching Milhouse from the shadows), Bob secures his cooperation by threatening him with “light operetta.” “How light?,” MIlhouse asks fearfully, in another fine little nod to the character’s history that made me laugh. (Bob breaks out into the lesser Gilbert and Sullivan, “The Yeoman Of The Guard” to show that he means business.)

Little things. Little touches. Care. Patience. A lack of distractingly unrealized subplots. When Homer tries to get Santa’s Little Helper to sniff out Bart with the help of one of the boy’s socks, the episode lingers over the ensuing chase with a visual flair that makes the payoff (he happily leads them to Bart’s sock drawer) that much better. When Bob enters into a fugue state as he imagines himself at the mercy of his obsession with Bart, we cut back abruptly from his striking Saul Bass-inspired visions to see him silently contorting himself in his puzzled therapist’s office. When Bob, attempting to set off the Titan missile to which he’s tied Bart and Milhouse, stretches laboriously to turn the second safety key with his enormous foot, he has to go through it all again when he realizes he’s got the wrong key.

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When Bob has his inevitable change of heart, harmlessly (?) sending the missile to land in the Spirgfield sculpture garden sans boys, it’s at Bart’s sincere question, “Bob, why are you doing this?” (Bob’s desperate vamping that ICBM stands for “I commit Bart’s murder” is met with another sincere, “That’s your justification for murdering two kids?”) Bob will never reform, but there’s always a more rational version of him lurking underneath the decades of thwarted self-regard, and his rapprochement with his nemesis is actually as sweet a resolution as we’ve seen. Hugging each other unexpectedly, Bart asks Milhouse warily if Bob’s stabbed him in the back, while Bob asks if Bart’s stuck a “kick me” sign on his. Neither has.

(Photo: Fox)

Even in the oft-bungled areas of celebrity guests and the episode tag, “Gone Boy” sidesteps the pitfalls that could have sunk the episode. There’s no reason for Shaquille O’Neal to be tramping through the Springfield woods’ snow (except so that Homer can mistake his snowshoe tracks for Bob’s huge clompers), but the encounter takes a delightfully weird turn. Homer presses Shaq for help in such detail that Shaq gets freaked out, exclaiming, “You’re scaring me. I don’t have any money.” And, when the episode ends on a “many years later” epilogue, I actually wrote “don’t screw this up” in my notes. They don’t, the revelation that the greying Bob (exquisitely berating the Squeaky Voiced Teen mailman over the difference between his New Yorker and New York magazine), reveals that he writes his long-ago tattooed threat “Die Bart, Die” on the beach for the tide to erase every day, advising the teen, “Life is short. Don’t spend it on foolish, empty revenge.” Say what you want about The Simpsons’ history with “possible future” jokes (and I’ve said plenty), but it’s rare when one comes off not like a cheap stunt and more as a genuinely affecting summation of a character’s story.

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Stray observations

  • There’s a great runner about a bloodthirsty hunter in the woods. Stopped by his companion from shooting at the bellowing Homer, he promises that he’ll wait until the obviously pregnant creature gives birth and then return to murder them all. Later, spotting Marge and Lisa on Flanders’ snowmobile, he’s stopped again, only to sneer, “This is the last time I hunt with my lawyer.”
  • Homer, after Abe urges Homer to let him die in the woods: “You can’t die here! You have to die in a nursing home where your body falls apart while you burn through your savings until you’re a worthless vegetable. You know, with dignity.” Damn, Frink.
  • That’s Simpsons guest voice all-star (just make him a cast member already) Kevin Michael Richardson leading the prisoners’ work song, where they reveal they’re being used as slave labor for four cents an hour. Paging Ava DuVernay.
  • In the background of the search party, Luigi is looking for Bart using a slice of pizza on a fishing pole as bait.
  • Agnes Skinner was apparently Playdude’s “Miss Cold War.”
  • Bart discovering an old hand-crank phone and using it to call Moe’s asking for “Tess T. Colls”? Classic.
  • Fixing the fragile phone, he manages one more interrupted call to the grieving Marge, who answers his “Still married?” with an overjoyed, “Oh my God, he’s alive! And sassy!”
  • Homer, observing Marge’s candle-heavy bedroom shrine to the missing Bart: “He’s never gonna come back if he thinks it’s a church.”
  • Kent Brockman does an election-style poll that proves Bart is definitely dead, moving on to a map and announcing, “Now let’s look at the districts where he’s deadest.”
  • In the bunker, Bart watches JFK’s “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” speech and muses, “Doesn’t sound like any president I know.”

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