Image: Fox

“I love screamin’ at people who are trying their best!”

Revisiting a classic episode is almost always a temptation to be resisted on The Simpsons. (Probably in general—please chip in with your exceptions to the rule I just made up in the comments.) The lane of “Singin’ In The Lane” is of the bowling variety, and the classic episode is season seven’s “Team Homer,” where the ragtag bowling team assembled under the accidental largesse of a drugged-out Monty Burns bonded, won, lost, and finally triumphed thanks to Otto breaking some stuff. It’s a good episode (and has the subplot about Springfield Elementary’s new uniforms, which is easily one of my favorite B-stories ever), but it’s never exactly cried out for a sequel. Which shouldn’t matter, really. If someone had come up with a clever thematic reason for the Pin Pals to get back together, or even if a flimsy pretext was executed with some style and a script full of great jokes, then there’d be nothing to complain about. As it stands, though, “Singin’ In The Lane” is a pleasantly unnecessary thing, too slight for anyone to get upset at the narrative recycling.

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The original version of the story was all about the laughs, with the machinations of the plot depending on the Burns’ whims and a breakneck parade of sight and meta-gags. (That there were enough characters who’d tried to seduce spouses to field a team called the Homewreckers made the joke that much richer.) Here, sure, there are some nods in that direction. A team called The Sidekicks is doing well before their top bananas drag them off the lanes, for example. And Moe is subject to some amusing abuse as the new Pin Pals’ coach, his Gatorade victory shower turning out to be, in fact, a drink cooler filled with extra bowling balls, and an elevator shaft suicide attempt paying off both on the way down and then back up again.

That last aspect of the episode signals that this is a Moe story in the end, as he—ditched by Homer, Carl, Lenny, and Barney—latches onto the Pin Pals revival as a way to alleviate his even worse than usual depression and loneliness. I like Moe, Hank Azaria traditionally making the creepy barkeep’s perennial misery swing between dark comedy and improbable empathy. And here, sidelined from taking part in the actual bowling due to his crippling “beer pull tunnel syndrome” (Homer makes him pour many beers anyway), Moe’s position as coach gives him enough of an arc for Azaria to wring some pathos, and some laughs. Going up against some impossibly wealthy, predictably douchey hedge fund jerks in the big state finals, Moe reads an inspirational speech to the team that’s about as heartfelt as Moe gets (“You have given this lonely little man a reason to get out of bed”)—before he accidentally reveals that it’s actually a love letter to Marge.

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Screenshot: Fox

But there’s no real comic momentum to the Pin Pals’ journey up the ladder of amateur bowling success that isn’t derived from what’s come before. Burns is again the motivating force, but the fact that he offers Homer his unwanted courtside basketball tickets is even less motivated (and far less funny) than his original, ether-induced generosity. (Pops Freshenmeyer is nowhere in sight.) And the exclusion of Apu in favor of Barney is similarly tossed-off to no effect other than another perfunctory round of “Barney falls off the wagon” jokes. (Moe referring to father of eight Apu not having time since he had “his octopus” is a funny line.) The obligatory montage of the Pin Pals running roughshod over their competition is, well, obligatory, with no new ideas and a self-referential joke about how much the show spent on the montage music rights exactly the sort of gag that makes me roll my eyes.

When the big showdown with the snooty jerks comes, even the seemingly surefire snobs vs. slobs comic dynamic doesn’t pay off, with the teams’ conflict muddied by the snobs (“The Fund Bunch”) both playing mind games with Moe and urging him into an ill-defined wager. (Moe promises to give up his bar and “his name,” while the rich guys let Moe get away with the vague promise of “an experience only a rich guy can bring.”) Meanwhile, Bart is drawn to the rich dicks’ richness and dickishness, while Lisa teams up with a team of beleaguered (also ill-defined) genius nerds to enact their own psychological revenge on the rich bullies who’ve been whipping cheeseburgers at them. (There is some effort put into differentiating among the jerks, with one disdainfully answering Lisa’s horrified query about the choice of cheeseburger projectiles by explaining that the melted cheese helps the missile hold together in the air. Duh.) But the inevitable conflict between Lisa (who’s helped the nerds pinpoint the bullies’ weak spots) and Bart (who’s ready to whap his sister in the kisser with a cheeseburger) is too rushed to land, even though Yeardley Smith gives her all to Lisa’s interesting line, “Deep down, there’s something weird that connects us!”

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Image: Fox

Apart from not having a clear purpose, there are pleasures to be found in “Singin’ In The Lane.” The episode looks especially bright and crisp, and the different locations and the uniforms give the visuals an eye-catching vitality. Azaria really is quite affecting as Moe, even though lines like “I just gotta go back to the worst thing in the world—bein’ me” rely more on performance and character history for their effect, rather than the meager motivation they’re given in the episode. And credit where it’s due, as rehashes go, “Singin In The Lane” isn’t the stone bummer last season’s long-delayed return to Kamp Krusty was. Instead, this revival is simply too inconsequential to make much of an impression at all, which is its own kind of disappointing.

Stray observations

Image: Fox

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  • Oh, the couch gag is an extended fish riff called The Shrimpsons. It looks as vivid as the rest of the episode does, even as its length detracts from running time that could have been used to flesh out the story proper.
  • Moe, defending the fact that the bar’s chicken wings are not, in fact, made of chicken: “Meat’s meat. Although none of it was meat.”
  • The snooty bowling alley is in a high-rise, from which I’m pretty sure Peter Porker was seen dangling at one point. Sure.
  • “I finally found my path in life: socio-.”
  • The Pin Pals are shocked when Moe admits he did not, in fact, win the Women In Film award that it turns out he stole.
  • My favorite Moe moment was that, in his fantasy do-over life, he’s still a bartender, though he slings drinks in Paris in what looks to be Manet’s Bar At The Folies-Bergère.

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