Episode 6 - The Book Job
24 November 2011
Synopsis: Lisa is outraged to learn that her favourite author doesn't exist. Instead she is just a marketing creation to help sell books. Homer is delighted by the thought of this easy way to make money so he gathers a team to create one. He, Bart, Patty, Skinner, Moe, Frink and Neil Gaiman work swiftly while Lisa, who threatens to write her own authentic book, procrastinates.
The Good: This was one of the best Simpsons episodes in recent seasons. That isn't to say it was particularly funny or logical. However by aping the Ocean's Eleven heist formula the plot flew along at a good clip and finished with a neat twist ending.
It's sad that the writers needed to adopt so much from other genres to put together a good story but this was one nonetheless. Homer and Bart's team, motivated by profit, put together a book in good time while Lisa finds the process very tough on her own. The montages were effective at showing how a team supported one another while an individual finds it easy to procrastinate.
The satire of teen fantasy novels was ok (see The Bad). It provided a basic framework to drive the plot forward and provided an easy to understand evil corporation for the gang to fight against. The heist structure of the episode was even more helpful, giving us a shorthand explanation for how the team were going to operate. That formula made the twist ending seem very appropriate and managed to explain how no one from the gang was able to profit from their creation and so return to normal.
There were a couple of appropriate character moments too. I liked the explanations given for Patty (lover of trashy fiction) and Skinner (experienced with children) being valuable additions to the group. I also enjoyed the way Homer recruited Bart to the scheme, using the language of two criminals, but giving it a veneer of reality as they played an arcade game together.
The Bad: Having said all of that this episode could have been much better. Both the satire and emotional motivation in the plot were a mess.
Let's start with satire and ask who was being mocked here? Lisa is outraged to discover that a corporation are putting together teen novels based on market research and slapping fake authors on the books. The real life inspiration for this scenario is Alloy Entertainment who are responsible for a number of series including Gossip Girl and The Vampire Diaries. However the references within the episode are more likely to make viewers think about Harry Potter and Twilight neither of which were written by committee. There was no nuance in the story to explain the difference between the legitimate author and the profit driven company. Marge even makes the point that if you enjoy the stories does it matter how they were created?
Upon hearing this news Homer sets about cynically creating a book for profit while Lisa decides to go it alone and create a book by one author with one authentic vision. Homer's team is far more efficient than lonely Lisa and so suddenly it feels like the story is telling us that writing as a group is actually better than working alone. In fact the Simpsons creators admit that they enjoyed the fact that the episode was championing the collaborative process by which they write The Simpsons. That's great and all but it did confuse what was being satirised.
The publishing company buy the book and then decide the story of Trolls isn't marketable enough and turn the whole thing into yet another vampire story. That would be a cynical "bad guy" move if it weren't exactly what Homer's gang had just done. It is then revealed that they had actually developed a strong attachment to the book they had written. So they were naturally upset to see it changed to make it more marketable.
But at no point were we given evidence of this. It's typical of the modern Simpsons that the crucial emotional motivation was missing when it should be the crux of the story. Similarly Lisa had agreed to be the fake author of the book because she had longed to have her name on a book. Umm, well that wasn't strictly part of the story. Sure, in general I can imagine that being Lisa's goal but it wasn't the emotional centre of her story. She just wanted to prove that a story written alone would be more authentic. She failed to prove that and so this was more a plot contrivance than good character development. In an ideal world Lisa would never sell her morals out without pretty convincing emotional pressure.
Neil Gaiman's involvement did lead nicely to the twist reset ending where he stole authorship from everyone. However he is just one in a long list of guest stars who the vast majority of viewers won't really know. You may have heard of Gaiman and his books but I doubt any defining characteristics spring to mind the same way a Michael Jackson or Mel Gibson cameo would. So the jokes about Gaiman could be made about any random character. Over the last few seasons practically every guest star acts in a silly manner that has no connection to who they really are. It has become predictable and pointless.
Best Joke: The actual heist (to tamper with the book before printing) goes wrong as the publishers capture the gang. "If it's any consolation, you never had a chance" says Andy Garcia's publishing boss in a typical movie villain line. "Whoo hoo! Alright!" responds Homer, taking this consolation at face value in a pretty amusing Simpsons line.
The Bottom Line: If you can just switch off your critical brain and enjoy an episode for what it is then I recommend "The Book Job." I don't mean that in any kind of sarcastic or dismissive way. I can't switch off that part of myself and I still enjoyed this. It was a well constructed plot that kept me engaged throughout. It could have been much stronger but at this stage in the show's evolution I will take this gladly.
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