The Simpsons Brings Brass-Knuckle Hockey to Springfield

Moe and Nelson learn bad sportsmanship is just a stepping stone to a better future, in The Simpsons’ “Top Goon.”

Bart plays hockey on The Simpsons.
Photo: 20th Television

This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.

The Simpsons Season 34 Episode 11

The Simpsons season 34 episode 11 “Top Goon,” may have taken its title, and leather jacket, from Top Gun, but it owes more to George Roy Hill 1977’s hockey comedy classic, Slap Shot, a far more sportsmanlike film. The Simpsons previously let kindness win when Bart and Lisa tied a crucial game in season 6’s “Lisa on Ice.” The latest installment brings out the brilliance of the bully. As Coach Moe Szyslak (voiced by Hank Azaria) explains, hockey is like a prison riot with less rules.

“Did somebody order a psycho?” Nelson Muntz (voiced by Nancy Cartwright) asks as he hops onto the rink for the first time. “Top Goon” delivers two, and it is a wonder Moe and Nelson haven’t been teamed before. They have a natural chemistry, corrosive to most, but abrasive enough for an episode full of hard landing punchlines. That’s what Nelson does best, as a fist wanting to be a goon, and Moe sets up the best shots. He’s been doing it consistently since his very first appearance as Homer’s favorite bartender, long before he used the dumpster of the next-door music store, King Toot. The old gripe apparently provoked a simmering feud with Toot, which sets up the conflict of the episode: Trophy cases and flimsy dreams which can be pushed out of reach by a high-powered leaf blower.

The first act is efficient, effective, and sets up all the irony of the arc and relationships. Moe and Nelson bond quickly over the injustices of life, and set out to bang the scales together. This gives the audience a chance to enthusiastically root for a bad guy who is not Bart, who is here as a slightly entitled, but very embattled hockey menace. On the rink, at home, and during the endless drives between the two.

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Homer’s complaints about the utter inconvenience of kids’ sports are a subversively correct assessment over a too-long running gag. It really is where boredom goes counterclockwise. Though an early sequence of a too-short benched player wanting revenge is some consolation, the most important takeaway comes when kids’ hockey season ends, Homer will be free to watch real hockey. Lisa’s line about getting a soccer participant trophy for doing the bare minimum is both effective thematic foreshadowing, and a goal for the underachievers playing.

It is encouraging to see Nelson excel, and be rewarded. In season 34, has co-headlined two winning episodes, after ringing all the bells in “When Nelson Met Lisa,” and his character is enjoying intense exploration, and sleeveless levels of depth. It also does this without breaking his unique logic, and understanding of the world. Even his education in teamwork confirms his innate self-knowledge.

Will Forte leads the guest cast coaching at the Top Goon Academy, “where today’s bullies become tomorrow’s thugs.” The illustrious faculty is a group of former professional hockey players with reputations for excessive success: Dave “Tiger” Williams, Dave “The Hammer” Schulz, and Stu “The Grim Reaper” Grimson. They teach the only rule there is to know for a hockey goon: protect the primary. The primary is the player who scores the most goals, but the coach, Moe, claims the most points. We get the feeling Nelson may have learned that by actually doing the required reading, Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Nelson is still a bully, but he is also more. He is the best bully. The one who gets the jacket, and slices off the sleeves. Moe can barely move laterally, imagining which way is up, repeatedly hitting bottom, and replaying his failures in the kinds of brilliantly stinging inner dialogues which get featured in a grievously effective sequence. We know the pattern. Every sex cult he joins inevitably turns into a suicide cult, he puts champagne labels on celebratory bottles of Duff Beer, he’s got the kind of a face that facial recognition doesn’t recognize as a face. By the time Bart’s STD prank call moves down to Moe’s junk file, it is hard to delete.

Like Nelson, Moe shines without any pretense of cleaning up his act or changing his world view. Both characters grow without giving up anything which makes them less than special. When Nelson’s mom says he’s off doing “kid stuff” like “deep thinking,” Moe translates that immediately, and responds instinctively. The very short scene is moving in spite of itself.

Even Toots is rounded out in the episode. After his preening and pestering attempt to goad his neighbor, Moe says “Stuff like this is why Gayle left you,” we learn Toots’ wife and more-handsome brother are sharing more than secrets, and it adds a dimension to a guy who really only knows his reeds. This doesn’t explain what happened to Maya, who accepted Moe’s proposal in “The Wayz We Were.” She doesn’t even register a complaint in Moe’s seasonal woes.

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The episode is also over-loaded with exquisite sight gags, such as when Homer conceals his squeals of joy in some pizza dough, or when Nelson freezes a rival player’s tongue to the net, and realizes his life has meaning. Who knew you could floor a blimp? The “Moe Szyslak” substitution in the opening theme song sounds like an oldie. The “Good Old Hockey Game” song is witty, and makes a fast exit.

Who doesn’t love the goon? It’s the sweet spot between enforcer and thug, and when Fat Tony (Joe Montegna) arrives in Act 3, he fulfills the trifecta. Even Nelson recognizes the mob boss as a dingus to respect.  Moe is truly torn in this scene. He is in his element, a place he truly wants to protect Nelson from, but the temptation to enjoy the inevitable is understandably, and identifiably justified. Owed even, by the way Moe looks at things. His choices, so reluctantly thrust on him, are as irreconcilably revelatory as the Grinch’s realizations in The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.

“Top Goon” replaces The Simpsons’ annual Christmas episode, an annual highlight of any season, but is of equal quality, and the message is uniquely uplifting. This is a cautionary tale wrapped in a morality play, delivered by a lead pipe. The ultimate lesson fits well in Springfield community standards. Stealing is much sweeter than earning or winning, and at dark, you can steal anything you want.


5 out of 5