This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 34 Episode 13
The Simpsons presents one of its best secondary-character focused episodes with “The Many Saints of Springfield.” The pairing of Joe Mantegna’s Fat Tony and Harry Shearer’s Ned Flanders appears flagrantly contradictory, but it works for the same reason Season 33’s Fargo-influenced offering, “A Serious Flanders,” became a two-parter favorite: The enforced logic makes sense, the downward spiral is believable, and no character betray themselves. Though the circumstantial evidence does pile up under a fake mustache.
While in no way a mirror to The Sopranos prequel, “The Many Saints of Newark,” “The Many Saints of Springfield” maintains a beautifully consistent atmosphere of mob drama throughout. Even the opening couch gag is a yarn that spins masterfully dark, and ends on a note of threadbare terror. The dust bunnies are as harrowing as the vintage baseball card is enticing, and just hearing Alf admit he was “canceled at exactly the right time” rings wise and wary. The springs kick off quite a bit of suspense and it’s the best jumpoff in a long time. Normally, longer couch gag runs mean the rest of the episode is slightly lacking. And yes, there is a feeling a bit more could have come to the conclusion, but the full installment is funny, satisfying, and keeps you on the edge of your seat.
This is evident right away, as Ned’s morning routine is broken by every known, and some hitherto unknown, means of mob execution upon awakening. It becomes an animated ballet of perilous physical comedy, culminating in pure character humor when Flanders thanks the Lord “for this tree I’m about to hit.” Where is Flanders in his apparently ongoing arc, and why does he sound so strange in this episode? Shearer seems to be choking lines down his throat like a reluctant Johnny Tightlips on some of the deliveries. This further blurs the criminal from the comical element. The audience has no idea what’s going on, overtly, but the idea gets through, much like the vague circumlocutions of mob business still have the power to break shoes.
Increasingly, The Simpsons have been delving into more subtle forms of spoof, which mixes well with the overt gags, like the constant takes on Italian pronunciations. The characterization of mob talk being the “most intimate and vague” conversations of Ned’s life foretell a marvel of verbal calisthenics. The new mob is somewhat self-aware, noting the nicknames are a little judgmental, but it is surprising how accurate they turn out to be in their reality. Without saying a word, we know how dangerous a street pharmacist from New Jersey could be.
There is a litany of mob clichés which all work, from putting the squeeze on the competition to going to the mattresses. The references to The Sopranos come as beautifully underplayed visual tributes, from seeing a Pork Store sign from a street table view, to the exquisite minor tribute to the death of “Bobby Bacala” Baccalieri Jr. (Steve Schirripa) in the “The Blue Comet.” The backgrounds are uniformly purposeful, and the musical score brings menace to mirth, and mayhem to murderous intent. But the most effective is the audio. It captures The Godfather and delves into deeper gangster ties.
Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I like seeing Fat Tony bond with Ned. I like seeing him bond with anyone. In the history of The Simpsons, any character who has a direct connection with Springfield’s crime syndicate gets an automatic upgrade in street cred. “Finally, he does something cool,” Homer says when finding out the illicit connection. “It sounds like something I would do.” He’s saying what we’re all thinking, and the recurring laughter reinforces the esteem of badass stature.
When Bart was almost the head of the Springfield crime family many seasons ago, the audience smirked, and grinned outright when he was told he had a future in crime. Krusty earned our undying respect when able to toy-tricycle his way into the hearts of the Society of Legitimate Businessmen. We give him props, and not just because he’s a prop comic.
Of course, the allure may also be that it’s that much more fun when the bust-out comes, and Fat Tony starts to expect his taste. The set up bends time, but not enough to destroy canon. Ned did indeed teach Bart for a short while in “Left Behind,” and while he was fired for bringing prayer to school, Ned would have made a convincing case for the evils of skinny jeans. Seeing Ned at the chalkboard, writing “I will not attempt the salvation of a bureaucrat” works nostalgia several ways.
Is it my imagination, or does Maggie get more lines than Bart in this episode? It underscores how much we miss the old antics, all the things The Simpsons could get away with, and it foreshadows a systemic snafu. It is very revealing how Fat Tony notes the inequitable deal Ned gets on “the business they chose.” Ned’s entry into the arrangement comes from his pious trust. It almost appears Fat Tony was only born sinister, further humanized because he used to be left-handed until the nuns beat it out of him.
Jabs at all things pious also come from targets straightforward and sublime, but reach various peaks of commentary. There is only a short walk from the Our Lady of Dwindling Attendance Church to the “secretive organization with many many traditions we are not proud of” alignment Fat Tony enjoys with impunity. Yet, Rev. Lovejoy also finds a way to make a buck on bad luck, leaving no collection plate unplundered.
The episode is also loaded with powerfully effective, if quick, asides. Rodd and Todd as the poster children for mischief and mayhem is an unexpected delight, it is over before you even know why you’re laughing. It is a wonder the line about Homer spelling food “PHD” never showed up before. FBI cars masquerading as Frozen Bars of Ice cream trucks also registers as classic overkill.
While “The Many Saints of Springfield” could have used a little more filling toward the end, the flavor which makes it work is the peak inside “the world’s most murderous cannoli.” Ned’s unrelenting faith digs into something sweet. All treacle is cut by the last few sentences, but we’re sure they’ll be back by appeal.
The sadder note is the recognition of the late David Crosby, in loving memory.