There are two ways of looking at my expectation level for this episode after the shockingly bad trip into the pasts of the Simpson family members. You could argue that because things seemed so bleak, any speck of creativity or humor would shine in comparison. On the other hand, you could also say my claws were only sharpened. Thankfully my praise for this episode is earned and there are few items which I can take my sharpened claws to.
Lisa becomes an expert at solving crossword puzzles and enters a tournament, where Homer gets involved with an underground betting ring. Voices include crossword editor Will Shortz and crossword creator Merl Reagle as themselves.
Besides Homer's participation in underground betting, our favorite Safety Inspector found yet another calling in life. Yes, another. Sure he's climbed The Murderhorn, gone to space and as we saw earlier this season, become a bounty hunter. But this episode saw one of the most inspired choices in years for a Homer storyline. So inspired I wish it hadn't been used as filler for the beginning of an episode which it ultimately had no connection with. For a free beer, Homer dumps Principal Skinner on behalf of Ms. Krabappel. Word spreads that Homer has the gift of not only taking the pressure off the dumper but also leaves the dumpee feeling great.
In a nod to Hank Azaria's character Agador in the 1996 film The Birdcage, Azaria once again rolled his R's and put on a heavy Latin accent to play Julio, the soon-to-be spurned ex-lover of Homer's old roommate, Grady.
He stumbled upon the backroom shenanigans while at a crossword competition with Lisa. Did anyone take special note of Homer saying, "Gambling is a more sound investment than any stock, bond or real estate investment"? I pondered this line for minutes. Unlike South Park, where the animation can be tweaked up until the day before air, writers of The Simpsons must predict what will be timely months from the time they put pen to paper. In a good economy, this line could be taken as, "Oh, that Homer. An economist he is not." But as more and more global economies circle the drain, Homer is once-again, the idiot savant font of wisdom. Emphasis on the "idiot." Intentional or not, the line was an all-around great Simpson-esque observation of our current predicament.
In what could be described as both a heartwarming story and an Emmy grab, Homer found his relationship with Lisa non-existent when he admitted to betting against her in the contest. At least his bet paid off. Ultimately Lisa lost to Crossword Shark Gil.
This episode provided a healthy balance of humor, story and heart. Exactly what makes a great Simpsons episode! If there's a formula, then that's it. It may not always equal gold but it at least seems in line with the classics of the past. Homer really seemed to find his niche as an ender of relationships.