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November 18, 2011

‘The Simpsons’ and Neil Gaiman heist ‘Twilight,’ ‘Hunger Games’

Posted in: TV

Ever feel like the world’s bookshelf has been hijacked by “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games“?  If so, you might want to visit Springfield this Sunday night when”The Simpsons” delivers one of its most ambitious episodes — an elaborate heist spoof that finds Homer, Bart and guest star Neil Gaiman trying to steal the thunder of today’s mega-successful publishing series.

The episode, titled “The Book Job,” is a parody of Steven Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s Eleven” (and, yes, that is Andy Garcia playing the wealthy, cold-blooded heavy) but it saves its most savage parody for today’s novels of the fantastic which target young-skewing audiences. And, according to Matt Selman, an executive producer and longtime “Simpsons” writer, the episode has stirred excitement for the show’s creative team.

“The show is all about the world of young-adult fantasy novels, as Homer assembles a team of Springfielders to write one and make big money but the set-up and feel is  a real creative departure for us,” Selman said. “It’s sort of a heist movie where the heist is writing a book but when that kicks in, there’s a giant stylistic leap. It’s also a little sillier, a little more stylistic than most episodes.  We’re coming up on 500 episodes, but really, this is the kind of episode a show would only do if hadn’t already had a couple hundred episodes.”

Gaiman plays himself and he’s part of the heist team although, with Homer calling the shots, the bestselling author of “The Graveyard Book” and “Coraline” is put in charge of chores like getting pizza. The story (as with so many great “Simpsons” episodes) is keyed by a moment of disillusionment for Lisa and a spasm of greed for Homer, but the concept for the episode began in a magazine article.

“I read an article in The New Yorker about a company called Alloy Entertainment that publishes a lot of teen books like ‘Gossip Girl’ and ‘Vampire Diaries,’ and the article was all about how these executives take market research and come up with the ideas for these books and farms them out and slaps the name of fake writers on them and fabricates backgrounds for these authors who don’t exist. We took that trend and kind of blew it up and shoved it in the face of Lisa Simpson, who in this episode gets disillusioned when she finds out that the author of her favorite book, ‘Angelica Button,’ isn’t actually a J.K. Rowling-type at all and is instead a fake name and the book is one of these committee-executed, cynical corporate things. “

A key contributor to the episode was freelance writer Dan Vebber (“Futurama”), who did a lot of the heavy lifting as far as story.  “I have to say I’m pretty passionate about this one,” Selman said. “It’s weird and wonderful.”

Selman and the rest of “The Simpsons” team are probably thrilled to talk about something involving only on-screen subplots. This is the 23rd season of “The Simpsons,” the longest-running comedy in television history, and so far it ‘s been most memorable for a brief but tense showdown over cast salary and the surge in online essays suggesting that it might be time to pull the plug, considering the show’s current costs and ratings versus the payday potential of a new syndication deal.

Selman said that, just below the surface, the episode is also a valentine to the collaborative approach that has sustained Springfield for all these years; in the episode, young Lisa decides to write a novel on her own in the classic “pure” approach to telling a story, while Homer and his calculated crew are closer to the “Simpsons” model that has a squad of writers sculpt scripts between spitballs.

“It’s about writing as a team,” Selman said, “and the question in there is, ‘Is writing something in a group just as valuable as writing something by yourself?’ I’ve been with ‘The Simpsons’ for 15 years and everyday it’s been pretty much writing as a team. We’re proud of what we’ve done even if it’s not the traditional idea of one writer sitting down with a passion and a vision. In a strange way this episode ends up as a defense of writing in a group and celebrating the way it makes you feel connected to the work and to the people in that group in ways you didn’t expect. It’s all about a writers room … and you know, in the story, Homer’s cynical heist team does end up being incredibly productive.”

– Geoff Boucher

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