That episode finally aired last Sunday, the fourth of the show’s 24th season, and indeed included a subplot in which young Lisa took a turn at the virtual tables.
While the episode’s portrayal of the game was in some ways dated -- and ultimately the show didn’t really weigh in on online poker’s embattled legal status in the U.S. -- online poker players can still get a kick out of their game earning a cameo in such a mainstream cultural context.
The Simpsons Misses Opportunity for Satire
Some of us are old enough to remember when The Simpsons was a new show in the late 1980s -- co-created, incidentally, by poker player Sam Simon.
Back then The Simpsons was frequently grouped with other popular “dysfunctional family” sitcoms like Married With Children and Roseanne.
Today such shows might be regarded as the norm; however, at the time The Simpsons and other “fighting family” shows were something different.
It was an era when sitcoms were still much more often featuring families that got along, with The Cosby Show and Family Ties essentially extending a tradition stretching back to the 1950s and Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best.
The Simpsons also heralded a wave of irony-infused, satirical television in which cultural commentary was often conveyed via inventive, sometimes absurd narratives and characters.
Thus would The Simpsons frequently target politics, religion, consumerism, Hollywood, the educational system, or other areas of American culture ripe for criticism, including TV shows that presented unrealistically happy families.
The Simpsons even poked fun at its own network (Fox) and the medium of television itself.
In fact, the familiar opening-credit sequence that ends with the family gathered in front of the television set has long been regarded as a kind of in-joke, a self-reflexive jab at TV-watching as one of America's favorite time-wasting activities.
Two-and-a-half decades and more than 500 episodes later, The Simpsons has moved from the periphery of American culture from which it once fired its satirical bombs from a distance to the center.
The show remains inventive and funny, but the impact and influence of its satire has perhaps waned thanks in part to the fact that so many other shows now imitate its style and approach.
Given such a legacy, then, one might expect an episode of The Simpsons featuring online poker to provide some pointed commentary regarding online poker’s current legal, social, and/or cultural status.
There are a couple of hints in that direction, but on the whole there’s little direct “argument” for or against online poker.
Instead the show uses the game as a context for still more dysfunctional hijinks.
FlamingHotPoker, Where Your Funds are Safe and Secure
Sunday’s episode, titled “Gone Abie Gone” in reference to the main plot involving Grandpa Simpson running away from his nursing home, begins with Homer falling into an extra $5,000 after winning a lawsuit.
Showing uncharacteristic paternal responsibility, he banks the money for Lisa’s college fund but his buddies at the bar advise him otherwise.
“Banks are not as safe as they used to be,” says Carl. The bartender Moe agrees, advising Homer to put the funds in “the one safe place left in this world of woe,” namely, an online poker account.
“The poker website just keeps it nice and safe where the FDIC can’t get its grubby little hands on it,” explains Moe, hilariously misrepresenting both the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (which insures money deposited in banks), not to mention the relative level of safety of players’ funds on certain online poker sites (as demonstrated over the past decade).
Homer takes Moe’s advice, swiftly (and seemingly effortlessly) depositing the $5K onto a site called FlamingHotPoker.net.
The jab at the American banking system and other more general economic hardships (“this world of woe”) is timely enough.
But as far as online poker is concerned, the story plays out as though the UIGEA, Black Friday, and other limitations to Americans’ access to online poker never happened.
That is to say, the subplot could’ve appeared mostly as is in an episode from 2005.
Lisa Logs In, Can't Lose
Unsurprisingly the safety of Lisa’s college fund is immediately put at risk, not by a shady poker site, but by Lisa herself.
First Bart logs in to play with Lisa’s fund, losing a small amount before Lisa stops him. She’s about to log off, but can’t resist the temptation to play a few hands.
And as has happened to so many of us, when she initially wins she is encouraged to play more.
Lisa then reads a few poker books, including Al Roker on Poker and Fold Yourself Rich. She watches an instructional DVD featuring Jennifer Tilly (Sam Simon’s ex) in a funny cameo.
Lisa quickly cleans up, running the $5K up over $400,000.
In the “Ride of the Valkyries” montage showing Lisa building her bankroll, it’s suggested that everyone in Springfield is also playing online poker -- the Quickie Mart’s Apu, Marge’s sister Selma at the DMV, and even Reverend Lovejoy.
It’s a version of online poker in the U.S. from some time ago -- where everyone is playing and where for some Americans (like Lisa) there really was money to be made.
"No Gambling Story has a Happy Ending"
“Every nerve in my body is screaming cash out now!” Lisa says to herself at the end of the sequence. But she lacks the will to do so, and soon loses everything with aces full versus Sideshow Bob’s quad treys.
Bart soon arrives to point out to a distraught Lisa how “no gambling story has a happy ending, except Seabiscuit ... but you never hear about the ruined lives of the people who bet against him.”
“I was Ivy... strong Ivy,” laments Lisa.
She’s referring to her college prospects, of course, although some poker players might be hearing something else, thinking she’s talking about her previous dominance at the tables and comparing herself to Phil Ivey.
Bart then reveals to Lisa that in fact he is “Sideshow Bob.”
“I’ve been playing under his avatar,” explains Bart. “And trashing his favorite restaurants on Yelp!”
Their online poker adventure rapidly concludes, however, as Bart explains FlamingHotPoker’s discovery that the two of them were under the legal age to play. Thus were their winnings confiscated (with the original $5,000 deposit somehow left in the account).
The bowtie-wearing dealer amusingly interacts with them, saying “shame, shame” at Bart’s explanation.
“Did you give the money back to the people who lost it?” asks Bart in response to the dealer.
“Goodbye!” says the dealer, and the site closes abruptly.
That last moment perhaps subtly alludes back to Moe’s funny comparison of banks to online poker sites and the relative safety of a person’s funds on each.
The suggestion is that FlamingHotPoker has taken the money from Bart’s “Sideshow Bob” account for itself as a kind of arbitrary application of the rule against underage play.
In other words, in the world of The Simpsons, online poker sites really aren’t any more reliable than banks, and perhaps less so.
An Homage to Online Poker
Setting aside the somewhat anachronistic presentation of online poker as a game currently enjoyed by Americans, the portrayal of the game in the episode rings true in certain ways.
One is the rise-and-fall trajectory of Lisa’s experience -- winning a little, studying the game and winning more, then becoming overconfident and losing.
Like everything on The Simpsons, her experience is exaggerated. But it is still convincing.
FlamingHotPoker’s animation also reminds us of many online poker sites’ look and feel. Even the partial hands we see are mostly believable (even if Lisa losing $400K-plus in one hand is not).
That said, poker and/or gambling isn’t really defended by the show, even if the fact that everyone in Springfield seems to play online poker does suggest a certain cultural acceptance of the game.
Nor is the current legal muddle surrounding online poker in the U.S. challenged in any specific way.
It almost feels as though the “online poker idea” arose some time back for the writers of The Simpsons, only finally to find its way into an episode somewhat belatedly.
Indeed, there’s something almost nostalgic about the game’s portrayal in this week’s episode, a kind of look back, almost, perhaps welcome to those without an online game at the moment.
More Pop Poker posts from Martin Harris:
- Pop Poker: Timberlake Plays for His Life 'In Time"
- Pop Poker: Poker and the Presidential Debates
- Pop Poker: Silent Running Takes Poker in Space
- Pop Poker: The Odd Couple's Common Thread
- Pop Poker: Is Kaleidoscope Among Best Poker Movies?
- Pop Poker: Baseball and Poker in American Culture
- Pop Poker: On Luck, Skill, Hail Marys and Moneyball