The Simpsons stirred up a bit of controversy this week with the opening sequence of MoneyBART. After the traditional shot of the Simpson family on the couch, there was a cut away to a dreary third-world factory, with depressing music playing over shots of despairing workers laboring over the creation of Simpsons animation and merchandise. All of the workers are Asian and miserable, and a dark pall hangs over the entire sequence, which features bubbling vats of green sludge, cats being thrown into compactors for use in the stuffing of Bart dolls, a panda pulling a cart of merchandise and a unicorn chained to the wall, punching the center out of DVDs with the tip of its horn.

I hadn't heard that there were accusations of The Simpsons taking advantage of underpaid laborers in Asia; if I hadn't happened to read an article about the sequence shortly before I watched it, I would have been pretty confused. I also wouldn't have known that British graffiti artist Banksy, with whom I'm unfamiliar, was behind it, though they do slip his name in a couple of times. I can't say I noticed it even after reading the article. I'm still not sure what to think of it, but I found it much more unsettling than funny. Perhaps that was the point? If not, I guess it's no surprise that this sort of bleak humor does not impress me; after all, I cringe every time I hear that Itchy and Scratchy music start up. No matter how fanciful it may be, I can't find anything too funny in some poor creature's limbs getting hacked off or eyeballs getting sucked out week after week, and I just don't see anything all that humorous in a dreary depiction of abused factory workers.

The rest of the episode, however, was bright and cheerful, focusing mostly on the Great American Pastime, with a few random references to things like building ships in a bottle - a hobby preferred by LOST's ageless sage, Richard Alpert - and the Berenstain Bears. It all begins when, after learning from Springfield Elementary's lone Ivy League alum that extracurricular accomplishments are essential for getting into an upper crust school, Lisa decides it's time to beef up her resumé. Merely starting a recycling program for the school and serving as treasurer for the jazz club is simply not going to cut it. She gets one of my favorite lines of the episode when Marge, trying to cheer her up after Maggie brutally defeats her in a fencing match, tells her that she's sure she can still get into "the Harvard of Canada". Lisa replies, "Anything that's the Something of the Something isn't really the Anything of Anything."

My other favorite line of the episode arrives moments later when Ned Flanders comes knocking on the door in a flurry of "diddly"s and "doodly"s. Ned is my favorite character, so although he just has one scene in this episode, it stands out for me, especially when he tells Homer how happy he is with his living situation. "It's a Flanders sandwich with great neighbor bread!" he crows. Ned's reason for coming over? He committed an ethical violation during his team's the last little league game, and now he doesn't trust himself to be team manager. For the moment, baseball's off the table for Bart. It's time for a new coach, but who would be willing to commit the time for such a pathetic team?

The answer, it transpires, is Lisa. I generally like episodes that focus on Bart and Lisa's relationship. Their dynamic reminds me of that between my brother and me when we were that age, except that I was older and a bit less brainy and he was younger and a bit less bratty. Bart, naturally, isn't crazy about the idea of Lisa coaching his team, especially since she doesn't know the first thing about baseball. But a chance encounter with some number-crunching nerds in Moe's gives Lisa all the information she needs. She becomes convinced that if she can just do enough statistical analysis and rearrange her players accordingly, the Isotots will start to rise through the ranks. The players are astonished when her strategy works, but baseball somehow isn't as fun as it used to be...

This episode is almost entirely focused on baseball, a sport I've had on my mind lately since I just read Brian Lies' Bats at the Ballgame, a picture book whose clever acrylic paintings offer a batty twist on the basics of baseball. Like that book, MoneyBART has a moment that seems to reference the classic poem Casey at the Bat. It also features a team of "lovable losers" - though the Isotots strongly object to that description. The title MoneyBART is a reference to the Michael Lewis book Moneyball, which has to do with statistics and baseball management, and famed baseball player and manager Mike Scioscia makes a cameo as himself, giving Bart a pep talk to encourage him to go help out his struggling team even though he is furious with his sister.

For Lisa, baseball is just another intellectual exercise. For Bart, it's about the visceral thrill of the game. This episode is about the two of them reconciling their two views of the game, even if that means losing the championship. Lisa and Bart have a lot of ups and downs throughout the series, but as much as they drive each other crazy, the show always manages to come back around to the fact that they love each other. Marge is so mild-mannered that she rarely quarrels with Homer, though when her dander is up she can get pretty shrill, and Homer's cluelessness gives her plenty of opportunity for agitation. In this episode, the two of them spend some time arguing as well, but like Bart and Lisa, they never stay truly mad at each other for long. I've heard the Simpsons referred to as a dysfunctional family, but I actually think that these guys get it right more often than not. They certainly do by the end of MoneyBART.