Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Puzzling Development!

So the other day, I did something I hadn't done for quite a while. I watched a TV show.

I don't have cable, but back when I did, I enjoyed watching "The Simpsons" and "King of the Hill". Both of those shows are still on the air, but nowadays, if I want to watch them, or any other network TV show, I log in to hulu.com. I don't do this often, for much the same reason that I don't pay for cable, but last Tuesday, I fired up the laptop, and my wife and I lounged around watching the best hour of animated evening programming the FOX network has to offer.

The episode of "The Simpsons" we watched was one of the most recent, entitled "Homer and Lisa Exchange Cross Words". If you want to watch it without spoilers, just click below:

The episode centered on Lisa's love for, and obsession with, crossword puzzles, specifically the New York Times crossword, and it had Lisa qualifying for the finals in the national crossword championship. Homer accompanied her to the tournament and won a lot of money betting on her until betting against her, and benefitting from her loss, in the last round.

One specific puzzle was featured in the episode, a complicated bit of enigmatology (yes, that's a word) commissioned by a fictional character with a message (or two) concealed within it. Several days after watching the episode I found my mind going back to the puzzle used within the episode, which featured fleeting close ups of actual puzzle grid and clues, and it occurred to me... They actually created a puzzle specifically for this episode of "The Simpsons"!

I wondered idly, "what if I went back and watched that episode and paused it on the puzzle close ups? What crazy inside jokes would be contained in the clues and answers? Leave it to the Simpsons staff to concoct an entire 140-clue crossword puzzle only to flash it partially on the screen for a few brief seconds. I have attempted to build a crossword or two, and it is really freaking hard, but then again... so is writing and animating a hugely successful prime-time sitcom, and I can't do that either.

Anyway, less than a week after watching the episode, the fabulous folks at Netflix and the U.S. Postal Service brought me "Wordplay", the (2006?) Documentary about.... The New York Times Crossword Puzzle, and its associated annual tournament! I had added "Wordplay" to my Netflix "queue" about a year ago, along with over a hundred others, and it coincidentally showed up just after I watched this puzzle-centric "Simpsons" episode. It was a good movie, highlighting both the hardcore puzzle-solvers, with whom you and I can not possibly relate, as well as casual puzzle devotees like Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, and The Indigo Girls. I learned from the movie that "intercoastal" is an anagram for "altercations", a fact which I promptly forgot, and which bugged me until I had to re-work it out for myself.

After watching that movie, you really want to pick up a Times crossword and hop to it. At least, you do if you are Me, and thus a Giant Nerd. I had a less-than-half-solved Sunday puzzle lying on my dining room table, and as the wife and I were getting ready for bed, I picked it up and figured I would re-attack it with my newly energized brain. I got a bit done, and then I came to the clue "Loses on Purpose". Ordinarily my mind would have skipped to "Folds", "Dives", or "Flops", but I knew that the answer was "Diets" ("loses on purpose", geddit?), because I had recently seen that clue used in another puzzle. Or Had I? I idly mused about where I had seen that clue before, and I realized I hadn't seen it in print; I had HEARD it. Heard it in the voice of Lisa Simpson, less than a week ago! Which meant that Lisa had been doing .... Waitaminute! Could it be?

I checked the upper-left-to-lower-right diagonal and found, sure enough, the "secret message" encoded in the supposedly fictional puzzle featured in one of the two TV shows I had happened to watch in the last several months. Then, as my wife and I reeled at the improbability of that (we had both watched the episode together in exactly the same spot where we were now solving the puzzle together), I remembered the other secret message. The one spelled out in the inital letters of each clue. Sure enough, there it was. Threaded throughout every single clue in the puzzle, and helping to explain why some of them were so oddly worded, was a message from one fictional character to another with NO REFERENCE MADE TO IT ANYWHERE IN THE PUZZLE. The only way any solver could have noticed this message (without being autistic or severely OCD) was to watch the episode of "The Simpsons" in which a yellow-skinned Will Shortz explains where it is. This is the ultimate example of an "easter egg" within a puzzle, and I just happened to have found it.

I still haven't finished the puzzle, though, and likely won't. It is an incredibly difficult one, even for a Sunday Times puzzle, and I believe this is due, in large part, to the crazy clues Mr. Reagle (The puzzle's constructor) had to find which started with the right letters for the hidden message.

Now if you will excuse me, I must go grab this week's Sunday Times, and get started. Happy Holiday Weekend to all, just in case I don't post again before then.