As we’ve mentioned on this blog before, The Simpsons is a crowning achievement in the histories of both animation and television, whose cultural influence has seeped into all areas of life and touched a whole generation. It’s a brilliant, important series that has transcended any notion of what an “animated sitcom” should be, instead becoming a defining piece of satire for the late 20th century and early 21st. Grounded in the lives of a single middle-class American family, the show has turned its piercing gaze on all forms of authority – social, religious, political, corporate, and more. It has regularly skewered incompetent educators and inane celebrities, all while remaining rooted in the emotional ties that keep the five Simpsons together. The point of this paragraph is that it’s a great show.
(A little caveat: my use of the present tense may be a little deceptive, since as I’m sure you know, the show has experienced a steep decline over the past decade. It’s heavily debated when this began and how rapidly it proceeded, but suffice it to say that episodes from season 20 feel like a totally different show when compared to season 8. I don’t necessarily blame the people who produce the show, since it’s amazing that they were able to yield such genius in the first place, but when I talk about all of The Simpsons‘ accomplishments, I’m referring pretty much to its first decade or so of its existence.)
So, all that said, I think it’d be very worthwhile to analyze certain episodes of The Simpsons in depth. To look at the acerbic jokes and storytelling techniques the writers and animators used to satirize American society and create a sprawling, well-realized fictional universe. With every old episode I watch, I marvel at how well the show balances mockery with sympathy, and how well it blends the sitcom format with numerous other genres. It’s just startling to see a TV show getting so much done in so little time (i.e., little more 20 minutes per episode). The show had so much going on, on so many levels, and I think that’s very much worth exploring. And that’s what “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis,” which I hope to make a weekly series of posts, is all about.
For the first installment, I’ve chosen one of the show’s most memorable, identifiable moments, if only because it was a dead-on parody of similar stunts in TV’s past: the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” diptych, which bridged the gap between seasons 6 and 7. This was a period where The Simpsons was pretty much in its prime, though many more near-perfect episodes were yet to come; “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” came along at exactly the right moment, in terms of the show’s quality and popularity, and was as much a phenomenon as a story arc. It possessed not only the show’s usual humor and pathos, but was a self-aware television event and a link to the real world.
Watching them today, both episodes feel as fresh and intelligent as they ever have, and neither one misses a beat. They simultaneously imitate and deride soap operas and murder mysteries like Dallas and Twin Peaks (most obviously), in keeping with The Simpsons‘ tendency to be a TV show about TV shows, but beyond this is lies deeper current of satire that takes into account the various socioeconomic strata of Springfield and how they interact. This is a pair of episodes that takes full advantage of the large supporting cast the show had built up over the seasons, parlaying it into layered social commentary.
The premise of the episodes is extremely simple and carefully built up: Mr. Burns, Springfield’s tyrannical billionaire and Homer’s boss, crosses the line “between everyday villainy and cartoonish super-villainy,” as his assistant Smithers later puts it. He plunders Springfield Elementary’s new-found oil, ruining countless lives in the process, and proceeds to erect a “sun-blocker,” forcing the whole town to rely on his streetlamps 24/7. The first half ends with Burns mysteriously shot and rendered comatose. The second half follows Chief Wiggum as he, with help from Lisa, seeks out the attempted murderer from among the many disgruntled citizens. Although Smithers, and later Homer, are suspected, the episode ends with the Simpson baby, Maggie, fingered as the perpetrator and promptly exonerated by Wiggum.
So why do I consider “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” a work of art? Most obvious is, I suppose, its craftsmanship; how it turns its small-town setting into a giant jigsaw puzzle full of distinct, idiosyncratic characters, each with a personal reason for being angry at Mr. Burns. Writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein (who went on to create Mission Hill together) use the show’s family sitcom framework as a springboard for some epic storytelling about greed, power, and retribution. I think it’s fascinating how The Simpsons is able to bounce between small household stories like season 6’s “Homer vs. Patty and Selma” and enormous canvases like “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” It’s a testament to the durability of the show’s well-developed characters and writing style.
The Simpsons also effectively balanced stories based on subtle issues of interpersonal intimacy or misunderstandings with those triggered by direct antagonists like Mr. Burns. Charles Montgomery Burns is one of the show’s greatest creations, a man whose many faces represent the different sides of corporate America. He is at once financially powerful and physically vulnerable; he can bribe his way out of any legal troubles (“Marge vs. the Monorail”), but can’t bribe the hearts and minds of his workers (“Last Exit to Springfield”). For Mr. Burns, success and happiness lie in everything that money can buy, though he’s stymied by anything without a dollar value. He’s further complicated by his relationship to the somewhat closeted Mr. Smithers, a model of devotion troubled by his own soul. It’s this dynamic, that of the hateful megalomaniac and his loving but conflicted lackey, that drives much of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”
But the Burns/Smithers interactions reside only in the background, cleverly illustrated by having them stand on Burns’ balcony overlooking much of Springfield. This shows Burns as the demented, godlike figure he is, with Smithers (or “Smingers,” as Abe Simpson calls him) both powerless and yet closer to Burns’ power than anyone else. He tries and fails to restrain his boss’s very self-aware madness, and as a result finds himself deprived of his sole raison d’etre. Speaking of Burns’ self-awareness, check out this awesome line from their confrontation:
Smithers: No… no, Monty, I won’t. Not until you step back from the brink of insanity.
Burns: I’ll do no such thing. You’re fired!
The “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” episodes really do use everything their advantage, from the large cast of Springfieldians who produce bountiful character-based humor, to the nature of animation itself (allowing them to show the town in such broad scope and tiny detail), to their existences as crucial parts of a prime time television show. Regarding that first point, think of the number of characters who are the subject of attention or have a scene about them across the 44 minutes: Principal Skinner and Groundskeeper Willie, obviously Burns & Smithers, Moe and Barney, Santa’s Little Helper, Abe Simpson, Mayor Quimby, Kent Brockman, Chief Wiggum, Krusty and Sideshow Mel, Jasper, and Tito Puente. (The rest of the Simpsons clan go without saying.) Each of them gets a hilarious one-liner or two, as well. Talk about egalitarian television.
This same egalitarianism is also a major point thematically of the episodes, and I love how heavily they explore it. The whole premise, after all, revolves around one man controlling the fate of thousands only by virtue of his wealth; the goal – at least of the first half – is to stop him. The inhabitants of Moe’s Tavern, Springfield Elementary, and the Simpsons household are transformed into a growing band of vigilantes as each one plots their own revenge, an attempt to take back their lives from Mr. Burns – “el diablo con dinero,” as Tito calls him. Conveniently, the one who actually does it can’t be held accountable, basically absolving the townsfolk of their murderous urges. As with many episodes, it’s a morally strange ending that forces a return to the status quo.
This conflict, of the common folk vs. the power-mad plutocrat, is a recurring one throughout the series, and it provokes an image that’s even more prevalent: the formation of a spontaneous mob. Mobs are everywhere in The Simpsons, to the point that you stop noticing when the torches are being handed out. Any episode that concerns all of Springfield will probably involve a mob somehow; pitchforks are likely as well. The first half of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” sees an assembly of gun-stroking proletarians in town hall; the second half sees just as many citizens joining together to hunt down Homer after Smithers offers a cash reward. This is double-edged criticism: the Springfieldians are perfectly willing to join with Homer when Burns renders them all impotent, but once money is up for grabs, they’ll turn on him like sharks smelling blood. While The Simpsons is clearly opposed to Burns’ oligarchy, by no means does it consider rule by the masses a source of unqualified salvation.
So these are some more of the reasons I love these episodes: how lucidly they illustrate some of the show’s central theses, laying out the argument as methodically as any academic paper for a poli sci course. We see an ineffectual government in “Diamond” Joe Quimby, who plans to send Burns a “polite but firm letter” before he’s told about the number of guns in the audience; later, Wiggum represents a thoroughly lazy, self-interested police department. We get brief jabs at the medical profession (“[Burns] was then transferred to a better hospital where doctors upgraded his condition to “alive”) and the corruption of school administrations, as Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers laugh riotously over the idea of giving every student a full college scholarship. This is satire and its best and most all-inclusive.
And how could I leave out the most-targeted figure of all, the American working man? Even within this vast storyline, the episodes find time to chronicle Homer’s transition from a minor employee peeved at his boss’s indifference to his existence, to a delusional attacker making death threats as security hauls him away. Despite his persistent stupidity, Homer is our protagonist, and his anger at Burns for forgetting his name is symbolic of Burns’ distaste for the entire town. We then follow Homer as he becomes a prime suspect and runs from the police – and to think, this is just one subplot tucked away among many! It feels like it should be impossible for two short episodes to have this much sprawling narrative without feeling rushed, and this much emotional range without feeling inconsistent.
But they do, and they fulfill all their functions – sitcom, police procedural, allegory of the working class vs. big business, social satire – with aplomb, even fitting in time for a vengeful mambo and dozens of sly cultural allusions. Cramming this much in about 45 minutes? I call that art. And it’s infinitely rewatchable, endlessly enjoyable art, too; the kind I’m glad to have grown up watching. So that’s my take on “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”, and hopefully I’ll find time in the near future to similarly address other episodes.