Tag Archives: American dream

Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Homer’s Enemy

Here, at last, is the long-delayed June entry in the “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series. The episode comes from late in season 8, toward the end of The Simpsons‘ golden era, but I feel that it stands among the classics, if only for its deconstructive audacity. I like my comedy black, and “Homer’s Enemy” is about as black as they come; it’s a conceptually extreme episode and a departure from any of the usual The Simpsons storylines. But it also gave the show’s writers and producers a unique opportunity to expose the dark underbelly of the show’s premise. Although the show had gone dark before, this was basically the Simpsons equivalent of Jimmy Stewart’s performance in Vertigo, as it briefly granted the public a harrowing glimpse into the hidden evils of an American institution.

The Simpsons is, after all, a sitcom about an average American family’s wacky misadventures. We’re meant to see ourselves, our friends, and our families in Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa; we’re supposed to identify with them through all their follies and confusions. “Homer’s Enemy” toys with these built-up sympathies as the starting point of its bleak satire. Everybody, after all, loves Homer. He’s the show’s heart – not despite the fact that he’s an incompetent fool, but because of it and the everyman/everydad status it grants him. So we’re inherently biased against this episode’s titular intruder: who would ever want to be Homer’s enemy, and what would they be doing in Springfield? The answer, we learn, is that he’s suffering.

As the episode opens, we’re immediately introduced to Frank Grimes through Kent Brockman’s human interest series “Kent’s People.” It’s fitting that Grimes is initially mediated through television. He’s the type of hard-luck case whom we normal Americans prefer to view from afar, pitying him for a few seconds rather than dealing with him on an everyday basis. Mr. Burns, typically, has just such a low attention span; he admires Grimes just long enough to hire him, but has a new hero he wants for executive vice president the next day (in this case, a baby-rescuing dog). The TV-suckled populace is a harsh mistress, Burns included, as Grimes learns through experience.

Burns’ caprices set the episode in motion, as he has Smithers deposit Grimes in Sector 7G. There, he must coexist with characters we know and love – Homer, Lenny (“I’m Lenny!”), and Carl – and share in their workaday sitcom lives. Except Grimes doesn’t want to be on a sitcom. He just wants to work and get paid. Homer’s slip-ups, which are normally fodder for the show’s straightforward humor, become grievances to fuel Grimes’ indignation. As he’s forced to endure Homer’s vices, from everyday rudeness (calling Grimes by demeaning nicknames, eating his special dietetic lunch) to life-endangering incompetence, we’re drawn further into his rapid psychic collapse, which is heralded by increasingly menacing musical cues.

After Homer’s stupidity nearly costs Grimes his job, the tension between them mounts and Grimes declares himself Homer’s enemy. But Homer, never one to take an interpersonal confrontation at face value (see: Flanders, Ned), continues his plight to win Grimes over. While ruminating on this development at Moe’s, Homer refers to himself as “the most beloved man in Springfield,” a line that perhaps too bluntly digs at the show’s Capra-derived paradigm of small-town life. In order to retain this supposed status, Homer plans a surprise lobster dinner for Grimes, before which he insists that every family member be “perfect.” But it’s just this perfection that launches Grimes into a tirade about how Homer is “what’s wrong with America.”

The rest of the episode proceeds along two courses: Homer’s childlike delusion that Grimes will like him if he acts professional vs. Grimes’ obsessive plotting to expose Homer for the fraud he is. But when Homer is applauded for receiving first prize in a children’s model-building contest, Grimes descends into an appropriately cartoonish breakdown with the refrain “…because I’m Homer Simpson.” The plant employees stare on in confusion as Grimes trades in his discipline for a scathing parody of Homer’s gluttony and sloth; the rampage concludes with Grimes grabbing high-voltage wires and dying before his coworkers’ eyes. This scene is followed directly by Grimes’ funeral, at which Homer literally gets the last laugh by falling asleep and yelling, “Change the channel, Marge!” Fittingly, an episode that began with a TV program about Grimes’ life ends with Homer trying to channel-surf past his death.

The episode is devilishly written and executed, as it’s intended to pull viewers simultaneously in two directions. Do we sympathize with our familiar protagonists, or with this anguished outsider? Grimes’ argument against Homer is faultless and self-evident, after all; his rants could be recitations from The Simpsons‘ show bible. But as Grimes tries to cope with Homer’s formula of ignorance yielding success, as he vainly pleads his case to those around him, he traces out an absurdist choice: either love Homer, or go mad and die. Grimes, with his Dickensian background and built-in work ethic, can only do the latter. The show’s recurring characters (like its viewers) have learned to do the former, turning Springfield into a dystopia worthy of The Twilight Zone‘s “It’s a Good Life.”

A quick anatomy of the man who would be Grimey: he’s plain and business-oriented, a mix of Michael Douglas’s psychotic D-Fens from Falling Down and the pathetic losers played by William H. Macy, like Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard. Voice actor Hank Azaria masterfully incorporates elements of both into his performance, emanating a hard-edged professionalism that soon devolves into a mess of disbelieving sighs and exasperated sputters. Azaria’s voice gives the episode momentum, mapping out the tragic arc of Grimes’ short career, and the animation complements this by making Grimes all straight lines and eyebrows opposite Homer’s sumptuous curves.

Ultimately, Grimes is not only Homer’s enemy, but his antithesis. Homer is the baby boomer poster boy, blindly coasting along on his unearned privilege while good fortune falls into his lap. (This good fortune is, of course, the show’s status quo, and hence can never be taken away.) Grimes, meanwhile, puts his situation like this: “I’ve had to work hard every day of my life, and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase, and this haircut!” Sic transit Horatio Alger; being the “self-made man” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While Homer is a creature of boundless good will, Grimes’ difficult life has made him fidgety, aggressive, and self-righteous. Their disparate environments have divided them both economically and emotionally, and these circumstances have doomed Grimes’ irate legacy to be buried under Homer’s boorish clowning.

I should also touch on the episode’s B plot, in which Bart buys an abandoned factory for $1 and screws around in it with Milhouse until it collapses. While it’s certainly much lighter than the rest of the episode, as it focuses on how an uninhibited 10-year-old would behave in an adult situation (namely, by throwing typewriters into barrels of industrial waste), it nonetheless contains some ironic echoes to Grimes’ storyline. As he first gazes up at his property, Bart quips, “Looks like my years of hard work have finally paid off,” (a sarcastic line which would no doubt make Grimes apoplectic) and the subplot’s real pay-off arrives during the failed dinner party, as Grimes is angrily listing Homer’s undeserved luxuries: “A dream house! Two cars! A beautiful wife! A son who owns a factory!” What seemed like a frivolous side story is recontextualized as an especially infuriating piece of Homer’s American dream.

Granted, this was and is a divisive episode among fans. To some, it’s too mean-spirited, while others view Homer’s behavior as symptomatic of his gradual infantilization. Both claims certainly have some credence, but unlike later episodes – which take Homer’s selfish idiocy for granted, and revel in it – “Homer’s Enemy” regards it self-consciously as a source of humor and as an ugly blight on the face of Springfield. Yes, Grimes’ death is played for laughs, and this is exceptionally dark, but the uneasy laughter it elicits is the point of the episode. Above all, this episode remains controversial because it’s a new and unpleasant perspective on the Simpson family.

“Homer’s Enemy” calls to mind the work of Luis Buñuel, in how it inverts right and wrong, punishments and rewards, with bleakly funny consequences. Through Frank Grimes’ eyes, perhaps the Casa de Simpson could be the site of a uniquely American Exterminating Angel. Most fundamentally, though, it’s about skewing the show’s preexisting satire by introducing a human being with a “real world” mentality to the madness of Springfield. As fans of The Simpsons, after all, we’re not too different from Frank Grimes – educated, rational adults living in the real world. We may laugh along with Homer & co.’s weekly exploits, but this episode shows what would happen if we too had four fingers and yellow skin, if we too tried to live alongside the cultural monolith that is Homer Simpson. It would destroy us.

So there’s my take on one of the thornier episodes in Simpsons history. Are you a fan of “Homer’s Enemy,” or are you put off by its painful resolution? Also, what episode should I hit for July: “Bart Sells His Soul,” or “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer“? Another episode altogether? Comment and let me know your preference.


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One Hour Mark: Sweet Smell of Success

This is a picture of Burt Lancaster from 1:00:00 into Alexander Mackendrick’s caustic masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success (1957). A late entry in the cycle of classical noir, the film is about power plays in the New York press, as agents like Tony Curtis’s Sidney Falco make dirty deals with columnists in order to advance their clients. Lancaster stars as J.J. Hunsecker, a bespectacled, all-powerful columnist based on Walter Winchell. By this point in the film, Falco has already made several lurid exchanges and betrayals to curry Hunsecker’s favor. Although this may feel a far cry from the somewhat bloodier material associated with film noir, Sweet Smell treads the same ground of human greed and corruption, and the stakes are just as high.

“He’s got the scruples of a guinea pig and the morals of a gangster,” is how one prospective victim describes Hunsecker, but it doesn’t quite do him justice. He’s power incarnate, and insists that this fact be acknowledged. He can be angry, panicked, calm, even loving, but every emotion is backed up by the knowledge of his supreme authority. This is a film about a city of lost souls, and in that context, Hunsecker is a god. Here, he’s giving a magnificent performance for his sister Susie (Susan Harrison). Although he’s indirectly responsible for the smear that got her boyfriend’s band fired, he plays the caring older brother to win her over. He may be able to dispatch anyone with a curt dismissal, but with his sister, he takes some tact.

The scene plays out in stages: first, he’s the approachable patriarch. “Now, take it easy, Susie,” he says, “you don’t have to protest with me.” As Susie cuts to the point, he gets indignant and reveals his self-interest, his voice growing sharper: “You’ve had your say, let me have mine!” The authoritarian in him emerges, and by the one hour mark, he has her almost reduced to tears. Then he goes at her from a different angle: “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.” J.J. is brother, father, priest, and king all rolled into one. He’s also a master manipulator. Lancaster played a number of roles like this – as Sinclair Lewis’s firebrand preacher in Elmer Gantry, or as a fascist general staging a coup in Seven Days in May – but none so effective and terrifying as J.J.

In these films, Lancaster showed the dark sides of powerful men. J.J. is almost nothing but dark side, power wielded for its own sake. Charles Foster Kane may have wanted love on his own terms, but at least he had lost dreams and forgotten potential. J.J. doesn’t even have a first name to humanize him; there’s nothing but a pair of slick initials. His only weakness is his sister, and as we can see here, he has his own methods for taking care of her. It’s only later in the film, as she falls further out of his orbit, that J.J.’s problems really start… but even then, they’re displaced onto Sidney, the eternal fall guy.

In J.J., Lancaster forges one of the great characters in all of film, a man of stone whose sister is his feet of clay. Lancaster is a monolith, and his glasses look both professorial and razor sharp. For Mackendrick and his cinematographer, the great James Wong Howe, the entire crooked city of New York is extension of J.J.’s perversion and power. J.J.’s apartment is the epicenter from which his corruption radiates. Like J.J., it initially looks welcoming and reliable, but under Howe’s camera, each room becomes menacing and bleak. So in this image, we have two all-American icons of security – the patriarch and the home – mutated into cold, controlling monsters. And that, my friends, is film noir.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Marge vs. the Monorail

We here at Pussy Goes Grrr are all about retcons. We’re OK with it if Greedo shot first, or if Iron Man’s origin was in the Gulf War, or whatever, as long as we can do it too. Therefore, I am retconning this series into a monthly series, and retroactively marking this as the May post. Comprehensively analyzing The Simpsons is, I think, a worthwhile task, but it’s also difficult and time-consuming. That said, it’s also uniquely rewarding. For example, it gives me an excuse to talk about The Simpsons for a long, long time once a month. I hope you enjoy it.

When I talked about the themes of “Who Shot Mr. Burns?“, one of them really stood out to me: the mob mentality in Springfield. Ever since then, I’ve observed mobs of all shapes and sizes everywhere in The Simpsons. In the show’s on-the-nail satire of ugly Americans, it depicts them in their natural environment, which happens to be as members of large, amorphous groups. The show also mercilessly criticizes ruthless individualism and hypocritical elitism, so it brilliantly plays both sides of the fence. All of this (and more) is at work in one of the best episodes ever, “Marge vs. the Monorail.”

It’s a testament to the show’s writers that this episode should be so effective. The premise feels so absurd, and indeed Wikipedia says that when Conan O’Brien originally pitched it, it was considered “a little crazy.” But the idea won out, and it became a showcase for some of the show’s sharpest social commentary. As with many of the best episodes, it’s so packed with allusions and quick gags with such a wide variety of targets that, in lesser hands, it might feel overcrowded. But it’s perfectly paced, none of the segments seem rushed, and it even has a slightly disturbing drama unfolding beneath the constant humor. This is virtuoso storytelling, and no convention is left without a little satirical twist.

The episode is so well-designed that it even starts with the cherry on top. This is, apropos of nothing, a 20-second parody of the Flintstones opening as Homer leaves work. It’s a brief preamble, recognizing the show’s debts to animated sitcoms of the 1960s while setting up Homer as a new type of TV father. Hell, if someone had never heard of Homer Simpson, this could be an introduction to the entire complex character. The plot then begins in earnest, as Carl and Lenny casually seal up vats of toxic waste at the nuclear power plant, which Mr. Burns and Smithers then dispose of at a local park. This section leads right into the main storyline, both causally and thematically; after all, it’s all about communal interest vs. personal greed. And Mr. Burns, of course, is personal greed incarnate.

So we get a mini-narrative about corporate corruption and disdain for the environment, and the episode’s barely getting warmed up. (I addressed this part of the episode in more depth in another post that was specifically about environmentalism in ’90s animation.) Mr. Burns’ $3 million fine for his “unbelievable contempt for human life” (which he pays with ease) goes to the city, necessitating a town meeting. These meetings are a relatively frequent part of life in Springfield, popping up whenever the town faces any kind of crisis; in general, as you may expect, the townspeople devolve into a mob, whether angry or otherwise. They’re opportunities to illustrate the divide between the government and the people, and they give a chance for each citizen’s own brand of ignorance to shine. “Marge vs. the Monorail” is no exception.

First, though, we’re treated to some wonderful fantasy sequences, as Lisa and Bart each share how they’d spend the money. These fantasies are especially great because they reflect the children’s personalities (Lisa’s bookishness, Bart’s desire for mayhem) while still maintaining a childlike yearning for the impossibly awesome – whether it’s eating who Genghis Khan eats, or controlling robotic ants. Both with the children here and later with the adults, the show pulls off a neat trick, as it represents the wishes and biases of individual characters both when contrasted with, and then integrated into, the teeming masses. A lot of deep questions are being raised about the individual’s role in popular decisions, and they’re raised in very funny ways.

Marge, often acknowledged as the town killjoy, is the voice of personal responsibility. Her plan for the money – to fix the potholes in Main Street – is an unexciting but obvious proposition that would greatly improve day-to-day life in Springfield. The mob even goes for it at first, following Abe Simpson’s confusingly sarcastic opposition. Then Lyle Lanley enters the picture. Lanley is one of the most memorable one-time characters in the show’s history, and it’s entirely because of Phil Hartman’s voice acting genius. Hartman voiced the supporting characters Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure on a regular basis, and although McClure was occasionally given room to grow, both were mostly (hilarious) one-note jokes – the sleazy lawyer and sleazy actor.

Lanley is something else altogether. Yes, he’s a sleazy con man, but he’s much more than that. He breathes contempt for small-town rubes, but it’s smeared over with greasy charisma, and a willingness to speak their simple-minded language. He has the element of surprise, and has no problem grabbing the town’s attention, especially since their civic leaders are so comparatively dull. Lanley brings razzle-dazzle to policymaking. Later, when Marge complains that the potholes will go unfixed, Homer remarks, “Well, you should’ve written a song like that guy.” Homer, an everyman, has the memory of a goldfish; he can’t even recall Lanley’s name, but he definitely remembers that he had a song.

And what a song! Of course, it’s a parody of “Ya Got Trouble” from The Music Man, but it’s not just a frivolous reference. It instantly links Lanley to The Music Man‘s Harold Hill while applying the absurd randomness of Hill’s opposition to pool to Lanley’s support for a monorail. The question of “Why a monorail?” is raised precisely once, by Lisa, and Lanley cleverly distracts her; the point isn’t so much what he’s selling as how he sells it. He’s literally all flash, and the Springfieldianites are more than happy to be taken in. (As Mayor Quimby says, “Just tell us your idea, and we’ll vote for it!”) The episode also takes The Music Man‘s original story of a con man who grows close to the folks he’s trying to swindle, and redirects it into a savage indictment of politics and business. The episode’s bitter lesson, after all, is “You can fool all of the people all of the time [except Marge].”

The episode’s second act expands on this message through a series of monorail-related vignettes. Lanley’s slick presence suddenly lights up Springfield’s schools and TVs. Nobody thinks about the monorail in terms of what it actually is (i.e., a mass transit system); instead, it’s a receptacle for everything they want their town and their lives to become. Lanley could be a stand-in for any kind of demagogue, whether cultural, political, religious, etc. – the point is that he calculates his pitch so that the rubes feel they’d be doing themselves a disservice to not buy into him. He’s like a one-man rendition of the infomercials I analyzed a while back. (In many ways, he’s akin to the Leader from the later episode “The Joy of Sect.”) He hooks most of Springfield, including of course Homer, who decides that becoming a monorail conductor is his “lifelong dream.”

Here, the episode introduces a new and vital plot thread: the father-son relationship between Homer and Bart, and by extension, Homer’s role as an authority figure within his family. In an episode that begins by branding Homer as an especially incompetent patriarch, it really is, perhaps unconsciously, his “lifelong dream” to restore himself to a position of respect before his wife and children, specifically Bart. However, as Homer’s fortune rises along with the respect he receives from Bart, Marge discovers that Lanley is essentially a smooth-talking sociopath. The rest of the episode brings these parallel plots to their logical conclusion as Homer leads the monorail on its maiden voyage and Marge hurries to somehow save her town and her husband.

Marge’s detour into North Haverbrook is both unnerving and fascinating. It’s like a vision into Springfield’s possible future, as determined by its citizens’ short-sightedness and gullibility. This is a ghost town with a poorly-hidden secret. It’s also a tragedy, because according to Lanley’s spiel, all the town wanted was to be “put… on the map.” Lanley is an easy answer to difficult problems, whether personal (Homer wants to be a model father) or city-wide (the people of Springfield crave national renown). And Marge, as the hard-working mother, is automatically suspicious of everything the monorail represents. On her trip, she meets creepy monorail technician Sebastian Cobb, and together they return to Springfield… only to find that Homer has already started the monorail.

The episode’s last act is a curious mesh of disaster movie, political satire, and family melodrama. This comes complete with riffs on celebrity culture, more incompetence on the part of political leaders, and several more forays into absurdism – whether with Homer’s Chuck Jones-style viewing of Bart as an anchor, or the continued but superfluous presence of Leonard Nimoy. It’s resolved in a typically absurdist way as well, with the heroism being divvied up between Nimoy, Homer, and a giant donut. But how else could an episode based around a faulty monorail end? What’s impressive is how the show keeps the emotional stakes high even while realism runs low. The titular battle between Marge and the monorail rapidly becomes a fight for her town and her family, and Homer is still able to be temporarily recuperated as a legitimate father figure, since in an act of (ridiculous) leadership, he disarms the monorail’s destructive capabilities.

Thus, the Simpson family (and by extension, Springfield) averts any harm caused by its indulgence in fast answers, and is put back in order with Marge and Homer as its equal leaders. The episode’s conclusion, however, avoids settling on too triumphant of a note, as Marge narrates, “And that was the only folly the people of Springfield ever embarked upon.  Except for the popsicle stick skyscraper.  And the 50-foot magnifying glass.  And that escalator to nowhere.” This finale sarcastically suggests that the townspeople’s extreme ignorance is cyclical – although you can fool all of the people some of the time, there’s also a time when you can’t. (Specifically, right after they realize that they’ve been fooled.) As usual, the writers wield humor to put the finishing touches on their ideological points.

This is just a great, brilliant episode. It presents its satire simultaneously on macro and micro levels, as the city and the family, two groups of people driven to make poor decisions for selfish reasons. It also links these ideas to government oversight and free enterprise to give a very full picture of an America where everyone’s looking out for himself – except Marge, who has the public interest at heart. The show sees all these institutions as fundamentally flawed, but sometimes necessary. Despite all the greed, incompetence, and misguided choices, they can still be redeemed, if only through cosmic intervention… or donuts.

So I think “Marge vs. the Monorail” is genius. What about you?

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Saturday Theme Songs: Power Rangers

Granted, it’s Sunday, but the point is the same. This is the opening from the first season of the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, which ran from 1993-95. By buying tons of footage from Japanese tokusatsu shows, Saban Entertainment (which had a very bizarre logo) was able to brand a new product – one which was aimed directly at the American youth market of the mid-’90s. Embedded in the Power Rangers opening in a strange saga of cultural appropriation, national differences, and how to win over kids with awesomeness. It’s also a warning to those who would spell gerunds with no “g” and no apostrophe. But hell, it was still part of my early childhood.

Here’s a challenge: watch the Power Rangers opening side by side with the one for Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, the show from which it stole most of its fights and special effects. Now look at the significant changes in the Japan-to-America transition. Every weird Japanese touch has been left out, from the lifelike dinosaurs to any distinctly Japanese shooting locations to the traditional costumes and weapons of the original rangers. Saban strips away any non-American cultural specifics. Power Rangers begins with blunt exposition wherein comical hag/villain Rita Repulsa (formerly the Japanese “Bandora”) sets her sights on a really low-rent rendition of “earth,” and the wise face Zordon tells his robot buddy to “recruit a team of teenagers with attitude.” Ah, attitude, that ’90s zeitgeist.

One major difference between the Japanese and American iterations is the pace of the editing. Whereas the Japanese version, especially toward the end, has a relatively leisurely pace, Power Rangers takes its lightning bolt logo to heart. The characters are introduced in very brief snapshots, even using split-screen to get more information across faster. At times, shots go by so fast you can barely perceive them on anything but a subliminal level, as they cram in as many special effects as possible per second. Kenta Satō’s Japanese theme song is relaxed and triumphant; Ron Wasserman’s quasi-metal theme is far more repetitive and urgent. (Wasserman notably composed theme songs for other Saban series, like X-Men.) Lightning really is emblematic of what this opening is trying to do – it’s a sensory overload, striking kids with hyperactive music and flashing lights while emphasizing the Zords’ abilities to transform and unify.

So the transition from Japan to America is manifested not just in the language and the characters’ national identities, but also in the visual iconography and style. Zyuranger is another entry in a long-standing tradition of Japanese television; Power Rangers is the consummate American kids’ show, with attitude. As many have observed since the show began, Power Rangers‘ cast is a hilariously unsubtle attempt to recreate the American melting pot within a California suburb, including the likes of Trini Kwan, the generically Asian-American Yellow Ranger, to Kimberley Hart, the ultra-feminine Pink Ranger. It’s a curious collision between an America that’s supposedly beyond race and the need for extremely legible characters in such a fast-paced show. In the end, though, the individual Zords merge to form the Megazord. So maybe, in Saban’s America, an individual’s race is transcended by the awesomeness of the group.

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As seen on TV: the style and politics of infomercials

Prepare yourself to enter a strange world. A world where human hands are incapable of accomplishing everyday tasks without creating huge messes. A world where said hands and said messes are in black and white. A world that can only be converted into color by the arrival of some miracle product. This is the world of Direct Response Television, the form of advertising more colloquially known as infomercials. [Infomercials, according to Wikipedia, are specifically long-form ads roughly half an hour long, according to the advertising industry. However, I’ll be using the term in its more general sense here.] Inspired by this amazing video posted by Geekologie, Ashley and I have been studying dozens of informercials in an effort to understand what, exactly, is going on here.

Infomercials are fascinating. Despite offering a diverse array of products, most infomercials follow a surprisingly rigid formula. They have a number of tried-and-true methods that, I assume, have been found to lure in the most customers. But when you look at them outside of this context, they’re just absurd, logically and cinematically. For a good demonstration of these techniques in action, let’s take a look at the Better Burger Maker ad.

Here’s how the infomercial tells its story:

1) (0:00-0:04) We see this hapless, B&W sad sack trying, and failing, to eat a hamburger. His face shows a disappointment with the burger itself. “Burger toppings are tasty, but what a mess!” The mess is presented as a normal part of the burger topping experience, and not as a result of the bearded man’s incompetence.

2) (0:05-0:14) “But not anymore!” Suddenly, the world flashes into the color, the problem (which you didn’t even know you had) is dispelled, and a faceless woman can easily “stuff, stuff, stuff [her] way to the best-tasting burgers ever!” This is the moment of almost spiritual transfiguration, fundamental to the power of the infomercial. The music swells, and the world changes forever through the Better Burger Maker.

3) (0:15-0:35) The ad then explains at length how the Better Burger Maker does what it does, through a mix of industrial and pseudoscientific jargon that puts up a smoke screen of authority. Sensory overload is the infomercial’s main tool, so while the all-knowing narrator talks about the “unique patty press design,” we see a computer-generated schematic, alongside numbers and words like “Infuses” and “Patent-Pending,” all of which sound awful science-y.

4) (0:36-1:06) The next segment combines ideas from the previous three: we see an emphatically happy family enjoying burgers; endless recipe ideas including the curiously bourgeois “ultimate gourmet burger”; and reiterations of how flawed life was before the Better Burger Maker. The question of whether you should buy it is out the window – instead, you must ask yourself when.

5) (1:07-1:20) To strengthen the Better Burger Maker’s credibility, we get some vox populi testimonials from a the customers of a “popular cafe,” the Carousel Cafe, which looks eternally rooted in the late ’80s. White people of all genders and ages add to the consensus: “We love it!”

6) (1:21-1:47) This is it, the final push for the customer to buy now. The constant flow of voiceover and images becomes crucial, as they must overcome all doubts with their sheer repetition. Only $19.96, you’ll also receive, but wait, call now, free, order now – how can you resist that kind of salesmanship? Especially when it’s coupled with dozens of different hamburger variations. We conclude with a slant rhyme over a gleefully munching family: “No matter how you stuff ’em, you’re gonna love ’em.”

(The remaining 12 seconds, when broadcast on TV, would normally be filled with instructions involving what telephone number to call and what credit cards they accept.)

Granted, this isn’t the narrative structure for every infomercial (and be sure, this is a narrative), but it does contain the general style and motifs that underlie the construction of most infomercials. The contrast between the customer’s lives “before” and “after”; the excessive repetition of the offer; the establishment of the voiceover’s godlike authority; the excessive repetition of the offer; and the message that by not buying it, you’d basically be ripping yourself off. Infomercials are dependent on an appeal to schmuckery. But it goes beyond that, and here’s where I’d like to delve into my broader theory about the sociopolitical meanings of infomercials. To that end, I give you the Smart Spin.

Infomercials sell products for all kinds of needs, but I’ve noticed that they cluster in three gendered categories: kitchen (female), home improvement (male), and fitness (male and female). All three basically point to the infomercial vision of the American dream. The message is that right now, your life is imperfect. You spill things. You can’t crack eggs. Your tiny cookies are so lame. This dysfunction isn’t specific to your household – “we’ve all done this” – but it does mean that you’re as pathetic a homemaker as every other hassled, lower-middle-class mom. Incompetence is the norm. (The home improvement ads say the same thing to dads.)

The miracle product, however, transforms your drab, normal home and unhappy family into a full-color utopian ideal. To buy the product is to teach yourself and your family to smile again, to give your children the childhood they really deserve. There’s an enormous class angle to these ads: one of their central purposes is to let middle-class consumers with upward aspirations feel like they’re rich without spending much money. They talk about how low the price is, but remind viewers that the value is much greater, allowing customers to feel like they’re really taking advantage of something. (This is an old con artist trick: flattering the mark into thinking they’re so smart, even while you’re taking advantage of them.)

Infomercials play on your desires. Sure, we can see that these products are all just unnecessary junk when we’re viewing them critically, but when they’re watched passively amidst the stream of TV programming, they engage you on numerous levels. That junk is transformed into a fundamental lifestyle alteration – the one step for you to go from Willy Loman-like drudgery to household perfection, with a little extra added in FREE! Your life goes from ordinary to extraordinary, and only for the tiniest of investments. Marital discontent (possibly caused by dissatisfying burgers) and the pains of childhood are cast aside as the family unit is solidified through the miracle product. No more embarrassing nonconformists here: you’ll all wear matching tops (or Snuggies) as you find, at last, your common cultural ground.

Overall, I get pretty Stepford Wives vibe from the brave new world envisioned by infomercials. As evidenced by the Smart Spin ad, there’s this sense of regulation and normalization as positive forces. No more unusual or idiosyncratic containers; everything is Smart Spin now. It’s technology overcoming human imperfections – knock it over all you want, it never spills. Infomercials portray true happiness as this white suburban two-child nuclear family, where adult gender roles are strictly segregated, and it’s all contained snugly within the womb of consumerism. I would go so far as to call it fascist.

For me, this view of infomercials is strengthened by way we see these very generic actors modeling “happiness.” They give us a crude pantomime of what life with the miracle product is like, yet they never speak. They’re always spoken for by the absolute authorities: the narrator and the text. Infomercials gush out of the screen with one unanimous voice, often (and strangely) in Seussian rhyme, dictating to you the nature of your life, and how it could – nay, should – change. There’s no consideration that maybe I don’t want the product, or that maybe I’m capable of cracking my goddamn eggs on my own. Because there’s 1 dream on parade here, and it has no room for abnormal thoughts or behavior. All other activities or desires are subordinated to how our houses, our kitchens, and our selves look – what kind of facade we’ve put up.

Infomercials prescribe a single path, and it’s an appealing one: from boredom to fun, from sadness to happiness, to failure to dreams fulfilled. But they’re not just selling some wave-of-the-future with a $40 value, yours free. They’re selling all the meanings and values that the product is visually associated with. They’re selling superficial economic mobility, being a better mother, getting work done without doing any work, giving your kids a life that’s right out of the TV, and the American dream (at least, the dominant iteration of it). They’re selling everything you’ve always been taught to want, finally in a condensed version that even you can afford. Maybe you’ll have to give up all individuality, but won’t it be worth it? Just wait till you see the look on your husband’s face as he takes a bite of that burger.


Filed under Media, Politics, Sexuality