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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Mr. Plow

Just in time for April, my “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series is back—in a new, bite-sized format! I’ve been looking for a way to keep writing about The Simpsons that’s a little less time-consuming than the more comprehensive essays, so I can do it with more regularity. Thus, I’ll be paring down my analysis and trying to focus more closely on the episodes’ satirical points and individual moments of comic genius. Since winter’s just now ending in the midwest, I’ve picked a snowbound classic from Season 4 to celebrate: “Mr. Plow.” (That’s the episode’s name. That name again is “Mr. Plow.”)

“Mr. Plow” follows a narrative arc that should be familiar to Simpsons fans: first, Homer tries to accomplish something so he’ll be respected by his family. He fails, here through the betrayal of his best friend. Finally, he achieves some modicum of redemption, though divine intervention guarantees that it’s no more than a modicum. It’s the typical sour-but-sweet satire of the American dream that the show is renowned for dishing up. “Mr. Plow,” though, is brought a cut above even The Simpsons’ high standards by its brilliant set-pieces, reversals, and character-based humor. For example, consider my favorite joke in the whole episode…

While visiting a big, flashy car show, Homer stops off at a booth to enter a “free car” contest. He fills out the  form and, while dropping it in the slot, asks the model, “Do you come with the car?” The model, voiced by Nancy Cartwright (aka Bart) offhandedly replies, “Ohh, you!” with a coy wave of her hand and a squeaky giggle. Homer leaves, and another man walks up, fills out the form, and asks the same question. She automatically responds in the exact same way. The whole joke takes about 11 seconds, it’s unobtrusively woven into the episode’s plot, but it’s still an incisive, self-contained critique of rampant institutionalized sexism.

I love how the show’s not afraid to mock its main character when he treats a woman like a sex object. (For a more in-depth exploration of this, see Season 1’s “Homer’s Night Out.”) Both he and the man who follow him think they’re so clever, like they’re the first visitors to this booth to crack that obvious joke. And of course the model can’t tell them off, because it’s her job to validate their delusions of wit and desirability. But in Cartwright’s performance, you can catch the slightest whiff of contempt, both in the ultra-calculated nature of her laugh and the mechanical way she repeats herself. It’s such a scathing, flawlessly executed indictment of male self-satisfaction.

Nothing else in the episode quite lives up to those 11 seconds, but there are still nuggets of genius deposited all over the place. Parts of “Mr. Plow” could function as a time capsule of global politics circa 1992: just look at “Crazy Vaclav,” the Slavic car salesman who tries to sell Homer a car made in a country that no longer exists (“Put it in H!”). Or the representative of the ethically suspect and ironically named “Fourth Reich Motors,” a model of post-Nazi German efficiency at any price. Both of these examples casually and hilariously postulate a world still struggling to figure itself out in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

Another one of the best jokes in “Mr. Plow” is rooted not in international politics, but in the inner workings of Homer’s mind. As he’s about to claim his insurance money for both of the family’s wrecked cars, the claims adjuster asks him to explain what “Moe’s” is. Internally, Homer panics and decides to lie. “But what else is open at night?” he ponders. Then, in extreme close-up, he answers while wearing the most blissful of smiles: “It’s a pornography store! I was buying pornography!” Dan Castellaneta’s delivery is so pitch-perfect that I can hardly think about that line without cracking up. The restrictive framing and the lack of a reaction shot from the (no doubt aghast) claims adjuster complete the moment, rendering it unforgettable.

So far, I’ve concentrated entirely on the episode’s first act. (That’s how substantive “Mr. Plow” is.) The rest of it is brimming with good jokes, mostly focused on Homer’s harebrained, initially successful scheme to make his snowplow pay for itself. But the best parts come after he encourages his perpetually drunk pal Barney to go out and make something of himself—and Barney instantly becomes an aggressive rival plowman. This conflict capitalizes on their ongoing, beer-soaked friendship, as Barney callously shoots out Homer’s tires, slanders him on TV (with the aid of Linda Ronstadt), beats a cardboard cut-out of him into oblivion, and steals his clientele, all under the guise of “healthy competition.”

It’s pretty astonishing that Barney gets away with all this, yet the episode never feels mean-spirited or unnecessarily vicious. I suspect it’s because Barney retains the same soused, happy-go-lucky personality throughout, burping and mumbling even when he’s hobnobbing with Ronstadt and mercilessly sabotaging his best friend. He still feels good (or maybe drunkenly innocent?) at heart even when his actions say otherwise, and he even gets a moment of wickedly funny pathos toward the end, as he remarks that at least dying will reunite him with dead family members “and that plant I never watered.” It’s impressive that the Simpsons writers created a character whose audience sympathies could withstand his borderline-sociopathic behavior in this episode.

I’ll close with another of my favorite jokes from this episode. (That is, aside from the sublime visual gag with the bridges.) It’s when Homer complains to Flanders, who’s just had his driveway plowed by Barney, “I thought I was your plowman!” Flanders pauses, then offers to let Homer plow his pristine driveway, but to a self-motivated go-getter like Homer, this is tantamount to an insult. He cries, “I don’t need your phony-baloney job!” before quickly adding, “I’ll take your money. But I’m not gonna plow your driveway!”

I just love the understanding of commerce that this exchange betrays: he’s willing to put on the facade of earning the money when need be, but ultimately it’s all about getting the money, especially since the job’s prestige has run dry. Flanders, naturally, is too gracious to ask for the money back. Considering all these bitter, bleak, and brutal jokes, it’s surprising that “Mr. Plow” still has time left for scenes of adorable lovemaking, advertising parodies, nail-biting suspense, and even an extended Adam West cameo that single-handedly outdoes his entire recurring role on Family Guy. But what else would you expect? This is prime Simpsons, so of course they turn a 20-minute cartoon about buying a snowplow into a work of art.

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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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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Who Shot Mr. Burns?

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.

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