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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song

By Andreas

Part of The Simpsons‘ utter genius is how the writers were able to squeeze pathos and comedy, week after week, out of extremely improbable storylines. In my “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series, for example, I’ve discussed episodes where an angry old man plots to block out the sun; where a town is nearly destroyed by its own public transit; where a little boy sells his soul to his best friend; and where a father buys his daughter a pony and has to suffer for it. Today, I’m going to talk about one where an elementary school principal is fired, and then rehired.

However, despite this tiny, incidental narrative,”Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song” is rendered compelling, hilarious, and emotionally affecting through the miracles of fantastic writing and voice acting. By looking deeper into Principal Skinner, a man defined by his position of authority, the Simpsons staff peels away myths about power and leadership in America. But as usual, they take some side trips to skewer public schools, nerds, the military, religion, and much more. It’s 22 very dense minutes of hyperactive, hyperliterate TV, casually mixing brutal jokes with redemptive sentiment.

At the core of it all is Principal Skinner, scarred Vietnam vet and neurotic mama’s boy, who is having the worst day of his life. We first see him on the phone in mid-conversation, sweating profusely as he mutters, “I—I know Weinstein’s parents were upset, superintendent, but, but, but I was sure it was a phony excuse. I mean, it sounds so made up: Yom Kippur!” It’s a dead-on jab at suburban school administrators, who are totally clueless about anything beyond white-bread Christian traditions, and it introduces Skinner as he’s being crushed by the pressures of his job. Through a series of twists involving an energetic dog and a greased-up Scotsman, his day goes from bad to worse, leaving him haggard and hiccupping. It all culminates in this tragically absurd bit of back-and-forth with Superintendent Chalmers:

Chalmers: You’re fired!

[Musical sting; Bart gasps.]

Skinner: I’m sorry, did—did you just call me a liar?

Chalmers: No, I said you were fired.

Skinner: Oh. That’s much worse.

This could have been Skinner’s chance to take a stand against Chalmers, but since he mishears the crucial phrase, it just turns into a pathetic debacle punctuated at the end by a lone hiccup. Like any authority figure in Springfield, Skinner is often a lazy, smarmy, hypocritical fascist. He’s as willing as anyone to play along with the broken system and throw the children’s futures under the bus. But he’s still insecure, fragile, and achingly sincere—in short, he’s only human, and his authoritarian demeanor is always marred by weakness. As he blurts out that last line, his vulnerability is palpable, and this helps secure viewer sympathy for him during the next two acts. It’s also painfully funny.

Read on for more about Skinner, gay jokes, and elementary school… Continue reading

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Lisa’s Pony

By Andreas

As we continue with the new, condensed version of “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis,” we arrive at an episode that’s pure genius in how it explores Homer and Lisa’s fraught father/daughter relationship. Blending powerful drama with physical and verbal comedy, “Lisa’s Pony” has the best of both worlds, and a sophisticated analysis of the Simpson family’s internal dynamics. It gets so much comic mileage out of its inherently absurd premise—Homer buys Lisa a pony in a bid to redeem himself as a father—but keeps itself grounded in stark emotional reality. It’s about the disastrous personal and financial consequences of rash decisions, all rooted in the basic irony of trying to realistically represent a preposterous situation.

It’s also crammed with great character moments for a panoply of Springfield residents. Early on, for example, we witness the Springfield Elementary talent show, which sets the episode’s events in motion; as usual, Principal Skinner is being something less than a model of patience and academic authority. While watching Milhouse’s underwhelming attempt to play the spoons, he groans, “You know, they seem to get worse every year.” Then as the act ends, he walks onstage, and proclaims to the gathered parents: “You know, I think this is the best batch we’ve ever had! I really do!” This is in line with the usual jokes about the school administration being jaded and hateful (like Skinner’s fantastic “We both know these children have no future!” from “The PTA Disbands”), but takes it a step further by having him turn around and, without missing a beat, lie to the parents’ faces.

Read more about Skinner, Apu, and Homer’s parenting after the jump.

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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: Bart’s Comet

[Perfectly Cromulent Analysis is a series in which I comprehensively analyze especially memorable Simpsons episodes. To see the rest, look here.]

Starting with a simple schoolyard prank and building its way up to a powerful climax wherein the citizens of Springfield sing together in solidarity, “Bart’s Comet” is an example of the Simpsons‘ staff at their very best. In just over 20 minutes, they cram in a full disaster movie’s worth of plot paired with endlessly biting political satire, plus a number of character-building moments and subtle but hilarious gags. It’s well-written to a tee, both in its broader structure (every moment adds to the plot) and in its little snippets of dialogue. Tucked into the corners of this episode are fantastic lines and savage gibes, universally well-delivered by the voice actors.

In short, it’s a great episode. But why just utter praise? Let’s delve into what makes “Bart’s Comet” such an unremitting masterwork, one of the most brilliant pieces of animated satire ever created. It all starts as poor, beleaguered Principal Seymour Skinner is attempting to instill his pupils with a love of science by launching a weather balloon. Little does he know that his actions will inadvertently lead an angry mob to burn down the Springfield observatory. It’s just one glimmering irony out of the dozens overflowing from this bountiful episode, and naturally – since it’s a brutal irony in Skinner’s sad provincial life – it comes courtesy of Bart Simpson.

As revenge for Bart’s sabotaging of the balloon (adding a mock-up of Skinner’s face and the words “Hi, I’m Big Butt Skinner”), Skinner forces him to wake up at 4am and assist in Skinner’s amateur astronomy. Amidst scenes full of dead-on observational humor, both about the perils of waking up before sunrise and the tedium of the scientific method, Bart does assist him – only to sabotage him yet again by accidentally discovering a comet. This results in one of my favorite Skinner movements, as he cries “NO!” three times in succession – his inarticulate equivalent of “Curses, foiled again!”

Thus, with the discovery of the comet and the transition to Act 2, the episode’s plot begins in earnest. No more Skinner/Bart hijinks, as amusing as those are; now, events shift to a broader city-wide platform, as Bart and the nerdy Super Friends alert the proper authorities that the comet is headed straight for Springfield. The “doomsday whistle,” as Grandpa calls it, is used to instigate a town meeting, and during that meeting we learn what the episode is really about: it’s an inquiry into whether the people of Springfield have “grace under pressure,” to quote Ernest Hemingway. The answer is an unambiguous “no,” but it’s delivered probably the funniest, most intelligent way possible over the following 10 minutes.

As if to complement Skinner’s schoolboyish enthusiasm, the episode is not just about the town’s instant panic (“Quit stalling! What’s the plan?!”), but also about how science, as the abstract pursuit of knowledge, tries to coexist or interact with more tangible political realities, often (as here) with disastrous results. To that end, we’ve got Professor Frink, go-to brainiac, who offers what looks like a miracle solution, conceived of by himself in tandem with old government/military officials: just send a rocket to blow up “Mr. Comet.” The frazzled populace is instantly relieved, especially Homer, who compares the crisis to “that rainforest scare,” which he assumes has been fully resolved.

Just as in “Marge vs. the Monorail,” Homer is the very model of political apathy and complacency, relinquishing all civic decision making to anyone who isn’t him. (Or per “Trash of the Titans”: “Can’t somebody else do it?”) He has complete faith that the people in charge will make the right choices to keep him and his family safe – even after he’s seen Quimby mispronounce the city’s name. He comes up with a half-assed escape plan that he can barely describe because he’s so easily distracted, and even when all hope seems last, he carries on with naïve optimism, assuming that the comet will probably burn up. I like how the episode revolves gently around Homer, who accidentally saves the day with his self-imposed blindness and layered hypocrisies.

When the rocket fails and the only bridge out of town is destroyed, “Bart’s Comet” takes on a decidedly apocalyptic tone. But even within this atmosphere of suspense and desperation, the episode still finds time for one little joke after another. It’s black comedy at its finest, for example, when helicopter-riding newsman Arnie Pie watches one car after another try and fail to jump over Springfield Gorge, and describes it as “a silent testament to the never-give-up and never-think-things-out spirit of our citizens.” Or when Congress’s bureaucratic loopholes make an emergency evacuation bill fail, prompting Kent Brockman to remark that “democracy simply doesn’t work.”

Under pressure, it appears, all of Springfield – including political, media, and religious authorities – abandon their logic or values, and turn to pure hysteria. The final showdown, when the townsfolk must prove who they really are, comes when Homer leads his family into Flanders’ bomb “shelterini.” After a brief non-confrontation, Ned lets everyone else in, from Moe to Otto to Krusty to over a dozen of the show’s other peripheral characters. Then, shoved together in the tiny space so that they form a ridiculous human collage, they must kick out one person so the door can remain fully close. And, of course, Homer is selfish to the last and insists that it be Flanders, even as he murmurs, “I’m terribly sorry!” to Flanders’ wife and children.

This climax really exemplifies what’s so great about this episode: it’s visually absurd but gets at some very deep truths. It’s a set of jokes that flows organically from the plot and characters while satirizing the self-serving tendencies people employ in moments of crisis. Flanders may be an effeminate, boring fundamentalist and a frequent (deserving) target of the show’s humor, but he’s still willing to sacrifice himself when the others cling to life. The townsfolk engage in a hilarious “barnyard noise guessing game” to distract themselves from their questionably ethical decision, but Homer suddenly becomes their conscience and reprimands them all before joining Flanders.

This leads to the episode’s incredible resolution, which is a feat of versatile, economical writing yoked together with gorgeous animation and skilled voice acting. Everyone follows Homer out of the shelter, and they join Flanders in a rousing chorus of “Que Sera, Sera,” as they sing, “What will be, will be.” It’s a serene, heartwarming moment; it says that while they may be panicky, ignorant, and self-interested, the people of Springfield are still good at heart. Or, at the very least, that they’re willing to face death as a single unit, with all boundaries erased – which has to count for something. It’s the usual Simpsons trick of hiding the sweet in the sour, and vice versa.

Then, with dizzying speed, the ending arrives: the comet tears into the atmosphere and burns up into a rock “no bigger than a chihuahua’s head,” just as Homer said. Between the comet burning up and the end of the episode – that’s less than a minute of screen time – we get countless layers of dense irony thrown at us (let’s count!): 1) the comet destroys the weather balloon that started all this in the first place; 2) it destroys the bomb shelter, meaning that anyone still inside would’ve been killed; 3) Patty and Selma remark on “the preciousness of life” as they take a drag on their cigarettes; 4) Moe leads a mob to go burn down the observatory “so this will never happen again”; 5) Lisa realizes that the air pollution she’s opposed saved the city; and 6) the kids realize that Homer, somehow, was right.

What a denouement! It not only wraps up every single plot point, but also uses its conclusions to mock the shallowness and short-sightedness of its characters; it then tilts the balance at the very last moment by positioning Homer’s correct prediction as a source of renewed anxiety. The comet has burned up, the threat is gone, and we’re back to the status quo… but that status quo is built on forgetting any of the valuable lessons from the recent crisis, or else brutally misapplying them. Scientists move carefully and learn from their mistakes. The people (in the sense of “we the people”) do not. “Bart’s Comet” gets across this and other satirical points with uncompromising swiftness and an extraordinary range of emotion. And to put the cherry on top, it ends on a note of quavering fear. Genius.

Just for fun, here are a few of my absolute favorite moments from “Bart’s Comet”:

  • Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney pelting Skinner’s car with rocks.
  • “You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention… science has it all.”
  • “Warren, we’ve talked about you hogging the eyepiece.”
  • Moe: “Oh, dear God, no!”
  • Todd weeping as he loads the rifle.
  • “It was a baby ox!”

What are your feelings on “Bart’s Comet”? Please share in the comment box below!


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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart Sells His Soul

Just before the month ends, here’s July’s analysis of The Simpsons‘ brilliant, multifaceted artistry. (All previous entries can be viewed here.) Perhaps The Simpsons‘ most dazzling feat was its ability to emanate such crusty cynicism while retaining a core of profound sincerity. And I’m not referring to the saccharine sincerity of sitcom “very special episodes,” either; I’m talking about moments that disclosed what the show’s writers really believed in. They were moments of vulnerability suggesting that the Simpsons weren’t just cartoonish punching bags, but real people with real beliefs, desires, and fears. “Bart Sells His Soul,” which hails from the beginning of the seventh season (and with it, the Oakley/Weinstein era), is 20 full minutes suffused with this same vulnerability. It’s about a young boy’s spiritual self-discovery through “suffering and thought and prayer,” as Lisa puts it. Even for a show as adventurous and groundbreaking as The Simpsons, that’s pretty heavy stuff.

The show, however, acquits itself impressively with an unflinching gaze into the essence of Bart. Yes, Bart: he of the chalkboard gags, the skateboard, and the mouthy t-shirt slogans, the envy of every kid alive in the 1990s. But, of course, beneath the too-cool-for-school posturing, Bart has always been just another 10-year-old, and “Bart Sells His Soul” even-handedly interrogates the disparity between image and reality. The episode opens with a brazen prank as Bart hands First Church of Springfield parishioners the lyrics to a “hymn” entitled “In the Garden of Eden” – really Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a 17-minute relic of psychedelic rock. The disarming audacity with which he deceives the congregation epitomizes, as the French would say, the “Bartesque.” He tricks the churchgoers into eating his shorts, and then tells them not to have a cow, man.

Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, however, does nothing but have a cow. He’s Springfield’s envoy of tradition-bound organized religion and therefore a major figure of patriarchal authority. He’s also, in keeping with the show’s anti-authoritarian satirical outlook, ridiculously incompetent. From the outset, he’s gullible and out of touch. “Wait a minute,” he opines to himself, an eyebrow raised, “this sounds like rock and/or roll!” After his flock has been humiliated and exhausted, he takes the church’s youngsters aside and feeds them a Mad Libs-style script of fire and brimstone so as to force a confession.1 But Bart repeats the lines right back with an air of blasé disinterest. To Bart, Lovejoy’s threats of eternal damnation are just as impotent as Principal Skinner’s threats of detention, and it’s both because he’s an untamable rebel, à la Brando in The Wild One, and because these patriarchs are so neurotic and hypocritical.

As voiced by Harry Shearer, Lovejoy is a model of Middle American self-righteousness. His every sentence has the same pompous intonations, rendered ineffectual by his slight lisp, and his face is usually furrowed in the same disapproving frown. He mechanically advocates an impersonal brand of Christianity; it’s not hard to see why Bart dismisses his sermons and, with them, the adult world’s belief in the soul. Bart, a veteran trickster, is too sharp to be so easily duped.2 Milhouse, however, is just sheepish enough to give in, and Bart is outraged when he lets faith trump friendship. The two of them have an argument that brings questions of personal identity down to a 10-year-old’s level – to hell with the mind/body divide; what if you die while in a submarine? Incensed at his friend’s willingness to swallow adult lies, Bart exclaims, “Listen: you don’t have a soul, I don’t have a soul, there’s no such thing as a soul!” And to demonstrate his prioritization of money, a pragmatic, real-world concern, over religious dogma, which he regards as nothing but a collection of fairy tales,3 Bart strikes the titular bargain.

The first challenge to Bart’s cynical materialism comes from his sagacious sister. Unlike Lovejoy, Lisa doesn’t have any hypocritical motivations to espouse the concept of the soul, and unlike Milhouse, she doesn’t confront him with a mess of folk beliefs and fear-driven superstitions. Instead, she has her faith in the soul’s symbolic value, which is deeply rooted in her sense of self rather than any specific belief system. Bart and Lisa’s conversation in the driveway is really the kernel of the episode’s deepest philosophical exploration: here are two children in the America of the ’90s, where all traditional authorities (government, businesses, media, schools, churches)4 have been thoroughly discredited. So what do they put their faith in, and how do they define themselves as human beings? Whereas Lisa has her own simple, functional theory of the self,5 Bart has pranks and cold hard cash – his is a reactive ethos, as he prefers to beat society within its own system rather than formulate one of his own. He comes to regret his hubris, however, after the rest of the episode delivers a concussive wallop of spiritual horror.

Ashley told me that she once thought “Bart Sells His Soul” was a Treehouse of Horror episode, and it’s understandable given the events that round off the first act. Santa’s Little Helper and Snowball II growl and hiss at Bart, respectively, with no apparent motivation; the Kwik-E-Mart’s automatic door admits the pious Rod and Tod Flanders, but not him; and he can’t even fog up glass with his breath. It all plays out very ambiguously, with only the subtle, subjective implication that these are the consequences of selling one’s soul. Its primary effect isn’t outright fear, but more a feeling of unsettledness. As Bart grumbles when his face smacks against the door, “This is getting weird.” The final, unsettling straw is when Bart loses his ability to enjoy Itchy and Scratchy. Lisa quotes Pablo Neruda: “Laughter is the language of the soul.” I love Lisa’s role in this episode: she’s at once the precocious, argumentative little sister and the voice of reason, sincerely worried about her brother’s well-being.

She tests Bart’s capacity for laughter by making Homer trip and get his head caught in the stairs. While Bart would normally be the one causing such mischief, he’s now incapable of enjoying it, and Lisa concludes, “I think you really did lose your soul.” As before, in Lisa’s reckoning it doesn’t matter if the soul is “physically real,” or if Bart’s sense of humor is merely a psychological (and therefore not “real”) casualty of his exchange. The point is that Bart’s mistake, in giving up a part of himself, has left him unable to properly interact with the outside world. He returns to Milhouse, who’s undergoing no such tribulation but is instead carrying on with his childhood; unsympathetic to Bart’s angst, he offers to sell the soul back only at a wildly inflated price. Facing a potentially permanent existential quandary, Bart can now see beyond the petty, childish dealings that were once his métier.

In a scene that’s at once touching and disturbing, Marge detects something “off” about Bart’s hug. She considers the usual diagnoses for a troubled 10-year-old – “it’s not fear of nuclear war… it’s not swim test anxiety…” – but when Bart suggests a missing soul, she blindly dismisses it: “Aw, honey, you’re not a monster.” These dead-on mother/son interactions are some of those vulnerable moments I was speaking of: Marge does her best to assuage her son’s very palpable fears, but inadvertently exacerbates the situation. Here, The Simpsons is speaking to a very critical youth/adult disconnect. It’s not the jaded mistrust that characterizes Bart’s relationship with Lovejoy or Skinner; it’s a painful breakdown within the core of the family. And it has none of the mawkish sentiment that abounds in some of the weaker family-centric episodes. It’s just a moment of very real emotion and very dark humor, as Bart’s mother implicitly but unintentionally calls him a soulless monster and turns out the light.

Then we get one of the series’ great dream sequences, complete with pink, Seussian landscapes, green skies, and eerily sweet music. All the other children are playing with their souls, as represented by phantasmal blue outlines of themselves; they jump into rowboats and head toward an Oz-like emerald city on the horizon. Bart, however, is left alone – so here, the loss of a soul becomes the loss of a friend, and Bart is condemned to be left behind. This dream really crystallizes the episode’s child’s-eye-view of the soul. It’s not about what adult authorities think the soul is; it’s what Bart learns for himself, through his anguish. His long nightmare lends him insight into the soul’s true meaning: it’s about identity, belonging, humor, companionship. As the third act confirms, “Bart Sells His Soul” is really about how Bart earns his soul.

Like “Homer’s Enemy,” this episode has a much, much lighter subplot to complement the main story’s existential heft. In it, Moe converts his once-dank tavern into a tacky family restaurant. The two storylines intersect when Homer takes the family to Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag. Lisa says a spiteful grace in which she emphasizes the word soul, prompting Bart to run off into the night, and he enters the final stage of his grueling spiritual odyssey. There’s little real analysis to be done on the Moe subplot; suffice it to say that it’s a much more expected sitcom story, and its easy jokes definitely alleviate some of the episode’s overall bleakness. As it approaches its climax, it gets very bleak: Bart faces one terrifying anomaly after another as he descends into Springfield’s desolate urban depths,6 from an exterminator clad in a Vader-like suit to a cackling street cleaner. Finally, he runs into Ralph Wiggum and begs desperately for Ralph’s soul. It’s so bizarre, albeit strangely plausible, that it’s easy to miss the frighteningly real portrayal of a babbling schizophrenic in the same scene.

Bart’s attempt to track down Milhouse proves pointless, however, as Milhouse has already resold Bart’s soul so as to purchase the most ephemeral, meaningless toys of all – ALF pogs. Bart visits the buyer, Comic Book Guy, who reports that an unnamed party bought it, and that they “were most interested in having possession of little boy’s soul.” Here, the languages of preteen consumerism and spiritual self-identification are oddly but seamlessly mixed. Rather than being just the product of obsolete superstitions, Bart learns that the soul is surprisingly relevant even in a world where the al-ighty ollar7 is the end goal of all transactions. Finally, he resorts to a long, earnest prayer: “I just want it back. Please? I hope you can hear this…” and with that, Lisa gives him back his soul. Note that I don’t say “gives him back his sheet of paper.” By this point, that paper has been so imbued with meaning that, as far as the viewer’s concerned, it is his soul. The episode ends with Bart dreaming again – but this time, he has his soul as a rowing companion, and they ram Martin’s boat. Bart has fought and prayed, and now he has his self back, prankish and rebellious as ever.

“Bart Sells His Soul” is both a child’s fable of loss and retrieval and a mature rumination on postmodern spiritual bankruptcy. With Bart, we see adult hypocrisies as ripe for skewering, but we also endure an episode’s worth of self-inflicted suffering, culminating in a newfound humility, and a gratitude for one’s own identity. It’s cathartic without being melodramatic, instead attaining its considerable emotional pull in the traditional Simpsons way: through nonstop jokes, which are sometimes brutal and dark, but still spot-on. The episode is also a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, who shows impressive range and accuracy in capturing the scope and detail of a 10-year-old’s worldview. “Bart Sells His Soul” is unequaled in the rest of the series for its fearlessness in stripping away the façade and revealing to us who Bart truly is, soul and all. And that ain’t not bad.

So, what do you think of this episode? And which one should I tackle next? Leave any suggestions in the comment box below.

1 I especially liked the “murderers and single mothers” line as a jab at Lovejoy’s outdated but indignant worldview.

2 Unless, of course, the religious authorities lower themselves to his level, as with the Li’l Bastard Brainwashing Kit in “The Joy of Sect.”

3 They’re lies and fairy tales, however, with very pragmatic, real-world rewards, as the episode bitingly demonstrates when Milhouse asks, “What would [religions] have to gain?” and we cut to Lovejoy dumping collection baskets into a coin-sorting machine.

4 Read: Quimby, Burns, Brockman, Skinner, and Lovejoy.

5 This presages her conversion to Buddhism, but her beliefs are stated so much more elegantly (and less stridently) here than they would be “She of Little Faith” and subsequent episodes.

6 The episode’s writer, Greg Daniels, says that Bart’s nocturnal trials were partially inspired by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and it shows, including just a touch of the same manically black comedy.

7 See “Team Homer.” I couldn’t resist.


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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: 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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