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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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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Treehouse of Horror V

So, I’m going to use the quasi-existence of “Aprilween” (i.e., a made-up horror-themed holiday halfway between each Halloween) as an excuse to continue my proposed series of Simpsons analyses. Every time I watch one of the show’s many, many great episodes, I just have an urge to talk about it – to figure out what the writers and animators did to make it so fucking brilliant. There’s so much going on in each 22-minute selection, such a talented collaborative balancing of social satire, emotional realism, and absurd animation. Single minutes of the show at its prime can unload so much comedy and pathos and subtle creative tricks you’re not entirely aware of that it makes your head spin.

And even while still fitting in all of this, the show occasionally took total departures from reality. Every October (or, more likely, early November) they would, and still do, put forward a Treehouse of Horror episode. They were continuity-free triptychs full of gore & violence, but still with the show’s usual abundance of verbal and visual jokes. But they went places (like hell and outer space) that normal episodes generally couldn’t. They allowed the show to disregard all pretenses of realism and dive into apocalyptic nightmares and carefree killing sprees, often within in a parody of a Twilight Zone episode or a classic horror movie. Anyone could die. Any institution could be dismantled. Basically, it was The Simpsons‘ horror-themed equivalent of DC’s non-canon Elseworlds series, or Marvel’s What If.

Plenty of full episodes or individual segments would’ve been worthy of closer inspection. (Although, as with the rest of the series, quality tends to drop off when you move past season 9-10.) “The Devil and Homer Simpson” from Treehouse of Horror IV, for example, has Homer trapped in his own ironic hell courtesy of an ironically satanic Ned Flanders. The legendary “Homer³” from VI uses then-revolutionary computer-generated imagery to produce an eerie, self-destructing dimension in which Homer gets trapped. (Homer being trapped in bad places was clearly a persistent theme in these episodes.) But beyond any doubt, the greatest of all 20 Halloween specials is Treehouse of Horror V.

Just as the Halloween episodes take place outside the series’ normal continuity, they also dispense with its conventions. V begins not with the familiar clouds over Springfield, but with Marge announcing that Congress has forbidden them from showing it – this cuts to an Outer Limits-style TV hijacking by Bart and Homer, which introduces the episode – and this segues into a morbid parody of the expected opening, which moves through a graveyard and toward the Simpsons’ house. Pattie and Selma are burnt as witches, Moe hangs himself, and Bart guillotines school employees (including a disturbingly happy Principal Skinner), all of which confirm this as a Springfield in which power structures have been overturned in favor of anarchic violence.

Every dark impulse boiling beneath the show’s day-to-day conflicts is let loose in shockingly literal form. The Treehouse of Horror episodes were not just a little ghoulish fun, but also a blood-spurting catharsis for the show’s whole cast. Secret fears or desires could be voiced without needing to worry about them affecting future episodes. This is especially visible in the episode’s first (and best) segment, a pitch-perfect parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining entitled “The Shinning.” (As Groundskeeper Willie says, “You want to get sued?”) Mr. Burns hires the Simpsons as winter caretakers for his lodge, but not before erasing their access to TV and beer, causing Homer to… “something something.” (“Go crazy?”)

In its imitation of Kubrick’s masterpiece, “The Shinning” brings to mind the infamous mirror routine in the Marx Bros.’ Duck Soup. Just as Harpo darts back and forth in a dead-on mockery of Groucho’s mannerisms, so does “The Shinning” invoke all of The Shining‘s most memorable set-pieces, only to deflate their terrifying grandeur and mystery. The gush of blood from the elevator, formerly an enigmatic omen of impending violence, is reduced to a quick joke, as Burns notes, “Usually the blood gets off at the second floor.” And the hedge maze is no longer a site of confusion and danger, as Bart merely chainsaws through it. All these nightmare images look ridiculous when viewed through the Simpsons’ all-American ignorance, just like the “Bad Dream House” from Treehouse of Horror I, which prefers suicide to a life with the insufferably self-absorbed family.

As Ashley and I were discussing earlier, “The Shinning” isn’t just parody for its own sake. It doesn’t even bother with many of The Shining‘s most iconic moments – the occupants of the rooms, Danny on his tricycle, the twin girls – and instead focuses on the analogy of Homer and Jack Torrance as frustrated men within the strictures of the nuclear family. Both become violent under the building’s malevolent influence, but whereas Jack is triggered by drinking, Homer goes crazy when he can’t drink. He’s so dependent on these creature comforts – TV and beer – as escapes from what he would later describe as “the drudgery of work and family” that we can plausibly imagine the Homer we know and love going ax crazy without them. It’s just thrilling how, even in the midst of a hilarious parody, the Simpsons writers are still furthering their vast thesis of Homer as the quintessential American father.

And even while developing Homer’s relationship with TV through parallels to Jack (culminating in the sublime line “Teacher, mother, secret lover…”), this 7-minute segment still finds time for Mr. Burns’ disregard for others’ lives, Marge’s maternal anxiety, Wiggum’s incompetence, the family’s apathy toward Grampa, and Moe’s interminable despair. (Plus a great gag involving assorted movie monsters.) It’s all full of subtle Kubrickian musical and visual cues and intimations of real horror, too. At the very least, it’s very, very high up in the pantheon of Treehouse of Horror segments. At most, it could be 7 of the most effective minutes in American animation. In any case, there’s a lot going on here, and the segment is both a great tribute to the original film, and a great addition to the show’s legacy.

So where to go from there? The next segment, “Time and Punishment,” may not surpass the early peak set by “The Shinning,” but it’s still imaginative and frightening in its own right. It starts out with the Simpson family around the kitchen table on a breathtakingly idyllic morning – when suddenly Lisa screams, “Dad! Your hand is jammed in the toaster!” After some quick effort, he gets it off. Bart screams, “Dad! It’s in there again!” It’s a jarring non sequitur, and a brief exemplar of what horror is all about: the perfect, conflict-free setting, with Homer overstating how happy he is, can turn on a dime into inexplicable, unstoppable chaos. Homer goes downstairs to fix the toaster, only to inadvertently build a time machine. In short, Halloween has let the show throw aside all rules of logic and physics for no good reason. It’s funny, it’s scary, and it’s beautiful.

Granted, I’m a sucker for a good altered timeline story, and “Time and Punishment” is up there with the best of them. Rather than dwell on any linear connection between time periods by having Homer do or undo a specific action, we instead see him fuck up the past through a variety of means – swatting a mosquito, sneezing, sitting on a fish, killing everything in sight – and have each one yield a seemingly random but progressively weirder outcome. One future, for example, has Flanders as Big Brother, giving us a creepy insight into what the friendliest neighborino would do with unquestioned power. Another appears utopian, until Homer fears the loss of another creature comfort (donut) and tragically flees in horror moments before donuts rain from the sky – an ironic Twilight Zone ending tucked inside a wider story.

And the future where Maggie axes Willie in the back before saying, in James Earl Jones’ voice, “This is indeed a disturbing universe”? Funny, yes, but uncanny and off-putting. It also elucidates on the segment’s earlier hints of madness erupting out of normality. Maggie may have been referring to her own alternative universe, or to the Treehouse universe in general, where these flagrant violations of the show’s basic tenets can run wild. After losing all self-control and smashing all the prehistoric flora and fauna he can, Homer is deposited in one last future. It looks and feels like the one he started in, but in the gruesome reveal, his family eats with forked tongues. He shrugs and sighs, “Eh, close enough.”

The tone of compromise in Homer’s voice feels so strange in this otherwise surreal situation. It’s a sign of exhaustion, a willingness to live with a flawed family, a resignation to the absurd that falls halfway between Charles Schulz and Albert Camus. This isn’t just flat-out comedy with the occasional bloody murder – the writers cross through an astonishing amount of emotional territory. While these first two segments are devoted largely to Homer’s alienation as a working father (OK, at least that’s my reading), the last is one for the kids. It’s probably the weakest of the three, but “Nightmare Cafeteria” has some images of unremitting ghoulishness that can still inspire terror in me.

Its storyline couldn’t be simpler: Springfield Elementary’s detentions are overcrowded. Therefore, Skinner schemes to grind students up and serve them for lunch. Eventually he goes so overboard that the vast majority of the student body are herded like cattle, with the last few students (naturally, Bart, Lisa, and Milhouse) strongly aware of what’s in store. It may have a far more traditional narrative and narrower focus than the others, but it also strikes harder at its lone target. From the first moments, the horror of public school begins, as students are crammed into detention rooms so tight that their faces are pressed against the doors.

And this is default from which the episode takes off. Lunch lady Doris’s gripe about “Grade F” meat could easily be a jab at food services in a normal episode, but here it leads into systematic mass murder and cannibalism. Much of the set-up strongly resembles The Simpsons as we know it; this time, it just goes much farther and gets much darker. Skinner and Krabappel’s usual disdain for the students leads them to whole-heartedly embrace this new solution, and we have to wonder: When it’s not Halloween, do they still bear this much hatred? As it is, we immediately believe this over-the-top faculty revenge fantasy. Skinner’s poor excuses, comical in any other setting, become unsettling when applied to Üter’s disappearance (and subsequent transformation into “Üterbraten”).

Marge, meanwhile, offers her children a lesson in self-reliance, simply telling them to “march right back to that school, look them straight in the eye, and say ‘Don’t eat me’!” With Milhouse, they attempt an escape, only for the drooling teachers and staff to corner them with their backs to a giant “Hamilton Beech Student Chopper.” Bart insists, with desperate self-awareness, that something will save them, but no deus ex machina comes. They all fall to their deaths. It’s a child’s bleakest nightmare, when every authority figure has become either useless or predatory, when the place they spend 7 hours each weekday has turned into a death trap. Across the three segments, three major pillars of modern life – family, home, and school – are shown to be insecure from inside or outside threats.

The ending even tops “Nightmare Cafeteria,” by having Bart wake up from his nightmare and be comforted by his family… all of whom are then assailed by fog that turns them inside-out. They dance to “One” from A Chorus Line (a song included earlier in a joke about the Tonys), are joined by an inside-out Groundskeeper Willie (whose repeated axings unify the segments), and sing “Happy Halloween!” as Santa’s Little Helper tears at Bart’s vulnerable organs. The Simpsons, in its lightest episodes, ridiculed the corruption and foolishness of America’s social and moral authorities. Here, at its darkest, it said that the real world was the nightmare – at least on Halloween – and that, as in Kubrick’s films, there is no real fail-safe button for life’s problems.

Whether those problems are addiction-based insanity, an unstable space-time continuum, or hungry school administrators, we may not be able to save ourselves. If possible, as in “Time and Punishment,” we should just cope with them as best we can. The false dream of a solution, as when Marge advises the kids on how not to be eaten, or realizing the lack of one, as when Homer shrugs and goes back to his breakfast, are what provide the episode’s delicious black comedy. Because no part of it really ends satisfactorily. Each segment leaves many unanswered questions, a “…?” hanging uneasily in the air even after the characters have moved on. For me, this gets at what the series, in its most surreal and absurd moments, sees at the bottom of modern existence. It’s “the horror,” as Colonel Kurtz would say.

Normally this vision of horror is sublimated into pure comedy, or into familial melodrama. The desperation each family member feels in their roles is pushed aside, and they continue doing the best they can, (dys)functioning as a single, loving unit within American society. But on Halloween, all these anxieties burst out like xenomorphs, pregnant with fantasies of mutilation and mass murder. These possibilities exist in the unconscious of the show’s normal episodes. Little signs of them are everywhere (and I might write about that sometime). But only in the Treehouse of Horror episodes can they receive their fullest expression, in parodies and nightmares and hypothetical scenarios that are, in the truest sense, horror.


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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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