Life on the Fast Lane

Life on the Fast Lane

My Recollection

Homer buys a bowling ball for Marge’s birthday. The raw sexuality of bowling. Homer no-selling getting hit in the head with a baseball.

The Episode

This episode was originally titled Bjorn to be Wild because it was about a seductive Swedish tennis instructor but that would have necessitated Homer buying a tennis racquet which would have required the audience believe he was remotely fit enough to play tennis. This was scrapped and Bjorn was turned into Jacques because French people are funnier by virtue of nobody knowing enough Swedish stereotypes. The episode was renamed Jacques to be Wild which is fucking stupid and so they settled on Life on the Fast Lane a timeless tale about the raw, almost feral erotic energy of the suburban American bowling alley. I was at a party once and a guy was bragging about getting his dick in one of the bowling ball finger holes. The abyssal silence after someone pointed out how fucking small those holes are is something I still think about.

The episode begins on Marge’s 34th birthday, a nice piece of canon utterly obliterated by the rampaging bull that is The Way we Was, and Homer forgetting it. This itself is a fine, and oft repeated, piece of Homeric stupidity but the gag is overdone by having Homer think it’s his birthday. As Homer grew from comic buffoon to a parody of a parody of a parody of a retarded person I can only begrudgingly respect Family Guy for at least making Peter medically retarded and getting it over with. This is an early glimpse of that level of stupidity but it does lead to the first instance of one of my favourite gags, the audible footsteps leading to the car as Homer races to the mall to buy Marge a birthday present.

Later episodes have focused on Homer’s failures to accomplish this basic task through the lens of a more believable character flaw. Sometimes he’s cheap or legitimately poor. Sometimes it’s the fact that he hasn’t planned at all that makes the gift a desperate, last minute thing. He’s selfish, certainly, but it’s a kind of ignorant selfishness that eschews the planning that would indicate active malice. Homer buying Marge a bowling ball, one engraved with his name, is a character damaging level of contempt and not a moderately understandable side-effect of comic boobery.

The pair are a somewhat tragic couple as the sitcom format can rarely give either their due spine or brain. The episode explores this well and, though it ends on a glossed over romantic moment to essentially reset the status quo, it’s done in a way that gives Marge a much needed sense of identity separate from the family structure. Marge’s response to Homer’s stupid gift, the hilarious decision to bowl out of spite, is the episode’s first look at this identity. This leads her to the Bowlarama, and to Jacques, the bafflingly seductive bowling alley guy. Jacques is another one of A. Brooks’ contributions but he’s not really given much to work with aside from “seduce Marge”. This binds a lot of what Jacques says to the context of the moment and stifles Brook’s natural absurdity leaving Jacques to be a fairly forgettable character. Aside from a few background appearances in later episodes, this is his one and only, and it’s unremarkable.

I’m operating on the idea that the whole concept of a bowling alley as a place where a Lothario will loiter to demonstrate his bowling skills and bang bowling groupies is an overt joke and not a reference to the now lost historical significance of bowling alleys. I refuse to believe that bowling alleys were ever a place that could encourage sex. It is impossible for the bowling motion to appear attractive to any sexual orientation or gender, you look like a bloated ibis trying to shake off a parasite, and bowling has the social capital of an ashtray full of light beer. The idea that a creature who looks like a haunted pear could be deemed seductive while excelling at a sport played primarily by cholesterol is too demented to be taken seriously but a fairly good gauge of how starved Marge is for the sense of value Jacques provides.

The episode differs from others that focus on the marriage in that it’s not about one party making amends but about how an event can drive a wedge into a relationship. The bulk of the narrative agency is in Marge, and Homer’s more passive, internal scenes serve as an excellent narrative balance point that keep the focus on the split as opposed to the sides in it. Coming off the stupidity of the ball itself, the internal focus  of Homer’s narrative moments keep the writers from making him launch into any screwball crap that would pollute the core of the episode. Aside from a small early gag where Homer tries to do dinner, his appearances hearken back to the realistic misery of a man too stupid to fix the problems that hurt him. He tries talking to Marge after she comes home from another sexy bowling lesson with Jacques, but simply gives up after briefly staring at the wall. “Nothing” is all he says when asked, and the fade out returns some dignity to the man that the ball purchase took away.

His discovery of a glove that Jacques bought for Marge is enough to send him into a deep depression that leads to one of the best moments in the episode. After Bart pelts Homer in the face with a ball during a game of catch, with Homer reacting to neither the ball nor the pain, Bart panics and gives Homer the advice that he’d once given Bart.

“You said, when something’s bothering you and you’re too damn stupid to know what to do, just keep your fool mouth shut. At least that way, you won’t make things worse.”

The moment is beautiful because it’s Homer’s advice, so everyone ignoring it turns it into good advice. Bart ignores it when he, in absolute panic, blurts it at his father with no idea of the situation let alone how this advice would apply to it. Homer ignores it, probably more willfully, as he takes a moment the next day to tell Marge how much he appreciates how she makes his sandwiches. It’s a gentle moment that fits the episode’s construction and counters the earlier scene where he actually did keep his fool mouth shut. Most of what happens is really the result of a lack of communication between the two, and the episode emphasises this by keeping Homer and Marge apart for the bulk of the scenes. Homer doesn’t try to make some great speech or promise anything he can’t deliver because season one Homer may be stupid but he’s smart enough to know that he’s stupid, it’s why he ignores his own advice, and there’s a vulnerability to his last ditch effort being something so innocent and innocuous that makes it more honest than any confident assertions of change.

Marge is a woman bound by innumerable ruts and stifled dreams so the personality that results from this is little more than a cheerfully blithe coping mechanism, a fact even she is unaware of. Her naivety is something the story emphasises as she’s easily overcome by Jacques’ paint-by-numbers seduction. But there’s something behind the facade her life has beaten into her, and this episode hides a glimpse of it in the space the narrative leaves unfilled. We never see why Marge changes her mind and the audience is never overtly reassured as to her commitment or reasoning. She is simply presented with a choice and makes it, her reasoning is her own and its invisibility to anyone else both emphasises this and casts the rest of the episode in a different light. We’re seeing the surface of Marge be easily overcome, and we expect a naive dingbat who thinks bowling is hurling a ball anywhere in a bowling building to be an easy mark for someone like Jacques. But at each point with him she is fully aware of what is going on. She reminds him she’s a married woman because she absolutely knows what he wants. She agrees to meet him anyway. None of her decisions were those of a rube being fooled, the Marge within was actively choosing. Her invisible decision at the end was the last in a series of them, it was just the only one influenced by Homer making an honest effort to appreciate her.

A sitcom relationship is always going to be a grossly stupid one as the combination of format stability and absurd hijinks is an impossible one to support. This tends to put a use-by date on characters, as they’ll either have to fold back in on themselves to keep the format going or be dragged down into the pit of stupidity. Marge and Homer have suffered these fates a the years have dragged on and, in all fairness, the first gentle descent did make for a funnier show during the high period. But comic gems like season 5 were elevated to cultural icon status because of the combination of depth and humour, and that depth is born in episodes like this one. Life on the Fast Lane is, save for a few moments, consciously unfunny but the reality of a relationship like Homer and Marge’s isn’t a funny one.

 

Yours in keeping his fool mouth shut, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The opening shot of the house is one that I don’t think was ever repeated and is canonically incorrect for a number of reasons.

Certain strains of humour and horror work best when we they work on what we can’t see. I’ve seen my brother slip over a few times and it’s funny. One time I took a shower and the bath mat was somewhere else so the floor was completely wet as I was leaving. I tried to warn my brother as he went in but he ignored me because we were arguing about something. As I’m walking away I hear: SQUEEEK, THUD, “GAAAAAAH!” and laughed so hard I cried. This is the principle the “running out of the house” gag works on, the THUD THUD THUD THUD THUD of Homer sprinting out of the house leading to the sound of a car screech away while the shot lingers on the silent family is funny where just showing him leave the house in a hurry isn’t. It’s a great joke template they expanded on a few times to great effect.

Homer buying Marge a bowling ball with his name on it is retarded and not comedy retarded. They kind of set up for it by having Selma remind Marge of Homer’s other shitty gifts but this still requires so much thought that it becomes actively cunty and not humorously stupid.

A restaurant where people sing at you seems fucking awful. I’m pretty sure these existed as some early 90s fad.

Taking up a whole hobby to spite someone is fucking magical and it’s made funnier by the fact that Marge goes to a bowling alley with a ball and seems to think you just throw the ball anywhere within the building. What did she think this was? Like some kind of Frisbee golf with a bowling ball?

The Simpsons and King of the Hill have both made jokes about how the wives have large feet. This must be some kind of joke template leftover from the 50s or something because Jesus fucking Christ, who cares? Unless you have actual flippers that aid your movement through water or feet that are like gorilla hands, women’s feet are only interesting to people who want to fuck them.

Jacques screaming, “FOUR ONION RINGS”  from the lane makes me chuckle. It’s an example of one of those innocuous phrases that kind of slips into a meme because its initial use is so peculiar it makes any subsequent use seem contextually valid by comparison.

The bowling references in the background art, like the 3 hole moon, were a novel touch for 1990, particularly as they were not part of a dream sequence.

 

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