Part of what makes sitcoms a form of comfort food is that they fly in the face of standard narrative wisdom. There’s no journey that leaves its characters changed here, instead it’s a pleasant jaunt somewhere mildly uncomfortable before a calming return to the familiar place everyone was at the start. In a 21-minute runtime, this leaves 7 minutes per act, which is further reduced when the plot has to make way for jokes. The result is a sharp final act decline back to normal, where the complication must be undone and resolved in a matter of minutes. This structure is where we get a lot of the basic formats and tropes of sitcoms, as things like “families love each other” are easy shortcuts to conflict resolution. It’s important to write to this the same way it’s important to buy a travel power adapter, you can’t just jam any old thing into it and have it work.
Marge Gets a Job is a narrative catastrophe because it forgets this. Its ending is ridiculous, but also the logical inevitability of choices made far earlier in the process.
It’s probably a warning sign that the episode is predicated on Burns falling for Marge, given that Brush with Greatness has established they know each other reasonably well. The standard response to this sort of complaint is to cite the Nerds complaining about ribcage xylophones to which I’ll respond: eat shit. There is a massive difference between meaningless trivia, like the exact address of the Simpson home, and core narrative relationships, like they live next door to the Flanderseses. Similarly, there exists a world of difference between people who find Groening’s old notes on a usenet group to debate the Simpson address and human beings who perform the unbelievable nerd act of remembering previous episodes. Characters that start or otherwise function as archetypal players—think Lindsey Nagle and the Squeaky Voiced Teen—have room to move here because it’s built-in to how they function, with firmer character elements only being added later. Burns is already a set character with a set series of understood, structurally necessary relationships. Even his constantly forgetting Homer is specified to relate to Homer alone as a comment on Homer’s forgettability. There were ways to write around this or even explain it—lean into Burns’ senility more directly or have Burns existing begrudging respect her for standing up to him as the seed of the infatuation—but when you opt for the shitty choice then you’ve done shitty work. It’s a choice that sets a precedent for the episode.
It’s a testament to the era the show was written in and the era of sitcom it was aping that Marge getting a job qualified as a whole story idea, but already there is a problem. The comfortably familiar point the episode is relaxing to is Marge not having a job, so now the episode is really Marge Loses a Job. This presents problems when Marge’s role eschews the kinds of incompetence one would normally use to get a sitcom character like her husband fired. Having Marge, Homemaker 1980 to present, get a job and be terrible at it, while also clashing with how she’s depicted in high school, would hurt her, the viewer, and the tone of the whole series. Characters like Marge survive on the “I could do it if I wanted to” energy over something like Homer’s “this is the best I can hope for” because they’re stuck being the smarter ones. Homer’s Labrador brain isn’t vexed by thoughts of how much better things could have been, Marge’s can be, and the only way to keep that darkness from overwhelming her is the illusion of choice behind “I could do it if I wanted to”. Marge’s external failures must be, and are, the result of injustices because we know as well as she does that her life makes for a cruel destiny. This means the job can’t be about personal fulfillment because her home life can’t be seen in any negative light.
Marge doesn’t want a job generally, so she needs a reason to get one. She has to be happy as a homemaker, so the job needs to be about money and not any element of personal fulfillment. The episode does make it about a specific need via the foundation repair, but money is an eternal problem in the Simpson home, so now the reason for her to leave the job needs to be a good one. The reason to get the job needs time, but it also means the reason to leave it needs time too, either in build-up or execution, because it has to overcome the established desperate money situation. This demonstrates how just an idea, when interacting with an established narrative universe, creates a series of open and closed logic gates that impose structure on the work.
Balancing all of this is a matter of choosing story beats that fit this structure.
Opting for Burns sexually harassing Marge then firing her when she rejects his advances is fucking baffling and I can only assume is the result of Conan ideas being translated by human beings who live in reality. Like Homer’s drunkenness in War of the Simpsons, Burns sexually harassing Marge isn’t “ha-ha” villainous, it’s grotesquely real in a way the Simpson genre can’t handle. A one-off character, either as harasser or victim, could have worked, as the non-regular character’s cruelty or pain will be milder through unfamiliarity and easy to sweep away at the end. It would also require the bulk of the episode to deal with.
It's another grim testament to the era the show was written in that this is given 60-actual-seconds of screen time. She’s fired at 19:00 and the plot is “resolved” at 21:15, with the other time in between taken up by Bart and Willy fighting a wolf. Most of the episode is spent establishing the need for Marge to get a job, the reason there’s a job for Marge to get, and then Burns falling in love with her because it has to. These are necessary to support the extension beyond the familiar. Burns doesn’t even fall for Marge until the end of the second act, resulting in them treating it like it’s the final conflict when it isn’t. Marge being fired for refusing him is, but this gets treated as the means of resolving the “Marge Loses a Job” problem.
Injustice is an important feature of a lot of sitcoms because it’s a barrier to fundamental change sitcoms need and is familiar to the audience. But sitcoms have to be judicious with their choice of injustice, lest they wander into “very special episode” territory. “Boss is a jerk” is fine because it can be vague enough to avoid motivating the kinds of direct action that threaten a show’s status quo. “Boss fired my wife after sexually harassing her” is not. The proof of this is that the “resolution” to this problem is that the boss in question JUST CHANGES HIS GODDAMN MIND over the space of a second. By itself, this is just insulting, but it also gouges open another gap in the episode. Is Marge still fired, even though she was seemingly good at her job and the family desperately needs the money? Ladies and gentlemen, the musical stylings of Tom Jones.
This was Oakley and Weinstein’s first script for the show and one of their first altogether—also I’m assuming Conan’s original idea ended in some kind of zeppelin race—so the focus on comedy moments and some sloppiness is understandable, but whoever okayed the sexual harassment idea is a dimwit. Burns is a villain in the same way old cartoon characters are because it allows him to be “evil” while not warping what is a family comedy. This is why you can’t just plop a Garth Ennis OC into a wholesome Superman run. All you get is a Garth Ennis comic as seeing a guy scream for “buttcunts” is going to overwhelm everything else.
There were a million ways this story could work but the easiest path is simply removing the sexual harassment element. The plot even has setups for better conflicts, like Homer’s “husband’s racket” line. Marge could just be good at the job, be promoted, but then learn that working for Burns is actually insanely stressful because he’s a deranged old robber-baron. Marge could have learned something about why Homer is always looking to get out of work and why he's beaten when he comes home. This could have been one of those background narrative shock-absorbers that keeps the rubber band able to keep from snapping under the weight of Homer’s shenanigans. Even if you don’t want to work that hard, Burns could have fired her for any stupid reason, and it would have fit perfectly. Hell, have Tibor blame something on her. Homer could rise up to defend his wife and realize his appreciation of her capacity in the process. The foundation gets repaired, and Homer or Marge learn something about the other that helps shore up the foundation of their marriage. The tension between the pair actually does continue throughout the episode, culminating in an argument in bed, but that’s where it abruptly ends. All thrown out for a terrible replacement.
The severity of this fault is highlighted by the things the episode does do well, which is pretty much everything else.
The first half mixes the foundation and job elements with a perfectly executed logical coherency that other episodes could learn from. Setting up the solution before you’ve presented the problem hides it, so when Marge reads the mail the mention of Jack Marley’s retirement is nothing more than one of the standard events of middle-class life, much like sudden expenses around the home. Chekhov’s gun is a dramatic tool, a stagehand people shouldn’t see, they should notice it only when the trigger’s pulled. Structure like this hide the mechanics, letting the machine shine and turning something as hard to believe as Marge working at the plant into something that feels naturally emergent instead of narratively convenient. Burns even mentions it’s an entry-level position, which I hate to call “effort”, but as so few shows bother then that’s what it is.
There’s a similar threading of joke strings throughout the episode that turn one-off lines into complex patterns with terrific payoff. Grampa’s cures, the details of Marge’s resume, and Tibor, who we learn is still promoted ahead of Homer in spite of being blamed for everything, bubble up naturally and with greater comic punch as a result.
Marge Gets a Job is, in many ways, a product of its time, but it is also a deeply flawed one. The entire story is predicated on a canon breaking idea and only gets worse. The hinge of Burns changing his mind is so stupid the entire story feels like it’s dragging its feet towards it. A minor character’s retirement party, the foundation repair, and a B story so disconnected from anything it could be edited into any other episode are all given more time and empathy than Marge’s sexual harassment or its resolution. There are some solid laughs, and some genuinely excellent work, but they just wind up highlighting the glaring issue at the core of this. Marge Gets a Job is the epitome of beginner work, though from talented beginners.
Yours in reading Smithers' dream journal again, Gabriel.
Holy fuck I’m not doing the breakdown anymore. Sorry if that was the thing you really enjoyed, but don’t worry, there’s help out there for you and whatever bandwidth of the spectrum you’re on. Life does get better. They sprang from a desire to talk about the comedy with the same analytical bend that the narrative got, but I fell into the trap of feeling like I had to cover every little thing rather than just some focal points. The development of the Awards section has allowed for that, though, so that’ll be where this stuff goes along with some new bits. Any odd elements you particularly want to talk about can be done so in the comments.
The First Annual Gabriel Morton Award for Outstanding Achievements in the Field of Simpsonness.
Plot aside, Oakley and Weinstein are guns when it comes to lines, and this episode fields a number of fine examples, starting with Grampa explaining that where he got his leech, “wasn’t exactly a pharmacy”. Had the line been by itself, it would have placed higher, but adding “more of a bait shop” kills the mystery and spoils the joke.
Next up is a pair of Classic Willies: “I was wrestlin’ wolves back when you were at your mother’s teat”. There’s not much to the construction here, and the joke is just a foreign stereotype gag, but you just can’t not laugh at punctuational emphasis on the word “teat”. His earlier line, “Back to class, lad, nothing to see here” fares better by being the kind of thing someone would say about a dangerous situation but clearly, mindbogglingly untrue.
The next runner up works as an excellent contrast to Grampas line. Burns, speaking of the night he dug up Al Jolson, saying, “The rest of that night is something I’d rather forget”. Precisely where Grampa got leeches is funnier as a mystery because anyone can go get leeches from a bait shop. The Burns line sets up two elements, realising Al Jolson is dead and that he’s rather pungent, then uses the line to suggest a mysterious series of further events that are somehow worse than digging up a foetid jazz great. The reality could have easily been a 3-hour meeting with the executors of the Jolson estate, but by starving the viewer of concrete details, the joke remains in the realm of pure sensation and not semantic understanding.
A gem of Marge subtlety comes in next when she asks Homer, “Did you notice how slanted he looked?” Marge is the voice of reason and straight man, a thankless job that serves as tee for the eventual punchline, but by having her do her job after the sight gag of a 45° Flanders makes the answer obvious and turns the question into an absurd one. Her delivery adds to this, because it’s completely straight against which the word “slanted” stands out. People are seldom slanted, nobody asks this, so to ask it as though it’s a common question creates an internal absurdity layer that enhances the primary one.
Up next is the wonderful Lionel Hutz line, “Yeah but I haven’t slept in days.” Validating morning drinking by implying that it’s still several nights ago for you is a great iceberg line that suggests a lot more than is said, but it’s bolstered by some amazing delivery. Phil Hartman was never off, but his delivery of this line is particularly on. Listening to these through a sound mixer and proper set of headphones has given me a real appreciation for the subtle intonations these lines have when not struggling through the monaural speaker of an old CRT. Hartman blends Hutz with the polished speaking voice of an Infomercial host, the confidence of a cult leader on a coke binge, and just the slightest hint of vulnerability to infuse his bit parts with amazing depth.
The Half-Assed Approach to Foundation Repair is almost entirely great lines, but, “Now parge the lath” stands out as the next runner up. Firstly, none of this is nonsense, it’s all domain-specific jargon regarding foundations and walls that actually makes sense. The artistry here is in picking a sentence that works as a valid instruction from a tape like this and as something that sounds comically absurd. Parge comes from old French “par” (meaning “all over”) and “jeter” (meaning “to throw”) and means to cover part of a building with mortar or what’s now called a “parge coat”. A lath is a thin bit of wood, with lots of them being used as the foundation for a plaster or parge coat. I knew none of this and neither of these words until I looked it up a few years back, but now you can see YouTube guides on what Homer is trying to do and even ads for metal stucco lath on the search page. All that, and yet when Homer is told to parge the lath, it’s funny because it makes no earthly sense. Adding to this is, obviously, Hartman’s delivery. There’s a faint laugh in his voice at the start of it that suggests it's almost funny he even has to specify doing this because it’s all so obvious, which serves as further dig at Homer’s ignorance.
Speaking of, it’s the source of our second place, asking Surly Joe, Homer asking, “Did you see the bubble?” as the level slides out of view and breaks. Homer is a very simple tool, but it takes great skill to use a simple tool in a very sophisticated way and this line exemplifies that. The obvious humour is in the absurd irrelevance of the question. As though the bubble of air used to test if a line is level when simply looking won’t do is going to be any more informative than the level itself sliding down the clear, steep slope and breaking offscreen. The silence during this moment highlights the sound effects which adds focus to the moment, while the pause before Homer asks his question tells the viewer he genuinely thinks it’s relevant. But there’s a difference between laughing at someone being an idiot and turning someone being an idiot into a good joke, and here that’s in the delivery. Homer has already spent the last few minutes being an idiot, but it was a nearly malicious wilful stupidity that refused to even acknowledge the problem. His tone when he asks his question is one of a willing-to-learn innocence that shifts Homer from his oafish idiocy to a childlike form. The overarching joke of the entire show thus far has been Homer’s malignant idiocy in the face of a clear problem, shifting Homer to his innocent idiocy is both funny by itself, but also reinvigorates the primary gag.
But the winner is…
The entire sequence with the Alaskan timber wolf is a gem of sight gags, Tonight Show animal segment parody, and a drawn-out setup joke culminating in the brilliant “LOUD” sequence, so getting something to stand out as much as this does takes some real shine. Part of Krusty’s flexible rubber band is that this kid’s show clown is also a Carson-esque TV legend, which is used both for somewhat insider Hollywood jokes and the kinds of rich weirdo gags that wouldn’t fit on Burns’ robber-baron archetype. Later stories like Homie the Clown would highlight a lot of this, but this line is its first use, and it’s a killer.
The line has to exist in the exhaust of the perfect absurdity of the “LOUD” sequence, meaning it has to be both insane but comfortably understood within a second. The glorious opening shot has already established the bird, while media tropes regarding variety show animal segments and common ideas regarding animal attack reasons make up the back end. Lots of people are attacked by birds in Australia and it’s always during the Spring mating season. Of course, they attack to defend their eggs, it’s what most complex life does, I’ve had almost the exact sentence, “she must think you’re after her eggs” said to me. Some people want the birds relocated, some people throw rocks at them, but nobody, ever, is actually after the eggs.
“I only ate one” is the kind of thing one says when you’ve been accosted for sneaking a biscuit before dinner. It’s an innocent plea for clemency regarding what is a very minor infraction. So many parts of this are perfectly understandable, and yet he’s talking about somehow eating an endangered bird of prey egg in the brief moments of distraction created by the escaping Alaskan timber wolf. It had to have been raw. Was Krusty planning this or was it a crime of opportunity? The line creates an explosion of questions and ideas that kaleidoscope through the mind and by that time the scene is already over. This is one of the greats of the series as a whole.
Best Sight Gag
First up is Burns’ heart beating like a jackhammer. It’s a basic contradiction, but the long delay and particularly feeble squirt of blood zest it up.
Next is the shot of Marge’s resume. Part of it is the line, but the stark reality of her life rendered in a whisper of bland font across a screaming void of white paper adds a punch that the line itself could never carry.
Next up is Bart plummeting out of a window. It’s a simple pratfall principle combined with a nice rhythm of the bird landing, house slumping, and eventual fall working as a comedic three pattern, but the sly addition is the choice of a long shot. First, this allows the absurd sight of the slumped house to remain in effect, but it also lends a moment of Marge’s personal frustration and Bart’s personal pain a voyeuristic distance that keeps Marge’s dangerously sympathetic pain part of the same cosmic joke we’re all in.
Next is Homer’s dreams of retirement. The use of identical poses shared by Homer and his fantasies is used later in the series, but this is the first time and so the choice of him on the couch is a good one. Beyond the funny incongruity of it, the moment is a perfect character summary of a man who can’t be happy even when he’s living his dream.
Another runner up is the Curies and particularly Marie. The comedy of a turn-of-the-18th-century French/Polish couple rendered as kaiju is obvious, but the accurate look of the couple, down to the outfits and Marie’s shoes, really enhances it. The image of a dour looking old scientist lady with her old-timey haircut screaming as she eye-lasers a building is a goodun.
The next runner up is boosted by a particularly clever detail. Grampa’s medical guide to infantile distress is a great setup for a bunch of quack old-person diagnoses and remedies, and given Grampa mentions Old Doc Washburn, whose picture is also on the cover, you’d assume he wrote it. But he didn’t. The listed author is “Dr. Washburn’s Asbestos Pills” and not the doctor himself. Did he change his name to that whole thing, or did he just make that his pen name? Either way, this was obviously done as part of a proud American tradition of circumventing attempts to reign in fraudulent bullshit and makes a great blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gag.
As the world’s foremost expert on Milhouse suffering I can state that the next runner-up exemplifies the format. Tom Jones suffers a lot in this episode, for no reason, and it’s always incredibly funny. While beloved celebrity status and 10-year-old child innocence are very different, when combined with Jones’ abuse in the story they become functionally the same. He is at the brutal whim of a mad billionaire and is deranged toady, which is what makes him having his head bonked by the sliding door all the funnier. We all bonk our heads, and all curse the gods the same. It’s such a plain, everyday piece of suffering that placing it amidst lots of insane, unjust suffering adds the kind of brutal “fuck you” that is the hallmark of cosmos-scale funny.
But the winner is…
Look, sometimes things are subtle and it’s worth talking about those to educate people on the level of sophistication behind why some things are funny, and sometimes things are screamingly obvious. Burns drifting through the window is one of the latter. Sure, the angles are unique, and the room’s dream-like lighting and warped geometry glue the moment into the mind, but there’s a moment here where it looks like a drooling Burns is descending onto a gently orgasming Smithers and getting that on TV in 94 earns you a prize.
Best Overall Joke
The first of another packed field is Burns’ song and dance routine at the retirement party. The reason it’s so low on the list is that it’s lifted from Citizen Kane. The reason it’s on the list at all is the context shift around it means the reference is making an original joke. In the movie, the party is in Kane’s honour so there’s nothing really odd about it. Having this happen at Jack Marley’s retirement party is funny, but having Smithers specifically state that it’s somehow for Jack, then have Burns furious that Jack interrupts it, is a great example of a reference joke being more a sample that’s combined with other elements to produce something original.
The next few runners up sat in the best line category for a while but didn’t quite fit. While the lines were funny, they were more the mechanism that closed a far more sophisticated trap. The first is Kent Brockman saying, “…leaving the Vice President in charge”. Cutting into a line like this, with the accompanying image of a flaming White House, uses the in medias res technique to trigger audience curiosity about what is obviously a major event. Kent suddenly switching to his bright and happy Local News Mode, while also a satirical stab at the news, pulls the rug from under the viewer, creating three inversion jokes in the space of one. I love the little chuckle he does in the shift, too. A great detail.
The next is Krabappel saying, “You’re wasting valuable test time” as Bart gets mangled. A central element of “boy who cried wolf” tales is, whatever the wolf may be, there’s meant to be a space between the liar and the victims perceiving the threat. Having Bart’s this time honest cries of wolf perceived as lies while the wolf was outside or something would fit this, having Krabappel ignore them while the wolf is audibly, visibly mauling him collapses the whole fable into hilarious absurdity. The giant paw breaking the glass combined with the condescending, sing-song delivery of the line are a really beautiful pair.
It's easy to simply dump something new in front of an audience and call it a surprise, so the art is in having the surprise occur within the viewer in the form of realisation. The second-place getter, Tibor, shows us that some of the best jokes are the ones we don’t know we’re being told. This is the essence of realisation, the sudden resolution of a series of disconnected dots into a pattern we see all at once. Homer first brings Tibor up as the hapless foreigner he blames his failures on. Homer’s victorious chuckle and the fact that Homer gets away with this paint the picture of someone like Balki from Perfect Strangers. A perhaps too trusting rube whose stupidity is more the lauded form of folk simplicity. The idea of this, and of bragging about this in front of your wife, are funny enough in the picture they paint of the plant environment, but then we get another breadcrumb.
The call-back is a simple form of comedy tool that reuses an earlier point in an unexpected place while creating the kind of closed-circuit narrative form humans like. When Smithers goes to open Marge’s door and mentions offhand, “That idiot Tibor lost the key”, this is a perfect use of the call-back. By itself, it’s not a joke, only becoming funny in the context of the joke it refers to. That this referral point is a way back in the episode means the lead-in is entirely undetectable and that’s why these joke forms are so effective. There’s simply no way to know the joke or predict it structurally because there’s literally nothing there until the call-back summons it into existence. By itself, this is a great but otherwise small use of a reliable formula. Then we hear a little more about ol’ Tibor.
Revealing that Tibor is among the co-workers Homer has seen promoted ahead of him is a masterstroke. His name occurs at the end of a list of three items, with the third expected to be some kind of joke. Using Tibor as the third item is genius because it’s a rule of three construction within a rule of three construction with a double call-back. Each of these function points supports and enhances the other points it interacts with. The silly third thing isn’t just a random gag, it’s a call-back and this call-back is itself the third of a rule of threes with the added bonus of the call-back construction making it an invisible joke path. All with the added bonus of it being a happy ending for the Tibor story we weren’t even aware we were part of. Later series, particularly Arrested Development would effectively perfect this approach, turning the entire series into a kaleidoscope of shifting comic patterns, but even simpler constructions like this manage to dazzle.
But the winner is…
Springfield is a universe of very large brushes that paint in very broad strokes, but a fine artist can work these in clever ways. It’s what allows for the coming and going of traits, which in turn allows for our winner. Any fool can just staple a new characteristic onto an existing character, but the art is in giving the new thing even the most threadbare of connections. Krusty’s evolution from kid’s show host to TV legend happened gradually and utilised his massive celebrity within the small pond of Springfield as a steppingstone. The Loud joke only works as well as it does because of this fusion.
The animal segment is a time-honoured variety/late-night show segment because it’s cheap and someone may get bitten. The second element is the Secret Word, a gag lifted from the kid’s show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. The basic format of the joke is the “worst thing that can happen” bit, which is an interesting construction because it must be the fates at work. A core component of them needs to be the incredibly visible, almost predictable worst-case scenario, which tips the writer’s hand. This is why the rest of it needs to flow through well-established or “fair” rules. It has to be a thing or series of things that can happen, just that their occurrence here is the literal worst luck. This is what carries the sheer demented absurdity of the LOUD bit, without the kid’s show/tonight show elements of Krusty, either wouldn’t function. The end result, odd as it may be, is that it’s perfectly sensible for an Alaskan timber wolf to in a studio where everything is set to go batshit at the mention of a specific word. And of all the luck, that word gets said.
As with most winners, the execution is another marvel that enhances the concept. Krusty is terrified of the wolf but lights up when the word “loud” is said, immediately switching back to hyperactive TV clown. The children begin screaming, sirens begin wailing, everything that could possibly go wrong is going wrong. The wolf begins a panicked PTSD freakout made sympathetic through some quick cuts and low/close shot choices. The signs flashing the word “loud” start as a brilliant comic overstep, not contributing to the noise but adding an absurd semantic component to it, then cast a nightmarish flicker of disorienting colour over the whole scene. It’s the kind of thing that would enhance an interrogation, so when the wolf snaps and decides to eat an elementary schooler, we can only sympathise.
An area this episode also excels in is its shots, with some great examples of creativity, composition, mood, and character.
Our first runner-up is Burns surrounded by his kickline, a great use of artistic conventions to express character. This shot is Burns’ ego. The overhead fisheye shot makes him the centre of a universe that bends to him while shrinking each element that isn’t himself. A dancer’s smile is visible, but her eyes aren’t because she and the others in the room aren’t people. Only just earning that categorisation is Smithers, but only because he takes up his toadying position so eagerly that his face is just another act of worship. But Burns is human, so he is drunk on his own godhood. His expression, a degenerate anime climax of pleasure, gives that away.
The battered life of an aging divorced elementary school teacher writes frowns so deep that making one stand out is an art, which is why Krabappel’s frown through the door is the second runner-up. This is an example of how to use the environment to create camera effects, even more impressive as the environment in question doesn’t actually exist. Krabappel’s frown is the tag for the scene, and so the moment is designed to focus us to it. It would be very easy to simply cut to or zoom for a close-up, but the door produces a focusing effect without reminding viewers of the existence of the non-diegetic. The slamming door leaves us with nothing to look at but Edna’s simmering anger, which reminds us the door was slammed on us as well.
As the old saying goes, a turnabout is fair play, with the next runner up being Bart’s realisation. I’ve brought up before how a lot of interactions Bart has with adults allow for the use of size differences to emphasize power differentials. One could expect that here, but the choice has been made for a lower shot at Bart’s height, but with Krabappel’s elbow poking into frame. This moment isn’t about the pair as they relate to each other, so the power isn’t relevant, but keeping the looming figure of Krabappel in mind assists the pain of Bart’s inner process by reminding viewers of what he’s looking at. The look on his face is true defeat. His eyes briefly search for the pity he knows he doesn’t deserve and won’t get but are stuck where they are as they’ve nowhere else to go. The conman only out of excuses because he’s already been through his punishment. Like a fainting goat, the only defence his psyche has left is to black out.
The general rule regarding the more mood-based environment or landscape shots is that they should avoid recognisable beings. Seas of legs or fields of eyes can work when their repetition saps them of any innate social meaning, but a person alone in a landscape becomes a subject. The second-place getter earns its spot by being both a beautiful shot and providing an exception to that rule. The purple to orange gradient of the sky, punctuated by blue-black clouds and the evening’s few early stars, drifts down to a chaotic mess of twisted, upturned carriages and a distant tree line. By itself, this is a good shot filled with the near haunting sense impermanence of human construction that photos of reclaimed wrecks tend to have. Having two figures here, off centre and shrunk against the environment, would change that sense to one of enduring or powerless humanity, but not when they’re Crusher and Low-Blow. They’ve just thrown Jack Marley from the carriage, but they are not looking where he landed, in fact, they are not looking at all. Their eyes are open but there is nothing behind them. They aren’t moving but they aren’t waiting for anything. Humans but as much the trees, they remind us that humanity is nature.
But the winner is…
The visual language of cinema is the kind of thing that can be picked up unconsciously and so learned but not really understood. The resulting shot style won’t be dull, but it also won’t really contribute to the overall work. This shot of Marge entering Burns’ office reflected in his mirror could easily have been a nice but overdone bit of cinematography—why not just shoot a wider shot from the opposite side of the desk? —but the details in it are written in a way that support the greater work. Burns lurks in partial shadow to one side, staring intently at his reflection and then, as the door opens, Marge.
This shot does more to explain Burns’ infatuation than anything else in the episode. He’s a power-mad narcissistic billionaire, earlier seen celebrating his own song and dance number, preening in his own gilded mirror. Framing Marge in it demonstrates that his infatuation with her isn’t about her, but about him. He must have her only to own her as another decoration. Another gilded thing he can see himself reflected in.
Here’s a new little spot for all the things I really enjoy but were simply too small or esoteric for any of the award categories.
The scene where Burns first approaches Marge and scares the bejesus out of her is good for a lot of reasons. The cat-like way he only moves when she’s obscuring him. The overly enthusiastic, “HELLO” and Marge’s reaction. But the little thing I keep coming back to is a sound he makes just before that. It’s a sort of anticipatory chuckle, the kind of involuntary laugh we let out as a defence mechanism to calm the moment, but with an upward tone drift. The result has a kind of faintly predatory quality that I’m calling “Mellifluous Beavis”.
Smithers still in his toilet cleaning lady uniform as Burns is relating his dream is a nice touch. It’s a few scenes and at least a day later in the episode, and a great example of how attention to detail can be funny.
Surly Joe is never surly. If anything, he is exceptionally helpful and calm in the face of insane hostility.
The moment after Burns applies his scalp wax and goes in for the casual lean, only to slip and bash his jaw into the table, is beautiful piece of comic rhythm. The “SQUEAK-BASH-GROAN” are equally separated and perfectly timed to the point of sounding artificial but aren’t in the moment. The way the scene just moves on, too, is another great choice.
I love, LOVE, Smithers' tone of voice when he's telling Jones to smile. It has that oozing sinister quality you find in Lynch villains like Frank Booth. The kind of barely contained evil that takes itself out on the decor of every environment it finds itself in, twisting it into a dreamlike combination of seemingly normal things you can't help but notice.
Burns’ fantasy Homer being so off-base is made funnier by each addition, finally culminating in the hilarious foreign accent.
The pause between Bart fainting and Krabappel getting the pointer to poke him is a good gag made better by Krabappel’s oddly precise, almost martial movements with the stick.
And here’s the shit that sucks.
Homer drinking the dishwashing liquid is like a parody of a Simpson joke. There’s nothing to it aside from the overt. When he drinks the cat ear medicine, the idea is that he doesn’t know what it is but ends up enjoying it, which respects his level of stupidity and plays off the audience expectation of the joke direction. Here, Homer just drinks lemon dishwashing liquid. It’s not beer flavoured or anything, there’s nothing here. Fucking terrible.
Bart’s rabies was originally Tourette’s until a complaint, so it was changed to rabies, a pointless change since Bart is still pretending to have Tourette’s. This is a good example of a fundamentally dumb complaint, as nothing of meaning was altered but the complaint was satisfied.