76. Last Exit to Springfield

“You and I can run this plant ourselves!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 11 March 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 29 June 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

This episode has collected so many accolades in its 25 years and topped so many ‘best of’ polls, it has acquired a vaguely honorific air. Like all other sitcom episodes frequently hailed as the greatest of their kind, it carries with it the suggestion that you must speak of it almost in hushed and saintly tones. Some would see this as the cue for putting the boot in – how dare something be so popular for so long! – but they’d have their work cut out if they wanted to make a constructive argument against the merits of Last Exit to Springfield. When you’ve an episode so self-evidently good as this, to rubbish it outright would be lazily contrarian and merit an immediate visit from a pair of hired goons.

So why is it so good? Everything flows from the plot, which is based on two examples of people wanting one thing but having to settle for another: Lisa wanting a painless check-up from her dentist but ending up having to wear braces, and Homer wanting to keep his right to a employer-funded dental plan but ending up having to lead his colleagues on strike. Both ideas – Lisa needing braces, Homer on strike – are funny in themselves, but funnier when laced together. The script manages to do this nimbly and effortlessly, making sure to root (all puns intended) Lisa’s plight in Homer’s conscience and his own plight within that of his family. And of course both are brought together unambiguously in one of the episode’s most famous scenes:

“Dental plan!” “Lisa needs braces.” “Dental plan!” “Lisa needs braces.”

We don’t need to be told that Homer’s brain works in such a plodding, methodical way, because we know that already. But we need to be shown it working like this, because a) it’s funny b) it’s not something we’ve seen before and c) it’s funnier the longer it goes on. Events then unfold – as all great sitcoms should – through a sequence of misunderstandings and misjudged actions on both sides, with Homer and Burns equally inept at playing the role of union kingpin and ruthless capitalist. There are only a few swipes at small-town unionism, and the episode is all the better for it. This is cartoon, not a fly-on-the-wall documentary, which means there comes a point where any pretence of realism always has to take second place to someone doing a tap dance on the control console of a nuclear reactor, or walking round in circles while lying on a carpet. 10

“It’s just a movie, son,” Homer tells Bart after watching a particularly brutal instalment of McBain. “There’s nobody that evil in real life.” Cut to Mr Burns laughing maniacally as he watches a man dangling from a rope outside his window. Burns then snaps the blinds shut and we hear the sound of the man falling to his death. Or do we? We all know Burns has a reputation for evil, but in this episode his actions are driven more by desperation and incompetence than calculating villainy – which is what makes him such an entertaining foil for Homer, who in his own way is also desperate and incompetent. “If you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours!” Burns sweetly informs Homer during one of their negotiations; “after all, negotiations make strange bedfellows!” “He IS coming on to me!” Homer’s brain concludes, and so the workers go on strike and Burns and Homer both find themselves saddled with something neither wanted.

Burns’ weariness with the whole palaver is summed up beautifully when he orders Smithers to get him “some strikebreakers – the kind they had in the 30s”, only to be confronted by Grampa and his cronies, and then have to sit through one of Grampa’s unending stories. 10

Locations and design
This episode earns its garlands as much for the way it looks as for how it sounds. Star of the show is Burns’ mansion, to which Homer is dragged by Crusher and Low-Blow, the hired goons. We see Burns first loitering inside a giant aviary, well-stocked with creatures include a hungry doppelgänger; then he escorts Homer into an enormous recreation room, fitted with “the largest TV in the free world” (an excuse for a Bumblebee Man cameo); then we see a room containing “a thousand monkeys working at a thousand typewriters” (“It was the best times, it was the blurst of times?!”).

There’s also a cellar with dripping pipes, plus a corridor with dozens of doors, behind one of which is a toilet (“Find the bathroom all right?” “Er, yeah.”) The building is every bit as fantastically preposterous as its owner, and therefore an absolutely joy. 10

Pardon My Zinger
Best of the lot, and there are a lot, include Burns’ inability to remember anything at all about Homer (“New man?”), despite Smithers furnishing him with a long list of their previous encounters (“Doesn’t ring a bell!”); Kent Brockman’s defiantly upbeat reaction when Burns threatens to cut off power to the whole of Springfield (“Haha, a chilling vision of things to come!”); and the man who keeps saying nay (“Who keeps saying that?”)

“It was him!”

Most of the zingers are visual jokes: Burns being tossed in the air by an over-powerful firehose; Burns hitting his bandaged head on the side of chimney; Marge getting the top of her hair chopped off by a helicopter; the logo for the International Brotherhood of Jazz Dancers, Pastry Chefs and Nuclear Technicians; and on and on. It’s glorious. 10

Special guests
There’s only one, and she has only one line. It’s Dr Joyce Brothers, whose name means next to nothing in the UK, and who appears on Kent Brockman’s show along with Homer and Burns to debate the power plant strike. “I brought my own mic!” she trills, to mild amusement. It’s pretty superfluous, but we can be thankful the producers didn’t go with their original choice of OJ Simpson. 8

Alf Clausen’s score manages to embrace The Godfather (“That’s-a-nice-a-doughnut”), Yellow Submarine (“It’s Lisa in the sky!” “No diamonds, though!”), Batman (“The mirror! THE MIRROR!”) and any generic protest song churned out on picket lines since time began (“And we’ll march day and night, by the big cooling tower…”), besides nodding to the hit parade (“Now do Classical Gas!”) and delivering two of the best cues in many an episode: the sleazy parping when electricity is restored to Springfield’s red-light district, and the twinkle-toed, let’s-do-the-show-right-here music as Burns and Smithers dance round the deserted power plant. It’s a symphony in miniature. 10

The producers had hoped to get a celebrity to voice Lisa’s dentist, but in the end the job went to Hank Azaria whose scowling fury is another of the episode’s highlights. “Why must you turn my office into a house of LIES?” he screeches at Ralph, before producing the Big Book of British Smiles, complete with the mangled mouth of Prince Charles. Later he yells at Marge (“LIAR!”), takes huge relish in showing Lisa a computer projection of her mouth at the age of 18, before howling “Keep still while I gas you!” Azaria’s unvarnished menace offers a great contrast with the frustrated rage Harry Shearer gives to Mr Burns and the frustration (of all kinds) Dan Castellaneta gives to Homer. 10

Animation direction
The “dental plan”/”Lisa needs braces” exchange is one of the few scenes in this episode that involves a static shot lasting more than a handful of seconds. Almost everything else whizzes by at breakneck speak, as befits a story that crams in a huge amount of action, most of it knockabout and some of it requiring animation on a scale that encompasses the entire town. Mark Kirkland’s direction is faultless. Special mention should go to two sequences: Burns and Smithers twirling around the deserted power plant, and later when the pair march purposefully through layer after layer of hidden chambers and mechanical doors and revolving bookcases to reach the secret core of the plant, only to arrive and find a stray dog and the fire door hanging off its hinges (“Oh for God’s sake!”). It’s always fun to see Burns’ aspiration undercut by reality, and Kirkland animates it with just the right dose of weary resignation. 10

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
This episode probably holds the record for the most number of diversions away from the main narrative, be they flashbacks, parodies, dream sequences, clips from other TV programmes, references to films, references to books, even pastiches of literary doggerel (Burns nodding to How The Grinch Stole Christmas when he declares: “Look at them all, through the darkness I’m bringing; they’re not sad at all, they’re actually singing!”). The most impressive are the ones that combine a visual parody with gags, such as Lisa’s Yellow Submarine-hued hallucinations while having gas at the dentist:

Or Homer’s fantasy of becoming a kind of Mafia don based on the production and supply of doughnuts (“Mmmm – organised crime.”)

Mark Kirkland uses a lovely sepia palette of colours when Mr Burns reminiscences about his grandfather’s Atom Smashing Plant.

He even manages to make gore look appealing, during the opening scene when McBain emerges from inside a frozen statue (“Ice to see you!”) and guns down a dinner party of crooks. 10

Emotion and tone
Like the monorail episode, Last Exit to Springfield thrives on an ambitious silliness. This gives the story both a coherency of emotion and the momentum to see everything through to a memorable (and silly) conclusion. The script behaves like a giddy trapeze artist, not merely leaping but pirouetting frantically from gag to gag and from scene to scene. This heightened tone never loses its grip and falls to earth, however. It’s a dazzling display and one you can’t wait to watch all over again. 10

Verdict: 98%
And that’s the tooth.