103. Secrets of a Successful Marriage

“Er…”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 19 May 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Tuesday 29 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Greg Daniels
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Carlos Baeza

Season five of The Simpsons ends not with a bugle of victory but a raspberry of defeat. This is one of the most graceless episodes of the show so far. Its morals are dubious, its humour (3) patchy and its tone (-10) appalling. It fails to convince on almost every level and leaves you feeling deeply out of sorts with the programme. It is also a terrible choice for a season finale – but then The Simpsons has a track record of bungling its swansongs, with seasons one to three all bowing out shabbily rather than triumphantly. As the curtain comes down on another series, the impression is not of well-oiled machinery purring through its paces a final time, but of a safety curtain clunking messily to the floor. If only the curtain had fallen sooner – preferably before this episode made it to air.

Both plot (2) and characterisation (1) are ill-conceived. Watching Homer and Marge fighting is simply not an appealing way to pass the time. The War of the Simpsons was proof enough of that. For in order to get the characters to fight, the script needs to exaggerate all their most objectionable traits, leaving you with a version of Homer that is even more coarse and idiotic than usual, and a version of Marge reduced yet further to doling out platitudes and looking grumpy. As such Homer is witless beyond belief (“Don’t try to eat these so-called ‘chips'”) and his tendency towards impulse and panic manifests itself in unimaginative and ultimately repulsive behaviour. Marge meanwhile has to react with understandable fury, pushing her character into a corner from which the script struggles to rescue her before the final credits roll.

When sitcoms depict struggling relationships, the only way to keep viewers on side is to allow you to see both parties sustaining sincere hope that things can someday be fine (for example, series one of Ever Decreasing Circles). Homer’s attitude throughout his brief separation is one of complete flippancy (“I don’t need your mother anymore. I’ve created a replacement that’s superior to her in in almost every way!”) and when he does make a final offer to Marge it is borne not of humility but selfishness (“In another few hours I’ll be dead. I can’t afford to lose your trust again.”) In turn, Marge’s acceptance of Homer’s offer is written without much conviction; the script sounds half-hearted and tired, as if the staff just wanted to wrap up the season and go home.

The cause of the separation is so puerile that it throws all attempts at humour into shadow. The sight and sound of Homer blabbing on and on enthusiastically about his private life is matched in repulsiveness by the sight and sound of his class enthusiastically baying for more. There is a point at which the episode could have swerved off in a far more constructive and enjoyable direction, and that’s when Homer first becomes a part-time teacher and you see him feeling genuine pride in his vocation (“Can’t talk now, Flanders – I’ve got a class to teach!”). He even seems to feel plausibly sorry for himself and ashamed at being called “slow”.

Instead the implausible thoughtlessness of Homer’s subsequent actions seals the fate of the episode and condemns it irretrievably to the dumpster. “My whole class is here,” he titters seedily to Marge after inviting them to dinner without her permission. “They’re going to observe the human peep show that is our lives.” Homer’s lack of self-awareness has rarely been this painful and this vast. You sympathise with Bart and Lisa’s horror, though seeing them humiliated is hardly pleasant. Maybe the involvement of other family members might have helped leaven the grim tone; if ever there was an episode in need of well-chosen words from Patty and Selma, this is it. But those words never arrive. Few well-chosen words do. A low is reached when Homer informs Bart, nastily, that “without a strong male presence in the house, you could turn sissy overnight” – before adopting what the writers presumably think is an amusing “sissy” voice and complaining, while trying to wash his clothes: “Oh, those stubborn grass stains.”

There are some moments of light relief, but none of them involve the Simpson family: Moe teaching funk dancing for self-defence (“Say some gangster is dissing your fly girl; you just give ’em one of these!”); the Tennessee Williams parodies (5) when Smithers recalls his marriage (“SMI-THERS!”) and Reverend Lovejoy’s frank assessment of the Bible: “Just about everything is a sin. You ever sat down and read this thing? Technically we’re not allowed to go to the bathroom.”

Collectively they fall far short of making up for all the episode’s deficiencies; even the music (4), design (4) and animation (5) seem lacklustre. Phil Hartman is wasted as a special guest with only a tiny cameo (2). None of the cast give a performance (3) that manages to make the script sound remotely palatable.

Coming immediately after a run of outstanding episodes, and capping a season that boasted the best episode to date, Secrets of a Successful Marriage is a real shocker. You don’t expect The Simpsons to be this bad at this point in its history. It’s been a show that has always moved forwards and upwards with each season, and which has usually met and often exceeded your expectations. This isn’t the only stumble in season five, but it’s biggest and therefore the most ominous. 19%