9. Life on the Fast Lane

"FOUR ONION RINGS!"

“FOUR ONION RINGS!”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 18 March 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 30 May 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti, George Meyer
  • Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore, David Silverman
  • Animation director: David Silverman

After the transmission of The Telltale Head, Fox Television took The Simpsons off air for a short hiatus. When the show returned three weeks later, it made the front of a listings magazine for the first time. TV Guide heralded the broadcast of Life on the Fast Lane with a cover depicting Homer and co sitting on their sofa watching television beneath the caption “TV’s hot new prime-time family”. The Simpsons was now a nationwide hit, with hype and expectation to match. New viewers tuning in to see what the fuss was about would not have been disappointed. Life on the Fast Lane was the first episode of the show to win an Emmy award, and the first for which George Meyer received a writing credit. These two events are no coincidence. Meyer brought a particular kind of humour to show that was both incisively witty and vigorously intelligent. He formed the nucleus of the team that, along with Al Jean, Mike Reiss and Jon Vitti, did the spadework for all of The Simpsons’ early triumphs. When Meyer was let loose on a script from John Swartzwelder, as was the case here, the results were often spectacular. Add David Silverman in the director’s chair, and you’ve got the first classic episode in the show’s history.

Plot
When Homer forgets Marge’s birthday he buys her a bowling ball as a last-minute gift. But instead of spurning the present – as Homer expects – Marge decides to keep the ball and pays a visit to Springfield’s bowling alley, where she meets a mysterious Frenchman called Jacques with whom she almost has an affair. It’s the first of The Simpsons’ morality tales and easily the most “adult” episode of the season so far, but thanks to subtle twists, witty interludes and a very methodical crescendo in dramatic tension, it rarely feels laboured or threatens to tip over into lazy preachiness. Marge’s relationship with Jacques the bowling instructor develops at a rather hectic pace, but this is just about understandable given what we are shown of Jacques, who seems to live his entire life at a hectic pace. I doubt anything like this had been done in an American cartoon series before, and to its credit the plot still feels fresh and exciting today. 7

Characters
Is Marge really the sort of person to put her marriage at risk for a fling with a louche Frenchman in the local amenities centre? Perhaps because we know so little about her, this being so early in the series’ history, her motives come over as more plausible than contrived. She’s certainly given enough cause to feel dismayed by her life at home – though never disillusioned, for even when she’s heading out for a bowling session she leaves the family a list of instructions for the evening. It’s undoubtedly refreshing to have Marge in the foreground of an episode for once. It’s also a change to have Bart pushed to the sidelines, though he makes his presence more than felt with some very chipper dialogue, especially when he snaps: “What the hell are you talking about?” to Marge during her birthday meal at a restaurant. Homer’s crass behaviour is pushing credibility, though watching his unfolding reaction to Marge’s behaviour – first confusion, then fear, then resignation – is a world away from the Homer who put bees in his mouth in The Call of the Simpsons. Helen Lovejoy makes a spicy first appearance (“I’m the gossiping wife of the minister!”) though she’s drawn rather crudely:

Lovejoy

Mother superior

And then there’s Jacques, originally written as a Swede named Bjorn, but changed to a Frenchman on the request of guest star Albert Brooks as he thought it would have more comic potential. Judging by the entertaining carnival of unrestrained foppery and fruity gobbledegook that Jacques supplies, Brooks was right. 6

Location and design
There is much to see and enjoy. We first glimpsed the Springfield Mall in Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. This time we see a great deal more of it, including some fantastic shop names:

"Too spicy!"

“Too spicy!”

"Too exciting!"

“Too exciting!”

Equally inspired is the name of the restaurant in which Marge is treated to her birthday meal:

Ballads and salads

Ballads and salads

The interior of the restaurant has an appropriately gaudy design, and is blessed with bunches of roaming groups of overwrought singers serenading diners with commemorative songs, often at the same time (one table of mourners gets Nearer My God To Thee). More neon signs crackle outside Barney’s Bowlarama, which looks absolutely enormous and, in keeping with the rest of Springfield, unashamedly tatty. We also see a brief glimpse of the gloriously tacky Fiesta Terrace (‘For Single Living’), to which Jacques tries and fails to woo Marge. 7

Pardon My Zinger
Patty and Selma make a welcome reappearance after many episodes’ absence, and get to indulge in their first proper grouching about Homer. Watching him devour his food, they mutter: “Do you know the Heimlich manoeuvre?” “No.” “Good!” Cue much delicious cackling. Jacques has the bulk of the rest of the gags, most them improvised by Albert Brooks. His magnificently over-confident courtship of Marge is summed up by the timeless cry: “My mind says stop, but my heart and my hips cry PROCEED!” His lengthy exposition on the importance of brunch is another highlight: “You’d love it, it’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don’t get completely what you would at breakfast, but YOU GET A GOOD MEAL.” As with most of Jacques’ lines, this doesn’t sound very funny written down. It comes alive in the delivery, however, and it’s notable that much of the character’s humour springs not so much in what he says but how he says it, such as his brilliantly cacophonous demand for “FOUR ONION RINGS” or the way he orders Marge: “Let it out! Laugh loud! Laugh out loud – you’ll lose weight!” 7

Special guests
Albert Brooks’ second appearance in a Simpsons episode surpasses his first by almost every measure. It’s rooted in the same sort of outrageous caricature, but this time instead of a short and ferocious cameo, Brooks turns in a lavish and baroque performance that sprawls richly over two-thirds of the episode but never once dims its comic intensity. The eccentricity of his intonation and naivety of his motives goes a long way to offset his character’s rather suspect behaviour. Stripped of the absurdist humour, this could easily have been a depiction pitched in bad taste. It’s possibly over-ripe in a few places, and Brooks’ fondness for ad-libbing leaves a couple of scenes feeling rather baggy (the flirting in the bowling alley in particular). But ultimately you end up marvelling at Brooks’ capacity for creating moments of humour that are sometimes rambling, sometimes snappy, but always exhilarating. 8

Music
Richard Gibbs comes up with some appropriately lascivious saxophone cues to herald Jacques’ arrival on screen, which only get more ribald as the episode continues. There’s an absolutely gorgeous version of Cole Porter’s Night and Day to accompany Marge’s fantasy of dancing with Jacques, some very touching cues to accentuate Homer’s growing sadness, and a spot-on pastiche of Up Where We Belong at the finale. 7

Voices
Although Life in the Fast Lane was the ninth episode to be transmitted, it was the 11th episode to be produced. This is why both Homer and Marge’s voices sound more developed and assured when compared with the last couple of episodes to air, particularly The Call of the Simpsons. Homer’s voice sounds almost complete, and the scenes when he’s whimpering or being subdued could hail from any episode in the show’s history. It’s lovely to hear Julie Kavner getting the chance to develop Marge beyond the familiar two-note setting of angry or stoical, and there’s a wonderful moment when she breaks character to start giggling at one of Albert Brooks’ ad libs. As for Brooks, he’s in his element right the way through. Among his many vocal highlights are the way he booms farewell to Mrs Lovejoy with a marvellously tart “GOODBYE, HELEN!” followed by a bitchy aside to Marge: “You have a lovely friend there – let’s hope something runs over her.” Then there’s his final, and arguably most definitive line of the entire episode, recited to himself while lusting at his own reflection in the bathroom mirror: “You’re really going to STRIKE OUT TONIGHT!” 7

Animation direction
We’ve the usual first season issues to contend with – off-model designs, sloppy movements, bizarrely-drawn backgrounds – but David Silverman provides a handful of flourishes to leaven the mix. There’s expert timing at the very end of act one when Marge’s “pffft” of disgust extinguishes neatly the one candle on her squashed birthday cake:

Unhappy birthday

Unhappy birthday

The moment when Marge and Jacques brush hands for the first time at the bowling alley is shown very evocatively via an overhead monitor:

Jacques on the box

Jacques on the box

There’s also the charming sight of the moon drawn as a bowling ball:

Lunar moment

Lunar strike

When Homer discovers the bowling glove Jacques has given to Marge, he looks literally weighed down with grief, his body crumpled, his head hanging low. It’s very affecting, and the effect is compounded by the way he collapses to the ground so thunderously after being hit on the head by Bart’s baseball:

Floored

Floored

Marge’s climactic will-she-won’t-she car journey has just the right combination of pace and humour, especially the fast cutting between the “loving couples” she sees by each of the Stop signs, including a pair of skeletons holding hands. And then there’s the nicely surreal sequence where Homer, Bart and Lisa pan into each other as they pass a pizza box to the kitchen bin. 6

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
When Jacques suggests to Marge that they meet in his apartment, Marge swoons clean away and we enter her imagination for a beautiful fantasy sequence depicting the two of them as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee. The colour palette of subtle pinks and blues is gorgeous, and the animation direction is exquisite:

Fantastique

Fantastique

Fred'n'Ginger Simpson

Fred’n’Ginger Simpson

It’s fitting that this sequence also boasts some of Jacques’ best lines, as he informs Marge his many trophies are “not for bowing – they’re for LOVE-MAKING!” and that: “Some divine pin-spotter must have placed us side by side!” Remember that this is Marge’s fantasy, however. She’s the one who imagines them sinking on to Jacques’ bed at the end: something that might feel tame nowadays, but in 1990 must have seemed very bold for a primetime cartoon. The pastiche of An Officer and a Gentleman at the end of the episode is not in the same league, but is faithfully done and serves its purpose to bring proceedings to a knowingly touching close. 8

10 minutes

Love lift us up…

Emotion and tone
As you’d expect from all of the above, this is an episode with a strong and very obvious emotional core. Sentimentality isn’t just sprinkled on to the action as kind of decorative ornament, it’s positively ladled into the script, coming to the boil in timely fashion at the end of act two in a profoundly melancholy scene in Homer and Marge’s bedroom:

"Marge?"

“Marge?” “What, Homer?” “Nothing.” Fade to black

The episode rocks to and fro between farce and melodrama, but whereas in previous stories this kind of juxtaposition proved grating, here it’s executed a little more smoothly. Perhaps it’s because Marge’s flirting with Jacques and her frustration with Homer are both painted in broad strokes, making for a consistency in tone. This is a story where things are always overstated, never underdone. The one exception is the scene where Homer is articulating his fondness for the way Marge makes peanut butter sandwiches, which he ends with the clunky line: “I don’t believe in keeping feelings bottled up. Goodbye, my wife.” It doesn’t work because it’s too self-conscious in a story where almost everyone acts in an extremely unselfconscious fashion. 7

Verdict: 70%
In his celebrated book on The Beatles, Revolution in the Head, Ian MacDonald describes the song I Want You on the album Abbey Road as “a bold lunge at something seriously adult”. The same assessment applies here. But while MacDonald concluded that as an experiment I Want You “doesn’t come off”, Life in the Fast Lane more or less does – so long as you’re prepared to indulge Albert Brooks’ obsessions (if you don’t like Brooks, there’s no way you’ll ever like this episode) and overlook the indecorous way the episode manoeuvres towards its conclusion. But at least there is a proper conclusion, unlike every episode to date, and it’s a decent one at that, as Homer scoops Marge into his arms and informs his colleagues: “I’m going to the back seat of my car with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for 10 minutes!” Only someone without a soul would fail to be a tiny bit moved.

2 thoughts on “9. Life on the Fast Lane

  1. Jacques’ “YOU GET A GOOD MEAL” is probably my favourite line of the entire first season, I really love his intense and passionate discussion of the concept of brunch.

    Like

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