11. The Crepes of Wrath

Doughnuts

“Now how’s that for freedom of choice!”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 15 April 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 19 May 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: George Meyer, Sam Simon, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder
  • Storyboard: Jeff Lynch, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation direction: Wes Archer, Milton Gray

One month after The Simpsons first appeared on the front of a listings magazine, the show notched up another milestone: its first Newsweek cover. The headline read ‘Why America Loves the Simpsons: TV’s Twisted New Take On the Family’. The show was now officially a nationwide hit, meriting consideration by publications both lofty and mainstream*. Newsweek’s cover coincided with the return of the series after yet another short hiatus. Although not the last to be aired, The Crepes of Wrath was the last episode to be produced for the first season of The Simpsons, and it brims with a feeling of the end of term. The number of people involved in its creation is reflected in the sprawling plot and huge cast of characters, as well as the melting pot of ideas and styles. There’s enough material here for a feature film, and that’s one of the reasons it doesn’t quite work as a 22-minute story. But while the episode marked the ending of one period in Simpsons history, it also represented a beginning. This was the first episode for which John Swartzwelder joined the writing staff, meaning the core team was now in place to shape the all-important next step in the show’s long-term development.

Plot
Bart is enrolled on a student exchange programme as punishment for dropping a cherry bomb down the school toilets. He is sent to France, where it turns out he is to spend three months working as slave in a vineyard, while the Albanian pupil who comes to Springfield in Bart’s place turns out to be a spy passing military secrets to the Communists. It’s a brash conceit and takes the show to a new level of zaniness, but is also touch too self-regarding and indulgent for a TV series barely six months old. The action ricochets across continents with such ferocity that there’s little time to notice the whole thing makes no sense whatsoever. Only afterwards do you feel that your interest has been taken rather for granted. 5

Characters
Everyone is sketched with very broad strokes, none more than Cesar and Ugolin, the owners of the French vineyard who show more affection towards their donkey than Bart. Both are grotesque caricatures without any redeeming features at all; a little bit of substance would have made them proper pantomime villains rather than boring stereotypes. Homer’s capacity for being completely taken in by Adil, the Albanian child spy, starts off amusing but ends up supplying diminishing returns, reaching a nadir when he fails to wonder why the youngster is hiding out in Bart’s treehouse with a stash of communications equipment and the blueprints to the nuclear power plant. His eagerness to see Bart more or less deported is also hard to swallow, though his sympathy for Skinner (“At least you get the summer off!”) is nicely done. We get the first appearance of Skinner’s mother, who isn’t named, has a genteel voice and calls her son Spanky: all utterly unlike her future fiery self. Bart’s cheeky behaviour at school is much more persuasive than his derring-do in France, particularly his spectacular manipulation of the school plumbing:

H2Whooaaaaa

H2Whooaaaaa

His homesickness is touching, however, as is the joy he (and his family) express on being reunited, summed up by Lisa’s lovely remark: “He brought us gifts! His first unselfish act.” But the best character of all, which is to say the one that best fits the knockabout genre, is Adil:

Ace of spies

Reds in the bed

He is a thumbnail sketch of a diabolical mastermind, complete with a Burns-esque “excellent” and Le Carre-style sense of ennui: “Sometimes I think I’m getting too old for this game.” 6

Locations and design
There’s little call or room for realism in so far-fetched a story, which means almost every location is realised necessarily in a very overblown and unsubtle fashion. This kicks in right from the off, when Bart’s bedroom is depicted as a titanically untidy domain:

Carpet not pictured

Carpet not pictured

In the same manner, Springfield doesn’t just have any ordinary airport; it has an enormous airport with direct flights to both Paris and Albania, lets people wander right up to the planes, and has a boarding crew who throw passengers inside the craft. This helps set up an effective compare-and-contrast sequence when we see Bart and Adil’s respective families bidding their siblings goodbye:

From here...

From here…

...to just over there.

…to just over there.

France is alternately the grimmest place on Earth and the most bucolic, with thousands of acres of the most beautiful vineyards under the thumb led of the most ugly of slave-drivers. This jumble of extremes never resolves itself into a unified design for the episode, and while individual locations catch your eye, the overall impression is of a blur of sensations that collectively leaves only a fleeting impact. 5

Pardon My Zinger
The Crepes of Wrath is another episode, like Moaning Lisa, that majors in visual and character-driven humour rather than verbal wit. Its best zingers are all to do with Adil, who Skinner introduces to pupils in marvellously offhand and self-wounding fashion: “Certain aspects of his culture may seem absurd, perhaps even offensive.” When Homer hears he will be playing host to an Albanian, his snap judgment is: “You mean all white with pink eyes?” But this serves to make his later dinner-table soliloquy even funnier, as he surveys his new family line-up and concludes: “Maybe Lisa’s right about America being the land of opportunity, and maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers.” Marge tops this with the brilliant line: “Now that that’s settled, I’ll just clear the dishes.” Adil then goes even further, announcing: “No no, Mrs Simpson, you have been oppressed enough for today!” It’s a wonderful sequence: bold, intelligent and shamelessly subversive. The cleverness of the script shines through elsewhere, such as when Homer shows Adil a box full of assorted doughnuts and declares gleefully: “Now how’s that for freedom of choice!” There are even a couple of caption-based gags, with the zinger based wholly on the mistranslation of the French farmers:

Divine intervention

Divine intervention

Le fin

Le fin

The jokes may be few in this episode, but when the arrive they are crafted masterfully and live long in the memory. 8

Special guests
The only French character in the episode to be actually voiced by a French person is the gendarme who comes to Bart’s aid in the closing minutes. Christian Coffinet plays this role, and his unaffected, relaxed accent tells you instantly that here is someone for whom French is their first language. It’s a brief but appropriately understated performance, and comes at just the right moment in the episode when a dose of humanity is needed to balance the increasingly fantastical plot. 6

Music
To no great surprise there are a lot of French tinges on Richard Gibbs’ score. They are sometimes applied delicately, such as the wash of accordion to accompany Bart’s plane landing in Paris. At other times they are splattered artlessly all over the place, and here the worst offender is the traditional folk tune Alouette, a perennial last resort in UK schools for the harassed French teacher (“Now let’s try a bit of fun. We’re going to sing a song!”). It turns up here a number of times, on each occasion solely to fulfil the function of Let’s Have Something That Sounds A Bit French. A more considered bit of cultural pilfering is Bart’s rendition of the song Louise, made famous by Maurice Chevalier in the 1929 film Innocents of Paris, and which is dispatched with what Maurice himself would have called gay abandon. The only other musical highlights are Gibbs’ fittingly creepy cues to establish Adil’s treachery and ultimate downfall. 6

Voices
Every single French character voiced by an American actor is given an outrageously over-the-top accent, which dilutes rather than concentrates their comic appeal. Nancy Cartwright supplies a welcome contrast with her most confident and rounded performance to date of Bart, especially during the scenes where he is at his lowest ebb in France. You really feel for the character when he reads out a letter he has received from Marge. You’re also completely convinced by his brash, infectious joy to be back home (“So basically, I met one nice French person”) and share in his pleasure to be reunited with his family. If Homer and Marge still don’t sound entirely spot on, they’re both an improvement on how they were back in Bart the Genius. Dan Castellaneta is particularly great in the first act when Homer slips on Bart’s skateboard, tumbles down the stairs and lies immobilised at the foot of the stairs, hissing sadly: “The boy! Bring me the boy!” 6

Animation direction
With a script calling for – among other things – a transatlantic plane flights, French vineyards, the inner workings of the nuclear power plant, an explosion in a school public toilet, and an intercontinental spy satellite, it’s no wonder two directors were assigned to the episode. Wes Archer handled the bulk of the action, and he delivers some absolute treats. The toilet sequence is fantastic, in particular the way you see Agnes Skinner disappearing upwards off camera, leaving her fate to our imagination. The attention to detail is another high point, such as the depiction of the halo around Bart’s candle:

En vacances

En vacances

and the way the falling rain causes the ink to run on Bart’s directions:

Eau? Dear.

Eau? Dear.

Both sequences work well to compound a mood of desolation and of absolutely nothing going in Bart’s favour. There are some fine compositions as well, in particular the tableau of Homer sprawled at the bottom of his stairs surrounded by pets and toys:

After the fall

After the fall

The sequence that closes act two is superb, where Adil’s treachery is finally revealed to the viewer courtesy of a montage tracking his secret dispatches from Bart’s treehouse via a satellite – The Simpsons’ first journey into space – to a suitably austere and menacing Albanian military bunker.

Star wars

Star wars

Spy

SPECTRE, c. 1990

Less successful are the rather poor drawings of Skinner and his mother, neither of whom are crisply animated, while the concluding scenes set in France (directed by Milton Gray) are all a bit rushed and overcooked. In fact the entire episode would score very highly for its animation were the whole thing not cursed by season one’s recurring problem of sloppy realisation of layouts and wayward background design. 7

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There’s a glut of them. The entire episode is inspired by the 1986 French epic Manon des Sources, directed by Claude Berri, with Cesar and Ugolin named after the peasants in the film. The episode’s title is an obvious allusion to John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath. The closing shot of Maggie clutching a balloon given to her by Bart is a direct reference to the 1956 short film Le Ballon Rouge, directed by Albert Lamorisse:

Mon père ce un imbécile

Mon père ce un imbécile

A slightly more creative homage, and one of the best bits of the episode, is Bart’s motorcycle journey to the vineyard, during which he passes through scenes cribbed from famous paintings:

monet

Le Bassin Aux Nymphéas by Claude Monet

gogh

Wheatfield With Crows by Vincent Van Gogh

reve

Le Reve by Henri Rousseau

dejeuner

Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe by Edouard Manet

Each is superbly realised and tossed into the plot with a such dazzling nonchalance it almost takes your breath away. 9

Emotion and tone
This is a romp and not ashamed to behave as such. The frenetic tone is established in the opening seconds when Homer falls down the stairs in the manner of a barrel going over the Niagara Falls. It’s more or less sustained right the way to the end, with a finale that sees Bart – in the space of a minute – go from exploited wretch to cover star of “News-weeque” and winner of the Legion of Honour. Along the way Principal Skinner’s mother is blown up, Adil talks to a satellite, Homer contemplates deporting Lisa (“We can always exchange her!”) and Bart drinks anti-freeze and survives. It’s crazy, but at least it’s consistently crazy, so by that measure it’s a success. Just don’t try and invest any emotion in the episode, because you’ll get nothing in return. 6

Verdict: 64%
The Crepes of Wrath really ought to have been the season one finale, and was probably destined for just such status until problems with the animation of earlier episodes led to a rejigged running order (see Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire). It has a bombastic, demob-happy feel that bears the traces of a production team in need of a long rest and leaves the viewer feeling likewise. It’s also an awful long way from the kind of world explored so carefully and intelligently in Bart the Genius and Moaning Lisa. This is basically a Cold War caper movie being done as an animated sitcom. An inspired escapade, yes; but it’s not a Simpsons escapade.

*The transmission of The Crepes of Wrath prompted a couple of further notable front covers. TV Week, another nationwide US listings magazine, ran the headline: Move Over Cosby, Meet The Simpsons: The TV Family of the 90s. The Los Angeles Times magazine profiled Matt Groening on its cover, under the headline: The Father of The Simpsons. This pedigree of coverage was proof enough, if anyone still needed it, that the show was now both a critical and commercial success.

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