13. Some Enchanted Evening

voice

“I’m as sure of it as I’m sure my voice is annoying.”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 13 May 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 28 March 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti, George Meyer, John Swartzwelder
  • Storyboard: David Silverman, Kent Butterworth, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation directors: Kent Butterworth, David Silverman

The last episode to be transmitted in season one of The Simpsons was also the first to be produced. Some Enchanted Evening has a chequered history that partly explains why it looks and feels a bit of a mess. When the show’s bosses saw what they had been sent by the animation studio in South Korea, the quality was so far below what they were expecting that all agreed the episode could not be broadcast in its current form. A hasty rescheduling of stories ensued. Some Enchanted Evening got bumped to the season finale to create time for most of it to be redrawn, with Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire ending up the premiere. But poor animation isn’t the only reason this episode fails. Other factors conspire here to ensure The Simpsons’ first season on air concludes not with a triumphant yell but a croak.

Plot
Homer and Marge go for a romantic evening out, leaving their children in the care of a babysitter who turns out to be a burglar. It’s a simple, unfussy plot, but one that requires an awful lot of padding to stretch it over a full episode. This is especially true in act one, where the story looks for a time as if it’s heading towards Marge deciding to leave Homer, only for this melodramatic idea to get dumped in a matter of seconds and substituted with the thieving babysitter. The pace picks up in the final act and it’s a neat twist having Bart and Lisa capture the babysitter only for Homer to return home and let her go, leaving her free to carry on her nefarious activities elsewhere. But ultimately the episode is a bit of a missed opportunity. In later seasons this kind of material would be handled with a great deal of confidence and imagination. Here, while the basic concept is solid, the execution feels hesitant, and this can’t help but dilute a lot of the appeal. 4

Characters
Outside of the Simpson family, the only other recurring characters to appear in this episode are Barney and Moe – and both look way off-model, Moe sporting an alarming mop of black hair and Barney resembling a luxurious blond. Dr Marvin Monroe makes his third hugely unwelcome cameo of the season, his latest displeasing guise being that of a coarse relationship counsellor on a radio phone-in. It’s a mystery why Marge is so willing to share all the intimate details of her marriage with such an unsympathetic man. Her later rather stoical affection towards Homer is much more plausible, as is Homer’s misplaced bravado (“There’s not a woman alive who can resist a man who knows how to mambo!”). Their relationship is the most convincing thing about the episode, with even Homer’s mistaken belief in the babysitter’s innocence making sense in the context of the story. The babysitter herself, Miss Botz, is the least convincing aspect. She is neither frightening nor creepy, and the way she riffles through the family’s wardrobes for trinkets just makes her look pathetic.

Botz

Babysitter ‘bandit’ in action

That Bart and Lisa are so terrified of her is never persuasively explained, and it’s a relief to see them reverting to type when they outwit her with a mixture of wit and violence. Botz escapes to live another day. Sadly, the the same is true of Marvin Monroe. 4

Locations and design
The Simpsons’ house is bigger on the inside than the outside, with rooms that change shape throughout the episode and a central staircase that alternates between being a dozen steps long and the size of a helter skelter. The first floor corridor wouldn’t be out of place in a stately home, and the basement has the dimensions of a cathedral crypt. None of this would matter so much were the location not featured so heavily in the plot, thanks to the numerous scenes of characters being chased all around the property. Its loose and inconsistent design is one of the most obvious consequences of the episode’s haphazard production. Other familiar locations are similarly off-model, including the power plant and Moe’s Tavern. The babysitting agency, which we haven’t seen before, does at least look appropriately dingy and is just the sort of place the Simpson family would use. The same is true of the hotel where Homer and Marge spend part of their romantic night together, though this does lead to a shot of both of them bobbing up and down on a water bed in post-coital bliss:

*shudder*

*shudder*

– the sort of bonechilling sight you never want to see in the show again. 3

Pardon My Zinger
Even a few decent jokes would have gone a long way to leavening the quality of Some Enchanted Evening. Sadly we don’t get them. There are a couple of nice lines at the restaurant to which Homer takes Marge for a romantic meal. “When you choose one that’s floating upside down, it somewhat defeat the purpose of selecting live lobster,” drawls a brilliantly tart waiter when Homer is asked to select a fish from the tank. Homer then addresses the dead creature with a cheery: “I’ll be seeing YOU later!” Bart makes not one but two prank calls to Moe’s Tavern, neither of which are classics (Al Coholic and Oliver Clothesoff). Lisa has a good joke after phoning the police to shop the babysitter: “If she’s convicted, we get T-shirts!” There’s also this, quite possibly one of the best caption gags of the entire season.

Boob

Breaking news

But that’s more or less it. This is an episode that doesn’t just look underdone; the humour is barely evident too. 2

Special guests
Penny Marshall provides the voice of the babysitter Lucille Botz. Another of James L Brooks’ Hollywood friends, Marshall was best known in 1990 for being one of the stars of the sitcom Laverne & Shirley, and for directing the film Big. Her appearance in this episode was something of a coup for Brooks, who viewed it as The Simpsons getting the “blessing” of the US entertainment industry. But in truth, her portrayal of Botz is rotten. She comes over way too hammy and florid, though she isn’t helped by the fact the character is so unfocused and messily drawn. Hers is a voice, like that of Dr Marvin Monroe, that at times is actually painful to hear. She’s totally outclassed by June Foray, a veteran actress who had provided the voice of characters including Lucifer in Disney’s Cinderella and Rocky the Flying Squirrel from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Foray turns up here as the wonderfully grouchy receptionist of the Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper babysitting service, and even though she’s on screen for less than a minute, is utterly superb. 3

baby

NO! NO! NO!

Music
Richard Gibbs’ last ever score for The Simpsons is not the best way to remember his contribution to the series. Most of his efforts are once again mixed too low or smothered by effects, in particular the noise of Maggie sucking on her pacifier: a sound never very far from being infuriating. The music cues Gibbs supplies for the scenes with the children home alone with the babysitter are unfortunately a bit too much like John Williams’ cues for, yes, Home Alone. Listen to the plinky-plonk uh-oh wacky-ahoy accompaniment to Maggie climbing down the stairs. It screams “here comes a humorous and entertaining situation”, which once again fact turns out to be neither. 2

Voices
Penny Marshall sounds more like a wicked witch than a light-fingered home help. Her performance fails to match what we’re shown of the character, who is written as more of a grouch than a menace. It’s also a voice that doesn’t seem to fit in the Simpsons world, being a bit too mannered and forced. The same is true of how Homer and Marge sound, though given the episode’s history that’s not surprising. Bart and Lisa are played very broadly, and Lisa’s rather shallow interest in The Happy Little Elves jars badly with what we already know about her precocious nature. Meanwhile Dr Marvin Monroe is as ghastly as ever. “I’m as sure of it as I’m sure my voice is annoying,” he rasps at one point, which is just taking the piss. The solitary oasis of aural sweetness comes in the shape of June Foray’s brief contribution. 2

Animation direction
Dear oh dear. Kent Butterworth directed the first version of Some Enchanted Evening, and just under third of his work made it to the second version, the rest of which was reanimated under the direction of David Silverman. This was the most that could be reworked in the time available, and the end product is inevitably a hotchpotch of different styles and quality. Some of the scenes are bodged jobs, with new backgrounds inserted behind old character drawings – the radio station being one example. But some have survived more or less intact from the original, and these just look wretched.

Ghastly

Shit

Characters bend and flop about, their limbs and faces all rubbery and elasticated while their expressions liquify and reform from one frame to another. There’s no two ways about it: it’s awful to watch. Just look at the scene in the florists’ shop, where Homer steps through the door as if his leg extends to twice its size, before bouncing to a standstill as if on springs, and then holding a conversation in front of a wall that has nothing on it whatsoever. At other points, even simple shots of the family look grotesque, such as when Marge puts on her make-up:

Marge

Who is this?

And when Bart and Lisa see a news report on the TV about the real identity of their babysitter:

Frightful

Frightful

The portions of the episode that were redone are mercifully a step up from this, but don’t ever hit the standard of some of Silverman’s other work for this season, such as Life on the Fast Lane. There’s a touching shot of Homer standing in the rain outside his house, as he rehearses how to apologise to Marge for being late from work:

You can't go wrong with rain

At least you can’t go wrong with rain

An overhead shot of the kitchen captures well the aftermath of another manic breakfast:

Breakfast

Leftovers

And the babysitter tied up in front of the TV is one of the few images that stays with you after the story finishes:

Bandit

Botz bagged

But these are all exceptions in an episode you end up actively wanting to forget, so violently does it trample upon the reputation The Simpsons had established even by this early stage for dazzling, pioneering animation. Unsurprisingly, Kent Butterworth did not work for the show again. 2

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There weren’t any in the original version, so David Silverman inserted one during the rewrite. When Marge starts hearing voices as she waits for Homer to get back from work, we see various objects float around her headmalevolently , including telephone receivers with angry faces:

Phone

Nuisance call

It’s a short sequence and pretty low-key by Silverman’s standards, but counts as one of the episode’s few highlights. There’s also a tiny homage to the 1955 film The Night of the Hunter when Botz is seen tracking Bart through the cellar. 2

Emotion and tone
The plot is the only thing that gives Some Enchanted Evening a vague coherency. There’s certainly no sustained tone, or even several distinct moods. Instead there’s a sort of patchwork blur of juvenile sentiments that trip clumsily past your eyes, one after the other, like a primary school pageant. It’s all rather embarrassing. Nothing hangs around long enough for you to invest with any emotion. The episode simply arrives, happens, then ends. It has one thing in common with the rest of season one, however: the rubbish ending, with Homer and Marge yet again sitting in bed exchanging non-sequiturs: “Honey, can we make up again?” “My goodness!” 0

Verdict: 24%
When James L Brooks watched the animation for the first version of this episode, he informed his colleagues: “This is shit.” Gabor Csupo, the head of the animation studio, retorted: “Maybe this ‘shit’ isn’t funny.” Both were right. Some Enchanted Evening isn’t just flawed visually. The script is pedestrian, the jokes sparse and some of the characterisation downright absurd. It’s saved from total disaster by an earthy plot and a few sparks of imagination. What a note to bow out on, however. You have to wonder why the episode wasn’t shelved indefinitely, or at least held over until season two so David Silverman could reanimate the entire thing. Instead season one faded from view in atypically half-arsed fashion, and this was the last wholly new instalment of The Simpsons that viewers would see for five months. Fortunately for Fox, hype around the series was so great that not even this shambles could harm what was already a cultural force, and which by the end of the year would be the biggest TV show in America.

4 thoughts on “13. Some Enchanted Evening

  1. In hindsight it seems like the first season of the Simpsons was a shambles! I still have fond memories of all these episodes but nostalgia is not the best critic.

    In related news, Harry Shearer has left the show. I think they should end the show now…

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  2. I’ve frequently said Some Enchanted Evening is my favourite episode of Season 1, and I didn’t see it until BBC2 showed it, so I’d already seen lots of other later episodes too, so there must have been something in it. However, having now read this review I’m not sure I can defend it, to be honest.

    I think it’s probably the individual bits that I like the best, “LOCAL BOOB” always makes me laugh and I really, really love the way they say “Rubber Baby Buggy Babysitting Service”, which is just the funniest name. Reminds me a bit of Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog in Arrested Development. And I think this is the best appearance of Dr Marvin Monroe if only for the bit when Marge is asked not to use Homer’s name so immediately says the same thing but with “Pedro”.

    But I suppose “a few nice jokes that don’t really have much to do with the story” could be a description of modern day Simpsons. I like all the comments about the animation, the bit that always stuck me was the bit where Bart slags off the babysitters while in a featureless pink void.

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