15. Simpson and Delilah

"I love you, Karl - er, Marge."

“I love you, Karl – er, Marge.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 18 October 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 25 January 1997, BBC1
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Tim Burgard, Rich Moore, Steven Dean Moore, David Shwartz
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

Episode two of season two repeats the ploy of episode one by focusing almost entirely on a single member of the Simpson family. But there the similarities end. Simpson and Delilah is the kind of sparkling escapade that, in later years, would more than suffice as a season premiere. Jon Vitti’s story – his third to date, and easily his best so far – looks to the future in treating Homer as the star. This wasn’t at all in keeping with the popular orthodoxy of 1990 which dictated that Bart was the show’s headliner. But the switch in emphasis is more than justified by the results.

Plot
Homer uses a baldness treatment called Dimoxinil to get a full head of hair. He is quickly promoted by Mr Burns and doted upon by a male secretary called Karl, before the hair falls out leaving Homer back where he started, only more depressed. After last week’s meander through pre-pubescence, this episode roars into a mid-life crisis from the off and never lets up. Vitti’s script moves at a breathless pace. Dialogue and exposition are packed in tight, expanding the dramatic palette of the series in all directions. Barely a second of screen time is wasted with the plot constantly moving things forwards; whole weeks are compressed into a matter of minutes. But there’s still room for moments of real pathos, and Homer’s relationship with Karl is particularly touching. Just don’t let your attention wander for a second. 7

Characters
Homer starts the episode in desperation, passes through several further shades of desperation, then ends up just as desperate as he started. It sounds like tedious viewing. It isn’t, because the desperation is never contrived (Homer’s Night Out) or overcooked (The Call of the Simpsons). It’s understated all the way – just like Homer’s needs (a head of hair) and his pleasures (enough tartar sauce in the canteen). Meanwhile Mr Burns has been moved up a rung on the ladder of comic tyranny. We get our first glimpse of him browsing his security cameras:

Morons

“Morons! Pathetic morons in my employ!”

– not to mention braying in his giant office, toying with Smithers’ emotions and moping about his plight: all building blocks for a grandiosely compelling future. “How old do you think I am?” he asks Homer at one point. “I dunno – 102?” “I’m only 81!” Karl is the first of a string of one-off characters to appear enigmatically in Springfield, bursting with out-of-town wisdom and catholic tastes, who stir things up deliciously then vanish without a trace. His motives for helping Homer with his new job are sketched thinly, but this is much preferable to an infatuation drawn in crude strokes. His ripostes – “The way you smother yourself in bargain basement lime-green polyester!” – are cheeky rather than malicious; his attraction to Homer depicted as charming rather than suspect.

"Say to yourself: I am nature's greatest miracle!”

“Say to yourself: I am nature’s greatest miracle!”

Homer, Mr Burns and Karl dominate the episode, and they deserve to. Everyone else is rather pushed to the edge, however, and though Patti and Selma get a couple of nice cameos, the rest of the family serve little purpose other than to shuttle Homer from one consternation to another. 7

Locations and design
The power plant is as much a star of Simpson and Delilah as its trio of protagonists. It stands revealed here in all its rambling despotic glory, the inconsistencies and economies of season one banished from sight and replaced with equally commodious opulence and tat. Take Mr Burns’ office, swollen in size to a suitably preposterous dimension:

Bear necessities

Bear necessities

– or the grotty staff toilet, complete with solitary cubicle:

don't sit

“Mr Simpson: don’t sit on that filthy thing one second longer!”

We’re also introduced to Mr Burns’ private meeting room, staffed with a dozen or so cowering board members – none of whom ever appear in the show again:

blazes

“Let the fools have their tartar sauce.”

Crowning them all is the executive washroom:

"It's time. Give Simpson - the KEY."

“It’s time. Give Simpson – the KEY.”

It is as big as a basilica and almost entirely bare save for a string quartet and water feature, and captures in one Mr Burns’ endlessly appealing mix of unquenchable avarice and unending petty-mindedness. Other locations are almost as inspired, such as the slightly over-ritzy emporium where Homer and Karl shop for suits, and Karl’s frankly stunning bedroom:

"LET'S GO SHOPPING!"

“LET’S GO SHOPPING!”

Only the rough-and-ready background layouts throughout the episode stop this category getting a mark higher than a 7.

Pardon My Zinger
Lisa has only two lines in the entire episode, but both are crackers. On being asked by Homer what she would like from her newly-promoted dad, she deadpans: “An absence of mood swings and some stability in my life.” Later, when she discovers Homer mopping the floor with his head in an attempt to soak up every last drop of Dimoxinil, she pauses a beat then concludes:

Dad is

“Dad is taking this in a less than heroic fashion.”

Mr Burns has some zingers as well, the writers having by now cottoned on fully to the comic potential in the character’s autocratic mithering (“Rommel – now there’s a man who could get things done!”) and inability to remember a face (“You!” “I think you mean him, sir.”). By contrast Homer gets few one-liners, with most humour stemming from his predicament and interaction with Karl, though his plaintive cry of –

HAIR

“Hair. Hair! Just like everybody else!”

– is a treat, as is the explanation he writes on his medical insurance form to explain the cost of Dimoxinil: “To keep brain from freezing.” 6

Special guests
Harvey Fierstein is faultless. His blend of gravelly campness and repressed ferocity turns Karl into a truly fascinating character. He sounds utterly unlike any other person so far encountered in The Simpsons, yet still seems to fit right in. Not once does he allow Karl to become any kind of stereotype, even in the most outré scenes (“I just came to say goodbye to the gals in the typing pool”). Never do we feel like he is playing the more tender scenes with anything other than sincerity (“You are one of Springfield’s very special creatures”). The energetic rapport Fierstein has with Dan Castellaneta turns all the scenes between Karl and Homer into fizzing showstoppers. “A man’s suit should make him feel like a prince!” urges Karl, “it should cry out to the world: here I am, don’t judge me, LOVE ME!” “Do any of these suits do that?” replies Homer. “NO!” Karl yelps.

"You! Conceal it!"

“You! Conceal it!”

Even better is their reading of what could have been a monumentally cringeworthy sequence: “I’m just a big fool.” “Oh no you’re not.” “How do you know?” “Because my mother taught me never to kiss a fool.”

No fooling

No fooling

None of this is played for silliness or innuendo, just brisk, self-deprecating knockabout. And best of all, there isn’t a trace of caricature, in this or any other of Fierstein’s scenes – which for 1990 was groundbreaking. 10

Music
Patrick Williams is the show’s second new composer in as many episodes. He gets more of a chance to shine than his immediate predecessor Arthur B Rubenstein, thanks to a script that calls for a broader emotional spectrum. There’s an affectionately bustling cue when Homer and Karl go shopping, proper hail and brimstone when Mr Burns realises an employee has cheated him out of $1,000 of medical insurance (“Ooh, and I was going to buy that ivory back-scratcher!”) and just the right amount of sentimentality when Karl bids Homer farewell and disappears into the rain. There’s no stand-out moment, though, and the only music that really sticks in the memory is sung: the two renditions of You Are So Beautiful, one delivered comically by a singing delivery man, the second sweetly by Marge and Homer in the very final scene. 4

Voices
Mr Burns is still not quite right, but Lenny and Carl are spot on, down to their unwittingly bemused inflections. Patty, Selma and Barney are all fine too, and you sense that the cast are really hitting their stride. Harvey Fierstein pitches Karl superbly right from the start, moving effortlessly between tactical outrage and reticent tenderness. Every second he’s off screen you’re straining to hear him again. 8

Animation direction
The production of this episode wasn’t without its problems. The large number of storyboard artists listed above is testament not only to the scope of the storyline but also a high amount of reshoots. Some mistakes were just left uncorrected:

Hairless Homer

Hairless Homer

Nonetheless Rich Moore does sterling work in giving the various new locations enough substance to ensure they would remain virtually unchanged from now on (such as Mr Burns’ office and the canteen). It’s Moore’s most assured work for The Simpsons so far; watch how he maps the chessboard floor of the executive washroom on to the exterior of one of the power plant office blocks:

And fade...

And fade…

...from this...

…from this…

...and then...

…to this and…

...to this.

…to this.

Bart’s T-shirt is still the wrong colour and a fair number of heads are out of proportion to a good few bodies. But you can almost forgive this when placed again Moore’s greatest sequence: Homer running deliriously through the streets of Springfield, overcome with joy at his new head of hair:

"I HAVE HAIR!"

“I HAVE HAIR!”

It’s a shameless tip of the hat to one of the most famous scenes in the 1946 film It’s A Wonderful Life, but like all the best tributes it’s done out of affection, not laziness. 7

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Dimoxinil is a pastiche of Minoxidil, which had been around in the US for a number of years but approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration only in 1988. The spoof is carried off with aplomb, right down to a tacky TV advert: “I used to think that losing my hair was as inevitable as the tides,” sighs a newly-coiffured everyman. Viewers are invited to send their money to “Hair Plaza, Hair City, Utah”, and in return for $1,000 comes six months’ supply, gravity boots, a scalp massager and a T-shirt. The episode even throws in a spoof rival product as well: the bottom-of-the-range Hair in a Drum (“Any hair growth you experience while using it will be purely coincidental,” adds Homer’s doctor, tartly.) On top of the homage to It’s a Wonderful Life, the executive washroom is a nod to the 1957 Jayne Mansfield/Tony Randall comedy film Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (“Rufe is a big success – he has a key to the executive washroom”), while the title itself is a pun on the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah. There’s also a brief but sharply-executed fantasy where Bart imagines himself with a goatee beard (“What’s happenin’ hep cats?!”). All in all, a fine array. 7

Emotion and tone
Unlike in Bart Gets an ‘F’, our hero’s predicament feels utterly plausible. The same goes for his rise and fall at the hands of others. Homer’s mood of hopelessness right the way through the episode is sustained imaginatively and there are enough narrative twists to ensure it never turns tiresome. You’re happy when he’s happy; you’re sad when he’s sad. Job done. 8

Verdict: 71%
The production team find a rhythm in this episode that really pays off. The result is a meticulous pacing of events, a ruthlessly precise unfurling of the plot, plus a sometimes hectic procession of characters, locations and gags. There’s almost no time for reflection until the final scene, when Homer and Marge find solace in a late-night hug and singalong. Bravely (or cynically, depending on your view), the story concludes that things in life rarely change for the better: Karl is still alone, Mr Burns is still enfeebled, Homer is still bald. Appearances do matter, ordinary folk rarely get a lucky break and guardian angels always bugger off in the end. It’s bold stuff, done with complete conviction – and, significantly for the future of The Simpsons, almost nothing to do with Bart.

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