17. Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish

Darwin

“Let’s ask an actor playing Charles Darwin what he thinks.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 1 November 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 15 February 1997, BBC1
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Sam Simon, John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

The fourth episode to be aired in season two was the first to be produced. Two Cars in Every Garage… was earmarked as the premiere until very late in the day, when it suddenly got bumped for Bart Gets an ‘F’ and was pushed down the running order. In retrospect this makes sense: it’s an unashamedly atypical episode for its time, and though its intent can’t be faulted, its twin spheres of domesticity and activism never quite blend satisfactorily.

Plot
When his power plant is threatened with closure over 342 safety violations, Mr Burns tries to overturn the ruling by running for state governor. His campaign is foiled when he invites the media to witness a meal with the Simpsons, during which he throws up after Marge serves him a slice of fish poisoned by the plant’s own pollution. It’s the most openly satirical story the show has tried so far, is the first to feature someone other than the Simpson family in the sole spotlight, and tackles head-on some pretty weighty issues. The digs at the corruption of US democracy are rather broad, however, and only thinly amusing. We’re asked to giggle at the mere idea of Burns employing a spin doctor, or the Simpson family supporting different candidates in the election, as if such conceits are devastating attacks on contemporary politics. If this plot had been tried a few years later, you sense the result would have been a much more substantial and caustic send-up. 7

Characters
Any episode with Mr Burns at its heart is always going to deliver something memorable, and sure enough we get our first in-depth study of his maleficence. But while his lexicon is pleasingly pitiless – labelling voters “Joe Meatball, Sally Housecoat and Eddie Punchclock” – and his raging always tinged with comical impotence (such as his inability to push over a small coffee table), something goes a bit awry with his character. On learning he can’t afford to repair the plant, we’re shown a Burns who is morose and full of self-pity, blubbing at his desk. Worse, we then see him start drinking, singing and driving himself home.

None

None of this feels right at all

Where is the arch-schemer, the string-pulling tsar of treachery? Later he even seems depressed at the fact he might actually become governor (“Oh dear, heaven forfend!”). Meanwhile the Simpson clan pop up at regular intervals solely to catalyse the plot, in Homer’s case unwittingly, once when he plants the idea in Burns’ head of running for governor, and again when he plants the idea in Marge’s head of serving the fish. The way the family is shuttled around the episode in order to manoeuvre the plot into its berth betrays a lack of confidence on the part of the writers. The same goes for the rather one-dimensional characterisation of governor Mary Bailey, who exists solely as someone for Burns to define himself against. The nadir comes when Marge turns preachy – never a good sign in any episode – and tells her daughter, and by extension the viewers: “You’re learning many lessons tonight.” Again, you feel that but for the relative inexperience of the production team, an ensemble comedy tackling a topic such as this ought to have been so much more convincing. 5

Locations and design
There’s greater success here, especially with the power plant which looks not just tatty but menacingly tatty:

"Inspector,

“Inspector, could I see you privately in my office?”

Mr Burns’ office resembles more of a lair than when we last saw it in Simpson and Delilah, with even his chair looking like it’s about to devour its occupant:

board

Sanctum of terror

Blinky the three-eyed mutant fish had a brief cameo in season one, but appears here in all its tri-ocular glory and succeeds in managing to be both ludicrous and grisly:

fish

Cod almighty

Blinky fits splendidly into the show’s tradition for the whimsical grotesque, even in death:

Best served cold

Best served cold

The eyes have it. 8

Pardon My Zinger
The safety inspector’s bemused cry of “Plutonium rod used as paperweight?” is possibly the best line in the whole episode. Close behind is Homer dismissing a high-and-mighty Marge with the retort: “I bet before the papers blew this out of proportion you didn’t know how many eyes a fish had!” Bart doesn’t say much at all, let alone any zingers, save for one memorable outburst when asked to deliver grace at the dinner table: “Dear God. We pay for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.” The bulk of what few gags there are fall to Mr Burns. His incredulity at the tactics of his campaign team are a joy – “Why are my teeth showing like that?” “Because you’re smiling” – as is his fury at his downfall at the hands of the Simpsons: “This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has lost me the election. Yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail! That’s democracy for you.” Funniest of all is the TV broadcast he stages to reassure the voters about the harmlessness of Blinky. It’s full of John Swartzwelder’s trademark bizarre humour, from Burns attempting to co-opt the theory of natural selection (“Let’s ask an actor playing Charles Darwin what he thinks!”) to a cameo from an elephant (“They’d probably blame his ridiculous nose on the nuclear bogeyman!”). 7

Special guests
There aren’t any. For most of the episode they aren’t missed, but act three might pack more punch had a guest been hired to voice the most important “new” character, Burns’ devious campaign manager. A neutral 5.

Music
Arthur B Rubenstein delivers his second (and final) score for The Simpsons, and it’s as forgettable as the first. There are a couple of appropriately moody cues when Burns is alone in the power plant, and the music to accompany the fish vomiting helps turn what could have been a rather tawdry sequence into something approaching a baroque tragedy. Elsewhere staff writer Jeff Martin supplies a nicely corny campaign jingle (“Only a moron/wouldn’t cast his vote/for Mon-ty Burns!”) while Burns drawls a few lines of Brother Can You Spare a Dime during his unconvincing late-night lapse into teary-eyed remorse. 4

Voices
Harry Shearer still hasn’t nailed Mr Burns. It’s more of a problem here than in Simpson and Delilah not just because Burns is on screen longer but also because the plot requires the character to do much more than simply sound annoyed. The scenes of Burns simpering make for particularly uncomfortable listening. Smithers is much better, however, and it’s a shame he’s not given much to do other than recite a few lines of exposition. Julie Kavner gives Marge a little too much haughtiness, but Dan Castellaneta gets Homer’s various displays of sucking-up and sulking exactly right. The snide voice of Burns’ campaign manager is the same that will later become the default voice for Burns’ ubiquitous blue-haired lawyer. 5

Animation direction
This is definitely one of the episode’s strengths. Wes Archer handles all the scenes in the power plant with aplomb, despite plutonium neither being green nor fluorescent:

An early appearance

An early appearance of the inanimate rod

There are great shots of Burns and his entourage hunkered down at the plant, which in turn contrast very nicely with those of Burns all by himself:

Burns

A view to a kill

The entire dinner party sequence is a triumph of staging and framing, building the tension with a steadily increasing mixture of quick cuts and loaded glances. The attention to detail in the climax is superb; look at the flap of skin hanging disconsolately off the slice of fish Burns forces himself to eat:

Humble pie not pictured

Humble pie not pictured

– and then the way the slice of fish flies across the table before plopping on the floor at the foot of the assembled media:

Mutant fish coming through

Mutant fish coming through

Burns still looks rather odd whenever he’s shown face-on to camera, however. He just doesn’t seem to work when not in profile.

Nose

Ouch

There are also a few of the now-familiar season two rough edges, such as Bart and Lisa “zipping” out of the kitchen in a blurred Looney Tunes-style, plus fuzzy layouts, characters half-floating along corridors rather than walking, and flapping mouths:

*What* is this?

Slack (jaw)

A point must also be docked for the peculiar extreme close-up of Homer’s mouth as he eats a piece of toast. 7

crunch

Don’t talk with your mouth full

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Montgomery Burns becomes Charles Montgomery Burns in this episode and will remain so forever more, opening the floodgates to years of homages, pastiches and outright steals from the cinematic life story of Charles Foster Kane.

Kane

Drawing from the Welles

This shot of Burns addressing a campaign rally (“We’re gonna send a message to those bureaucrats down there in the state capital!”) is a direct lift from Citizen Kane, as is the closing sequence of Burns and Smithers smashing items in the Simpsons’ home (“Take me home Smithers; we’ll destroy something tasteful.”) This kind of pilfering is audacious, witty and in time would become a bit hackneyed, but here it feels bracingly unorthodox. The episode also spoofs American election campaigns in general and the media’s coverage of them in particular, with some great front page headlines (on the discovery of Blinky: FISHIN’ HOLE OR FISSION HOLE?) and photo opportunities (Mr Burns riding a tank harks back to Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis doing likewise in the 1988 US election). The episode title is a play on a 1928 campaign slogan loosely attributed to Republican candidate Herbert Hoover: “A chicken in every pot and two cars in every garage.” Finally there’s a sense that the entire episode is a send-up of the political system, how votes can be bought, how the electorate will always rush to extremes (“98% of voters rate you as despicable or worse!”) and that democracy is broken. It’s a take that verges a bit too close to cynicism rather than scepticism, and rather undermines some of the more nuanced satire. 8

Emotion and tone
This is another of The Simpsons’ early romps, and like its predecessors what it gains in pace and spectacle it loses in sentiment and consistency. The tone is all over the place, especially in act one when Mr Burns has his temporary breakdown. The characters with which you’re meant to sympathise (Marge, Lisa, Mary Bailey) are sketched crudely and coldly. Those elided to a specific point of view (Mr Burns, Homer, the media) are often too hollow to take seriously. It’s all a bit of a hotchpotch, with emotion often crowding out worthy messages about environmentalism and corruption. The ending is botched as well: can we please have an episode that doesn’t conclude with Homer and Marge lying in bed setting the world to rights? 5

Verdict: 61%
A scattershot satire that is often impressive to look at but which veers a bit too haphazardly between humour and pretension. It’s odd to think this was conceived as the season premiere. Bart is hardly in it, Homer is a dumb stooge and Mr Burns a muddled (anti)hero. To launch the show back into America’s living rooms with such a concoction would have been courageous indeed – but only in the Yes, Minister sense of the word.

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