24. One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish

"Oh, over there!"

“Oh, over there!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 24 January 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 23 February 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Nell Scovell
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

Freelance writer Nell Scovell pitched the idea for this episode directly to show’s producers. All of them, Brooks in particular, were so taken by its plot that Scovell was invited to help turn it into a script – the first time, she recalled later, a woman had ever been inside The Simpsons’ staff room.

Plot
Homer eats some fish he subsequently learns could be poisonous, leading him to believe he has 24 hours to live. It’s one of the simplest plots The Simpsons has ever tried, yet it manages to be both unpredictable and exciting. Even though we know Homer isn’t going to die, we’re on the edge of our seats. Part of the secret is timing. The pace of the episode picks up steadily as the episode unfolds and Homer attempts to cross off all the items on his to-do list. This injects real tension to proceedings: will our hero manage to insult Mr Burns, have a drink at Moe’s and get “intimate” with Marge before it’s too late? The other factor at work here is compassion. This is a both a physical and emotional race against the clock. All the scenes in which Homer tries to make peace with the world are written with rare elegance and the moment when he says goodbye to his family is one of the most moving in the show’s history. The tenderness evoked is so deep and so sincere that, despite all the odds being on Homer’s survival, it is impossible not to shed a tear. 9

Characters
Homer’s behaviour throughout this episode is a treat. He starts off spectacularly grumpy at forfeiting his Friday night pork chops for the exotic menu of a sushi restaurant (“It’s hard to choose, it all looks so terrible”) then, on discovering it’s actually quite tasty, declares himself Japan’s biggest fan (“Beautiful language, isn’t it Marge?”).

Fugu-a-go-go

Fugu-a-go-go

But this is nothing compared with his actions on learning he has 24 hours left alive. Rather than mope, he opts for wise-cracking pragmatism and embarks on a frantic, open-hearted mission to right wrongs and settle scores. His sharp-tongued stoicism is both a joy and a revelation. Spying Marge weeping, he declares: “Hello, Marge? I’m the one who’s dying, not you!” When Marge lets him sleep late on his “last morning” alive, saying he “looked so peaceful lying there,” Homer retorts: “There’ll be plenty of time for that!” Homer’s temperament only becomes sharper, not duller, as the final hour approaches. His fury at phoning Barney and getting a novelty message to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony (“Nobody’s here!/Nobody’s here!”) is volcanic, while his pleasure at telling Burns to “eat my shorts” is exhilarating. By keeping most of the other regulars – including Bart and Lisa – oblivious to Homer’s plight, the script skilfully avoids too much schmaltz and repetitive sentimentality. Only Marge knows the “truth”, and even she is refreshingly restrained. It’s the most thoughtful and mature exploration of character we’ve seen so far. 10

Locations and design
The Simpsons’ visit to The Happy Sumo was probably the first time most viewers in 1991 had seen the inside of a sushi restaurant.

Salmon-chanted evening

Salmon-chanted evening

The decor still looks appropriately esoteric today, and for anyone unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine these sequences remain a real eye-opener.

Fishy fishy fishy fish

Fishy fishy fishy fish

Another feature that datestamps the episode is the prominence given to karaoke. In the early 90s this was still a novelty and is depicted by the scriptwriters as chiefly the pastime of nerds and louts. In 2016, the only thing different is that it’s no longer a novelty. 6

Pardon My Zinger
Homer’s resiliently upbeat approach to impending death leads to some sparkling one-liners. After silencing Ned with a promise to attend a barbecue, he giggles to himself: “Tee-hee! The joke’s on him – I’ll be dead by then!” When recording a video message for Maggie, he tells her: “I’m speaking to you from beyond the grave! Ooo-eee-oooo!” Homer seems to take genuine pleasure from the expediencies afforded him by his terminal meal. The best run of gags comes in the form of an exchange with Dr Hibbert, shortly after the medic has broken news of the poisoning:

Dr Hibbert: Now, a little death anxiety is normal. You can expect to go through five stages. The first is denial…
Homer: No way, because I’m not dying!
Dr Hibbert: Second is anger…
Homer (raging): Why you little…!
Dr Hibbert: After that comes fear…
Homer (panicking): What’s after fear, what’s after fear?
Dr Hibbert: Bargaining.
Homer (pleading): Doc, you gotta get me out of this, I’ll make it worth your while!
Dr Hibbert: Finally: acceptance.
Homer (nonchalant): Well, we all gotta go sometimes.
Dr Hibbert: Mr Simpson, your progress astounds me.

Whereupon he hands Homer a pamphlet:

Harping on

Harping on

There’s more dark comedy elsewhere: Hibbert apologising that Homer actually has 22 hours left to live, not 24, because “I kept you waiting so long”; Homer sharing a jail cell with a harmonica-playing inmate who, on being asked “What are you in for?” replies: “Atmosphere”. Plus there’s the return of Bart and Lisa’s prank calls to Moe (“Hey everybody, I wanna Seymour Butz!”), timed perfectly for when Homer is having a final beer instead of his final meal with his family. 9

Special guests
Larry King is the person Homer chooses to soundtrack his final hours, with the talk show host reading an audio cassette version of the Bible. This leads to another of the episode’s best jokes: Homer spending his dying moments fast-forwarding with mounting irritation through King’s interminable recitation of Old Testament genealogy. There’s also a host of special guests working at the sushi restaurant: George Takei as the waiter Akira; Sab Shimono as the sushi bar chef; Joey Miyashima as Toshiro, the apprentice chef who carves up the poisonous fugu fish; and Diane Tanaka as the restaurant usher. All turn in fine cameos – Miyashima especially – and ensure the restaurant scenes are mercifully free of Western actors attempting Japanese accents. 7

Music
It’s the first time Alf Clausen has scored an episode that requires music of real sadness, and he rises to the challenge superbly. Two cues in particular stand out: the soft, contemplative strings that accompany Homer and Marge as they say goodnight before their last day together; and the bucolic strumming that plays while Homer and his father try to pack a lifetime’s outdoor activities into a single afternoon. Elsewhere Homer dancing and singing along to Lisa’s rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In is great fun, while Bart and Lisa’s karaoke performance of Isaac Hayes’ Shaft is simply outstanding and all the better for being done completely straight, not played for laughs. 9

Shaft

“But I’m talkin’ about Shaft!” “And I can dig it!”

Voices
Dan Castellaneta delivers one of his most nuanced performances as Homer. He makes the character sound plausibly sensitive for possibly the first time, while also ensuring the eruptions of anger never spill over into bombast. Julie Kavner isn’t quite so convincing. Some of Marge’s outbursts are rather cloying, and in the scene where the family is waiting for Homer to come back for dinner she sounds more selfish than sorrowful. Her charming reaction on discovering Homer isn’t dead after all – “His drool! It’s warm!” – is spot on, however. 7

Animation direction
In an episode driven by such a strong plot, where every scene serves foremost to move the story along, visual treats are necessarily in short supply. Wes Archer’s main task is to keep everything motoring smoothly towards its conclusion, which he does with the minimum of fuss. When Homer is teaching Bart how to shave, Archer frames the shot so we don’t see Homer’s face at all, making his commentary sound all the more ludicrous and Bart’s reactions all the more entertaining:

"Now, you take a piece of toilet paper..."

“Now, you take a piece of toilet paper…”

Homer’s “death” is also framed from an unexpected angle: Archer puts the camera behind his armchair and facing the sunrise, with the only clue that Homer has “passed away” being the sight of his hand slumping over the side.

RIP

RIP

A couple of other highlights: Homer putting his head out of the car window like a dog, enjoying the fresh air after being stuck in jail:

Freedom ride

Freedom ride

– and the witty pull-back-and-reveal when we discover Barney lives just over the road from the police station. 7

"I can see you!"

“I can see you!”

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There’s only one to speak of: Homer’s frantic run back home, ending with him banging on the living room windows, all of which references a scene from the 1967 film The Graduate (and would be spoofed again in the season five episode Lady Bouvier’s Lover, also directed by Wes Archer).

"MARGE! MARGE!"

“MARGE! MARGE!”

The title is a play on the name of the 1960 children’s book One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish by Dr Seuss. 6

Emotion and tone
Like someone carrying a precious vase across a slippery floor, this episode heads towards its destination with only the most finely-judged of steps. Its tone is so delicately balanced between grief and farce that any false move would dash the whole thing to pieces. But it completes its journey intact and with admirable poise. The sequence where Homer bids farewell to his children is so touchingly scored by Alf Clausen, and blends emotion and humour with such composure, that only someone with no soul would fail to be moved:

fish11

“Goodbye Maggie; stay as sweet as you are.
Goodbye Lisa; I know you’ll make me proud.
Goodbye Bart; I like your sheets.”

For the finale, the script wisely avoids laying on any more treacle. After telling Marge that “from this day forward, I vow to live life to its fullest!” we cut to Homer sitting alone on the sofa munching snacks and watching a bowling tournament on TV:

Born again

Born again

The footage is looped continuously under the end credits, which – for the first time – do not feature any kind of music. It’s a dry, snappy resolution, with just a hint of melancholy: in other words, perfect. 10

Verdict: 80%
The very best kind of fairy tale: wistful, comically bizarre and ultimately uplifting.

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