35. Blood Feud

"Hel-lo. My name is Mr Burns."

“Hel-lo. My name is Mr Burns.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 11 July 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 2 May 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: George Meyer
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Steven Dean Moore, Kevin O’Brien
  • Animation director: David Silverman

Summer in America is the time when most TV shows, thinking themselves big enough and important enough to be missed, decide to disappear from screens for months. The schedules fill up with reruns and failed pilots and any old tat sitting on the networks’ shelves. It is not and never has been the season for anything interesting, let alone anything new. Which is precisely why Fox Television, ever the contrarian, decided to run a week of “premieres” in summer 1991. There was an element of expediency to this plan: Fox had an episode of The Simpsons going spare, finished too late for transmission as originally intended, but not strong enough to keep for a curtain-raiser in the autumn. So it was that Blood Feud turned up on air in the middle of July, with very little warning and bracketed with the likes of Beverly Hills 90210 as the hottest entertainment in town. The tactic won Fox some publicity but not a great deal of new viewers; this Simpsons episode was almost beaten by a repeat of The Cosby Show. A channel-hopping audience catching the show by accident would have found Blood Feud a very odd affair. Its disjointed structure and scattershot humour fall flat in the context of a one-off “special”, but make more sense when recalling how the show was evolving earlier in 1991. Blood Feud is further evidence of how The Simpsons was now moving away from linear family-based episodes and towards stories with a broader cast and two or more plot ideas, none of which behaved in anything resembling a straight line.

Plot
There are three of them. First, Mr Burns falls ill and needs a blood transfusion, which Bart is able to provide in the nick of time. Next, Homer tries and fails to retrieve an insulting letter he has sent to Mr Burns. Finally, Mr Burns and Smithers go shopping for a present to give to the Simpson family and, after visiting an assortment of increasingly eccentric boutiques, decide upon a giant Olmec head. All the plots are variations on a theme – recompense – but could just as easily flourish apart from each other as comic skits or vignettes. Indeed, the idea of an employee trying to stop his boss from reading a piece of offensive correspondence has for decades been staple sitcom fare. There’s even a fourth plot (or subplot) where Mr Burns decides to commission his life story, hires a ghost writer, then decides to do the job himself. That the entire episode hangs together is more to do with the energy of the performances and execution of the jokes than the storyteller’s craft. It’s a greatest hits package from a season yet to be made. 8

Characters
Bart has come a long way from the weepy, gullible prankster of this season’s opening episode. Now he’s pretty much an equal of Homer, conniving at schemes, helping his dad write to Burns and lecturing him when Homer starts to regret the correspondence was sent (“There were things in the letter that needed to be said!”). Homer responds in kind, making no attempt to sweeten his predicament or mask his true intentions (“It’s not like I’m asking you to give blood for free. That would be crazy… When you save a rich man’s life, he showers you with riches!”). Burns’ relationship with Smithers has evolved too. Smithers’ love for his boss is now unadorned with restraint; “Just leave me enough [blood] to get home,” he wails to Dr Hibbert, ripping off his clothes in despair at his boss’s need for a transfusion. The scenes of the pair of them shopping for a gift for Homer are priceless:

Doo-dah, doo-dah

Doo-dah, doo-dah

Only Marge remains as stubbornly preachy as ever, full of irksome homilies (“You have to help someone in need, it’s the only decent thing to do!”) and lumbering ethics (“You don’t do things like that to be rewarded, you do them because a fellow human being needs a helping hand.”) Didn’t she learn anything from that marriage retreat? 8

Locations and design
Most of the locations take a very distant back seat to the contorted design of this episode’s dialogue and plot. Occasionally something distinct hoves into view, however, like this:

The mail always gets through

Mural, grey

We also get our first ever glimpse of the “back yard” of the nuclear power plant: a vast, unfriendly maze of transformers and grids and angry-looking wires, the perfect backdrop for Homer’s dismissal. 6

Watts' up

Watts’ up

Pardon My Zinger
Homer’s letter to Burns – co-composed by Bart – is a treat:

“Dear Mr Burns. I’m so glad you enjoyed my son’s blood and your card was just great. In case you can’t tell, I’M BEING SARCASTIC. You stink! You are a senile, buck-toothed old mummy with bony girl-arms and you smell like an elephant’s butt.”

It’s animated superbly; Bart has a delightful look on his face:

"Read that last part back." "You stink."

“Read that last part back.” “You stink.”

– while Homer seems genuinely thrilled at his son’s help:

"Elephant's butt!"

“Elephant’s butt!”

The episode kicks off with one of its best zingers, when Mr Burns unveils the town’s new nuclear warning sign:

Balloon up

Balloon up

“Tee hee,” giggles Homer, “the joke’s on them! If the core explodes, there won’t be any power to light that sign!” He is very pleased with this gag, and rightly so. Burns has some top-drawer insults; “You bargain basement Baudelaire!” he howls at a not-up-to-the-job ghost writer. The name he eventually comes up with for his memoir is splendidly tactless:

Colour me bad

Colour me bad

Even Marge gets a decent joke, when she sees Homer throttling Bart for sending the letter to Burns and declares: “Homer, you encouraged him; you should be strangling yourself!” A sobbing Homer concludes: “She’s right!” 9

Special guests
There aren’t any, so a neutral 5.

Music
Alf Clausen’s score gets rather lost amid the melee. It’s pretty much forgettable apart from the moments when people shut up, or talk very very quietly – basically the scenes when Burns is at death’s door and is reduced to whispering his usual garrulous hissy fits. It’s here that Clausen’s fittingly macabre cues get a proper look-in. 4

Voices
Harry Shearer has finally got both Burns and Smithers absolutely nailed, and he hops between them with capricious ease. It’s worth remembering that these scenes were recorded in one take, with Shearer alternating between character in real time. From here on, each and every scene between Burns and Smithers would always be the highlight of any episode. Shearer gives Burns just the right mix of hysteria and grandeur when, upon receiving Bart’s blood, the old man rises from his hospital bed and roars: “Master of the atom, scourge of the despot, oh, tyrant hear his mighty name and quake! Smithers, I’m back!” Dan Castelleneta turns in a feverish performance throughout, with two clear highlights. First is the debut of Homer’s doo-lally voice, when he taunts Marge: “I love you very much, but you’re living in a world of make-believe, with flowers and bells and leprechauns and magic frogs with funny little hats!” Second is possibly the finest scene in the entire story, when Homer and Bart walk into Springfield’s main post office, go up to the counter, and Homer, adopting a vaguely plummy air, announces: “Hel-lo. My name is Mr Burns. I believe you have a letter for me.” “OK Mr Burns,” replies the man behind the counter, “what’s your first name?” “I don’t know.” 10

Animation direction
The whole episode is directed in a loose, freewheeling fashion. David Silverman has an absolute ball, exaggerating the dimensions of the Simpsons’ house by grotesque proportions in order to accommodate the Olmec head Xtapolapocetl:

"I don't know"

“Whatever it does, it’s doing it now”

– and filling the shopping mall with recherché outlets:

From Brusher With Love

From Brusher With Love

pete

Conversation pieces from around the world

A beautiful giant moon shines down over the neighbourhood:

Luna

Night mail

The family gather to open Burns’ thank-you card under a garden sprinkler:

Arc of disappointment

Arc of disappointment

And Mr Burns’ naked arse peeps out from his hospital gown:

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

It’s all a bit demob-happy and self-indulgent, but fits the mood of the episode splendidly. 9

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Four episodes have passed since Citizen Kane was last referenced in The Simpsons, so it’s obviously high time for another steal/homage, in this case the composition of the scene where Smithers and Dr Hibbert discuss Mr Burns’ health:

Welles run dry

Welles run dry

Another favourite, Dr Seuss, gets a nod when Burns trills of buying Homer “a frabulous, grabulous, zip-zoop-zabulous present”. More entertaining, by virtue of being more unexpected, is Homer’s brief excursion into dreamland where a fantasy of strangling Bart morphs into him squeezing sauce on to a huge plate of food. 5

Homer

Homer

Emotion and tone
Blood Feud is defined more by what it hasn’t got than what’s actually there. It’s not bothered about a linear plot, doesn’t care about sustaining any kind of emotion, and positively revels in wrong-footing your expectations. It has a coherency, though, by virtue of a kind of aloofness that runs right the way through – and to this extent, at least, it’s a great deal more consistent than a lot of other stories in this season. The abstract tone seeps into the dialogue, with a number of exchanges not really about anything other than the fact that they are exchanges (“Lisa, I don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s very strange and your father’s trying to worry”). All of this culminates in the very final scene, where the family sits in front of the Olmec head to discuss the fact they are sitting in front of the Olmec head:

Marge: The moral of this story is a good deed is its own reward.
Bart: Hey, we got a reward: the head is cool!
Marge: Well then, I guess the moral is: no good deed goes unrewarded.
Homer: Wait a minute! If I hadn’t written that nasty letter, we wouldn’t have got anything!
Marge: Well. Then I guess the moral is: the squeaky wheel gets the grease.
Lisa: Perhaps there is no moral is to this story.
Homer: Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens.
Marge: But it certainly was a memorable few days.
Homer: Amen to that!

It’s either an inspired deconstruction of sitcom convention or the outpourings of tired writers in need of a holiday. But it’s certainly an ending, which is more than can be said for most Simpsons episodes up to this point. 9

Verdict: 73%
A postcard from a place The Simpsons had never really been before, but to which they would return many times – with glorious results – over the next few years.

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