- First broadcast: Thursday 5 December 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 23 May 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- First draft: Jon Vitti
- Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
- Storyboard: Kevin O’Brien
- Animation director: Mark Kirkland
The ascent of Mr Burns passes a milestone with this episode, the first to bear his own name in the title. Just 11 episodes earlier his character’s near-death and subsequent resurrection wasn’t thought worthy of such an honour. Earlier in season two it wasn’t Bart Gets Hit by Mr Burns but Bart Gets Hit by a Car. Now things are different, his status having reached parity with that of the Simpsons themselves. Even the rest of the episode title being a string of German words can’t dilute the potency of seeing the name BURNS finally up in lights.
At this stage in Simpsons history any plot involving the power plant is almost bound to be a treat. Any episode whose very first frame is a shot of the power plant is even better. So it proves here with Burns falling out of love with his business empire, flogging it to a cabal of German investors who just happen to be in town, then regretting his diminished status and happily buying back the whole caboodle for a profit of $50 million. “Advantage Burns,” as the man says. All of this alone would make for a more than satisfying story; layering on top a subplot involving Homer losing his job (“We can’t UBER-emphaise the importance of employee safety,” explain the Germans) turns a great episode into a knock-out. 10
The first scene features no members of the Simpson family at all. Instead we see Mr Burns a) looking sad and b) moping while c) having his hair washed d) by Smithers who also e) entertains Burns with a hand puppet called Snappy the alligator. Just one of these five things would have been enough to keep your eyes pinned to the TV screen. Two would have been sublime; three amazing. To see all five is almost too much: an overflow of riches, a saturation of your senses. This is the product of brains working at full pelt. “I dreamed of wiping out nations with the stroke of a pen,” Burns sighs as his scalp his massaged. A minute later we see him walking through the power plant with his hair wrapped in a giant towel: another remarkable, ludicrous, unforgettable image.
Suffice to say Burns and Smithers are the absolute stars of the episode, their curiously affecting relationship laid bare as never before (“You see that Queen over there?” Burns tells his assistant while doing a spot of beekeeping; “her name is Smithers.”) There is genuine emotion when Burns takes his leave of Smithers, donning a hat and cane and beetling into the distance.
All Smithers can do is take refuge in his cassette tapes teaching Sycophantic German. Meanwhile Homer weeps openly at a vending machine that refuses to take his one-dollar note and sticks a fork into an electric toaster muttering: “Who are they to say I’m not safe?”
He has a touchingly plaintive fantasy about what he could buy with $25, which is then contrasted with Bart dreaming of what he’d do with $5,200.
Marge and Lisa can only look on and despair as one grown-up male after another behaves like a bilious child. 10
Locations and design
Springfield has enlarged yet again, this time to encompass a German hostelry replete with inauthentic German architecture and authentically offensive name: The Hungry Hun.
The town also has some impressively wide streets; Moe’s bar seems to be located on a six-lane highway. It’s always fun to see a character dressed “off duty” and Mr Burns’ idea of leisurewear is appropriately misguided for the 1990s, being more in keeping with the 1890s. 7
Pardon My Zinger
This is one of those episodes where comic situations outnumber actual zingers. When the Simpson family conclude – mistakenly – that Homer has made a packet from the power plant’s rocketing stock price, Patti and Selma surmise wryly that he’s “probably buying some magic beans with it right now.” When Homer duly arrives home to reveal he sold his stock before the price took off, Bart kicks his dad’s head into the TV screen. “C’mon everybody,” he grins, “it makes you feel better!” Homer’s fortunes head further downwards when he is scrutinised by the Germans. “What initiatives have you spearheaded?” they ask. “Er – all of them?” he replies. When they offer free treatment for all of the plant’s alcoholics, Homer can only grumble: “Lucky drunks.” 7
Phil Hartman’s name in the credits of a Simpsons episode is as much of a draw as Burns’ name in the title. For once he’s not playing Lionel Hutz or Troy McClure, instead taking on two new roles: Homer’s fantastically sleazy, half-dead stockbroker (“I’m renewing my notary licence on a weekly basis”) and Horst, one of the German contingent whose job is to improve relations with the workforce. “The new owners have elected me to speak with you because I am the most non-threatening,” Hartman trills in his best middle-European. “Perhaps I remind you of the loveable Sergeant Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes?” 9
Alf Clausen saves his best work for the big fantasy sequence (see below), which even if he didn’t contribute another note to this episode would still guarantee him a 10. Of all his other cues, the moment when Burns bids farewell to Smithers after selling the plant is the most persuasive. In just a few bars Clausen helps you feel a little of the overwhelming sadness into which Smithers has plunged.
None of the Germans are played by Germans. All are voiced by Americans, and to a British ear the results are closer to ‘Allo ‘Allo than Secret Army. Just be thankful the writers ditched their original idea of having the power plant bought by Japanese. We’re on much surer ground with Mr Burns and Smithers, both voiced as usual by Harry Shearer, and both emerging further from the chrysalis of seasons one and two into the glorious, full-blown splendour of hapless tyrant and repressed toady. Shearer delivers a treat at the end of the episode in a scene that remains one of Burns’ finest moments: pretending to cower behind Smithers and taunting his business rivals with volleys of mock-terror: “Ooh, the Germans are mad at me! They’re so big and strong – protect me from the Germans!” 8
It’s Mark Kirkland’s second episode in a row featuring Burns, Homer and hi-jinks at the power plant. To both he brings the same inspired eye for atmospherics, once again depicting the interiors of the plant as either austere over-lit work-spaces (wherein dwell the employees) or cavernous under-lit lairs (the domain of Burns and Smithers). Kirkland has a way of deploying single images to sum up perfectly a character’s plight: witness the sight of Homer with pieces of a Battlestar Galactica jigsaw stuck to his face:
and Marge with her hair styled by a cash-conscious Lisa:
An 8 for his overall direction, but Kirkland’s best work comes in the shape of:
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
“The land of chocolate” existed initially as just a line in the script, muttered by Homer during an ill-judged reverie halfway through his interview with the Germans. It was Sam Simon’s idea to actually show the land of chocolate on screen. Storyboard artist Kevin O’Brien worked with supervising director David Silverman to create a sequence that deserves its status as both a stunning piece of animation and a landmark in the show’s development. We don’t see merely a few static drawings of Homer imagining the eponymous cocoa-shaped environment; we see him actually experiencing it for real, marvelling at its sights then interacting with (more precisely munching through) its tasty treasures. But that’s not all. We don’t just see him moving through the land of chocolate; we see him skipping and whirling and sashaying and leaping in rapture.
The whole sequence, scored superbly by Alf Clausen in the manner of a breathless 1940s Hollywood musical, leaves you reeling in delight at its perfection and awe at its sheer confidence and nerve. 10
Emotion and tone
“What good is money if you can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?” concludes Burns, topically, as this outstanding episode draws to a close. For once in The Simpsons somebody has actually learned a lesson, though it takes a visit to “a blue-collar bar” and the sound of “the mirthless laugh of the damned” for Burns to see the error of his ways. Divesting himself of the power plant also meant divesting himself of his reputation as a despot. He has to claim back what is rightly his, for the merit – as he sees it – of the town and its gullible citizens. The viewer is left with an enormous dose of warped satisfaction at things returning to how they should be, undercut slightly by Homer’s glee at getting his job back but not really understanding why. 9
Es ist hervorragend.