72. Selma’s Choice

“Oh, how can I stay mad at you?”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 21 January 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 1 June 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: David Stern
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: Carlos Baeza

David Stern may not have churned out quite as many Simpsons scripts per year as his fellow writers, but his episodes were invariably among the highlights of each season – especially when, as here, they involved the continuing misfortunes of Patty and Selma. Stern seemed to have a particular fondness for these two characters, so much so that he deliberately pitched this story as a chance for him to pick up where he had left off in Principal Charming and Homer Alone. His colleagues were more than happy with this, for nobody wrote as well for Patty and Selma as Stern, be it scenes of eruptive bitchiness or coarse desperation.

Death and loneliness: two topics with which The Simpsons had occasionally flirted and upon which the show had sporadically riffed, with mixed results. Here we charge headlong into both, and it’s quite the liberation. The episode sensibly refrains from using one of the main family members as the focus for exploring the consequences of these subjects. We know too much about them and their obsessions to be comically surprised by how they might react to something like losing a relative or having a mid-life crisis. Instead Selma is the focus and it’s a brilliant decision, precisely because of how much we don’t know about her, other than her predilection for shuttling between impulsive gestures and comforting routines. With Patty on hand to continually undercut or misunderstand her sister’s actions, the plot becomes a virtuoso demonstration of how to balance melancholy with farce (Selma: “Aunt Gladys was right. There’s something missing in our lives.” Patty: “Don’t worry, we’ll get that barking dog record tomorrow.”) Homer and co, meanwhile, serve ample purpose as supporting players, supplying light relief to the story’s darker concerns. Any episode that boasts a corpse, a funeral and sperm clinic deserves to benefit from also having a runaway fairground ride and a week-old giant sandwich. 10

When Marge breaks the news that her aunt Gladys has died, and therefore a family trip to Duff Gardens will have to be postponed, the others react in a way that shows how far this programme has travelled since the days of Bart the brat:

Lisa: We understand.
Bart: No use complaining about something you can’t change.
Homer: But I want to go to Duff Gardens – RIGHT NOW!
Marge: Homer, quit pouting.
Homer: I’m not pouting – I’m mourning.

Homer’s behaviour all the way through this episode is splendidly juvenile and petulant. He is often at his best when he tries and fails to not let his childish streak slip into the open, and there are plenty of such moments here, from chuckling at his own subconscious (“The legend of the dog-faced woman! Oh, that’s good!”) to his stout defence of the week-old sandwich that has given him food poisoning (“Oh, how can I stay mad at you?”). Yet the script is careful not to make him out to be 100% boorish and insensitive. Look at the way he takes Selma’s hand at the very end of the episode:

It all makes for the perfect contrast to the melodramatic antics of Selma, as she stumbles from one humiliation to another, including attempting to woo a checkout assistant (“Wearing a belt, are you?”) and going on a date with Hans Moleman, resurrected after his flammable demise transporting Edgar Allan Poe’s house. Selma’s 10-second reverie of life chez Bouvier-Moleman is terrifying triumph of physical comedy. 10

Locations and design

With the design of Duff Gardens, we pick up where we left off at the end of Marge vs the Monorail and meet a rollercoaster ride called The Whiplash “to be completed in 1994”, over which plunges Lance Murdoch; another ride called The Washing Machine, in which the public are drowned in soap suds; the Beerquarium; the Beeramid; and so on, until we reach the Beer Hall of Presidents. “Anything this bad has to be educational,” grumbles Selma, as a phalanx of robotic commanders-in-chief break out into a rap. Viewers with long memories will know that whenever a robot appears in The Simpsons it ends up malfunctioning and going crazy. Sure enough it isn’t long before George Washington is menacing Bart with his laser eyes.

Duff Gardens is but one treat in a rich feast of gaudy new locations around Springfield that also includes The Buzzing Sign Diner, The Lucky Stiff Funeral Home (We Put The FUN In Funeral) and the Springfield Sperm Bank: ‘Put Your Sperm In Our Hands’. 10

Pardon My Zinger
Just as the locations share a calculated absurdity with the previous episode, so does the humour. While delivering the eulogy at Aunt Gladys’s funeral, Patty remarks that the deceased “wasn’t a rich woman” – whereupon the entire congregation gets up and walks out. Patty continues “…but she was rich in spirit”, whereupon one of the congregation comes back in, waits a beat, then announces: “Forgot my hat.” All the best zingers in this story depend on immaculate timing. We learn that Selma is a fan of ham radio, whereupon the camera suddenly pans over to a radio set on the sideboard, from which a voice announces out of nowhere (in subtitles on screen): “I have a ham radio”. When Bart is trapped on the runaway fairground ride, Selma grabs one of the ‘Seven Duffs’ of Duff Gardens. “Can’t you do something?” she pleads. “Hey, Surly only looks out for one guy: Surly,” comes the surly response. Brief pause. “Sorry Surly,” mumbles Selma. 9

Special guests
Phil Hartman is back again briefly, popping up as Troy McClure in a scene from The Erotic Adventures of Hercules (a nice callback to Mr Plow) and also as Lionel Hutz, overseeing the reading of Aunt Gladys’s will. Hutz being Hutz, he has overdubbed Gladys’s videotaped statement with his own voice. “To my executor Lionel Hutz,” Hartman booms, “I leave 50,000 dollars!” “Mr Hutz!” Marge snaps, to which Hutz adds, without a trace of shame: “You’d be surprised how often that works.” 9

We have Duff Gardens’ resident troupe of squeaky-clean song-and-dance teenagers, Hooray For Everything, singing a sanitised version of Walk on the Wild Side (“And all the races say…”). We have Selma serenading Jub-Jub with a chorus of (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. And we also have this:

Duff Beer for me, Duff Beer for you,
I’ll have a Duff, you have one too.
Duff Beer for me, Duff Beer for you,
I’ll have a Duff, you have one too…

– the endlessly maddening and infinitely repeated song that plays on a continual loop inside the Duff Gardens water ride, chirpily sung by a group of slightly-out-of-tune children and accompanied by the persistent clanking of machinery. It is creepy and insidious and unforgettable. 10

The episode is a tour de force for Julie Kavner, who in one scene has to do five voices, all of them variations on the same pan-scourer-stuck-in-the-throat raspiness. One of the five is Marge’s mother Jacqueline Bouvier, who speaks only one line, but Kavner delivers it with just the right kind of mournful panache. On hearing that she is to receive her sister Gladys’s pet iguana Jub-Jub, she drawls: “Why didn’t she just leave the bowel obstruction that killed her?” 9

Animation direction
Everything involving Homer and his giant sandwich is superb, from the shots of him cradling the rancorous snack as if a long-lost son to the sight of him desperately fighting the onset of gargantuan food poisoning.

Duff Gardens has already been saluted for its wondrously absurd designs, but inside are such hauntingly grotesque details as the water ride through the lands of Duff, with the rows and rows of wooden children singing the Duff song. The way their arms and hands jerk not on but always slightly after the beat is both mesmerising and the stuff of nightmares.

Fittingly, they are followed in the episode by Lisa tasting some of the water and embarking on a sequence of blustery hallucinations culminating in her trumpeting – via Jim Morrison – “I am the lizard queen!”

The animation in this episode would get a perfect 10 were it not for opening scenes where it looks like somebody has forgotten the correct size to draw pupils. 9

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
With its frenzied merchandising, souvenir junk and over-blown attractions, Duff Gardens could pass for any big budget fairground in the world, which is presumably what the writers would have argued had they ever been taken to court by Disney. On a somewhat cheaper scale, The Erotic Adventures of Hercules is convincing enough for Homer to tie a sheet around himself and bellow “Come to Homer-cles!” 8

Emotion and tone
In less assured hands, Patty and Selma could easily be depicted as shallow, coarse idiots whose only purpose in a sitcom like this is to annoy the principal characters. Instead they are shallow and they are coarse but they are never idiots. Everything they do and say makes sense, even if it is sensible only within their world and on their terms. When that world overlaps with the one occupied by Homer and Marge, you get some beautiful moments of comedy and affection. Most of them involve dialogue, but one is completely silent: Homer and Marge in the front of their car driving back from the funeral, Marge resting on Homer’s shoulder, while behind them the children are asleep and Patty and Selma are sunk in sleep and thought. There are no words, but the juxtaposition speaks volumes. 10

Verdict: 94%
An expertly-composed snapshot of Homer’s extended family, alive and dead.

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