80. Marge in Chains

“OJ! “Morphine!” “Lobo!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 6 May 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Thursday 6 August 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein
  • 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: Jim Reardon

This is the second Simpsons script by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein: two people who would do more than most to shuttle the show safely from its early years as an aggressively spiky sitcom to its later incarnation as home for the most maturely inventive comedy on television. It is no coincidence that The Simpsons began its rapid decline from the moment the pair left, in season nine.

Marge isn’t one of the best characters in The Simpsons, but whenever she decides to take herself away from her family and try something different – a break at a health farm, a role in a musical, a job – the result is always one of the best episodes of The Simpsons. She tries something different again here, albeit not of her own choosing, and again the result is superb. This is one of the outstanding episodes of this season, a fast-paced character-driven caper that roams with glee all over Springfield and which teems with sharply-written characters dispensing sharply-hewn gags. The sight of Marge in prison – the promise of the episode title – doesn’t turn up until act three. Lazier writers would have sent her to jail in the first few minutes and eked out the rest of the running time with increasingly laugh-less variations on oh-look-it’s-a-woman-behind-bars. Not this lot. They spend most of the episode finding a way to get Marge into a situation where she breaks the law and is put on trial and THEN goes to jail – a challenge they meet so effortlessly and with such breezy self-confidence and rich imagination that what you see on screen never once feels indulgent or the work of people stubborning dodging the obvious. We open on the sight of Troy McClure crushing an orange into his face; we close on the sight of a statue of Jimmy Carter with Marge’s hair. Seeing how the plot gets from one to the other, via all points in-between, is a joy. 10

This is an ensemble comedy with the town as much of a star as Marge. The arrival in Springfield of a violent strain of Asian flu gives the writers a chance to cram in cameos from all sorts of regulars, all of whom react in satisfyingly typical ways. Then when Marge is arrested, an array of supporting characters pop up with tales of trivial misdemeanours hastily elevated to the status of scandal (Miss Hoover being particularly put out when recalling the time she found a hair in one of Marge’s gingerbread men). The sight of townsfolk bitching about the Simpson family is always a delight to see (“Let the record show that the witness made the drinky-drinky motion”), likewise the Simpsons being taken down a peg in court (“Your honour, I feel so confident of Marge Simpson’s guilt that I can waste the court’s time by rating the super-hunks!”). Maude Flanders is particularly delicious at doling out abuse, spying on Marge in the Flanders’ bathroom before yelling through her spy-hole: “Just wash your hands and get out!”

At the episode’s close, you know that Helen Lovejoy doesn’t really mean it when she says “From now on I’ll use my gossip for good instead of evil”, and this just adds to the fun. 10

Locations and design
The Springfield Women Prison is one of those locations that shares with the sports stadium and shopping mall a sense of unapologetic decay. It’s as if the town revels in letting municipal landmarks slip into neglect, while at the same time garlanding each and every wacky new scheme that comes along, from an all-you-can-eat fish restaurant to an escalator to nowhere. It’s an attitude perfectly in step with what we know of the eternally fickle nature of Springfield’s residents.

The stage direction ‘Marge enters prison’ ranks several positions below ‘Homer appears at top of stairs wearing Marge’s wedding dress’, however. 9

Pardon My Zinger
By definition a caper doesn’t have time for convoluted jokes that need time to lay out their wares. Gags need to skip along at the same speed as the plot, or else the script trips over itself and the storyline falls flat. Hence if you’re looking for elaborate zingers or pay-offs that rely on anticipation or delay for their impact, you won’t find them here. The jokes zip past as the plot ricochets round the houses. The best ones are those that make a virtue of the pace, such as Dr Hibbert telling an angry mob of flu-stricken patients that any cure would only be a placebo, followed by one of them shouting “Where do we get these placebos?”, another yelling “Maybe there’s some in this truck!”, the truck being smashed open, a swarm of bees flying out, and one person putting a bee in his mouth and crying “I’m cured!” When the Flanders are struck by the flu, first Rod thinks Todd is speaking in tongues (“I pray for the day,” sighs Ned), then Maude thinks the church is to blame (“Oh Neddy, why has God forsaken us?”), only for Ned to remember giggling at a joke on Married With Children (“These plants are all lifeless and limp” “Maybe they’d feel more at home in the bedroom, Al!”). Timing is everything. We cut straight from Chief Wiggum in a sauna pleading with Mayor Quimby to keep quiet about Marge’s arrest, to Quimby proudly announcing the news to a rally of thousands of people (“Let the word go forth form this time and place: Marge Simpson is a shoplifter!”), before going one step further (“In other news, the chick in The Crying Game is really a man!”), then trying to backtrack (“I mean, man is that a good movie!”), while his audience – on gloriously fickle form – boo and cheer regardless. 10

Special guests
This is Phil Hartman’s best performance to date as Lionel Hutz. “Now Marge,” he declares with just the right amount of fragile over-confidence in his voice, “you’ve come to the right place. By hiring me as your lawyer, you also get this smoking monkey! Look – he’s taking another puff!”

All his scenes in the courtroom, where Hutz is trying to defend Marge, are the model of how a special guest can amplify rather than dilute the humour in a Simpsons script. Listen to the way Hartman delivers Hutz’s lines as he becomes increasingly obsessed by a bottle of bourbon, “brownest of the brown liquors… so tempting… what’s that? You want me to drink you? But I’m in the middle of a trial!” Ironically this leads directly into one of the worst appearances from a special guest for a long time: a tiny cameo from David Crosby, who Hutz rings up for advice on dealing with his bourbon fixation. Crosby has only one line (“Just take it one day at a time – and know that I love you”) but sounds so bored that he spoils the gag and almost scuttles the whole scene. At least Hartman is able to steady the ship in the next sequence:
Hutz: What colour tie am I wearing?
Apu: You are wearing a red-and-white striped club tie in a half Windsor knot.
Hutz: Oh I am, am I? Is that what you think? Well if that is what you think, I have something to tell you. Something that may shock and discredit you. And that thing is as follows. I’m not wearing a tie AT ALL.

This would have been a 10, but Crosby knocks off a point so 9.

Caper episodes tend to bring out the best in Alf Clausen and he has great fun here, deploying some Halloween-esque cues as the flu makes its way round Springfield, furious bluster whenever a mob is on the rampage, a tango when Bart imagines himself rescuing Marge from prison, and a soundalike version of I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing when Lionel Hutz tries to “imagine a world without lawyers”. 9

Besides stealing the show as Hutz, Phil Hartman also dusts down Troy McClure, “star of such films as P is for Psycho, and The President’s Neck Is Missing”. McClure has evidently fallen on hard times (again). He has been reduced to fronting a TV show called I Can’t Believe They Invented It and plugging a product called The Juice Loosener, where his desperate patter is spewed out by Hartman with aplomb (“Doctor, are you sure it’s on? I can’t hear a thing!”). The sequence is spoiled only by the doctor in question being the wretched Dr Nick Riviera, with whom the scriptwriters appear to be developing a tiresome obsession. 9

Animation direction
Animating a flu epidemic is the least of Jim Reardon’s challenges in this action-packed episode – especially once you’ve hit on the idea of turning it into a malevolent cloud of blobs. Handed a script requiring dozens of locations and characters, plus a scene where Marge hallucinates a shop full of Simpson heads, another scene requiring a mob riot, a statue of Jimmy Carter (“He’s history’s greatest monster!”), the desecration of the Simpsons’ kitchen, and the remodelling of the Simpsons’ living room with a monstrous undulating carpet, Reardon repeatedly comes up with the goods. 10

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Bart’s response to the news that his mother is going to jail is to immediately conjure up a fantasy, which he will put into action “just as soon as I get a cocktail dress and a crowbar.”

During Marge’s trial, the court is shown the Zapruder footage – very much in the popular consciousness in the early 90s thanks to Oliver Stone’s JFK – and sure enough we see on the grassy knoll a tall, rather familiar-looking smudge of blue. 8

Emotion and tone
A couple of seasons ago, this episode would have been milked for all its emotional worth, with Homer heartbroken at Marge going to prison and Marge emerging from her incarceration a changed person at having spent time among lags with hearts of gold. Instead everything is played as a romp, and it’s all the better for it; this is the sort of story that has much more potential as a panoramic knockabout than low-key parable, and that potential is exploited to the full. The tone is set right at the start, when we see Homer on the sofa moaning “Oh, my Juice Loosener’s never going to come!”, followed immediately by Bart coming in with the Juice Loosener (“Hey Dad, this came for you in the mail”), Homer cheering (“Woo-hoo!”), opening the box and screaming as his head is covered in flu germs. All of this happens in less than 10 seconds. There’s simply no room for sentimental reflection when you’re motoring at this speed. 10

Verdict: 94%
Super-hunks: 76%

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