83. Cape Feare

“When I say ‘Hello Mr Thompson’ & press down on your foot, you smile & nod.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 7 October 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 14 September 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

It’s the last day of term, the teachers have put their feet up and the headmaster’s gone home. It won’t be long before you too are heading out the door. How to eke out the remaining few hours? What mischief can be made? What silliness can be connived? You’ve got one foot out the door already. How can you have the most fun and cause the biggest stir before you’ve packed your bag and are away?

You could slave away quietly and diligently to create some kind of memento or token of appreciation that sums up everything and everybody you’ve most respected over the past few years.

Or you could lie back and let rip with every oddball idea, flimsiest premise, daftest stunt and absurd joke you can think of – and then scarper, leaving someone else to clear up afterwards. Welcome to Cape Feare.

This episode had been kicked around the writers’ room for ages. At one point it was going to be a subplot within a completely different story. It ended up plugging a hole in the production schedule for season four, before plugging a hole in the transmission schedule for season five: a wry outcome for a story that itself needed plugging with countless gimmicks in order to reach the required 22-minute running time. Cape Feare must be one of the most padded episodes in the early history of The Simpsons. To spin out its tissue-thin plot (6), all sorts of devices are deployed. Yes, the whole thing is an exercise in parody. Yes, the parody (10) is sparkling and witty and attacks with relish one of the 1990s’ most raucous, ripe-for-pastiche horror blockbusters. But you have to sit through an awful lot of capering before you get to the fear. And Sideshow Bob trying to kill Bart is quite a step down from Sideshow Bob plotting an intricate sequence of events to frame a colleague or marrying into the family of his nemesis in order to carry out a cryptically-conceived murder.

Does it matter that this episode is really just a load of set pieces and wild fancies strung together to mask a storyline that by itself would last only a couple of minutes? Not really – not when it is strung together with padding of the likes of an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon that sends up the laser sequence in Goldfinger, or Up Late With McBain (“Maybe you all are homosexuals too!”/”The Fox network has sunk to a new low”). Or which eats up more running time with Lisa getting a letter from a pen pal who gets deposed mid-sentence in a military coup, or which has the family laugh at Homer getting WIDE LOAD tattooed on his arse. Or which uses up an entire 60 seconds by having Bob lie down in the middle of a road and have a marching band walk over him, including a herd of elephants. Or which devotes a further 60 seconds to Bob treading repeatedly on the end of a rake and smacking himself in the face: a gag that behaves as if it is being turned until it catches the light, as you appreciate first the spectacle of Bob being thumped in the face, then the little bits of cactus and dirt that keep falling off him, then the meticulous grunt made by Kelsey Grammer (10) every time the thump occurs, then the audacity of the writers at keeping these kinds of zingers (10) going for so long. School is most definitely almost out.

This was the last episode to be produced by many of the team who had been with The Simpsons from day one. The end-of-term feeling is there in lines like Bart’s chirpy declaration: “But who’d want to hurt me? I’m this century’s Dennis the Menace!” It’s there at Bob’s parole hearing when Police Chief Wiggum complains “Sideshow Bob has no decency – he called me Chief Piggum” and everybody around him roars with laughter. It’s there when Bob explains away his tattoo ‘Die Bart Die’ as being “German, for ‘the Bart, the'”. “No one who speaks German can be an evil man,” concludes the parole board. It’s there on the soundtrack (10), which doesn’t so much nod as steal outright huge sections of the score from the original Cape Fear. It’s there in each and every character (10), who behave here as if increasingly-wayward players in a light opera repertory company rather than a suburban blue-collar family trying to pay the bills.

And it’s there in the animation itself (10), which is crammed with images and compositions custom-built to stay in the brain long after they and their creators have faded from view. Among them: Flanders trimming his giant bush with tiny scissors; Martin done up as Lizzie Borden; Sideshow Bob in his dressing down taking minute sips from a cup of tea (complete with tea bag on a string); and Homer sitting at one end of a table, being taught to answer to the name of Mr Thompson, while his entire family sit at the other end looking absolutely bored out of their minds.

Rich Moore the director was also leaving the show after this episode and he ensured both he and his colleagues got a send-off they deserved. The contrasting depths of field in some of the shots in this episode are unlike anything attempted in The Simpsons to date: Bob pricking his finger with a knife, for example, or Bob enjoying his cigar in the cinema. Moore’s use of colour and light is also vital to establishing the appropriate tone (10) for such a richly baroque tale. The shadows that descend on proceedings from out of nowhere, the changes in palette that often come with a single phrase, the ghoulish flashes that illuminate Homer as he leaps on Bart’s bed to carve him some chocolate brownies… all of this is at one with the story’s high camp and broad comedy. Special mention too for the menacing design (9) of Springfield prison, Terror Lake and the huge chasm into which the Simpsons’ boat sails during the final act, swallowing it up with a relish that would make even Mr Burns’ guard dogs jealous.

Once the boat is in the chasm we’re into the climax of the episode and the most spectacular of parting gestures from the production team: Kelsey Grammer singing his way through HMS Pinafore. Earlier in the episode we had the entire family trilling a chorus of Three Little Maids From School; now we get a tribute to Gilbert and Sullivan so full-throated it knocks The Be Sharps out of the park. The one-and-half-octave leap that Grammer does on the word “English” is quite astonishing. The whole thing is sublime and ridiculous at the same time, and is the finest vocal in an episode already jostling with stand-out performances (10, and in which even Julie Kavner gets to have fun: “Bart! I’m going to GET YOU… some ice cream from the store!”). As Grammer skips from song to song, with each passing second the preposterousness is ratcheted up further: we see Bart suddenly with some popcorn, then Bob in costume, then Bob in another costume, the Bart with a playbill, then finally Bob in full military uniform in front of a giant Union flag being handed some flowers.

Handed some what? Who? Where? What the…? Quiet. Save your questions for another time and for ears that want to hear them. Show’s over and so is this dazzling farewell from the team that shepherded The Simpsons from birth to maturity. 95%. And it’s surely to their credit.

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