87. Marge on the Lam

“Marjorie, please – I enjoy all the meats of our cultural stew”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 4 November 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 5 October 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First drafts: Bill Canterbury
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Conan O’Brien, David Richardson, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Gerry Richardson, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

Season five of The Simpsons starts to find its voice in this episode. It’s a more broad-throated and raucous voice than previously, with a tendency to rattle maniacally with jokes rather than click and whirr with soothing precision. It’s also a voice that likes to mouth off in all directions. For the past two years the show had been pushing itself into new areas of humour and expanding the scope of its ambition, but doing so mostly with meticulous care. Things start to loosen up here. The expansion continues, but without as much concern for the direction in which it is heading, or for what has been left behind. Traces of the first incarnation of the Simpson family – the humdrum, domestic, Bart-centred family of seasons one and two – are increasingly harder to detect. Gags become sillier, characters more coarse, storylines more wacky and denouements more outlandish. Not that any of this means season five is where The Simpsons goes wrong. That is still a few years away. It’s just that season five is where The Simpsons takes a definite change of course from the one it has pursued up to this point – and it’s in this episode, Marge on the Lam, that it first becomes really evident.

It’s there when Ruth Powers calls round to borrow a power sander, Homer insists he hasn’t got one, and the camera cuts to Homer sitting on the sofa resting his feet on the sander which is not only switched on but is chewing up the carpet. It’s there when Homer, both arms trapped in vending machines, asks a man who is about to saw them off: “They’ll grow back, right?” It’s also there when Homer rings round his “friends” and one of them turns out to be Mr Burns, who is shown lounging on a fur rug in a dressing gown chewing chocolates and cooing, “Ooh, sounds delish, let me just toss some jeans on!” In each case a funny idea gets pushed to an extreme that threatens to dilute rather than enhance the moment. We’re treated to the sight of Homer getting stuck inside a vending machine – including him intrepidly dragging one of the machines along a corridor; then comes the joy of hearing him say, on the phone to his wife: “Marge, this may be hard to believe, but I’m trapped inside two vending machines”; then, the icing on the cake, Marge’s reaction as she sinks back onto the sofa. After all this, we don’t need to hear Homer talk like an idiot about his arms growing back – especially as it’s followed by a much more subtle nod to Homer’s absent-mindedness (“Homer, are you just holding on to the can?” “Your point being?”).

Characters (7) are paired off in this episode in a way we’ve not really seen before. It’s the first time Homer spends most of a story away from his family and teamed with one of the show’s supporting cast – someone, moreover, who is even less smart than he: Chief Wiggum. They make for an entertaining double act, far more than the pairing of Marge and Ruth Powers. Every time the action switches from Homer/Wiggum to Marge/Ruth, your interest sags. When it switches back, you perk up again. Marge and Ruth’s relationship isn’t written with anywhere near the same imagination as that between Homer and Wiggum. The script doesn’t allow them to do much other than parody scenes from Thelma and Louise, all of which (7) are done with affection and wit but are burdened with exposition and dialogue that struggles to be funny (“Marge, you’re the level-headed friend I never had”). By contrast Homer and Wiggum get to have much more fun. The scenes with them chasing after Ruth and Marge have the best jokes (9) in the episode as well as some of the most eye-catching designs and locations (9). Somehow their bond feels more genuine than that between Marge and Ruth. There’s a lovely moment when Homer, sad and worried in the back seat of Wiggum’s car, tries to ignore Wiggum up front who is singing along merrily with Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows (one of a number of great musical cues (9) – until he can resist no longer, starts to smile, and then joins in.

Wiggum is the stupidest he’s ever been (“Oh my God, it just disappeared! It’s a ghost car!”) but at least this allows Homer to emerge from proceedings with a bit of dignity and to be jolted – quite literally at one point – into realising his affection for Marge. (Wiggum: “One is wearing a green dress, pearls, and has a lot of blue hair.” Homer: “A lot of blue hair? Ha ha ha, what a freak!”).

Jokes like this go some way to buttressing a storyline (5) that ends up riffing on little more than Thelma and Louise and shoves Bart and Lisa well into the background for a few short scenes with Lionel Hutz. The way Hutz “happens” to be passing by the Simpsons’ house is totally of a piece with season five’s newly-blossomed sensibility of non-linear and “random” humour (Wiggum and Homer also meet up by chance) and this certainly gives the episode a consistent tone (7), if not a particularly robust one. Phil Hartman (playing Hutz and Troy McClure) has more fun than Pamela Reed (Ruth Powers) and gets better lines (“You might remember me from such telethons as Out With Gout ’88 and Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House”). Completing a hat-trick of special guests (8), George Fenneman turns up at the end to do a pastiche of his announcements on Dragnet. It’s animated (10) with the same skill that director Mark Kirkland brings to all the episode’s forays into pastiche, which are plentiful and give the story a more cinematic feel than usual – something that would become another hallmark of season five. It’s nice to see there’s still room for a gag based on a malfunctioning neon sign, though.

Another link with previous seasons is the amount of fantasy sequences and flashbacks, which help pad out part one and supply the most vivid images of the episode: Homer in rapture at the sight of a bear driving a car and Homer, his arms still stuck inside the vending machines, providing “candy and sodas for all” at Maggie’s wedding. Dan Castellaneta gives the standout performance (10), making Homer sound plausibly anxious, angry and utterly confused at Marge’s behaviour, sometimes all in the same scene. He also captures perfectly the frantic lunacy of this story, and of this season, which would contain the highest proportion of Homer-centred episodes in the show’s history so far. His character has yet to tip over completely from being ineffectual and unenlightened to thoughtless and cruel; but there’s more carefree irresponsibility to him now, that is both harmless (“Lumber has a million uses!”) and daft (“Lisa – haven’t you seen Home Alone? If some burglars come, it’ll be a very humorous and entertaining situation.”) Welcome to the silly season. 81%

 

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