91. $pringfield (Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalised Gambling)

“That’s quite a nice model, sir.” “Model?!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 16 December 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 9 November 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, David Richardson, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

It’s been a while since the residents of Springfield embarked on an impulsive caper. The monorail was 20 episodes ago, which in the alternately sped-up/slowed-down universe of The Simpsons is long enough to justify another bout of mob madness. This episode borrows plentifully and obviously from Marge vs the Monorail: Springfield is falling to pieces again, there’s a town hall meeting, everybody goes crazy and Homer gets a new job. There’s even a near-identical shot of residents bursting through the doors of the town hall, delirious at their latest zany scheme.

But if you’re going to borrow, borrow from the best. Rather this kind of retread than a slight return to the lazy unpleasantness of Whacking Day. Plus there’s a twist: Marge is on board with the hysteria. There is no sceptical voice in this episode. Everyone embraces legalised gambling, Marge initially as a way to “help our economy”, but then as someone obsessed with playing slot machines. Her addiction has only minor consequences (Lisa gets humiliated at school – again) and Marge is still addicted at the close of the episode, Homer taunting her about her “gambling problem” as they walk off into the sunset. The casino gets to live happily ever after.

Not a huge amount happens in this episode, though it’s gorgeous to look at (10) – the inside of the casino is breathtaking (10) – and every other line is a joke. Were it not for Marge’s gambling addiction, which gives the second half of the story a tangible if rather flippant through-line, this would rank as one of the least-plotted episodes of the series (4). Most of it resembles an animated brainstorm of funny things that can happen in a casino, including a seedy comic (Krusty’s Midnight Show), inappropriate cabaret (The Flamboyant Magic of Gunter and Ernst), a film pastiche (Rain Man) and a reclusive owner (Mr Burns as Howard Hughes). It’s to the writers’ credit that almost all of these things are funny (9), thereby saving this episode from feeling too much like a sequence of diminishing variations on a theme. All the stuff with Burns is particularly fine, from his swaggering paranoia about cleanliness and unquenchable laughter at the memory of crippling a bumper car attendant, to his galactic impatience with everybody’s opinion save his own (“I’ll design it myself – I know what people like. It’s got to have sex appeal and a catchy name!”). Harry Shearer gives far and away the best vocal performance of the episode (10). It’s a shame the Spruce Moose never actually took off.

Marge’s addiction ends up feeling very much the supporting feature to all these main events. It’s not written with much depth and relies a lot on melodramatic music cues (8) and close-ups for impact. There’s little sense of jeopardy at her behaviour, even when Maggie wanders off in the casino, because the tone (7) of the story is so frivolous. Even Lisa’s predicament (“I’m not a state – I’m a monster!”) is only fleetingly maudlin, and it’s immediately undercut by Homer’s over-the-top raving about “Gamblor” and snatching “your mother from his neon claws”. But it’s certainly not implausible to believe Marge could end up in hock to one of life’s vices (as per red wine in season eight’s You Only Move Twice). And Homer’s crowing response at the end makes you feel more sympathy towards Marge, not less. (7) for characterisation.

Bart is really the only member the family who has proper fun. Some of the best moments occur not in the real casino but in Bart’s treehouse: the noticeboard displaying the latest odds; Milhouse’s awful turn as a magician; Bart’s encounter with an employee of the real casino (“What are you going to do? Start your own casino?!”) and Robert Goulet’s cameo (“Your manager says for you to shut up.” “Vera said that?”). Goulet enters fully into the spirit of the episode. This would get a 10 for special guests, were it not for the contribution of retired heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney, who might as well not have bothered turning up. He’s in it for only 10 seconds and even though he is made to introduce himself on screen as “retired heavyweight boxer Gerry Cooney”, he is still utterly forgettable. (5)

Far more memorable are the two sequences at the very start, neither of which has anything to do with the main plot, but are among the absolute highlights of the episode: the pastiche (9) archive report about Springfield, City on the GROW (“Watch out, Udica!”), which captures perfectly the look and feel (and unabashed optimism) of official newsreels; and Homer discovering Henry Kissinger’s glasses in a toilet bowl at the power plant. His joy at finding the glasses is a delight – likewise Kissinger’s discomfort at having lost them (“Not I, the man who drafted the Paris Peace Accords”). Homer’s unconfined happiness at his own accomplishment surfaces again later in the episode (his “photographic memory” of the town meeting). It is always, regardless of circumstances, among the strongest cards The Simpsons has to play – even in as card-rich story as this. 79%

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