92. Homer the Vigilante

“Dig up, stupid!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 6 January 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 16 November 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • 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: Jim Reardon

A good comic caper makes sure you get just as much enjoyment from seeing how a bunch of people go about doing something as you do discovering why they are doing it. A great comic caper makes a virtue out of not needing to explain why anybody does anything. There’s no mystery at all; exposition and denouement are the least important bits of the plot. What matters is everything that happens in between, and what that reveals about the personality of those doing the capering. Homer the Vigilante is a great comic caper because, not in spite, of the fact you know all along the identity of the cat burglar, and because, not in spite, of the fact he is unmasked without any process of deduction whatsoever.

Of course the gentleman thief is Molloy, the brand new character introduced purely for this episode and who has a gentlemanly name and gentlemanly demeanour and is played with gentlemanly aplomb by Sam Neill (10). Does it matter? Not in the slightest. And is it a disappointment when Molloy is unmasked not through some cunning stratagem or symbolic reckoning but thanks simply to Grampa using his eyes? (“Molloy, unlike most retired people, has the world’s largest cubic zirconia on his coffee table.”) Not at all. In both cases the absence of mystery compounds rather than dilutes the fun. This isn’t a comic puzzle like Black Widower. The plot (8) takes wing not thanks to methodically-constructed apparatus but a series of well-timed kicks and prods. Watching how the kicks and prods move things along and send Springfield’s population this way and that is the most satisfying element of the episode. It barely matters that the thief gets away at the very end; what’s more important is the sight of townsfolk digging a tunnel to nowhere in search of buried treasure that doesn’t exist. It’s a fitting end to a story where everything is what you’d used to call “far out”: enticingly unhinged, knowingly silly and where someone walking vertically up a wall is only to be expected.

That such a daft moment feels so much of a piece with the rest of the caper is a mark of how classy and accomplished this episode looks. Everything has real style. Even the way Molloy walks is sophisticated. The tone (9) is established in the opening seconds, when Molloy arrives at the Simpsons’ house. The sequence is full of silhouettes, soft colours and eerie angles, accompanied by the sound of Alf Clausen doing his best Henry Mancini/Pink Panther pastiche (9). There is no dialogue; all the humour comes from visual gags (Homer mollified by a string of sausages, Lisa with a party blower). The animation (10) is executed with such poise and relish – appropriately, given the subject matter – that you know the next 20 minutes are going to be something special.

Most of the best jokes (8) rely on the humour of suggestion. We don’t see Ned’s Turin Shroud beach towels, or Principal Skinner’s Stormin’ Norman commemorative plates, because they have been stolen. But both are funnier as things to be imagined, rather than things right in front of your eyes. The same goes for Homer’s list of activities with which the vigilante group have been occupying their time instead of catching Molloy (“Literacy programmes, preserving our beloved covered bridges…”). Conversely it would have been better not to see Professor Frink’s house-on-legs promoted from an idea in a laboratory (complete with burning figurines) to an actual house in an actual street which is actually on fire. It’s a gag you suspect read well on paper but which doesn’t really work on screen. The implication is funnier than the reality. This is why the news of Molloy’s escape at the very end of the episode, rather than the sight of him actually escaping, makes for such a perfect denouement. You learn of it, like so much else in the story, through the reaction of the townsfolk: the gullible, crazed, impulsive townsfolk, who refuse to give up even when they are literally in a hole.

The mob (as opposed to the Mob) is now truly established as a fixture in Springfield. This episode follows directly from another mob frenzy, but the month-long gap in transmission back in 1993/94 would have helped mask the similarities. Besides, in $pringfield the mob was interested only in financial gain. Here they are squabbling among themselves and turning on each other (“No burning leaves without a permit!” “I got one!” “Too late!”). Vigilantism is largely alien to the UK, so the antics of Homer and co seem more ridiculous than threatening. All the same, you wouldn’t want to spend too long in the company of these characters (5), especially when they are armed. The sight of Bart holding a gun is just wrong. And this episode almost certainly has different and more potent resonances in the US of today than in the early 1990s – not just the topic of vigilantes, but also the behaviour of the media (ZIRCONIA ZTOLEN!!!) and the spoutings of Kent Brockman (“When cat burglaries start, can mass murders be far behind?”) and his on-screen expert:

Brockman: Professor, without knowing precisely what the danger is, would you say it’s time for our viewers to crack each other’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?
Professor: Yes I would, Kent

As for Homer, the nominal star of this story, he’s most entertaining when at the mercy of things he doesn’t quite understand or can’t quite control – such as when he’s trundling along in Barney’s sidecar using Bart’s Rapmaster 2000 as a megaphone, only for a flock of kids to start breakdancing behind him (“It’s Hammer!”). Dan Castellaneta, in the stand-out performance (8) of the episode, captures this incarnation of Homer much more persuasively than the stupid Homer who informs Kent: “I’d be lying if I said my men weren’t committing crimes.” There are plenty of instances when watching Homer acquit himself to a new task is immensely satisfying. This is not one of them. It’s far more appealing to see the character doing a bendy-legged dance than threaten residents (even ineptly) with retribution. Homer riding an A-bomb as it plunges towards a bunch of 1950s beatniks, Dr Strangelove-style, is a great scene as it exactly what you would expect to find inside the world of Homer’s fantasies. Even the ending, with its blatant parody (8) of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and numerous “Big T” locations (9) chimes with his personality. But a version of Homer that aspires to deliver violence on others, even if he rarely achieves it, is not a pleasant sight. Thank goodness it surfaces here only momentarily, before sinking out of sight beneath an arc of capering. 84%

 

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