102. Lady Bouvier’s Lover

“Hello Grampa, my old friend…”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 12 May 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 25 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

This is a beautiful episode. It is warm, funny, heartfelt – even tender. Sometimes it is all these things in the same scene. It deals with two subjects usually treated on The Simpsons with flippancy or cynicism: love and old people. On this occasion, both are handled with thought and care. Abe Simpson is as fragile and human as he’s ever been; the same goes for the affection he feels towards Marge’s mother Jacqueline Bouvier. Neither character (10) comes across as weak or crass or pitiful – the sort of adjectives usually called to mind when an elderly person turns up in the show. Instead they are written as adults who just happen to be older than most; they are as vulnerable and resolute, as witty and wise, as anybody else in Springfield. And rather than simply turn up to react to events, looking crumpled and confused, here they take the initiative, do things for themselves and propel the plot towards its far-sighted conclusion. Rarely have the emotions of such an array of elderly characters – male and female – been explored to such an extent, and to such reward, in a primetime sitcom.

It’s not mawkish, however. Oakley and Weinstein’s script has the same kind of poignant yet spiky tone (10) that the pair conjured for the 100th episode, and the results are just as successful. Abe, Jacqueline, Monty Burns, Jasper: they all move in a world that is plausibly bitchy, trivial and melancholy. It’s a world you want to spend some time in, despite it being – or maybe because it is – a world where Abe impersonates Charlie Chaplin with a pair of potatoes and Monty throws energetic shapes on the dance floor. Better still, it’s also a world where there’s room for the absurdities of elderly life to be lampooned (“Don’t forget to give her Smeckler’s Powder!”) along with its pretensions (“Memorandum to Mrs Bouvier re: delineation of romantic intentions!”).

There isn’t the concentration of zingers as some of this season’s other highlights (Rosebud, Bart Gets Famous) but then it’s not the same kind of story. The jokes (10) develop from everyday events (Abe wheeling the wrong woman out of the old people’s home), not fantastical ones; the humour from everyday reactions (Homer winding up the car window), not outlandish behaviour. When the entire Simpson family gather together to celebrate Maggie’s birthday, the most extreme thing that happens is that they start singing TV commercials. Third parties turn up only on the periphery – the one-eyed baby, Luigi the waiter (more connections with episode 100) – but that feels exactly right for a plot (10) that pushes all other tricks and fancies to the very edge of the frame.

Also on the periphery is Homer, who has very little to do except pass judgment on what is taking place – a role typically occupied by his own father. This actually suits Homer very well, as this means there is no room for him to be too stupid or gluttonous, only to make interjections that are both pithy (pulling an appropriately appalled face when Mrs Bouvier says Burns is a great kisser) and inspired (the “play it cool” sequence with Abe – a gorgeous bit of animation). His vision of his children turning into “horrible freaks with pink skin, no overbites and five fingers on each hand” is one of the most outstanding moments in the show’s entire history.

Less peripheral is Bart and his attempt to buy an over-priced Itchy & Scratchy animation cell, which looks like it’s going to have no connection whatsoever to the main plot, until everything is folded neatly together via a stand-off involving Mr Burns and a toy gun containing mustard. Bart is in his most likeable incarnation: the cunning strategist/foiled schemer, who uses his wits to enhance his own life rather than disrupting the lives of others. The run of gags about “your special delivery” is yet another high point in an episode that bristles with peaks (“Don’t write no more letters to Mr Sinatra… Stop stealing golf balls from the driving range… That’s for keeping me waiting”). The Mary Worth phone is one of those things that is funny regardless of how much you know about Mary Worth, or even if you know nothing at all (“Her stern but sensible face will remind me never to do anything so stupid again.”) The subplot is also an excuse to get Troy McClure into the episode (‘You might remember me from such films as The Boat-Jacking of Super Ship 79…”) and hence Phil Hartman and hence a special guest (10).

A couple of points have to be knocked off for some haphazard drawings of Mr Burns:

Otherwise the animation (8) and design (10) are faultless. The scenes at the dance are enchanting – another perfect union of music (10) and image – and director Wes Archer is in his element when when the action switches to Maggie’s perspective during her birthday party.

All the cast are given room for top-drawer performances (10). So much of this episode resonates in your head long after the credits have rolled, from the sound of a smitten Mr Burns (“Everyone who has found true love may leave early today!”) to the sound of Mrs Bouvier trying to giggle. And then there are the credits themselves: the sound of The Sound of Silence, a pastiche (10) but still strangely moving, capping an episode that spins from Glenn Miller to Benny Goodman to Leonard Bernstein to Paul Simon. All that is indispensable about American culture is here, and it is glorious. 98%

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