99. Burns’ Heir

“It’s like kissing a peanut!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 14 April 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Tuesday 22 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Jace Richdale
  • 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: Mark Kirkland

A warm welcome back into the spotlight for Mr Burns: his first starring role since Rosebud and the first time he’s had his name in an episode title for over two years. It’s not a coincidence that Burns’ Heir ushers in a run of very strong stories which, coming after a decidedly mixed bunch, helps end season five on a strong note. Burns is at his best when written as the motor of an episode and as someone who fuses his own punchlines rather than supplying them for someone else (i.e. bestowing an honour on an inanimate carbon rod). It’s when he is actively being antagonistic, instead of merely spluttering from the sidelines, that his personality shines at its brightest, bathing an entire story in his grotesque munificence.

And he does precisely that here, bewitching Bart – and the viewer – with his messy scheming and over-ambitious havoc. It is one of the best Burns plots (10) by virtue of being one of the best Burns characterisations (10), showing him at once both furious and hamfisted. He warms to Bart for all the wrong reasons – “A creature of pure malevolence,” he surmises incorrectly – then goes to enormous lengths to sustain his misjudgement, raging brilliantly as it all falls to pieces and even his cast of imposters can’t get their lines right (“People that was all wrong! Homer Simpson doesn’t say ‘B’oh’, he says [flicks through script] ‘D’oh'”). Only Mr Burns would be as desperate and yet as well-connected to hire Michael Caine to ‘play’ Homer for all of 10 seconds, and then conjure a threat as impotent as sending them back to “doing Come Blow Your Horn at the Westport Dinner Theatre!” Only with Mr Burns does such a far-fetched tableau seem not far-fetched at all, and therefore even funnier. The same goes for the trap door in his office, the bank of TV screens relaying footage from every house in Springfield, the toy train that disappears “for three hours and 40 minutes”, and the complicated set of wheels and pulleys Burns has installed in his theatre in order to allow him to kick people on stage with a giant foot. If Burns is the star of the episode, just behind him in the pecking order is the design (10) of Burns’ mansion.

Following close behind Burns’ mansion is not Bart, who actually does very little in this episode other than shuttle between different people and places, but Homer. He is on fine form, written not as a raging idiot but as a caring, befuddled father uncertain about what’s going on but determined to doing something about it. At the dinner table, he is oblivious as Bart flicks peas at Lisa but is horrified when Bart gives some meatloaf to the dog (“That was the end piece!”). In one of the character’s most persuasive moments, Homer stands at the foot of Burns’ steps and feels brave enough to mock his roster of domestic weaponry (“You’ll release the dogs? Or the bees? Or the dogs with bees in their mouth and when they bark they shoot bees at you?!”). But he also knows when he’s beaten, or when he thinks he’s beaten: listen to the way he says “I’ll miss you son” at the end, when he believes Bart is about to throw in his lot with Burns for good. Almost every performance (9) in this episode is exceptional, with Dan Castellaneta’s emotional range as Homer matching Harry Shearer’s symphonic connivery as Burns. Only Phil Hartman’s cameo (6) as Lionel Hutz knocks the average down, being too hasty to do him or the character justice.

This episode swaps the riffing-on-a-theme ramshackle structure of a lot of season five for what you could call a more “classic” Simpsons structure: the studious development of a single idea, with no need for a sub-plot or B story but plenty of room for imaginative diversion. Hence while the plot unfolds with in a cumulative way, there are occasional flashbacks (Burns recalling the time he posed as a Greenpeace activist), fantasies (Marge pining for Lee Majors) and pastiches (Burns appearing on a cinema screen to talk to the audience: a parody of the largely – and wisely – forgotten Robin Williams film Toys). All of these moments hit the mark (10) and are welcome reminders of the peaks of season four, where such devices were commonplace, along with evocative music (8) and a coherent tone (9), in this case a sort of baroque yet poignant incompetence.

Crowning glory of the episode is the audition sequence – one of the finest ensemble scenes in the whole history of the programme. Every character and every joke (10) is marshalled with precision to produce the sharpest possible humour, and deployed at a pace that leaves you breathless from laughter and/or admiration. Everyone will have their favourite from this shop window of goodies, though Martin singing The Trolley Song is hard to beat, likewise Burns’ impatience with Milhouse (“I specifically said no geeks!”) and Homer’s cue cards for Bart:

Bart [on stage, reading]: Hello Mr… Curns. I bad want money now, me sick.
Homer [from off-stage]: Ooh, he card reads good!
Bart: So pick please me, Mr Burns.
Homer: It’s Curns, stupid!

Homer mistaking Burns for Curns isn’t him being an idiot, it’s him getting utterly discombobulated at the prospect of his son potentially inheriting a ginormous amount of cash. A tactically desperate Homer is always more entertaining than a plain stupid Homer. Exhibit B:

Private investigator: I did get Paul McCartney out of Wings.
Homer: You idiot, he was the most talented one!

Mark Kirkland’s beautiful animation direction (10) wraps the whole story in a beguiling atmosphere, from the shadows flickering on Burns and Smithers in their drawing room and the smoke fluttering about Homer while he dangles from the crane, to the eerie gloom of Burns’ garden while Bart prances about blowing the heads of statues. More scenes take place at nighttime than is typical for a Simpsons episode, and this heightens still further the tone of elaborate yet comical despondency. But even in daylight the same rules apply; the sight of Burns and Smithers falling over each other has rarely been so adorable – or pitiable. 92%