Last Exit to Springfield (Season Four, Episode Seventeen)
Original airdate: March 11, 1993
Written by Jay Kogan & Wallace Wolodarsky
Directed by Mark Kirkland
It seems like a natural premise to feature on a show where the father is a blue-collar work, a company strike. There wasn’t much more to the idea when writing began other than mining the humor that would come out of Homer participating in a labor strike. The real hook came when the company dental plan was introduced as the driving reason Homer kept his fellow workers striking. What is surprising is that this episode is overflowing with cultural references and comedy that are seemingly unrelated to the core premise yet never feel disconnected from the story.
The episode’s title refers to the Hubert Selby Jr. novel “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” which features a subplot about a union leader’s downfall during a strike. In turn, that was a nod to the rumored murder of labor leader Jimmy Hoffa at the hands of the mob, which is also referenced in a joke about the former union president in this episode. Homer imagines what it will be like to lead the union, and it is done in the style of The Godfather Part II. Lisa’s exploits at the dentist become rich fodder for visual gags with a nitrous induced hallucination leading her to meet the Beatles circa Yellow Submarine. The moment Lisa wakes up to see her now braced-face is played like the Joker reveal in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.
Last Exit to Springfield stands as an almost perfectly constructed episode of The Simpsons that could stand as an example to other contemporary animated shows trying to copy the formula. There is no scarcity of cultural references and sight gags, but they never drag the audience away from the main story, which has a lot of pathos. Today the loss of health insurance can have a devastating effect on families, and The Simpsons tackled that without becoming maudlin or over-sentimental. The writers mined the premise for great comedy that is narrative centered rather than built around disconnected jokes.
Cape Feare (Season Five, Episode Two)
Original airdate: October 7, 1993
Written by Jon Vitti
Directed by Rich Moore
Sideshow Bob, voiced by Kelsey Grammer, was an annual menace to Bart Simpson since the youth caught him trying to kill Krusty the Klown and got him sent to prison. The writers in season 4 wanted to parody the recent Martin Scorsese remake of Cape Fear with Bob in the Pacino role. This episode’s production was delayed into season five, which saw a significant turnaround in the writer’s room, so by this time, Jon Vitti was gone from the series. Vitti went on to work as a writer for The Larry Sanders Show, The Critic, and King of the Hill.
There wasn’t a lot of meat on the bones of the story, and if you pay close attention, it moves along at a reasonably rapid pace. Therefore scenes were created to stretch out the runtime, most obviously the infamous rake scene that has Bob continually stepping on rakes that slam him in the face. When the camera zooms out, we can see an absurd number of rakes conveniently placed, extending the moment. It’s a pretty good example of repetition in comedy: how a surprising thing can be funny, then loses its humor when repeated, but after an indistinct number of times, it will suddenly become funny again out of sheer absurdity.
The episode also plays into actor Grammer’s strengths as a musical performer by incorporating Gilbert & Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore into the story. The other piece of music that played a big role was composer Alf Clausen’s take on Bernard Hermann’s theme from Cape Fear that would become Sideshow Bob’s theme for the rest of his appearances on the series. On a personal note, my favorite scene from this episode is the witness protection scene where FBI agents struggle to train Homer to recognize the name of his new identity. It’s just one of those classic Homer scenes that sum up the character so succinctly.
Rosebud (Season Five, Episode Four)
Original airdate: October 21, 1993
Written by John Swartzwelder
Directed by Wes Archer
As the title indicates, this is a partial spoof of Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane. It tells the story of Mr. Burns’s tragic loss of his childhood stuffed bear Bobo, how Maggie Simpson comes into possession of the doll, and how Burns uses everything to get the treasured object back in his grasp. This is one of the episodes that sticks relatively close to parodying the source material, even starting with a spoof on the famous snowglobe scene from Citizen Kane. In this case, Mr. Burns keeps dropping snow globes during his dreams, and Smithers supplies him with new ones from a bedside crate.
There are many other cultural references thrown in with the guards outside the Burns mansion resembling the Wicked Witches troops from The Wizard of Oz. Burns and Smithers attempt to drop into the Simpson home a la Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible. We learn that Mr. Burn’s little brother was cigar-chomping comedian George Burns. Much like Last Exit to Springfield, we have a strong core narrative with jokes built around it that only enhance the story, not detract from it.
Rosebud is continually ranked extremely high on lists of the best Simpsons episodes, even placed in the number one spot by Vanity Fair. It’s hard to disagree as we get so much dimensionality and humanity from perennial villain Mr. Burns. It’s one of the few episodes where the audience genuinely sympathizes with the corporate tyrant and his concluding moment with Maggie is honestly heart-warming. Once again, this period of the Simpsons was doing an excellent job adhering to strong story writing while still embracing the zaniness afforded animated comedies.
Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy (Season Five, Episode Fourteen)
Original airdate: February 17, 1994
Written by Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein
Directed by Jeff Lynch
Around the time this episode was written, there was a national controversy over the newly released Teen Talk Barbie who, among other phrases, would occasionally utter “Math class is tough.” This began a reasonably intense dialogue about how women were viewed concerning the sciences and had many parents calling for the toy to be pulled from the shelves. The story started from a writing meeting about using companies established in the Simpsons universe as jumping-off points. Despite her strong feminist beliefs, Lisa was still a little girl, and throughout the series, she had expressed her love for all things Malibu Stacy, an obvious Barbie reference.
Lisa discovers the new talking Malibu Stacy doll only to find it speaking sexist phrases that diminish her value as a woman. Disheartened, Lisa seeks out the doll’s creator Stacy Lovell. She gets helps from Waylon Smithers, the owner of the largest Malibu Stacy collection, and finally meets the woman behind her favorite doll. Lovell is a jaded chainsmoking who is unaware of the talking doll. Lovell eventually capitulates to Lisa, and they create Lisa Lionheart, an empowering doll for girls, but things don’t go quite how they expect. The B-plot follows Grampa Simpson, similarly discounted as Lisa was due to their ages, getting a job at Krusty Burger and quickly learning how much more he enjoyed being the complaining customer on the other side of the counter.
One of my favorite parts of this episode is Lisa’s arc, where she is earnestly trying to do something right. Lisa Lionheart is an objectively better doll for little girls who are developing as people. But the powerful brand of Malibu Stacy overshadows the good intent of Lisa. For a brief moment, the little girl can inspire Lovell to take a chance, but they find the corporation producing Malibu Stacy is cynical and manipulative. Though, the coda is one little girl appearing inspired and taken with a Lisa Lionheart imploring Lisa to remark that if they help one little girl then it was all worth it. Lovell’s punchline hits hard as both funny and painfully accurate, “Yes. Particularly if that little girl happens to pay $46,000 for that doll.”