Season 1: Episode 9. Original airdate: March 18, 1990.
I’m terrified by marriage. Actually, I don’t think there’s a single thing that scares me more. It’s a beautiful idea, don’t get me wrong. Being able to commit yourself to a single person for the rest of your life is something that should be respected, even more for the people that can still pull off the feat. The concept of pure and unending love is wonderful in theory; in practice, at least for me, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
That’s not because I hate love, or because I’m a cold and bitter bastard. It’s because I’m afraid of screwing it up. Heartbreak is an unrivaled pain, and it’s bad enough when it’s an average relationship. Just thinking about the agonizing collapse of a marriage is giving me chills as I write this. I want to find love, but I never give myself the chance at it because I’m afraid of failure, but not of have my love unreciprocated. Even worse than that, what if I committed to marriage, and fell out of love with that person? Or on an even worse level, what if I had to watch as they fell out of love with me?
If that intro was a little too personal, I’m sorry. That’s just what an episode like “Life on the Fast Lane” will do to me. Season 1 has been full of emotionally-resonant episodes, but “Fast Lane” is the best of them. There’s a reason it won The Simpsons its first Emmy. The familial relationships of the Simpson family have been explored in the past eight episodes, but the show hadn’t quite given Homer and Marge their due as a couple. This episode makes up for that possible slight, and creates a heart-wrenching, moving story of a marriage on the brink of disaster.
It’s Marge’s birthday, and the children are working hard to make her a special breakfast, despite their seeming inability to cook on a rudimentary level. Upon waking the parents up, Homer is convinced that it’s actually his birthday and he’d merely forgotten. His realization that he’s forgotten his wife’s birthday sends him into a frenzy, rushing out of the house to find her a present—any present. While he’s frantically searching for a gift, Marge makes plans for dinner with Patty and Selma, who remind her of Homer’s past failures as a gift-giver: a tackle box, a Connie Chung calendar, neither quite as bad as his attempt in this episode. Even though he went to the mall with the express purpose of apologizing for forgetting the occasion, Homer returns with a bowling ball inscribed with his name.
Marge is determined to not let her husband’s thoughtlessness visibly bother her, and in a passive-aggressive moment decides to utilize her gift and takes the bowling ball to the alley, even though she’s never played before. Although she struggles at the game, she catches the eye of a French bowling instructor named Jacques, played by none other than Albert Brooks! Jacques is the ultimate lothario, a man whose every word is spoken in a whispered purr. He’s almost spooky in his dedication to seducing Marge, and thank goodness for the inherent humor of his job as a refined romantic playing the most boorish sport ever.
Luckily, those laughs do exist, because they’re nearly the only instances of humor in an otherwise-bleak episode. That’s not a criticism at all. This episode is powerful stuff, but it’s heartbreaking to watch. Jacques truly represents everything Homer is not. He is romantic, attractive, cultured, and most importantly, devoted to Marge. His methods of romancing her may be superficial, but after her birthday, Marge is desperate for the attention and affection of a man. Her visits to the bowling alley become more frequent, leaving Homer at home to take care of the kids. It’s clear that she is deeply uncomfortable as Jacques proposes they have brunch (“it’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but you get a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don’t get completely what you would with breakfast, but you get a good meal.”), but as his advances become more and more enticing, Marge finds it increasingly difficult to say no.
Homer knows what is happening, and the evidence reveals itself when he discovers a bowling glove given to Marge by Jacques. As he collapses on his bed, you can watch the precise moment his heart breaks. He becomes a zombie, completely lost after finding out his love may have moved on. There’s never any doubt in the episode that Homer deeply loves Marge, but his obvious faults as a husband are abundantly clear. The most painful aspect of this episode is that we know Homer’s intentions are good, but still can empathize with Marge’s desire for something more fulfilling. The scene in which Homer tries to vocalize his feelings with a peanut-butter-and-jelly metaphor is devastating, and the animators and voice actors alike make the scene as wrenching as anything from a great Hollywood tragedy.
Even Lisa can tell that her parents’ marriage is dissolving. She goes through the eight stages of grief much more rapidly than her brother, who remains in denial (or maybe just obliviousness?) over the situation. Marge’s overcompensations as a mother are feeble attempts at covering her guilt, and it’s painful to watch the family plan for the worst. As Marge made her life-altering drive to Jacques’ apartment to consummate their affair, I was honestly scared of the possibilities. This is a show that I very well know has gone on 22 years past this moment, but the visceral emotions of the episode truly overwhelm.
At the very last moment, Marge reverses her decision after remembering her history with Homer. It’s never explicitly stated whether her decision was made out of true love, or out of nostalgia, a sense that she’s already been through the gamut with Homer and she might as well follow through. I think (and think the writers believe) that she reciprocates the love Homer has for her, and that the two haven’t based their marriage on superficiality or pretense. The ending homage to An Officer and a Gentleman may have been dated even in 1990, but it’s a wonderful release after an often-harrowing half hour of television. Homer and Marge’s marriage will be tested often in the future, perhaps never with the stakes quite this high, but like in “Moaning Lisa,” it’s a necessary evolution to their characters. The two needed to go through a trial such as this in order to strengthen themselves for the trials ahead. If their bond weren’t so unbelievably, convincingly strong, there’s no way this show would have made it 491 more episodes. This is an episode that gives me newfound hope in marriage, and the entire idea of love.