Season 2: Episode 4. Original airdate: November 1, 1990.
I don’t think I’ve clarified my experience with The Simpsons enough since starting this blog. Before I began this journey through 500+ episodes, I was by all accounts a complete newbie to the series. I’d seen “Marge vs. the Monorail,” a handful of Season 20 episodes, the movie, and that’s it. That was my complete history with The Simpsons, and I fully recognize how embarrassing that is.Sure, I would’ve been able to name most characters if handed a photo of them, but my literacy in Simpsons history was dangerously low—ergo, I made this blog. So, if I come off as a little too excited, or awestruck by these early episodes, it’s because this really is my first time seeing any of this, and it’s been a marvelous experience so far.
That said, I’ve unabashedly loved each of the past 16 episodes, with the exception of two or three that came off as more “eh.” That’s a ridiculously high batting average for a show in its first run of episodes. At this point, I almost wish I’d been more reserved in my praise, because I need a lot of it for “Two Cars in Every Garage.” This is it. This is the Golden Age of The Simpsons kicking into gear. I now understand why this was originally intended to be the season premiere: it’s the show throwing down the gauntlet and proving what it’s capable of.
In what I have to assume was an intentional move, the episode starts out at a picturesque fishing hole. Bart and Lisa are fishing, a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting, when an old-timey reporter appears, presumably from a Norman Rockwell painting. This pastoral illusion is shattered when Bart hooks Blinky, the three-eyed fish that has become synonymous with The Simpsons, and the camera pans to the true location of the lake, adjacent to the Springfield Nuclear Plant. The reporter is flabbergasted by the mutant and runs a story about the plant’s environmental failures. Mr. Burns is horrified, not of his plant’s safety issues, but for the prospect of an inspector visiting the facility.
Even after being bribed with 56 million dollars, the inspector hands Burns 342 safety violations, including gum holding together cracks in reactors and plutonium rods being used as paperweights. That night, in a moment of surprising vulnerability, Burns paces around his office and the plant until he runs across Homer, who fell asleep at his station and is leaving late. Desperate for interaction, even from one of his “faceless employees,” Burns speaks with Homer, and the two wind up complaining about political regulations on silly things like the environment. Homer backhandedly suggests that Burns run for governor and change the regulations himself, and Burns runs with the idea, launching The Simpsons into its first great political satire.
Taking the most self-serving, greedy misanthrope in Springfield and forcing him to not just interact, but champion the common man is a stroke of brilliance that pays off massively as it descends into a nudging parody of Citizen Kane. The beauty of this episode’s Kane references are that they aren’t mentioned, acknowledged, or overwrought. Like Burns’ campaign speech in front of a massive poster of himself, it’s a reference that if you know, you know, and if you don’t, you still get a funny speech out of it. It’s a pop-culture joke that doesn’t bastardize itself, but instead respects the intelligence of the audience, and hopefully forces them to make the connection or find out for themselves, potentially leading more people to find these objects of parody.
As for the specifics of election culture, this episode absolutely nails every target. It plays just as well in 2012 as it did in 1990, and that says a lot about our current political climate. Burns gets a staff split into two groups—one designed to morph his image into something electable, the other to turn his opponent into a monster. Every low blow that Burns makes during the election, especially compared to his kind-hearted opponent, rings completely true to what is going on in 2012. In one particularly insightful joke, Burns laments that the only dirt that can be brought up on said opponent is that her high school boyfriend felt her up once. “Gah,” he hisses, “not good enough.”
The episode’s main conceit is the inherent unlikeable and unrelatable nature of Burns’ character. By twisting public opinion of himself, he manages to convince enough of the voting bloc that he’s a normal human being that he earns himself 50% of the vote. There’s some truly strange animation on Burns in the episode, and his crooked, disturbing appearance becomes even more pronounced during some scenes, particularly as he speaks with an actor playing Charles Darwin about Blinky’s place as the progression of natural selection. Eventually, Burns is able to secure enough of the vote to win, but he has to make one last appearance on election eve—dinner at an employee’s home, which of course is that of our Simpson family.
Throughout the episode, Marge and Lisa are vehemently in favor of Burns’ opponent while Homer works to appease his boss so as to keep his employment. Bart blindly follows his father because, well, whatever man. This comes to a head when Burns visits the house and uses the family as pure propaganda. The best moment is Lisa’s dry delivery of a loaded question meant to boost Burns’ image. I could nearly hear Yeardley Smith lamenting the death of democracy as Burns answers the question, but he receives his comeuppance when Marge enters with dinner’s main course: Blinky the Fish.
Burns, of course, must eat Blinky in order to retain his message of the safety of his plant. Despite his best, horrifyingly-animated (in a good way) efforts to keep the fish down, he spits it across the room and effectively loses his election. He then throws a tantrum, tearing apart the Simpson home in another homage to Kane, and eventually warns Homer that after losing him the election, he will make sure that Homer’s dreams will always remain unfulfilled. Luckily, by the next episode, Burns will have once again forgotten Homer’s name, only to have yet another plan ruined by the Simpsons.
This episode is masterful in the way it jumps from target to target in its satire. What starts out as an environmental plot transitions to a political parody, all the while weaving in references to a classic movie. Eventually, the threads dovetail into the remarkable scene at dinner, and should serve as a reference of just how incredible this show can be when it’s firing on all cylinders. This is what The Simpsons does best, and in this episode, it’s doing it at its highest level. If this is what people mean when they mention the Golden Age, I’ll have a lot more praising to do.