Season 2: Episode 10. Original airdate: January 10, 1991
There will never be another Phil Hartman.
It’s just that simple. The man was a genius and a legend, but one that most of the general public outside of comedy fandom haven’t remembered as much as they should. He was undeniably one of the most influential men in Hollywood during the 1990s, but his fame never rose above supporting roles or his longtime run on SNL. However, one iconic part of Hartman has outlived the rest of his legacy—his voice. I know I’ve praised Albert Brooks’ Simpsons performances before, but in my mind, there’s only one guy that equals, maybe even surpasses Brooks, and that’s Hartman.
I can’t get enough of his voice. It feels so natural in its power, but feels inexplicably foreign in 2012. I’ve always associated Hartman’s distinct cadence and tone as a remnant of the “old Hollywood” I never got to experience firsthand. He just sounds like a movie star, in a time when such a thing no longer exists. There’s such a ridiculous confidence to every line, and he mastered making tiniest changes in that voice to create uniquely iconic characters like Troy McClure, Lyle Lanley, and of course Lionel Hutz.
This episode may have Bart’s name in the title, but the majority of the episode is a showcase for Hutz, and to a lesser extent, Homer and Mr. Burns. The opening, though, is a wonderful sequence for Bart. While skateboarding through Springfield, he is hit by a car, more specifically the towncar of Mr. Burns. As his soul escapes his body (highly unlikely from the relatively gentle tap he receives from the car, but whatever), Bart begins an escalator ride to Heaven, but is denied after spitting off the railing, presumably causing a tsunami in the Pacific.
He is then sent to Hell, where we meet The Simpsons’ interpretation of the Devil. Harry Shearer’s Devil is as silly as one would expect, but he does have a well-kept filing system for souls on his Macintosh. The Devil reveals to Bart that he isn’t due to die for nearly a century, and Bart returns to his own body. The Heaven/Hell scene is the most cleverly-animated thing the show has done to this point, and it’s full of neat little touches, especially in its depiction of Hell as an homage to Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights.” That particular moment gives me relief in knowing that someone out there shares my imagery of Hell as a wasteland of unsettling Dutch art from the Middle Ages.
Once Bart returns to the world of the living, he finds himself in a hospital bed with his family and some other guy. The other guy introduces himself as Lionel Hutz, and one of the show’s greatest peripheral characters is born. Hutz seemingly appears out of nowhere, a figurative devil-on-the-shoulder that shows up quickly after Bart’s encounter with the real deal. Lisa innocuously asks Hutz if he’s a shyster, to which he responds by complimenting her big word usage at such a young age. Everything Hutz says is pure, calculated smoothtalking. As Nathan Rabin said at the AV Club, Hutz isn’t just a shyster, he’s the shyster. It’s just one example of the power of The Simpsons in American culture. Its characters become bigger than the show itself, and ultimately come to represent the stereotypes they exist to skewer.
Hutz’s goal in this episode is to swindle Mr. Burns out of a million dollars in damages to Bart’s body and mind. Of course, Bart’s damage was minimal, so the episode turns into a subtle spin on the Walter Matthau/Jack Lemmon classic The Fortune Cookie. Bart’s injuries are greatly exaggerated for the court, and instead of using the good Dr. Hibbert’s testimony, Hutz provides his own physician—Dr. Nick Riviera. If Lionel Hutz has become the ultimate example of a shady lawyer, Nick Riviera has likewise become the paragon of medical malpractice. He doesn’t have all that much to do in this episode, but Riviera’s brief time on camera firmly establishes just how weird The Simpsons was willing to go when expanding its supporting cast.
The courtroom drama here is well-played, as expected. Bart and Mr. Burns’ testimonies make for another highlight in the episode, especially their differing accounts of how the accident unfolded. Even though they’re both working on opposite ends of a million dollars, the amount of delusion on display here is still glorious to behold. Burns’ “take me instead! I’m old!” wouldn’t be nearly as funny if it weren’t in the middle of an episode that marks the beginning of his character going to increasingly dark places. Also of note in the courtroom scenes is the introduction of Blue-Haired Lawyer, one of the few unnamed recurring players in the Simpsons world. We’ll see him many, many times in the future, always working against the Simpson family, always without a name.
Eventually, Marge and Homer come to blows over the deceit happening in the courtroom. While at Burns Manor trying to settle out of court, they fight over whether honesty or financial security is more important, and Burns and Smithers happen to overhear, nullifying their need to negotiate and giving the defense a new star witness—Marge herself. Burns’ team takes advantage of Marge’s honesty, and she indeed falls to her noble standards. The case is lost and Burns pays the Simpsons a million dollars less than what was anticipated.
Homer is devastated by coming home empty handed, and begins to face his very real issues with Marge’s actions. He fears he’ll never be able to see her as anything but the dame that cost him a million dollars ever again. Marge follows him to Moe’s to apologize, but Homer tells her that he doesn’t even know if he loves her anymore. Now, this twist feels a little shoehorned in to me, as there’s never any doubt that Homer will immediately come to his senses and realize how in love with Marge he is. It’s fine for the show to let Homer feel betrayed and hurt by the million dollar loss, but to have it threaten his love for Marge isn’t just petty—it’s antithetical to what we know about the character by now.
That ending feels like a classic James L. Brooks effort to add some heart to an otherwise-zany script. While most of these efforts work for me, this one rang a little false. That’s only a minor quibble though, as the rest of the episode is solid gold. Lionel Hutz’s first appearance is a perfect introduction to Phil Hartman’s unique voice on the show, and it’s the first of many classic episodes featuring his irreplacable talent.