Season 2: Episode 18. Original airdate: April 11, 1991.
Most Simpsons characters have a tragic side, as was evidenced just last time in “Old Money,” but where that episode handled Grampa’s inadequacy with a dollop of sentimentality, this episode takes on perhaps the most tragic character in the whole show, Marge. But instead of making it overtly sweet, “Brush With Greatness” plays for realism, turning Marge’s efforts to rekindle a lost passion into a major triumph for her character.
The episode begins with a classic bit from Krusty, who, having just finished a week of live episodes at Mt. Splashmore water park, manipulates his young audience into convincing their parents to visit the park. Bart and Lisa are both fully aware of Krusty’s power over their souls, but they don’t seem to mind as they beg Homer incessantly until he relents. At Mt. Splashmore, Homer gets himself stuck in a slide and realizes just how much he’s let himself go. Publicly humiliated, he goes on a diet, vowing “with God as my witness, I’ll always go hungry again!”
Aside from that Gone With the Wind reference, as well as a pretty awesome Rocky homage, the Homer story is simply a complement to the real story of the episode, Marge’s attempts to be an artist. While rummaging for workout equipment in the attic, Homer finds old paintings of Ringo Starr, which he realizes are Marge’s work. Oblivious to this aspect of his wife’s life, Homer’s questioning leads Marge to tell the story of her high school art class, in which her talent of painting a certain Beatle was not well-received by her teacher. In a last-ditch effort for approval, she sent her artwork to Mr. Starr himself, but after no response gave up art forever. Lisa suggests to her mother that she should take a class at the learning annex, and after Homer half-assedly encourages the idea, Marge enrolls.
The community college art teacher, voiced by an always-game Jon Lovitz, is wildly impressed with Marge’s work, though his enthusiasm seems to extend to any and all art he sees. Nonetheless, Marge is accepted to the class and begins work on a piece depicting Homer in his underwear, slouched on the sofa. The painting wins various local awards, and garners the attention of Mr. Burns, who commissions Marge as the latest artist to paint his portrait.
I think the episode loses sight of itself here, but it’s merely a side effect of the writers just having too much fun with Burns. They obviously had a deep affection for the character in these early seasons, and it shows. The Marge story loses its focus a bit as Burns and Smithers become pseudo-squatters in the Simpson home. These scenes reveal some great insights into the Burns/Smithers relationship, and gives Smithers some excellent lines as he pines for reciprocated love from his boss. Burns’ constant insults to Marge make me more uncomfortable than his usual quips, perhaps because of Marge’s inherent earnestness, but it’s really difficult for me not to laugh at ol’ Monty (best line reading tonight: Burns’ aristocratic inflection as he says “Ring-o.”).
Marge eventually reaches her breaking point when Burns insults Homer’s weight, and throws the interlopers out of the house. Determined to finish the painting, she draws from her experiences with Mr. Burns, and when the portrait is revealed at the Springfield Art Museum, the crowd is shocked to see an image of a naked, wrinkled Burns. Marge is faced with criticism and confusion about the piece, but in a true artist’s fashion, she describes the painting as a manifestation of Burns’ inner spirit. She explains that despite his money and power, he is still a frail mortal man, equal to everyone else. Her piece is then applauded, and even Mr. Burns compliments her work, including thanking her for not making fun of his genitalia (which she was sure she did do).
It’s a happy ending for Marge, but I can’t forget the other resolution that occurs before the painting’s reveal! After Burns and Smithers are kicked out, we cut to Liverpool, where Ringo himself is slowly chugging through his fan mail. He declares that even if it takes another 20 years, he’ll get through every bit of fan mail. (In case you were wondering, real-life Ringo failed to accomplish this task, but didn’t seem to mention this now-ironic cameo). He finally opens Marge’s letter, and responds to the art in an appropriately jubilant manner. Marge is similarly overjoyed by Ringo’s reply, and gets one more small victory. Ringo’s enthusiasm for his cameo here is pretty remarkable, and he really throws himself into the part. Bravo, Mr. Starkey.
In thinking about this episode, I was sort of disappointed that the Homer b-story didn’t dovetail into the Marge plot more than it did, but I realized that it’s a fitting companion to the a-story. Marge’s life is one of disappointments, most of which stem from Homer’s continual failures and screw-ups. His struggles with self-esteem and his inadequacy in life perfectly complement Marge’s own attempts to achieve some fulfillment. Her marriage to Homer is grounded in a deep and true love, but that doesn’t change the fact that her dreams were shoved aside in favor of an oafish slob. It’s refreshing to see Marge have some of the little wins she gets in this episode, and those victories are amplified when compared to Homer’s tiny weight-loss achievement tonight. This is a couple that sacrificed a great deal for love (okay, Marge far more than Homer), but when they both end an episode this satisfied, it’s easy to forget the struggles of their pasts.