Episode 21 - Marge In Chains
24 July 2011
Synopsis: The Osaka flu arrives through some new juicers and leaves much of Springfield feeling ill. All of the Simpsons are infected except for Marge who has to take care of them. She is stressed and tired and accidentally takes a bottle of bourbon from the Kwik-e-Mart. Apu presses charges and she is sentenced to thirty days in prison despite the efforts of Lionel Hutz. Her absence leads to riots in Springfield and she is welcomed home by a crowd.
The Good: In some ways this is the episode that comes to mind when I think about The Simpsons in its prime. The story is incidental but logical and pretty much every scene is a joke of some kind. You can feel the fun the writers had putting this together as the jokes just pile one on top of another.
At each stage the plot feeds the humour perfectly. We start with Troy McClure and Dr Nick shamelessly shilling for the new juicer. As the pathetic machine rumbles away McClure yells "Are you sure it's on, I can't hear a thing?" to which Dr Nick explains "ITS WHISPER QUIET!" Japanese workers unknowingly infect the packages with the flu and the germs spread around Springfield like an alien invasion. Mayor Quimby makes a television address insisting that he has cancelled his vacation to the Bahamas to deal with the crisis just as a man walks past playing steel drums. An addled Marge then gets caught shoplifting and Apu notes her height as eight foot six (thanks to her hair)!
So now Marge is shamed as the whole town discovers what she did and begins to gossip. It's a nice bit of characterisation thrown in as we see how quickly everyone rushes to judge her. And then in steps Lionel Hutz. We've seen him before of course but this is his finest hour. He too is well characterised with a hidden drinking problem suddenly being revealed. He reveals that Judge Snyder is no fan of his "since I kinda ran over his dog." He then adds "Well, replace the word 'kinda' with the word 'repeatedly,' and the word 'dog' with 'son'." His tactics at trial are so transparent that for me they cross a line from predictable into hilarious fairly quickly (see Best Joke). At dinner with the Simpsons he tries to imagine a word without lawyers and is repulsed by the image of happiness and peace that would result.
It's that kind of surreal brilliance that starts to come out when the writers go all out like this in exploring a story. With Marge in prison Homer is upfront about his inability to keep the house clean and functioning in her absence. The results of this are predictable and amusing with the house becoming a mess and the children rapidly running out of clean clothes. Lisa, without a hint of irony, says "It seems like I've been wearing this same red dress forever." Homer copes by wearing old Halloween costumes and Marge's wedding dress! And then the writers again find that surreal streak again. Part of the chaos at the Simpsons house had seen an alligator roaming around along with the dog and cat. Instead of ignoring it the writers steer into the spin and Bart claims that they tried to flush it down the toilet but it got stuck and now they have to feed it. So we cut to Grandpa waving a plunger in the face of the gator and crowing over its misfortune. Of course Grandpa's dentures fall out and the Gator chomps them to pieces leaving Grandpa ruing his taunts. It's wonderfully silly and unexpected.
The final ludicrous twist sees Marge's absence cost the city a shortfall in its fundraising. It means they can't afford a statue of President Lincoln and instead get one of Jimmy Carter. It's an amusingly unlikely choice and although the crowd are disappointed the cry that Carter is "history's greatest monster!" is beyond exaggeration. The surreal (and flimsy) pretext leads to riots and the grateful crowd who welcome Marge home with the amended Carter statue now complete with Marge's hair do. It's a suitably surreal note to an episode which found its greatest fun the more it pushed the boundaries of reality.
The Bad: As I said the cause of the riots was as flimsy a pretence as you can imagine. However I'm not bothered by it on this occasion because the town's gratitude to Marge was a pleasant and fitting way to return her to her normal judgement free life.
Best Joke: During Marge's trial Lionel Hutz points out that Marge forgetting to pay for a bottle of bourbon is something any of us might have done. He asks Apu if he has ever forgotten anything. The writers are at their obdurate best as Apu says he has never forgotten anything. Trying to trap him Hutz turns his back and asks him to describe the tie he's wearing. Apu correctly and specifically says "You are wearing a red and white striped club tie in a half Windsor knot." Hutz then begins removing the tie, as blatantly as you can imagine even seen from behind. He finally finishes and turns around to claim "I'm not wearing a tie at all!" Again true to the satire of even basic logic the jury and Apu are shocked and question his evidence even as the tie hangs visibly out of Hutz' sleeve. One viewers perspective might be that this is just another silly joke. And they would be right. But I see it as a the height of the satiric comedy styling of The Simpsons. It's not just that Hutz pulls off a lame trick, it's that Apu reacts both before and afterwards in the opposite way you might imagine. The writers' thirst for silliness just can't be quenched and the scene bottles that brilliance for all time.
The Bottom Line: This is not an episode you often hear referenced. The plot is probably too simple to stand out in people's minds the way a Monorail or Flaming Moe might. And yet it is so densely packed with humour that I can't imagine many viewers weren't laughing at something. The confidence of the writers is as infectious as the Osaka flu.
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