“Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” (season seven, episode 14; originally aired 2/4/1996)
Marge and Lisa Simpson are acutely calibrated to feel the ache of wasted potential. If only the Simpsons had more money, better educations, a sterling reputation around Springfield—then they could be somebody, you know? Homer and Bart are on the other end of the spectrum, largely content with their place in the world. (Not that they’re without their own fantasies of fame and fortune, dreams of owning the Dallas Cowboys or washing themselves with a rag on a stick.) The Simpson women, on the other hand, are understandably frustrated about the things they want to achieve, but can’t. With the right amount of gumption, they can rally against the mob mentality of their fellow citizens or the greed of the local tycoon—but sometimes fate is simply set against them. They want more out of their lives, and they want to be seen as better people. But when you’re battling circumstances beyond your control, it’s easy to mistake that perception with actually being a better person.
Being an episode that co-stars a caricature of Dorothy Parker, “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” strikes some appropriately literary notes. Jennifer Crittenden’s script possesses the melancholy of a midcentury short story, a recognizable desperation that finds embodiment in Marge’s pink Chanel suit. It’s an emotionally based story, using the illusion that the suit projects to slowly erode the Simpsons’ moral center. As much fun as it is to watch Lisa behave like a real, live 8-year-old girl, it’s also difficult (and funny, in a prickly way) to see her sell out her ideals for horse-riding lessons. The jokes that are present in “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” are still funny, and as such this episode is the epitome of the balance Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein fostered during their time as showrunners: Patiently humorous episodes grounded in realistic feeling, ones that almost harken back to the show’s early days.
But the setting of “Scenes From The Class Struggle” had become a different place in the time that passed between 1991 and 1996. Springfield is The Simpsons’ crowning achievement, a vibrant and fully realized place, a community that pulls together (in ways positive and negative) to produce some of the show’s finest moments. But part of that fleshed-out portrayal involves illustrating what separates the characters as much as unites them, and “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” is a doozy of an episode in that regard. It takes place largely among the upper-crust of Springfield society, with their tasteful earth tones and sharply defined features. The art department practically designs the women of the country club like croquis from a fashion designer’s sketchbook; they’re not quite nine heads tall, but they are composed of 100 percent long lines and impossible poise. “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” so insulates the family from their regular surroundings that it’s shocking when the action transitions from a croquet game with Marge’s new friends to Homer’s bathroom-chipping challenge at the power plant. In an instant, Lenny and Carl really do look like they’ve been warped by their constant exposure to radiation.
It’s painful to watch Marge behave this way, and her new threads take on that pain. The suit is the episode’s other major literary element, like the unholy hybrid of Kino’s pearl and the portrait of Dorian Gray. It corrupts, but it’s also corrupted, its fabric stretched thin by Marge’s little pink sartorial lie. With every alteration, it gets further and further from its true self—as does Marge. The suit is wonderfully rendered in all of its variations, and as with “Team Homer,” it must’ve been a pain in the ass to keep all these character variants consistent. As pointed out on the episode’s DVD commentary, you can count on director Susie Dietter for that type of visual precision.
“Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” makes for an interesting companion piece to “Team Homer.” It’s less gag-based than that episode, but still interested in the power and influence people tend to endow to inanimate objects—clothing in particular. It’s a fashion-focused episode in general, with eye-catching designs on regulars and supporting characters alike. Like the Pin Pals jersey, Marge’s suit is an indelible image, a more flattering cut than her usual green dress, and an evident step up from the standard Sunday best that the rest of the family wears to their first country club visit. Evelyn and her crew, meanwhile, get ever-changing, wearable wardrobes based in American sportswear tradition, but with their own modern twists. (With the exception of faux Dorothy Parker, who cops her style from her inspiration—though she tops the writer through a startling range of stemware choices.) The clothes they’re given are a lot like their intentionally mispronounced names: They express a reverence for convention that’s at odds with an unspoken yearning to be their own people.
There’s a similar tension at the heart of this episode. Convention would dictate that any Simpsons episode involving a country club would turn out to be a “snobs versus slobs” affair; “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” turns out to be something more deeply felt. When Marge’s sewing machine eats her suit, she sits down with a resigned “At times like this, I guess all you can do is laugh”—but the laugh doesn’t come. That sequence is indicative of the episode as a whole: Touching in its small-scale tragedy, more droll than it is laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a story about “in your face humanity” in its many forms, including the need to be accepted at any cost and the desire to trick your employer and one true love into thinking he’s the world’s greatest golfer. “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield” doesn’t have the most outrageous visual gags or the funniest lines, but it is the type of Simpsons episode that can be revisited and revisited, unveiling new layers of itself each time—just like a good short story does.
- This week in Simpsons signage:
- Marge’s bouffant gives the writers a chance to put a new spin on the “conversation with Homer’s brain” gag, as the camera races to the top of her ’do to land on this button: “Don’t ask me—I’m just hair. Your head stopped 18 inches ago!”
- There’s a gorgeous meeting of animation and acting in Mr. Burns’ Richard Nixon impression. Harry Shearer has some experience with the character, but the way Burns acquires Nixon’s posture and jowls—and then fluidly snaps back to his old self—really sells it.
- And since we’re leaving all of these clips down here, why not end on Homer’s most sincere wish regarding country-club membership?