Let us now praise shady men. Today’s kick-ass episode of The Simpsons introduced two of the most beloved and least trustworthy supporting characters in the show’s rich and checkered history: super-smarmy “lawyer” Lionel Hutz and super-sketchy “doctor” Nick Riviera.
Phil Hartman would have killed as a correspondent on The Daily Show because he nailed the art of looking and talking like a responsible, respectable, contributing member of society, despite being insane and amoral underneath. He brings that gift to bear on his glorious portrayal of Hutz, a character that, like so many Simpsons fixtures, has transcended the show and become a pop culture archetype. Lionel Hutz isn’t just any shyster lawyer. He’s not even a shyster lawyer. He’s the shyster lawyer.
Yet we love him all the same, thanks to both brilliant writing (what a feast it must have been for John Swartzwelder, the writer of today’s episode, to be able to prominently feature Hutz, Riviera, Bart, Homer, and Mr. Burns in the same episode) and Hartman’s performance. Hartman makes a complete lack of scruples seem like an oddly winning quality; in a virtuoso turn, Hartman manages to smile a big cheesy, shit-eating grin with his voice. He’s smarm personified, a lawyer joke come to life and utterly, utterly irrepressible. Nothing can stop Hutz’s delusional faith in himself, especially reality.
In today’s episode, which was inspired by the semi-classic Jack Lemmon/Walter Matthau comedy The Fortune Cookie, Lionel Hutz appears, literally out of nowhere like an opportunistic sprite of some sort, to serve as the devil on Homer’s shoulder urging him to milk Mr. Burns hitting Bart ever so gently with his car into a million-dollar settlement. Of course, the bar prevents Hutz from promising a big cash settlement but that doesn’t keep him from, well, promising Homer a big cash settlement.
“Bart Gets Hit By a Car” is a morality play about a man who must choose between following the dictates of his wavering conscience or a payday big enough to change his life forever. Mr. Burns hits Bart with a car, sending him on a trip to heaven and then finally, to hell, where the Devil treats him like an old friend who's popped by for a visit. The hell sequence represents one of the show’s most elaborate and impressive animation set-pieces to date. It’s a cartoon take on Hieronymus Bosch filled with neat little details and nifty visual jokes.
His Satanic Majesty has undoubtedly been keeping close tabs on one of his prize pupils and most devoted accolades, but it is not quite Bart’s time to join his personal hero in the bowels of hell, so he returns to the land of the living to discover that Hutz has wiggled his way into the family by promising a fuck-ton of money in exchange for Bart’s suffering.
To that end, he takes Bart to Dr. Nick Riviera, a “doctor” who does nothing to conceal his shameless greed and dearth of medical credentials. He’s the antithesis of upstanding Doctor Hibbard. Instead, he's the Lionel Hutz of the medical world.
Today’s episode offered an embarrassment of riches, from the conflicting but equally exaggerated and self-serving accounts of the accident Mr. Burns and Bart provide in court to the sight gag of Mr. Burns and Smithers spying on Homer and Marge through the eye-holes of a painting.
In the end, it’s Marge who ends up doing the right thing by coming clean in court about Dr. Nick and Lionel Hutz’s shenanigans. Homer is predictably devastated. After a cartoonish and over the top beginning, the episode turns surprisingly poignant and emotional as a despondent Homer wrestles with his wife’s actions and whether he’ll ever be able to see her as anything other than the woman who cost him a million bucks.
The episode ends, in true sitcom form, with the status quo being preserved; of course, Homer still loves Marge. How could he not? Who else would put up with him so lovingly? The Simpsons don’t get to move on up to a higher social class, but they have a renewed appreciation of each other and the bond they share. That’s a profound victory in itself.