The life of Marge Simpson is, in many ways, a quiet tragedy of squandered potential. She’s smart, attractive, kind, community-minded and accepting to a fault. Yet she has devoted her entire adult life to the care, feeding and all-around minding of an alcoholic buffoon.
In episodes like “Brush With Greatness” we get a tantalizing glimpse of the road not taken for Marge, of what her life might have been like if she’d followed her restless muse instead of settling down early for a life of smiling servitude. Ah, but we’ll get to that in a second.
“Brush With Greatness” opens with a memorable variation on one of The Simpsons’ pet themes: the rapaciousness of consumer culture and the mindless celebrity worship that fuels it. In this case, the celebrity in question is Krusty the Klown, who stops just short of forcing his entire viewing audience to head over to a water park he's promoting at gunpoint.
It works, of course, so the family ends up at a water park where Homer causes a terrible scene when he gets stuck in one of the slides and has to be airlifted out like a beached whale. This instills in Homer a new and startling emotion: shame. Homer is generally in a good place with both his alcoholism and his morbid obesity but the water park incident inspires Homer to lose some weight.
Meanwhile, Marge hauls out a long-abandoned dream and enrolls in a painting class taught by an eccentric everything enthusiast voiced by a hilarious Jon Lovitz, who has created, or at least voiced, almost as many awesome minor supporting characters as the great Albert Brooks.
Egged on by her teacher/mentor, Marge paints a picture of Homer that depicts him in a harsh, but not untrue light while betraying some of her ambivalence about the life (and mate) she’d chosen. Marge’s triumph earns her an impossible assignment: making Mr. Burns look good.
Mr. Burns is pretty much evil incarnate but for some reason his razor-tongued insults of Marge feel brutal and insultingly intimate in a way his more general evil doesn’t. Maybe it’s just that Marge’s inherent goodness, bottomless compassion and endless patience throw Mr. Burns’ raging misanthropy into much sharper relief.
Any woman who can remain happily married to Homer Simpson boasts the patience of a Saint but Mr. Burns’ bah-humbugging ultimately gets the best of her. In a rage, she paints Mr. Burns as he truly is: a sad, withered husk of a man incapable of joy or true contentment. Yet in his nakedness Marge finds a strange and poignant vulnerability: Mr. Burns may be the richest and most powerful man in Springfield but he’s also achingly human. The decay of the human body is a great equalizer.
“Brush With Greatness” ends powerfully by tying together its disparate plot threads: Mr. Burns’ insult causes Homer to abandon his diet, Mr. Burns ends up embracing the brutal truth of Marge’s painting and, in the ultimate act of vindication, a very funny Ringo Starr finally gets around to answering Marge’s ancient fan mail and gives her long overdue props. Marge’s life may ultimately be a quiet tragedy of squandered potential but it is not without its minor triumphs.