“Fear Of Flying” (season six, episode 11; originally aired 12/18/1994)
Marge Simpson’s catchphrase isn’t a phrase at all—it’s a disapproving groan. As the mother figure to the whole of The Simpsons, the show frequently hands Marge the short end of the stick, that disapproving groan channeled into stories where she’s over-protective, over-sensitive, or a downright scold. While every member of the Simpson family has taken on new dimensions and gained a tremendous depth of character over the course of 24 seasons (and counting), Marge-centric stories still tend to be the ones with the least variety.
The show can count the development and deepening of Homer and Lisa among its crowning achievements; Bart has moved beyond simply being a zeitgeist-capturing bad boy. Marge, however, remains a problem character. She’s caught between poles established early in the show’s run, wherein emotions she’s typically bottling up (because she’s also the show’s primary sendup of a repressed homemaker) spill over into undue worry (“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”) or unbound, passionate expression (“Brush With Greatness,” “A Streetcar Named Marge”). These modes informed some of The Simpsons’ finest half-hours, but by the time of “Fear Of Flying,” the strain they require from the show’s creative team was already starting to show.
Making matters more difficult for Marge: She has to jostle for her own spotlight in “Fear Of Flying.” In his first and only crack at a Simpsons script, producer David Sacks makes the rookie mistake of basing the episode’s most pivotal moments around a guest character. Voiced by Anne Bancroft, Dr. Zweig ends up less a character and more a slave to the script, a single-serving presence who can be shuffled off to the sidelines before “Fear Of Flying” is finished. That’s not meant as an indictment of all guest characters, just the way in which this one is used: As a shortcut to Marge’s insecurities, one that limits her interactions with other characters, thus forcing Marge (and, to a greater extent, Julie Kavner, who’s the only voice actor in most of the flashbacks) to carry the bulk of the episode herself. With minimal support from the family and Springfield at large, that’s a challenge for Marge—so “Fear Of Flying” leans on some other crutches that ultimately cheapen the experience.
When a show runs as long as The Simpsons has, backstory starts to look more and more alluring with each passing season. And up to “Fear Of Flying,” flashbacks and background information served the series well—one episode prior, the often contentious dynamic between Homer and his father received suitable exploration and explanation. Coming so soon after “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy,” “Fear Of Flying” pales in comparison, with Marge’s therapy sessions doing little to inform anything but the therapy sessions. An episode like “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” dodges such narrative navel-gazing by building out a compelling story in the present; episodes like “The Way We Was” and “Homer’s Barbership Quartet,” meanwhile, are granted a reason to spend 22 minutes in the characters’ memories.
But there’s little motivation for the main events of “Fear Of Flying” beyond an invented character quirk and a big-name guest star. That’s a letdown after such a crackerjack cold open—one that gave the world Guy Incognito and the always useful Chinese word for crisis and opportunity, “crisitunity”—though even those scenes don’t lead to much more than “The Simpsons are going on vacation!” (And for an actual Simpson family trip, we’ll have to wait a few more weeks and a few very expensive long-distance phone calls.) There’s no compelling reason to get Marge back on that plane, and her reason for keeping her feet on the ground isn’t particularly compelling—or all that funny, in spite of the melodramatic heights of Harry Shearer’s performance. Turns out Clancy Bouvier was a male flight attendant, though Dr. Zweig points out that was no longer a scandalous career choice by the time “Fear Of Flying” first aired. Or maybe that lack of shock is meant to underline the fact that Marge has some deeper-seated issues she’s yet to divulge. (The balding, barred-from-Moe’s source of which eventually rushes her out of the office.)
While Bancroft is given a smattering of deadpan punchlines (like her rejoinder to the Prince Of Tides riff that wraps Dr. Zweig’s time with Marge), her talents are wasted on an episode that lacks for ambition more than anything else. Given its subject matter, “Fear Of Flying” starts out small in scope, almost a character study for Marge—but it’s ultimately hurt by that introversion. Once Homer passes the keys to the episode to Marge, there are few established personalities for hers to bump up against. Her loosening screws gave the writers a chance to have some fun (the art department, too, which absolutely nailed the quick cut to tense Marge crouching in front of Alive), but as “Fear Of Flying” narrows its focus further, it backs itself into a corner. The only way out is the most convenient explanation—then it’s “so long” to Marge’s neuroses until the next time they’re needed. At least the script has the courtesy to suggest that its titular phobia has “only just begun to scratch the surface” of the issues roiling about in Marge’s mind. If only the show would’ve found more intriguing ways of poking at those neuroses—or developing them into more engaging angles for the character—as time went on.
- Like Al Gore’s cameo in “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy,” the Alive jokes in “Fear Of Flying” feel like the contents of a “1994 in comedy” time capsule. At the time, it was truly difficult to deny the allure of a “Uruguayan rugby team turns to cannibalism to survive” gag. Marge’s Lost In Space riff, meanwhile, is specific to the era for a different reason: With that show sliding further down the syndication totem pole, it’s no longer the cultural touchstone it was when writers’ rooms were largely populated by former raised-by-reruns latchkey children of the ’60s and ’70s.
- Another visual joke that gets a bigger laugh than anything related to “Fear Of Flying”’s main plot: Principal Skinner hiding behind an issue of Principal’s World—of which he’s the cover star.
- This week in Simpsons signage: “SPRINGFIELD PSYCHIATRIC CENTER—“Because There May Not Be Bugs On You”
- Next week: Sing along for David Sims’ review of the Stonecutters episode: “Who knows the truth about Watergate? / Who reviews ‘Homer The Great’? Sims does! / Sims does!”