“Lady Bouvier’s Lover” (season 5, episode 21; originally aired 5/12/1994)
In which Grampa Simpson falls in love
There are more than the usual number of old people on The Simpsons. From C. Montgomery Burns to Grampa Simpson to Jasper Beardley, the show is positively stuffed with the elderly. What’s more, at least the first two characters on that list have carried their own episodes on multiple occasions. (A Jasper-centric episode remains, sadly, a pipe dream, though I’ll be the first to celebrate if one emerges.) Particularly in the last 20 years, TV has increasingly ignored most over 50, aside from the occasional soap opera villain or crime lab technician. Younger people rarely want to watch shows about people their parents’ and grandparents’ ages—give or take a Golden Girls, which actually did quite well with younger viewers—and advertisers are uninterested in directly targeting older citizens. The days of Diagnosis: Murder are long behind us.
Maybe that’s okay. I don’t know if I’d want to watch a show about my grandparents (though I sort of wish they could have a show to watch that would reflect their own experiences). But I do like the occasional episode about older folks sneaking into one of my favorite shows, and for a long time, The Simpsons has been the best way to experience such a thing. “Lady Bouvier’s Lover” is fascinating in that it’s a full-blown love triangle featuring three of the show’s older characters, one that leaves the younger characters aside for long stretches of the action. The episode wants us to get seriously invested in the love life of Jacqueline Bouvier, then see which of her two lovers—Abraham Simpson or Mr. Burns—she will acquiesce to spend whatever is left of her life with. This being The Simpsons, she and Abraham first bond over elaborately hilarious and old-timey medical treatments, while she and Mr. Burns first bond during a surprisingly extensive swing dance sequence.
“Lady Bouvier’s Lover” sets a well-nigh impossible task for itself: It really wants to convince the audience that Mrs. Bouvier has genuinely fallen in love with Abe, then convince us that she’s fallen just as hard for Mr. Burns—or, at least, found a way to overlook his obvious flaws in favor of all of that money. Does it succeed? I don’t really know, honestly. Looking at this sort of episode for its story structure is sort of pointless, since it’s all about the gags, but I definitely bought the connection between Grampa and Jacqueline. The episode cheats a little bit when it comes to Burns, but, then, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Smithers loving the emaciated old fellow (who may, in fact, be the devil himself), so I find this all more or less acceptable. It’s simply there to provide building blocks for the final bit, which involves Grampa storming the church where the Burns/Bouvier wedding is being held, that he may reenact much of the end of The Graduate, right down to a “Sound Of Silence”-like tune on the soundtrack. (“Hello, Grampa, my old friend…”)
Meanwhile, Bart buys an animation cel for $350 with his dad’s credit card and has to find a way to get the money before Homer realizes what’s up. This story contains one of my favorite gags in the episode, which points to how much the show enjoyed putting a character through the same bit of physical torment over and over again at this point in its run. Bart answers the door to find someone asking for Homer Simpson, claims he is the man, then gets bopped in the nose for writing letters to Frank Sinatra. The next caller bears a similar grudge against Homer—this time that he steals golf balls from the driving range. Finally, the deliveryman arrives with the cel, but Bart makes him wait so long that the guy can’t help but punch him in the nose. It’s a lively bit of absurdist slapstick, and it makes me laugh more than it probably should.
The cel, as you can see, is not exactly the highly prized item Bart had been led to believe it would be by Troy McClure’s appearance on a Home Shopping Network ripoff. Instead, it’s just part of Scratchy’s arm. (Lisa seems almost as disappointed by this as Bart is.) When Bart takes it to the Android’s Dungeon to get it appraised, Comic Book Guy tells him that the thing is worthless. All that he’s going to give Bart in trade is a telephone shaped like Mary Worth—whose smug, overbearing face Bart hopes will remind him never to do something so stupid again in the future. (He’s promptly called off to do something equally stupid, if not stupider.) Again, this is more or less an excuse to hang some gags along the story’s spine—the end involves Bart forcing Burns to give him the money—but they’re great gags.
That’s the thing I find when I return to these old episodes of this show. They’re crammed with gags, yeah, but they’re also crammed with gags I remember incredibly well and maybe even think about in my day-to-day life. I wouldn’t call “Lady Bouvier’s Lover” one of the finest half-hours the show ever produced—unless we’re going wide-scale and pulling in every episode ever, in which case it’s in the top 100 or so just by dint of being in this season—but it’s got so many jokes in it I didn’t even know were part of this particular episode that I’m sort of in awe of it. For instance, I remembered that the “Play It Cool” sequence between Homer and Grampa was here, because it was directly related to the plot, but not, for instance, the bit about Homer imagining the kids as looking what we might perceive as “normal.”
That was the genius of The Simpsons—likely my favorite TV show ever made—when it was on a roll. The show did lots and lots of jokes, yes, but it also did many different kinds of jokes. The slapstick of Bart getting punched in the face bumps up against Grampa lifting wholesale from old movies (and getting trouble from legal departments representing the Charlie Chaplin and Jimmy Durante estates), which bumps up against a surrealistic cutaway gag like Homer’s imagination running wild. I’ll occasionally read sniffing from people who don’t like early Simpsons saying that it’s “just” a bunch of pop-culture gags, like, say, Family Guy (and even if it was that, the pop-culture gags draw from so many varied sources that they’d win just based on sheer scope), but even a less instantly classic episode like this one gives the lie to that notion. In addition to strong, heartfelt stories, the show packed in gags as far as the eye could see, then made sure that they hit so many different targets that there would be something for everyone to laugh at. I don’t suppose I need to make the argument here that The Simpsons was the birth of what we think of as much of “modern” TV, but it sure seems that way to me, and that idea gets reinforced every time I go back and look again.
- Nathan has departed us, so I’m going to fill in through the end of season five, just to make sure things get smoothed over. We’ll have someone permanently filling his shoes when we begin season six in a few weeks. (I love Simpsons, but I feel like trying to explain why on a weekly basis would slowly drive me crazy.) Also: Sorry for the lack of clips. I made them, but the stupid back-end is being stupid. So just imagine they were there.
- My high school fight song—well, one of them—was based on the Armour hot dogs song, so it seems apropos that I would end up with this episode (and that this episode contains the bit where everybody sings “I feel like chicken tonight” was another gag I had utterly forgotten was present here).
- Does the show make as big a deal of Smithers’ love for Burns nowadays? It seems to me that it really doesn’t, but, then, I don’t watch as attentively as I used to.