“Selma’s Choice” (season 4, episode 13; originally aired 01/21/1993)
The obscenely gifted voice cast of The Simpsons is full of chameleons like Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer who can do weird, eclectic and wonderful things with their voices. Julie Kavner is not one of them. The Bouvier women she voices on the show all essentially sound like minor variations on Kavner’s own speaking voice, an empathetic, big-hearted rasp redolent of whiskey and cigarettes.
Yet Kavner was able to transform the gruesome twosome of Patty and Selma into vivid, fully fleshed out characters by draining their voices of everything that makes Marge so irresistible: her sunny disposition, optimism, civility, concern for her fellow man, sweetness, understated sexuality (The Simpsons makes it clear that Homer and Marge have a whole lot more sex than the average sitcom couple, despite Homer’s girth and perpetual inebriation) and perhaps most of all, her maternal warmth and love of family.
As Patty and Selma, Kavner generally sounds like she’s been sucking on a lozenge of pure hate since birth and can only derive fleeting moments of pleasure from MacGuyver reruns, smoking and the misfortune of others, especially Homer.
The Simpsons at its best was brutally unsentimental in its depiction of just about every societal institution, particularly where aging is involved, but it was not altogether unkind or devoid of empathy; its empathy is a big part of what made it so transcendent: at best, it wasn’t just about laughs or genius jokes, it was also about characters you could identify with and believe in, in spite of their failings and foibles.
“Selma’s Choice” gleans huge laughs out of the desperation and neediness that characterize both Selma’s life and unlikely search for a warm body to father her child but it’s also a compassionate exploration of a lonely and desperate middle-aged woman’s attempts to find companionship and a sense of emotional connection in the face of both an elderly aunt’s death and her own ever-looming mortality.
The episode opens with the Simpsons watching daredevil Lance Murdoch just barely surviving his latest death-defying stunt. Murdoch clearly needs a few months in intensive care; instead he’s shuttled off to Duff Gardens, the self-styled “Happiest place on earth.” At Duff Gardens, a still clearly incapacitated Lance rides an unfinished roller coaster, subjects himself to a washing machine ride and generally courts death in ways he never did as a daredevil.
The eminently suggestible Simpsons are instantly persuaded to visit Duff Gardens but before they can visit Duff Gardens’ fabled “Beerquarium” (where all the fish appear either drunk to the point of alcohol poisoning or afflicted with devastating hangovers) their fun is rudely interrupted by news that Marge’s spinster Aunt Gladys has died.
The episode’s depiction of death is as uncompromisingly dark as its treatment of everything else: Aunt Gladys’ death is treated primarily as an unfortunately timed inconvenience; when Marge tells Homer to stop pouting over not being able to go to Duff Gardens, he whimpers, “I’m not pouting! I’m mourning! Stupid dead woman.”
The defiantly irreverent take on death continues when Lionel Hutz shows the various Simpsons and Bouviers Aunt Gladys’ video will. He clumsily tries to pretend the deceased aunt included, “To my executor, Lionel Hutz, I leave $50,000!” in the video. When the Simpsons object to his chicanery, Lionel guilelessly enthuses, “You’d be surprised how often that works, you really would!”
Homer is no more respectful of Aunt Gladys’ wishes. When Gladys croaks that she’d like to begin the video by reciting a Robert Frost poem, Homer commandeers the remote control so he can skip past the poem and get right to the part where the dead woman’s belongings are doled out to the family members who tolerated her during her lifetime.
Selma sees in Aunt Gladys’ unmourned passing a terrifying vision of what her future might hold if she continues to hold tight to her safe life —especially when Gladys gives Patty and Selma a grandfather clock (a not so subtle metaphor for the unrelenting passage of time) while imploring them, “Don’t die lonely like me. Raise a family. And do it now!”
Patty is unmoved by Gladys’ ghostly admonition—she’s just happy to get a grandfather clock—but Selma is thrown into an existential crisis when she decides to take Gladys’ words literally and tries to find a man to father her child, a process that involves a video dating service fittingly named Low Expectations, hitting on a terrified squeaky-voiced teen at a grocery store and asking out Hans Moleman, then contemplating a future overrun with his half-blind, vaguely feral progeny.
In a killer B-story, Homer tries not to let Gladys’ death and Selma’s moral crisis interfere with his plans to take his children to Duff Gardens, even when he appears on the verge of death after lovingly consuming the sickening, festering remains of a 10-foot hoagie long after decency, self-respect, and survival would all seem to dictate throwing it out.
It’s a testament to the episode’s richness that Homer’s relationship with a sandwich—10-foot hoagie or not—is more tender, loving and multi-dimensional than the marriages of the central characters in most sitcoms. It’s as if the hoagie is a child he values above all others, because he can also eat it, or stash it behind the radiator if so inclined.
The two primary stories in “Selma’s Choice” dovetail beautifully when Selma decides to fill in for the ailing Homer and take Bart and Lisa to Duff Gardens. It’s a way of test-driving parenthood, kicking the tires a little and seeing if it’s right for her. It is then that Selma makes a surprising discovery: Children often create more problems than they solve. They’re not always little angels; oftentimes they appear to be evil incarnate.
Accordingly, it doesn’t take Bart and Lisa long to run amok. After Bart dares her to drink the “water” on a ride, Lisa engages in a full-on psychedelic freak out. The world becomes a kaleidoscope of trippy, intense images and sensations and Duff Gardens is rendered even more surreal and nightmarish than before. In a tripped-out haze, Lisa enthuses, “I can see the music!” in a way that will feel familiar to anyone who has ever had an intense acid trip (or drank the water at Duff Gardens).
Selma discovers that having children just might not be the answer after all. All Selma wants is “a little version of me I could hold in my arms.” That’s just what she receives when she’s given a child surrogate in the form of a creature very much like her: hideous, unloved, and desperately in need of a little kindness and compassion. Only this creature isn’t a baby: It’s an unpleasant-looking iguana called Jub-Jub (a name coined by Conan O’Brien). It’s the perfect resolution to both Selma’s dilemma and an episode that’s both sour and sweet, quietly understanding and hilariously cruel.
- I love that Homer and Marge use any extended break from their children as an excuse for a non-stop fuckfest. That’s weirdly healthy, I think.
- There are some great sign gags in this episode, like The Buzzing Sign Diner and The Lucky Stiff Funeral Home (motto: “We Put The ‘Fun’ In Funeral!”)
- I also love how into Yentl Homer becomes: “That Yentl puts the ‘she’ in ‘yeshiva!’”
- Homer’s breezy delivery of “suggestion noted!” after Marge tells him not to finish eating the hoagie of death is hilarious
- Theme parks have always been wonderful fodder for The Simpsons: I particularly liked the Beer Hall of Presidents with its rapping Abe Lincoln robot
- Lisa is the Lizard Queen!
- Next up is “Brother From The Same Planet.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.