In its second season, The Simpsons evolved from a relatively modest sitcom about a working-class family into an all-encompassing social satire of the world around them. “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” represents a milestone in that evolution. It might just have been the single most ambitious episode the show had run up until that point.
“Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” doesn’t just feel cinematic. It feels like an incredibly ambitious movie that cross-breeds Citizen Kane with Preston Sturges and Frank Capra’s classic moral fables about the common decency and civic pride of the common man triumphing over the spiritual corruption and lust for power of the decadent ruling class.
The episode manages to condense a story that could easily unfold over two hours on the big screen, ideally with deep-focus cinematography from a young Gregg Toland, into twenty-two tight minutes of transcendent television. The retro screwball vibe is established from the very first scene, an idyllic tableau of Bart and Lisa fishing on a pleasant afternoon.
Their peaceful reverie is interrupted by an unmistakably 1930s style reporter, the kind that spits out clever one-liners at a machine-gun clip and is always chasing big stories involving kingpins, big shots and dizzy dames. The reporter stumbles onto the scoop of a lifetime when he spies a three-eyed fish the world would come to know as Blinky.
Much to Mr. Burns’ chagrin, Blinky is seen as sentient evidence of his power plant’s crimes against the environment in general and humanity as a whole. Nuclear inspectors come to visit the plant and are understandably horrified by what they see and recommend that Burns spend tens of millions of dollars to bring the plant up to code.
We got to see Mr. Burns at his most vulnerable and his most invulnerable today. Burns was filmed throughout like the title character in Citizen Kane—as an ominous figure whose existential loneliness is conveyed visually by placing him in giant backdrops that dwarf him, most notably against a giant blow-up of his gruesome visage that represents the episode's most overt homage to Orson Welles’ iconic classic.
Yet we also see Mr. Burns breaking down and crying after the grim reckoning that is the plant inspection. In a rare, moving moment of emotional connection between Homer and Mr. Burns, Homer happen upon his boss in a state of emotional free fall and unwittingly sets the plot in motion by absent-mindedly mentioning that if he were governor he would do whatever he wanted.
A revitalized Burns decides to abuse his wealth and privilege by running for governor on a doggedly pro-Monty Burns platform. But first he must overcome the slight disadvantage that everyone hates him. “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” is incredibly cynical about the hypocrisy and cynical calculation that goes into trying to pass off a sinister oligarch as a civic-minded philanthropist.
Mr. Burns is called upon to do an impression not just of a human being but of a kind, decent, caring human being, the kind that might actually smile and hug a baby instead of recoiling in horror. Mr. Burns’ attempts to reach out to the unwashed rabble always reek of poisonous condescension. Burns clearly does not view non-millionaires as belonging to the same species as himself yet he’s forced by circumstances to carry on the ridiculous masquerade that he cares deeply about their thoughts and feelings. Yet he can never even begin to hide the incredible contempt he feels towards everyone other than himself.
The gubernatorial campaign affords the show an opportunity to rife on political history, real and imagined, cinematic and otherwise. Burns’ dignified female opponent bears a resemblance to Helen Douglas, the Richard Nixon foe Tricky Dick famously slandered as “pink down to her underwear” (a sentiment that unintentionally betrays that Nixon had spent time thinking about his opponent’s underwear) while the scene where he addresses the American public with creepy faux-avuncularity in front of Blinky feels inspired by Nixon’s famous “Checkers” speech.
It is a testament to the episode’s impeccable construction that it manages to tell a huge story—the kind that can only be told with through the use of montages involving screaming, spinning newspaper headlines—while keeping the Simpsons as its primary focus.
For if Mr. Burns epitomizes the evil of the decadent rich then Marge and Lisa represents the principled skepticism of the impassioned common person. Lisa is horrified by Burns and his campaign of pure evil though you’d never know it from the question she’s forced to ask Mr. Burns (“Your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway train. Why are you so popular?”) but it’s Marge who ends up serving truth to power when she takes Homer’s off-handedly comment about how she expresses herself through the home she keeps and the food she serves literally.
As all of you know (seriously, is there anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the episode) Marge serves up a three-eyed fish to Burns, who, as the media points out, can’t stomach his own lie about three-eyed fish merely being part of evolution’s grand design, a point he made earlier with the hilariously unconvincing help of an actor pretending to be Charles Darwin.
In an ostensibly furious rage, Mr. Burns trashes, very slowly, very weakly and very ineffectively trashes the Simpsons’ home and promises to destroy Homer’s dreams. In a perfect capper, Marge assures Homer, “When a man's biggest dreams include seconds on dessert, occasional snuggling and sleeping in til noon on weekends, no one man can destroy them.” In that moment, the show travels elegantly from the macro to the micro, from the vast and political to the modest and heart-tugglingly personal. The episode paints boldly on huge canvass without losing touch of the squirmy humanity at its core.