Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Halfway-decent proposals: 7 TV episodes that reference the 1993 blockbuster

Halfway-decent proposals: 7 TV episodes that reference the 1993 blockbuster

Photo: Paramount Pictures/Getty Images, Graphic: Jimmy Hasse.

For a multiple Razzie winner, it’s hard to believe that Indecent Proposal was such a huge hit when it was released 25 years ago this week. It’s equally hard to believe that it somehow milked a two-hour, antiquated, sexist movie out of a guy asking another guy if he could sleep with his wife for a million dollars. The rich guy was Robert Redford, while the former high-school sweethearts in romantic peril were Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore, real-estate yuppies about to go broke in the recession. So the deal is made, the marriage dissolves, and the wife ends up with the rich guy anyway—until she goes back to her husband, proving the seagull poster quote that kicks off the movie to be true. (“If you love something, set it free…”)

Nevertheless, Indecent Proposal was in the Top 10 of that year’s box office rankings, only behind action movies like Jurassic Park and comedies like Mrs. Doubtfire. The ubiquitousness of the movie soon became a cultural touchstone, not only with the movie’s romantic leads reciting the same horrible five lines of dialogue over and over (“Have I ever told you I loved you?”), but with that titular moral quandary. Today there’s even a series on Investigation Discovery called Indecent Proposal in which people face horrible fork-in-the-road decisions, like a woman considering taking up sexual webcam work to pay for her husband’s heart medication. But there are also a number of TV episodes that used the movie not only as a title (Step By Step’s J.T. almost losing his virginity to a teacher; Bob from Bob’s Burgers renting out his family for $5,000 in “An Indecent Thanksgiving Proposal”), but a punchline or a premise. The central concept of Indecent Proposal even translates to cleaned-up animated fare and a high-school level. Such is the tenacity of Indecent Proposal that we’re sure the below episodes aren’t the last of their kind.

1. Community, “Applied Anthropology And Culinary Arts

Several long-gestating story threads culminate in the 22nd episode of Community’s second season, a high-pressure bottle episode in which a baby is born, his paternity is determined, and the academic fraud of the ultimate blow-off class is exposed right before the dean’s eyes. Mitigating the wall-to-wall facial expressions (and heightening the emotional nuance): Pierce (Chevy Chase), ever jealous of younger people having a better time than he is, offers classmates Troy (Donald Glover) and Abed (Danny Pudi) $1,000 to get in on their palm-slapping, chest-tapping secret handshake. The Indecent Proposal allusion is lost on neither Troy nor Abed, who not only acknowledge the source material out loud, but also lay claim to a member of the film’s central couple. So strong and complementary is their bond that there’s no overlap in those claims; even though Pierce temporarily kills the magic of the handshake with his neediness and stale Betty Grable references, its power is restored by episode’s end. It probably helped that Pierce didn’t stay in the picture as long as Gage does in Indecent Proposal: He gets one handshake then quickly fades away from “Applied Anthropology And Culinary Arts,” much as Chase himself was eventually escorted from Community. [Erik Adams]

2. The Simpsons, “Half-Decent Proposal”

Arriving a decade after Indecent Proposal, this season 13 episode marks the return of Marge’s handsy senior prom date, Artie Ziff (Jon Lovitz), now a successful entrepreneur and one of the nation’s five richest people. Thinking Marge sent him a flirtatious email, he comes back to Springfield and proposes paying the Simpsons $1 million to spend a weekend with Marge, if only to taste what their lives could’ve been like together. While the Simpsons want to say no, they need the money to pay for an expensive operation to fix Homer’s snoring, which has been keeping Marge up. Complications inevitably follow, playing out into Homer’s imagined nightmare scenario: “If Marge marries Artie, I’ll never be born!” [Kyle Ryan]

3. Mad About You, “A Pair Of Hearts”

There’s a core of spousal distrust at the heart of any good, angsty Indecent Proposal story; maybe that’s why Mad About You’s Paul and Jamie Buchman, one of TV’s rare perfect couples, can only manage to eke a 30-second stinger out of the premise. Approached at a casino by a suave Redford wannabe (complete with the standard million-dollar offer), the duo—Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt, both looking eternally young—wordlessly confer for less than a second before agreeing to the deal with a chipper, simultaneous “Great!” One cheerful kiss good night later, and Jamie’s off, leaving a happily confident Paul behind. The scene, and its million-dollar payday, might not be in the show’s actual canon, but the Buchmans’ happy, manipulative billionaire-proof trust in each other certainly was. [William Hughes]

4. California Dreams, “Indecent Promposal”

The second-season finale of this Saturday morning staple had a high-school version of the movie’s moral dilemma, breaking up the Dreams’ odd couple of good-girl surfer Tiffani and bad-boy greaser Jake. Candy striper Tiffani takes care of rich kid Glenn in the hospital when he gets his tonsils out. When Jake pulls a Jake and says he’s too cool to go to prom, Tiffany’s new friend Glenn offers to take her, and throws in a summer gig for the band at his dad’s resort in Catalina into the bargain. Jake has doubts, but the prize is too great. And Tiffani apparently didn’t see the movie, as she reasons that surely the love between her and Jake is strong enough to withstand one night apart. Wrong! Just like Woody Harrelson, Jake changes his mind too late, rushing into prom just in time to see Tiffani and Glenn kissing. She pushes the rich guy away, but the damage is done, and Tiffani and Jake didn’t get back together until Dreams’ season four. [Gwen Ihnat]

5. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, “Dennis’ Double Life

The members of the It’s Always Sunny gang aren’t known for their excellent life choices. So in last year’s season 12 finale when Dennis is visited by Mandy, who says she’s given birth to his son, Brian Jr. (he used a fake name when he hooked up with her), horrifying hijinks are in store. Dennis’ dad Frank thinks Mandy is looking for a handout, so all they need to do is to find a millionaire to sleep with her and give her a million bucks, Indecent Proposal-style. Unfortunately, Robert Redford-like moguls are hard to come by, so Frank offers to do the deed himself and pay Mandy $5,000, with the price fluctuating depending on whether there are return visits or another woman is involved. But Mandy just wanted her son to meet his father, and takes off—but not before stirring such solid paternal feelings in Dennis that he goes after her. His Philadelphia fate is still up in the air until the show kicks off its 13th season this fall. [Gwen Ihnat]

6. Peep Show, “Conference

“In business, Jeremy, you learn that every man has his price; I judge yours to be… £530.” That painfully accurate assessment, and a few explicit references to the Harrelson/Moore thriller, are all it takes for growling alpha male asshole Alan Johnson to talk Robert Webb’s feckless Jeremy into selling him a night with his girlfriend, Sophie Winkleman’s Big Suze. (As Jeremy weakly justifies it to himself, “No one’s going to give me a medal for saying no.”) As it does with most aspects of the human heart, Peep Show manages to exaggerate an already grubby concept into the depths of absolute depravity, both through Johnson’s ugly descriptions of Suze as “property” and “a piece of ass,” and Jeremy’s mealy-mouthed protests to his crying girlfriend that he’s not “pimping her out” (even though he absolutely is). In the end, karma, of a sort, wins out; Suze ends up dumping Jeremy for the more confident Johnson anyway, leaving him penniless, and grimly reflecting on the false wisdom of Hollywood: “It’s in a film! They wouldn’t put a terrible idea in a film, they’d get sued!” [William Hughes]

7. Mike Tyson Mysteries, “Is Magic Real?”

Mike Tyson Mysteries is a deeply strange show, with the pugilist voicing his lead character in front of a cast that includes Norm MacDonald as a pigeon. In episode number four, Mike ponders the existence of magic, and drags everyone to Vegas, where they try to help a wizard get his magic back at the poker table. But the wizard needs a million dollars to sit at the table, which Pigeon gets from Robert Redford, still trolling casinos for women who he can sleep with in exchange for a fortune. Turns out Pigeon has sold out Mike’s daughter Yung Hee, so the concerned father goes after the pair. But Redford really just wants to get her into the Sundance Institute. Then a leprechaun shows up, proving the existence of magic. It’s a really weird show. [Gwen Ihnat]