“Homer Vs. Patty And Selma” (season six, episode 17; originally aired 2/26/1995)
In which Homer demonstrates the lengths he’ll go to for Marge. The humiliating, smoky lengths…
Agreeing to marry someone means more than inviting them into your life—it means inviting every object within their orbit into your life as well. It is an understanding of this unspoken truth that helps make Homer and Marge Simpson one of television’s greatest marriages. Because it’s more than just one spouse accepting that the other is “a very complicated man” ([Dish shatters against head.] “Wrong!”) or that very complicated man ([Dish shatters against head once more.] “Still wrong!”) displaying an utter devotion to his beloved. Marge and Homer’s marriage endures aspects of their lives that exist independently of the Simpson household, sentient nuisances that would’ve driven away any sane person not bitten by the love bug years ago. For Homer so loves Marge that he would tolerate an eternity of abuse from Patty and Selma Bouvier.
The dread Homer swallows whenever his sisters-in-law visit travels in four directions: From Homer, from Patty and Selma, and, to a lesser extent from the viewer. The twins Bouvier are a lot like their precious Laramies: Good for a quick buzz, but potentially harmful in mass quantities. There are exceptions to this rule (which I’m basing 100 percent on my own preferences), like “Black Widower” or even “There’s Something About Marrying,” two episodes that dig into the emotional cores of the characters and allow Patty and Selma to be more than the Statler and Waldorf to the Fozzie Bear stand-up routine that is Homer’s everyday existence. Julie Kavner is on record as saying that she conceived the people in Marge’s family as “utterly joyless,” and I can feel some of the joy slip out of “Homer Vs. Patty And Selma” each time the last two characters in that title appear on screen.
To seemingly compensate for Patty and Selma’s naturally deflating effect, “Homer Vs. Patty And Selma” uses a heavier hand with the zanier aspects of The Simpsons’ sense of humor. There’s that brilliant, plate-smashing non sequitur alluded to above, and there’s also the Looney Tunes manner in which Homer ejects the twins from his house, a gag whose second beat may as well involve James Avery and DJ Jazzy Jeff. With a B-plot involving Bart’s brief flirtation with ballet, “Homer Vs. Patty And Selma” is already a highly physical episode of The Simpsons, but the conflict that leads to the sisters’ bodily expulsion from 742 Evergreen Terrace has simpler roots. Homer’s dealings with the original in-laws from hell (you mean Cerberus’ two chain-smoking heads?) are much more classically sitcom than classically Simpsons.
Coming to The Simpsons following the sadly brief run of Fox’s Ben Stiller Show, Brent Forrester began as a story editor during the show’s fifth season, the year that also saw Greg Daniels and Mike Scully join the writing staff. Forrester would go on to write “Homerpalooza” (and contribute to Mr. Show, Undeclared, King Of The Hill, and the American Office, the last of which he worked on for most of its run), but his first try at a Simpsons script doesn’t quite feel like the work of someone who’d been in the room since “Homer Goes To College.” Between Homer’s pumpkin-based get-rich-quick-scheme and his attempts to keep his debt to Patty and Selma a secret, there’s a distinct Honeymooners/I Love Lucy vibe to “Homer Vs. Patty And Selma”—shows that are certainly in The Simpsons’ DNA, but not the type whose story structure could fill out an episode of a show as briskly paced as season-six Simpsons. Pressure from Fox infamously stretched the Simpsons staff thin during this period, and “Homer Vs. Patty And Selma” feels like the outcome of that pressure: An episode synthesized from a pair of good-enough, partially formed stories. (We’ll get to a wholly different, much more controversial product of that pressure next week.) Once the truth about Homer’s I.O.U. comes out, the episode stutters through the chauffeur subplot until it arrives at a place where Homer can have his revenge against Patty and Selma.
It’s that finale in the DMV that marks “Homer Vs. Patty And Selma” as a product of The Simpsons’ golden years. Provided with the opportunity to let his sisters-in-law hang themselves with their own high-tar nooses, Homer does the noble thing and claims Patty and Selma’s contraband cigarettes as his own. (The one-two punch of “Yes, I am in flavor country”/“It’s a big country” is yet another spectacularly singular line reading from Dan Castellaneta.) It’s a little late in the game, but it’s just the right turn for the episode to take: Homer reaches for the cigarettes not to have the debt erased or to pass his chauffeur’s test, but to illustrate the lengths he’ll go to for Marge. If there’s one crowning achievement of Forrester’s first Simpsons script, it’s the way the episode laces Homer’s devotion to Marge throughout the scattered events of the episode. (After all, the debt that’s truly driving the story is the one levied against the home the couple has built.) That Homer’s trip to flavor country is an illustration of why Marge reciprocates that devotion is just gravy. She was born a Bouvier, but she chose to be a Simpson, and in the eternal struggle summed up in this episode’s title, she’ll throw her lot in with the Simpson side each and every time. It’s a much safer bet than pumpkin futures, at least.
- This week in Simpsons signage: “BALLET PERFORMANCE / The ‘T’ is silent”
- This week in Simpsons gag papers they got at the carnival: “BART NAMED WORLD’S GREATEST SEX MACHINE.”
- There are a lot of big laughs in Bart’s corner of the episode, but it feels a little undercooked to me. There’s a bit of commentary about traditionally masculine roles (Homer not providing for the family; Bart being shut out of a “manly” P.E. activity like hockey, baseball, or gender issues in sport) baked into both of the episode’s plots, but the real meat of “Homer Vs. Patty And Selma” is the character-based material sprinkled throughout the more premise-driven stories. And Bart’s stint as “the masked dancer” is all premise until Lisa’s line about her brother displaying a previously unseen sensitivity.
- I love how Mel Brooks’ cameo is clearly based on the desire of the writers themselves to be the other half of the “2,000 Year Old Man” routine. (That, and the subversive thrill of making Brooks say the words “I hate Carl Reiner.”)
- Springfield Elementary School continues to fail Bart in more ways than he could ever comprehend: “What a day, eh Milhouse? The sun is out, birds are singin’, bees are trying to have sex with them—as is my understanding.”
- Marge breaks out the fancy stuff to celebrate the newfound peace between her sisters and her husband: “I’m going to make the most International Coffee in the house: Montreal Morn.”
- Homer is humiliated: “I failed you as a husband and a provider. And at best, I was a B+ dog.”
- Next week: David Sims takes on the infamous Critic crossover episode, “A Star Is Burns.” It… well, it doesn’t exactly stink, and it’s not exactly a football to the groin, but it’s a strange episode nonetheless.