Last week’s episode of The Simpsons provided a tantalizing glimpse of what The Simpsons would eventually become: a freewheeling, all-encompassing satire of just about every institution known to man. In sharp contrast, this week’s rightfully acclaimed, beloved episode concentrated on the family with surgical focus: in that sense, it was much more representative of the much more family-oriented first season. It’s an episode built on characterization rather than gags, emotions more than laughs. It’s a poignant portrait of a marriage in crisis and the collateral damage it inflicts on Bart and Lisa (Maggie doesn’t seem overly affected by the domestic discord).
Though it was penned by the great John Swartzwelder, the man behind many of the wackiest and funniest episodes, it bears the unmistakable stamp of Executive Producer James L. Brooks, who has always pushed hard for the show to retain its heart and soul and not give itself over entirely to gags, Family Guy-style.
The episode began with Lisa and Bart—who very uncharacteristically was nothing but sweet and supportive throughout the entire episode, aside from a burst of anger when Lisa accuses him of being in denial over what she sees as the impending end of her parent’s marriage—making Marge a well-intentioned spectacularly misguided birthday breakfast.
Homer mistakenly assumes its for him and in a desperate bid to cover his ass, heads to the mall and picks up a “gift” that follows all too closely in the tradition of such little-loved previous gifts as a Connie Chung calendar (remember her?) and a tackle box: a bowling ball with his name on it.
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Marge is appropriately offended by a gift thoughtless even by the low, low standards set by previous gifts and, in a fit of passive-aggression decides to actually use the bowling ball rather than let Homer keep it as yet another gift to himself/monument to his insensitivity. This brings her into contact with Jacques, the most suave and continental bowling teacher in existence, an oily, perpetually breathy and melodramatic lothario with a shaky French accent played by Albert Brooks, who manages to make everything he says sound like a sweet nothing whispered into a lover’s ear.
As Marge spends more and more time with Jacques and begins thinking the unthinkable—cheating on her husband—Homer falls into a suicidal depression. I know I’ve given the proverbial mad props to Albert Brooks for his scene-stealing voice work before but I don’t think I’ve given enough credit to the main voice cast.
Julie Kavner and Dan Castellaneta turn in magnificent performances in “Life on the Fast Lane.” Kavner lets the quiver in her voice convey her growing attraction to Jacques and anxiety/guilt over contemplating infidelity while Castellaneta manages to make Homer complimenting Marge on her peanut butter and jelly-making skills achingly, almost unbearably sad. If “Life on the Fast Lane” is one of, if not the most multi-dimensional, fully-realized depiction of Homer and Marge’s marriage in the show’s history Kavner and Castellaneta deserve much of the credit.
If Homer’s sadness and Marge’s guilt and ambivalence provide the episode’s emotional core, the show’s humor is largely predicated on the incongruous juxtaposition of bowling, the sport of beer-swilling slobs rather than kings (for the record, I myself am a beer-swilling slob in addition to being the King of an obscure island country in the South Pacific) and heavy-breathing romance-novel ribaldry.
According to Wikipedia, the suave seducer was supposed to be a Swedish tennis instructor but Brooks thought it’d be funnier to make him French. The changes pay rich comic dividends. “Life on the Fast Lane” gets a lot of comic mileage out of Jacques' bowling themed come-ons like, “Some divine pin-spotter must have placed us side by side” and “There are ten pins in my heart. You’ve knocked over eight. Won’t you pick up that spare?” as well as Jacques' passionate desire to meet up with Marge somewhere “away from the thunderous folly of clattering pins.”
But the most inspired bowling-as-seduction conceit comes in the form of a gorgeously animated, beautifully designed fantasy sequence where an unconscious Marge imagines that Jacques’ apartment is a dazzling dream palace straight out of a forgotten bowling-themed Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical from the 1930s. When Marge marvels that the fantasy Jacques sure has picked up a lot of trophies for bowling, he replies that those trophies are not for bowling but for making love.
Marge decides to take Jacques up on his offer to meet alone in his apartment for what I imagine are non-bowling-related matters but en route she’s reminded at every stop of the sacred vow she would be betraying if she were to cheat. The episode ends as it must: with Marge making the right decision and, in a rather dated parody of An Officer and a Gentleman, heading to the Springfield power plant where Homer takes her in his arms and tells his coworkers that he is taking the woman of his dreams to the backseat of his car and won’t be back for ten minutes. If that ain’t love, I don’t know what is.
There would be many funnier and faster episodes of The Simpsons but few can match “Life on the Fast Lane” for emotional depth and characterization. Perhaps that’s why the episode became the first in the show’s history to win an Emmy for best animated program.
—I am now officially as old as Homer Simpson. Yikes!
—I enjoyed Patti and Selma’s turn as the sneering Greek chorus/Waldorf and Statler surrogates.
—“I couldn’t very well chop your hands off and bring it to the store, could I?"
—“No thanks, I’m doing it out of spite.
—“Your laughter is like music to me but if you laugh at what I say next I will die.”
—“You’re so wonderful that you thought it was something offensive!
—“I’m Helen Lovejoy, the gossipy wife of the minister”
—And, of course, “It's not quite breakfast, it's not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don't get completely what you would get at breakfast, but you get a good meal.”