“Reenactment probably did not happen.”
When The Simpsons does social satire, the less specific its targets, the better. That may sound ass-backward, but the root of The Simpsons’ comedy has always been in universality. Just as the Simpson family is the rewritable template of the American nuclear family, the show’s Springfield functions as the microcosmic stand-in for America. And while real-world public and political figures come and go, the essentially unchanging players in Springfield—types if not outright stereotypes all—stand in for different aspects of the American character, depending on the needs of the story. As an exercise, think back over your personal file of favorite Simpsons jokes and count up how many of them are zingers aimed at specific contemporary targets and how many are rooted in broader ideas. The only one of the former that truly sticks for me is the “Fox News: Not racist, but #1 with racists” sign gag, both because of the quality of the burn and of how “bite the hand that feeds you” jokes tap into the show’s irreverent spirit.
“The Old Blue Mayor She Ain’t What She Used To Be” largely commits to examining how Marge’s rise to power as Springfield’s new mayor relies upon how the knee-jerk, irresponsibly swayed townspeople are susceptible to manipulation based on their basest, most selfish instincts. The Simpsons isn’t a cynical show so much as it resists the temptation to either demonize or lionize civic-mindedness or patriotism. The people of Springfield, tonight, flock to Marge not because she’s clearly a better candidate and person than perennially elected, womanizing, cartoonishly corrupt Diamond Joe Quimby, but because resident political operative Lindsey Naegle convinces her to use Professor Frink’s micro-targeted campaigning. (She’s seen catering to both Springfield’s “yokel Objectivist” and “exotic pet owners” lobbies.)
The same goes for Marge’s motivations, too, though, as she’s spurred to challenge Quimby not by his legendary moral turpitude so much as by how his sexist condescension at a town meeting discussing the most recent monorail-related Springfield disaster makes her grind her molars. Lisa seizes on the feminist aspect of the conflict to urge Marge to run, and Lisa’s right that Springfield (and by extension, Earth) needs a serious lesson in female empowerment. But Lisa’s also running away with the issue for her own ideological reasons, losing sight of both Marge’s real concerns, and any more specific needs the town has. Also being eight, Lisa draws enthusiasm from the recent Wonder Woman movie, exclaiming excitedly that the film showed that “if you’re a goddess with superpowers,” nothing is out of reach. (As ever, a Simpsons episode is that much better when the writers remember that the Simpsons kids are actual kids.)
Marge wins, for an appropriately muddled mix of good and bad reasons. She ticks up in the polls through her ambitious special interest soft-soaping and media senasationalism. (Lindsey touts the strategy of just getting 51% of people to vote for you and then doing whatever you want, which she terms the “right-wing nut job” plan.) But, stymied at the final debate when forced to articulate, as moderator Kent Brockman puts it, a policy that would “appeal to every Springfielder,” Marge latches onto the perpetually burning Springfield tire fire, and promises to finally put the damned thing out. It’s a signature Marge journey. Something needles at her pent-up resentments in her role (as mother, wife, and/or woman), and she gets disproportionately fired up (or appropriately so, but in a tangential direction), only for her innate decency to reassert itself in time to pull her back from unwise action.
Here, the problem is that Marge finds herself swamped by the ludicrous complications that come with being an elected official in Springfield (whichever state). Even her one, seemingly slam-dunk issue sees the town turn on her in a dispiritingly characteristic instant as the folksy tire fire souvenir stand owner chains himself to the tire yard gates in order to save his business. His James Stewart-esque appeal and the town’s signature short-sightedness turns public sentiment against Marge immediately, only turning around when, in a last-ditch televised appeal, her tetchy putdowns of Homer’s selfish behavior win back the voters’ attention. She becomes a glib putdown artist, riding her newfound popularity to a daily routine of happy manhole-christening, while Homer remains the butt of every joke. (Literally, in the case of the town’s new Homer parade balloon, which ejects clouds of confetti from its ample bottom.) In the end, Marge realizes that power based on superficial cruelty (especially cruelty that winds up seeing a local chain name its Homer-inspired sandwich “The Open-Mouthed Turkey Goofball”) isn’t worth it, and she tells the appreciative gathered crowd that “I wish all of you could know the love in his heart.”
It’s a sweet ending that reads less sentimental than it might because of the underlying satire. Marge isn’t going to stay mayor. (Indeed, the eight-years-later tag shows a museum exhibit of Marge’s eventual impeachment in favor of Quimby.) Like I said, the show’s world, as infinitely mutable as it is, limits exactly how much its characters can truly change, so Marge’s emotional arc here remains true to who she is while retaining enough of her justifiable frustration with the status quo to keep it from being too pat. (It helps that the episode—by longtime Simpsons vets Tom Gammill and Max Pross—dispenses with any subplots and concentrates on Marge’s story throughout.) There are a few specific slams at current White House flak Kellyanne Conway which, while satisfying to those contemptuous of blatant partisan lying, are the sort of instantly aged gags that take away rather than enrich the points the episode is going for. Springfield would be better with Marge in charge, but the world isn’t easily fixable, even by good, caring people.
- Gammill and Pross (also famously vets of Seinfeld, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and Late Night With David Letterman) seed some sharp gags throughout the episode.
- The happily retired Quimby, advising Marge: “There’s no ‘mayor’ in ‘marriage.’ There almost is. It’s really close.”
- After Marge first falls upon the platform of Springfielders eating their vegetables, Kent Brockman states, “As moderator, it’s my duty to fact-check that many of them are yucky.”
- Moe and Martin get in a deliciously silly argument about similes versus metaphors, with Moe finally threatening, “Put in a ‘like’ or an ‘as’ or, so help me, you’re goin’ down.”
- Homer, after Marge urges him and Bart to be more like Lisa: “My boyfriend is broccoli!” Nailed it.
- Lindsey, worriedly watching Marge’s focus group: “I’ve seen counterclockwise knob turning before, but not like this!”
- “I am not a whale! I am a man with blubber, and several harpoon scars!”
- Another too specifically obvious joke in the opening credits reads “This year, a turkey will pardon the president.” I get it, but it’s pretty disposable—and reads too much like a Yakov Smirnoff line.
- The instigating disaster sees the ruins of Springfield’s monorail turned into an elevated park like New York’s High Line. This being Springfield, things go berserk, resulting, seemingly, in the offhand death of the largely forgotten Sebastian Cobb.
- The museum tag suggests that Mayor Marge was instrumental in introducing Earth to Kang and Kodos for real, something The Simpsons needs to stop doing, please.