This episode is simultaneously a throwback and a gigantic leap forward – a throwback because it’s the first episode that was made for season two, so the whole thing is a little rough around the edges in terms of voice and animation; and a gigantic leap forward because it’s a strong, confident satire of American politics. After a scandal involving mutant fish in the rivers around the nuclear power plant leads to him failing an inspection, a drunk and despondent Mr Burns runs into Homer in the parking lot, and Homer ends up accidentally talking him into running for Governor.
There are a lot of good Homer jokes that lead up to this – Homer complains that he’s unappreciated at work, only to be late due to his laziness; Homer complains about not getting the better donuts and about never being able to get to work on time; Homer is asleep when the inspectors come around; Homer falls asleep at work again until late at night, calls his wife and lies that he’s been working hard, and this is how he finds Burns in the parking lot. This feeds into the satire – Burns didn’t fail the inspection because of those fat cats in Washington, he failed it because he’s too lazy and cheap to keep his plant properly maintained and staffed.
We then get a tour-de-force of Burns jokes. John Swartzwelder was a writer on this episode, and I think there was a real lightning-in-a-bottle connection between writer, actor, and character here. Swartzwelder is fascinated by old-timey Americana, and would go on to take advantage of Burns’ age to build jokes about that around Burns. That doesn’t come to flower here, but Swartzwelder does inject Burns with some delightfully offbeat and archaic word choices that Harry Shearer delights in playing with.
Anyway, the actual story is Burns putting together a team of shysters and muckrakers, intent on both boosting Burns’ image and destroying that of Mary Bailey, his opponent. He makes a television commercial where, after accidentally insulting the voters on air (who shoots political ads live?), he recovers quickly and paints the mutant fish as ordinary evolution. This kicks off a successful campaign where he ends up tying with Bailey, and his campaign manager gets a brilliant idea: on the night before the election, Burns has dinner with an ordinary family, and obviously he chooses the Flintstones Simpsons.
Homer has pretty solidly chosen to support Burns by this point, but Marge and Lisa are loyal Bailey supporters (Bart joins his dad in supporting Burns, but it’s pretty much out of habitual support of Homer). As they prepare for dinner with Burns, Lisa is horrified by having to button down her free spirit and Marge has no idea what to do. She has a conversation with Homer that sparks an idea when he condescendingly tells her the best way she can express herself is through cooking and cleaning.
The night of the dinner, Burns manages to play to the camera whenever something seems to go wrong – when the dog jumps on him, when Bart blasphemes, even when the Simpsons make absolute pigs of themselves. It’s when the main meal comes out that Marge springs her plan: offering Mr Burns the three-eyed fish for dinner. The sequence of him trying to eat the (still moving) fish, spitting it out, and seeing his campaign fall before it hits the ground is spectacular, not just for how it’s shown, but for how it’s a moment of triumph in a specifically Marge and specifically Simpsons way – a three eyed fish would only happen because of Burns’ nuclear power plant, only Burns could spin that three-eyed fish into political capital, and only Marge would get the idea to cook and serve that fish. This story could only happen on The Simpsons, and that makes it special.
Chalkboard Gag: “I will not Xerox my butt”
Couch Gag: The family sits down, only for the couch to roll out into a bed.
This episode was written by Sam Simon and John Swartzwelder, and directed by Wesley Archer.
First Appearances: Mary Bailey, Dave Shutton