HELL YEAH PHIL HARTMAN HELL YEAH
So, this episode throws in another flavour of meta-gag: after twenty-two episodes where the title was never revealed, the writers decided to show this episode’s title half a second before the eponymous event happens. Bart is hit by Mr Burns, who is surprisingly even driving the car himself. I’m always genuinely shocked just how much Burnsie dominates the show at this point, though admittedly he does make a fantastic villain.
We get a sojourn into genuine fantasy: Bart ends up on an escalator to heaven (ooh-ooh-ooooooooooh/and he’s buying a) before his America’s Bad-boy nature takes over and he’s sent on a slide to hell. Satan greets him cheerfully, only to realise he’s not actually due until the Yankees win the pennant (they’ve won five times since that episode aired, and yet somehow the show is still going), and sends him to wake up in hospital. The fantastic nature of this sequence can be written off as a dream; the reality of the show is preserved, unlike the much later episode “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” which has them hanging out with actual fucking aliens.
Anyway, Bart wakes up to find he has a bump on the head, a broken toe, and a sleazy ambulance-chasing lawyer, Lionel Hutz, played by Phil Hartman. Hartman was a mainstay of American comedy, a main cast member for four years before his first Simpsonsappearance; I expect any of you could say far more about him as a performer in general than I could. What he consistently brought to The Simpsons, right off the bat, was a sleazy conman charm, and Lionel Hutz is his first example.
Hutz in this episode hasn’t picked up the stink of cheerful incompetence – here, he’s 100% a sleazy, amoral bastard, trying very hard to convince the Simpsons to sue Homer’s boss (with the gentlest touch of Swartzwelder absurdism: a business card that doubles as a sponge when wet) and openly breaking just about every rule of honest lawyering he can: “The state bar forbids me from promising you a big cash payout, but just between you and me, I can promise you a big cash payout”.
Homer is pulled into Burns’ office to deal with the situation; Burnsie offers Homer $100 dollars in compensation provided he gives up the right to sue, and when Homer meekly shows the slightest bit of hesitance, Burns furiously takes back his offer and throws him out, forcing Homer to turn to Hutz. Hutz takes them to see our second first appearance: Dr Nick Riviera! Unlike, Hutz, Dr Nick comes out fully formed, an incompetent idiot who cheerfully spins a web of bullshit about Bart’s health. This is The Simpsons’ America: for enough money, you can get anyone to say anything.
Meanwhile, in preparing for the trial, Mr Burns is going full evil villain. Harry Shearer’s sing-song voice for Burns has fully developed; lines like “Let him twist in the wind, slowly, slowly. Then, when the papers have found their new flavour of the month, they’ll find out this cat has claws” become poetry in his mouth. In court, he openly says “I should be able to run over as many little boys as I want!”, and finds his particular flavour of bullshit won’t fly with the jury.
Burns reluctantly agrees to a settlement, and offers Homer and Marge half a million dollars. He leaves the room, but pulls the old trick of watching via a painting, and see Marge do what she’s been doing all episode: expressing concern over using ‘shady lawyers and phoney doctors’. Burns delightedly takes back his offer, and in court his lawyer puts her on the stand, using her honesty to reveal the con the family has been pulling – she even manages to put an actual dollar amount on the hardship Bart had: missing out on $5 for taking out the trash.
And at that point, the episode falls apart emotionally. Never mind the medical bills the Simpsons presumably had to pay; the rest of the episode deals with Homer’s depression over losing a million bucks, and his fear that he doesn’t love his wife anymore. It’s a heady subject, introduced in the plot by James L Brooks, who wanted a more emotional ending. The problem is, it’s very tonally different from the episode leading up to it, and is really a subject that deserves a lot more space than it gets – had we started with the trial and then had this take up the second and third act, I probably would have reacted a lot better (as a joke machine, it continues to work – I laughed at Homer looking at his wife, starting from her feet).
(Although, we also get a rare explicit discussion of class, as Homer bemoans being trapped in this class)
Chalkboard Gag: I will not sell school property.
Couch Gag: The Simpsons try and squeeze onto the couch, and Homer bumps everybody else off of it.
This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Mark Kirkland. Kirkland watched To Kill A Mockingbird and The Verdict to get ideas for how to direct the courtroom sequences. Dr Nick was physically based on supervising animator Gábor Csupó, because the animators were under the mistaken impression Azaria based the voice on him.
The plot is a reference to the 1966 film The Fortune Cookie. Bart references The Wizard of Ozwhen he wakes up, talking about his vision of hell, “and you were there, and you were there!”, though I always preferred Futurama’s version of the joke. Bart’s dream of hell is based on Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden Of Earthly Delights.
First Appearances: Lionel Hutz, Dr Nick (but not his catchphrase), the Blue Haired Lawyer (based on Roy Cohn, lawyer to John McCarthy).