The Simpsons, Season Two, Episode Eleven, “One Fish, Two Fish, Blow Fish, Blue Fish”

Here’s a first for us: the earliest episode I recall with perfect clarity – obviously, I didn’t see this live, seeing as how I was barely a year old when it aired, but it is one of the earliest that played in the regular syndication blocks I watched, and of course “the main character has one day to live” is a particularly memorable premise for a sitcom, especially to an impressionable eight year old. This is a haunting god damned episode of the show.

It begins pretty straightforwardly. The family sit around eating dinner, and Lisa laments eating the same thing every Thursday, as well as the same thing every Friday; she fundamentally needs intellectual stimulation and novelty in a way Homer doesn’t. Lest you start thinking Lisa’s above everyone else, her way of getting to go to a sushi restaurant involves nagging Homer like the eight year old she is.

At the sushi place, the Simpsons are subject to culture shock, as well as subjecting the sushi place to themselves. Homer is, obviously, the least enthusiastic, but ends up loving it the most, eating literally everything on the menu. We also meet a bunch of characters, including an anesthesiologist named after Simpsons producer Richard Sakai (who wrote quite a few Simpsons comics) who belts out a good tune at karaoke, and … a trainee sushi chef named Toshiro.

What follows is essentially a miniature tragedy, as multiple people make a series of decisions that leads to the awful events that befall Homer. Firstly, Homer orders the blowfish, ignoring the waiter’s protest; the master sushi chef decides to duck out to mack on Mrs Krabappel (her love life hasn’t been the subject of plots yet, but the groundwork is laid (HAH!) here) and Toshiro is unable to convince him to come back out. Finally, during the moment of intense concentration, Homer yells out “I want fugu!”, distracting the chef. It’s only once the chef comes back out that he realises what’s happened. Homer is rushed to the hospital and told he has 24 22 hours to live.

Surprisingly, this episode develops the structure of episodes like “Moaning Lisa”, riffing on a single theme for the length of an act, in this case “What does Homer do with his last day alive?”. There are three things that make it work: firstly, it doesn’t come completely out of nowhere. Aside from the tragic buildup, Homer was our centre of gravity for the first act, so we’re not being flung from one idea to another. Secondly, this is a very vivid theme choice, one that inherently allows Homer to show his unique personality. Finally, much like High Noon, the ticking clock scenario adds weight to every second, as Homer is forced to choose what’s important to him.

Of course, this is a comedy, so this also leads to some of the darkest comedy the show has done, right from the cut from Homer promising to watch the sunrise with Marge, to Homer slamming the alarm off and falling asleep again, to Homer waking up at 11:30, exasperated that Marge let him sleep. His first priority is, charmingly, spending time with his children, and even the fact that this is the Worst Family In America can’t prevent Homer’s good intentions from shining through.

I’ve been thinking lately about why the black comedy of The Simpsons, the part of it that leads to us making The Avocado jokes, is so appealing. Obviously, it’s cynical, based on the idea that things are shit and are never really gonna get better, but I think maybe there’s something life-affirming about it. When Homer tells Bart his three little sentences that get you through life, they might be craven and selfish, but we can recognise the genuine fatherly affection that comes through. Maybe there’s two halves to it – the comfort in being told “yes, you’re right, things are shit…” combined with the unspoken second half, “… but you can survive it, and you can do okay,” something that’s clearer when Homer sings along with Lisa’s saxophone playing.

The story shifts when Homer goes to make peace with his father, and Grampa turns out to be really needy, using up quite a few of his last hours. When Homer speeds home, he ends up arrested and forced to turn to Barney to bail him out. At home, Marge waits for her dying husband to come back, and we get one of the most hilariously bleak jokes anyone has ever made.

“Why are we waiting for Dad?”
“Because we love your father and enjoy his company.”
“… Why are we really waiting for Dad?”

Barney manages to whine Homer into one last beer – he’s really unsympathetic at this stage of the show. After a heartfelt opening up to his friends, Homer realises the time and flees home, abandoning the car when they get a flat tire. When he gets home, he realises there’s no time to even have dinner, and simply kisses each of his children goodbye like he’s late for work, rushing up to bed to fvck his wife.

Marge reads Homer a poem first, and this is enough to cause him to slow down and reflect on what he’s losing. After they majestically hump, Homer leaves Marge to sleep and more sincerely kisses his children goodbye. With nothing else to do, Homer turns to the Bible, as narrated by Larry King (the producers’ third choice after Bruce Springsteen and William Shatner). Unfortunately, the Bible is very very boring, and Homer skips through half of it and falls asleep.

We’re given a long, sad zoom in on Homer facing the window away from us, which would be a terribly sad implication of Homer’s death if Larry King weren’t babbling about the NBA over the top of it. Marge wakes up alone, and finds his body in the chair, and gives us the most tearjerking-yet-triumphant context for the phrase “His drool… it’s warm!”, as it turns out Homer has survived the poison. She happily wakes him up, and after some initial confusion he realises he’s lived! For maximum effect, watch the scene imagining an eight year old earnestly believing Homer had died.

Homer vows to live life to it’s fullest, and we get the other great dark joke of the episode: a cut to him eating pork rinds while watching bowling. We survive. We’re not very good at it, but we survive.

Chalkboard Gag: “I will not cut corners”, followed by ditto marks.
Couch Gag: The couch falls back, and Maggie pops up.

This episode was written by Wesley Archer and directed by Nell Scovell, who delivers both solid emotional work, and goofier faces – I love his expressions for Moe realising he’s been phone pranked again. Songs played at karaoke include “Gypsies, Tramps, And Thieves” and “Theme From Shaft”.The sushi restaurant is on Elm Street, a reference to the Nightmare On Elm Street film series. Homer references The Graduate when banging on the window. The episode’s title is a reference to Dr Seuss’ book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

There’s another reference to the five stages of grief (which, again, doesn’t work like that – they don’t all happen in that order and they’d all necessarily happen at all) that mainly works because Homer is emotional enough to do that. Also, the “Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today” notepad comes back.

First Appearances: Akira, the Japanese waiter played by George Takei.
Biggest laugh:

blowfish2.gif

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