The Simpsons, Season Two, Episode Eighteen, “Brush With Greatness”

The weird thing about not only revisiting The Simpsons from the start, but having to think about each episode in detail, is discovering how much I actually like Marge and her stories. Marge, at least to me, feels like a forgotten Simpson, mainly remembered as a beaten-down doormat alternately moaning about and enabling her husband’s wackiness; the Classic era of the show spun not just pathos but weirdness out of her squarishness (think of that time she always about giving her kids potatoes).

During the first season, I frequently complained about episodes that started off with one thing in one act and switched to something completely different in the second – “Homer’s Odyssey” was a particularly bad one, starting with Bart on a field trip to the nuclear power plant, only to turn to Homer’s depression. This episode does largely the same thing, but pulls it off a little better – the opening covers the Simpsons visiting Mt. Splashmore, which causes Homer to realise how fat he is and vow to go on a diet; it’s only at the top of the second act that he discovers Marge’s paintings of Ringo Starr. Partly, this is me just being forgiving of something funny and familiar – Bart and Lisa’s relationship is the closest any show has come to depicting my own relationship to my sister, in that they can be mortal enemies right up until they share a goal, in which case they become a relentless machine – but it also helps that it feels like a natural evolution.

This begins another common Simpsons plot, in which Marge is encouraged to chase her dreams by her free-spirited daughter (we’ve been doing this so long now I’ve lost track of if that’s already happened before). Once again, Marge had some idealistic dream of hers beaten down by someone more powerful than her; this time, an art teacher brutally mocked her paintings of her crush, Ringo Starr in favour of another guy’s cliche sad clown painting (I wonder if that was written from experience); she sent the painting to Starr to get his opinion and was crushed when he never responded. In the present, Marge decides to take up Lisa’s idea of taking a community college course to pick her hobby back up.

Jon Lovits returns as Marge’s teacher, Lombardo, who is impressed and encouraging (though to be fair, he’s also impressed and encouraging to maintenance guy). Marge picks up new tricks and finds her talent blossoming; Lombardo loves her work, seeing her bring out the inner beauty of what she paints (including Homer in his underwear asleep on the couch), and he tells her he’ll put her painting in the upcoming art exhibition; she ends up being judged the best.

(A little thing I like about this part of the story is that it shows a mixture of talent, hard work, and vision that lead to Marge’s success. A lot of stories about artistic success make the process look like magic, where the character just instantly, say, paints masterpieces; here, she has some initial talent, plus a new skill we see her put into process, plus the fact that she’s painting something we know is important to her.)

Meanwhile, Mr Burns has donated an extraordinary amount to have a new wing of the local museum built, and wants a portrait painted of himself; his short temper and evilness has alienated every artist aside from Marge, and she wants to rise to the challenge of bringing out the inner beauty of the evil plutocrat. Unfortunately, he’s an evil plutocrat, and he stays with her for a very long time as she tries everything to see the good in him. Delightfully, we see a pre-gay Mr Smithers; someone who chooses, against all reason, to love Mr Burns.

At her lowest point, Ringo Starr finally gets back to her about her painting (his performance in his cameo has some serious Thomas The Tank Engine vibes to it, which only makes his earnestness about replying to all fanmail even funnier); this is enough to push her into trying even harder to succeed than ever before. Her solution is clever and poignant – she paints a nude figure of him, revealing that underneath Burnsy’s vile evil is a frail old man who is likely to die soon, and he’s a figure who can be empathised with if not sympathised with.

Compared to this, Homer’s story about losing weight is, ironically, light and fluffy; the show would get more mileage out of Homer’s weight and his attempts at self-improvement (or self-sabotage, in the case of “King-Size Homer”, but I don’t think it ever does anything like Marge’s plot ever again, let alone as well.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not hide behind the Fifth Amendment.
Couch Gag: The couch tips over, leaving behind Maggie.

This episode was written by Brian K Roberts, who took the chance to work a Beatle into a story purely so he could meet one, and directed by Jim Reardon. The line to the water slide Homer gets stuck in is a reference to M.C. Escher’s Ascending And Descending. Krusty removes his makeup in a reference to Batman (1989). Homer references Gone With The Wind when making his vow, Rocky when exercising, and The Good, The Bad, And The Uglywhen checking himself on a scale. Andy Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans is seen at the gallery.

First Appearances: N/A
Biggest laugh: “It’s hard to see your inner beauty when you’re yelling at an eight year old girl.”

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