In TV criticism, there’s a pretty common cliche – that I myself use all the time – that a mediocre episode of a particular TV show is still better than most television, and this episode is a great demonstration of why that cliche is so useful, because now we have our first “Reposted Drunk Napoleon Comments” moment where I pedantically criticise a Simpsons episode that otherwise great. In this case, the problem I have is extremely simple: it only feels like two thirds of an episode.
In the A-plot, Homer accidentally causes a meltdown in the plant, and this setpiece is some incredible work, jumping from Homer’s stupidity (almost the line of the episode: “It’s my problem! WE’RE DOOMED!”), to Burns callously saving his own skin (almost the line of the episode: when Smithers asks where his radiation suit is, Burns, clad in a radiation suit labelled ‘Smithers’, snaps “Oh, how the hell should I know?”), to news satire as Burns cheerfully tries to cover up the meltdown (almost the, uh, shot of the episode: Burns’ file photo has a lot more hair) and Professor Frink explains how horribly, horribly doomed everyone is. We already have a bit of the show’s elastic continuity, as Homer was apparently the safety technician when he was hired, rather than being promoted recently as in “Homer’s Odyssey”, and it works here because the gag is funny and tossed-off enough to work it. The whole thing is resolved when Homer finally throws his hands up and presses a button at random, which saves the whole day.
Meanwhile, in the B-Plot, Bart discovers that he missed out on Milhouse’s birthday because Milhouse’s mother has forbidden him from hanging out with Bart, thinking him a bad influence. This is an extremely compelling idea for a Bart story, because a) it’s an excellent riff on the early controversy of the show, and b) kids being banned from hanging out because of influence is a very common problem; it pays off almost immediately when Bart tries to Bart his way out of it (“How many times have I told you, never listen to your mother.” and “Whatever she’s paying you, I’ll double it!”).
The Simpson men are left depressed by these events – Bart, predictably, is sad about not having his friend, but Homer is more interesting for feeling genuine guilt about being a fraud. It makes sense that he’d be embarrassed about being made employee of the month and basically farmed out to Shelbyville to act as a motivational speaker, but I really love that he’s embarrassed about Lisa suddenly admiring him – like it’s worse to have his daughter be proud of him for something he didn’t do than for her to be ashamed of what he does do.
Bart’s story is resolved when Marge, seeing the pain her son is in, goes directly to Luanne to appeal to her – all these two boys have is each other, and it’s cruel to take that away from them, and Bart happily grabs his BB gun to go play with Milhouse. Meanwhile, Homer’s is resolved when, during his motivational speech, another meltdown happens, and he’s asked to save the day again, only for everyone to learn he’s a fraud who saved the day with chance, cementing his reputation as a lucky boob.
Both of these stories just seem to have cut off at the top of the second act. Earlier in the episode, Smithers was exasperated and jealous of Homer, having amongst other things lost his precious parking space (great gag when Homer stupidly dings Mr Burns’ car and thinks he can get away with it); one can see the show building on that in some way later, such as having Smithers be the one to bring Homer down; more importantly, Homer’s fall from grace doesn’t seem to have affected his relationship with Lisa at all, and I wish we’d seen them having to reconcile over Homer’s fraud. Meanwhile, Bart didn’t actually do anything in his own story. Him grabbing the gun feels like great setup for act three, in which he thoughtlessly does something that puts Milhouse in danger and they’re forced to reconcile.
Of course, having a great plot isn’t necessary for having a good episode of The Simpsons, and having a sentimental ending definitely isn’t needed; what’s needed is a great series of gags, and this episode delivers; aside from that great opening act, it has my absolute favourite riff on “imagine the audience naked”, and the running gag of Homer imagining his name in the dictionary gives the episode a wonderful final second, even if the story still feels like it should keep going.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not squeak chalk.
Couch Gag: An alien sitting on the couch pulls a trap door and escapes before the family comes in.
This episode was written by Howard Gerwitz and directed by Mark Kirkland. Gerwitz was responsible for the show’s first use of the word “ass”, which caused hell for the censors, and Milhouse’s last name, Van Houten, which did not. Kirkland made an effort to make the Nuclear Power Plant look as good as he could make.
Smithers confesses his love for Burns this episode, and he’s starting to sound gayer and gayer. I also think this is the first real case of Chief Wiggum’s bumbling; he’s made mistakes in press conferences but his bungled robbery is the first downright Keystone Cops situation he’s been in.
First Appearances: Luanne Van Houten, a cameo from an athlete