The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Two, “A Streetcar Named Marge”

At least one of the first few episodes of any given season of this show tend to feel like a throwback to the previous season; this one feels like it reaches all the way back to season one. This is partially a side effect of the fact that it zooms in on Marge, the least wacky and least dreamy and most repressed of the Simpson clan. I find it interesting that her stories, at least at this early stage, involve her interest in artistic pursuits – season two’s “Brush With Greatness” brought up her love of painting, and here she gets a part in a community production of a musical based on A Streetcar Named Desire. I think this is part of what makes her stories feel not just less wacky but grimmer.

Homer and Bart are both impulsive. Homer will open up a story doing something sweet but dumb, and spend the rest of the episode paying for it; Bart is cannier, so his impulses are based in schemes and pranks that blow up in his face. Lisa is a passionate idealist, so her stories begin with a grand gesture that she’ll follow through on no matter the cost to herself. Marge’s stories are different; she’ll do something relatively normal, and then slowly reveal the emotion bubbling up inside her. It’s fun to empathise with Homer and Bart, and it feels great to empathise with Lisa, while Marge’s episodes feel like a little more work. But the emotional payoff is strong, and I love having this as part of the spectrum of Simpsons emotion.

But this isn’t just a throwback; this episode finds a way to intergrate Marge more fully within the show’s pop-culture-obsessed worldview, and it does it by literally putting Marge in the role of Blanche DuBois, and then it goes one step further by turning a classic psychological drama into a broad musical (that’s one of those jokes that goes over your head as a kid but becomes hilarious as an adult – I still haven’t seen Streetcar, but I’ve seen enough stage musicals to get the jokes from that angle). Marge’s reactions to Blanche bring out her own character – “Couldn’t she just take his abuse with gentle good humour?” is one of the definitive sad Marge lines, right next to her awe at being asked “Where would you like to go today?”, and the ridiculousness of the play injects a good dose of wackiness.

I also like how the play brings out the sense of community in the town. We’ve seen the townspeople come together before – not even counting the angry mobs, I think of Grampa getting people to line up and pitch ideas in “Old Money” – but this is a community project, and it feels like the first time that we get a bunch of characters with independent lives who all happen to come together, with Chief Wiggum, Apu, Otto, and Lionel Hutz all providing quick jokes that make this town feel, if not real, at least lived-in (my favourite is Hutz, who is simultaneously running a class-action lawsuit against the director on behalf of everyone who didn’t make it and appearing in the play).

Of course, this episode is also, in a roundabout way, a Homer episode, showing his brutish stupidity from Marge’s perspective and putting him next to Stanley. He blunders all through the episode (best joke on that theme: his attack on the snack machine), stepping all over Marge’s feelings (best joke on that theme: “Sounds interesting!”). A common criticism of the show is that Marge and Homer aren’t really good for each other and she should have left him years ago, and this episode contains jumping off point for all three of my personal responses to that. The extent to which I get it is in Homer’s actions all through this episode, snottily whining throughout the whole process, and I don’t think the ending is fully earned – more on that in a moment.

But I also think it’s something of the point of the show at this stage, that Homer and Marge have been trapped by their world and their circumstances; the sheer effort of splitting up at this stage isn’t worth (or at least doesn’t seem worth) what they’d get out of it. So much of the deeper emotion of this show comes from accepting the limitations of the world for the sake of the good things in it, and Homer and Marge’s marriage is as part of that as Lisa’s potential going to waste. Which brings me to my third reaction, which is being as genuinely moved by Homer’s reaction to the play as Marge is. Homer is capable of genuine emotional reflection and of making enormous sacrifices for the sake of his family, and where the ending of this falls down is that it leans entirely on the former and then asks nothing of the latter from him; it would mean more to me if Homer genuinely took an action based on his reflection at the end there.

Meanwhile, Marge drops Maggie off at “Ayn Rand’s School For Tots”, another joke that goes over kids’ heads but cracks up adults. I’m always a sucker for Rugrats-esque shenanigans, and I’m doubly a sucker for parodies of The Great Escape; there’s a bit of satire about low-quality childcare and a particularly American attitude of trying to make your kid the best at everything, but for the most part it’s just some fun “babies being funny” fun.

Chalkboard Gag: My name is not “Dr Death”
Couch Gag: The couch swallows the family, revealing itself as a monster.

This episode was written by Jeff Martin and directed by Rich Moore. A song making fun of New Orleans offended many New Orleansers. The episode was conceived a full two seasons before it aired; originally, it was going to be about Homer being part of a production of 1776. Between the musical numbers and the Maggie subplot, this was one of the most ambitiously animated episodes of the show. I think the work really paid off.

All this and I never even mentioned Jon Lovitz returning as both the director of the play, and his sister the daycare centre manager! He hams it up magnificently (“Did I expect too much from fourth graders? The review, ‘play enjoyed by all’, speaks for itself.”).

Once again, pushing Bart to the background only serves to make him funnier. Using Marge’s southern accent practice as an excuse to talk Cockney gets points for originality, but I also get a kick out him taking a sequence in the musical totally literally (cue Lisa: “I think it’s supposed to symbolise her descent into madness.”).

Obviously, Oh, Streetcar is based on A Streetcar Named Desire, and Maggie’s subplot contains many references to The Great Escape and Ayn Rand’s work (favourite: a poster that says “A is A”) and a few to Mission Impossible. When Homer picks up Maggie from daycare, the unsettling image of babies sucking pacifiers is a spoof of The Birds, with Alfred Hitchcock making a cameo. As Homer watches Marge in the play, he fondles a shredded playbill, a reference to Citizen Kane.

First Appearances: N/A
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