The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Thirteen, “Selma’s Choice”

I will confess that Selma episodes have never been my favourite. In general, I like Marge’s sisters in small doses, dropping some barb about Homer to punctuate a scene (e.g. “Homer’s Triple Bypass” has a great gag where they’re completely indifferent to his heart attack). Partially it’s because I find the whole ‘asshole sister/mother-in-law’ thing to be a sexist stereotype – I don’t think the writers are maliciously saying anything bad about women, they’re just indulging in a bad TV cliche. But even if I do roll with this and treat them as individual women who just happen to hate their sister’s husband, they’re still miserable assholes to be around. It’s what made Selma-centric episodes hard to enjoy, because if being a joyless asshole doesn’t make even you happy, then what’s the point?

(You can compare her with, say, Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, who is four times the asshole Selma could hope to be and is much more entertaining, because she clearly gets a big thrill out of it. Hell, compare her to Patty, who seems completely reconciled to her MacGuyver-watching chainsmoking Homer-hating life)

So I went into this expecting to basically apologise for not liking the episode that much, only to find myself genuinely moved by Selma’s plight when her spinster great-aunt Gladys passes away, leaving behind a message not to die alone and without children. Knowing how women are bombarded with the message to have children and have children young, I love how the episode quietly stresses that this is a personal desire of Selma’s – Patty gets the same message with the same intensity and seems to have forgotten about it by the time they’re driving from the funeral home, making it clear that Gladys simply forced Selma to think about something she tries not to think about.

Some of my emotion in the story comes from having increased empathy for older women, with the episode laying out a lot of the problems single older women have trying to conceive; we’ve collectively moved on from video dating services, but they’re still pretty much the same, and her desperate attempts at seducing both younger and older men are painfully sad, not just for their outcome but because we know and she knows that these are her only options – even turning to artificial insemination risks getting a Barney child. Charmingly, this is where the Simpson family come in – post-Golden episodes that turn to a side character constantly have to find ways to work the family in, which can often make it feel like the character is randomly meddling in, say, Comic Book Guy’s love life, but the family become crucial when Selma takes the kids to Duff Gardens.

I’ve often described plot devices on The Simpsons as dry runs for the Golden era, and I thought going in that this would be a dry run for Itchy & Scratchy Land; it’s a little true but the fact that this place is supported by a beer company rather than an animation studio gives it a very different satirical edge, with my favourite jokes being the literal beer goggles (that also affect Bart’s hearing for some reason) and the ever-delightful Surly, a man either hired for his personality or extremely committed to the role. From a plot perspective, this place gives Selma a chance to try out being a Parent Or Guardian for the day.

The main reason I found myself liking this episode was because I can see my own current desires and fears in hers. Like her, I would dearly like to have children; like her, I’m watching my peers having had families for over or nearly a decade and feeling envy; like her, I feel to an extent like I’ve missed the boat here (although it’s different for a twenty-seven year old man than a forty-something woman, obviously); like her, I occasionally get the chance to ‘parent’ someone’s kid and find myself falling short. The Simpsons has always been cynical about family, knowing that it’s so much harder than TV ever made it out to be and that nobody ever really is good enough, and here it plays out that sort of thing from the outside. And it has often played family as a comfortable cushion to fall back on to deal with the crushing failures of life; here, it plays Jub-Jub the iguana as a cushion to fall back on to deal with the failure of family.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not yell “she’s dead” during roll call.
Couch Gag: The family gets caught in a net trap.

This episode was written by David M Stern and directed by Carlos Baeza. Baeza creates my all-time favourite “Homer and his brain” moment by staging it completely differently – rather than zooming in on Homer’s forehead, he shows a mental projection of Homer of his shoulder, facing the wrong way as if he’s leaning over, and even throwing a tiny zoom-in when he says the punchline. It’s such a perfect demonstration of those moments when your brain throws a hilarious one-liner out at the wrong time (and Homer laughing at something inappropriately is something that cracks me up in general). Also, the animation of Lisa’s hallucination of Selma is incredibly disturbing.

Moleman continues his high lines-to-laughs ratio. “You’re reading the wine list, sir.” / “Very good.”

I don’t often draw attention to the signs, but “Put your sperm in our hands” got a snigger out of me.

Selma gets an all-time satirical observation: “Anything this bad has to be educational.”

Marge reminisces about Great-Aunt Gladys, only to end up thinking about Prince Of Tides. Gladys’ collection of potato chips is a reference to Myrtle Young’s appearance on The Tonight Show. The singers at Duff Gardens are a parody of Up With People, though they work well as a general parody of that kind of thing (they made me think of Hi-Five). Homer and Bart sing “Ding-Dong, The Witch Is Dead” from Wizard Of Oz. Gladys reads “The Road Not Taken” by Bobby Frosty. Duff Gardens is a parody of Busch Gardens. The ride that Lisa drinks water on is a parody of “It’s A Small World”. Lisa’s hallucination is a reference to Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Lisa’s quote “I am the lizard queen!” is a reference to Jim Morrison’s poem “Celebration Of The Lizard”. Selma sings “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”, a reference to the season four finale of Murphy Brown.

First Appearances: N/A
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