The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Two, “Cape Feare”

So, I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong and handsome. Last week, I remarked that “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” was the only full-episode parody I could think of, and right here, not only do we have an episode-long parody of Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear, and not only is it one of the most iconic episodes of the show, it’s one of my top favourite episodes. You tell me I can only have five episodes of The Simpsons, and this would be one of them. Hell, you tell me I can only have three episodes, and this would make the cut. It’s a good thing “Biggest Laugh” has a fairly objective measure – whatever individual joke made me laugh the longest and loudest – because this is just one moment of absurdity after another.

I prefer to divide the show between pre-Golden Age (1-3), Golden Age (4-8), and post-Golden Age (9+), but some of you divide the Golden Age itself into eras, and from that perspective this feels like a significant next step. As much as this is driven by a specific parody of a specific movie, it also feels like a series of events that could only happen in Springfield (or Terror Lake), with these specific people. Last week, people remarked on liking that episode despite actively disliking the Beatles, and I was disappointed to find that even trying to ignore The Simpsons and taking the film as its own thing still left me feeling Cape Fear was a mediocre Scorsese outing; again, the show takes a few iconic moments (like a family finding a bad guy smoking and laughing in a theatre) and shows how our characters would both do and react to these things. How would Homer react to having to change his name? How would Bart escape a murderer chasing him on a houseboat?

On top of that, Bart and Sideshow Bob’s relationship has gone from a bunch of tropes and genre references into something unique and specific and as iconic as any image the show draws on. This episode has the subtlest recap so far (and possibly out of all of them); rather than flashbacks, the show uses Bob’s parole as a way of conveying necessary information, and so it feels like hating Bart is just something Bob does – birds fly, fish swim, Batman fights crime, and Sideshow Bob hates Bart. The show draws on, plays with, and fuses together so many different images and icons and archetypes that it’s as if they’ve all finally blended into something totally unique, which is the show in a nutshell. Bob started out as a parody of children’s entertainment via parody of TV mysteries, and now he’s fully become Sideshow Bob, archnemesis to Bart Simpson; this is fairly unique amongst Bob episodes in that there’s no real scheme going on, and Bart wins not by solving a crime but by knowing who Bob is, what he can do, and what he wants.

I am, of course, taking this much more seriously than the show does. It’s really just following one simple principle, over and over: Bob is dignified and intelligent, and it’s funny to take that away from him. Kelsey Grammer’s performance is a goddamned powerhouse, committing to every facet of Bob’s character – his rage, his charm, his feyness, his cruelty – and practically floating from one to another within single lines, like his incredible shift during the “urine-soaked hellhole” line; this is a man who is beaten down by life but keeps bouncing back. The show’s perfect understanding of absurd escalation is on fire this episode, with the incredibly specific ways Bob is tortured throughout – “Not the elephants!” is a golden moment, but I get a laugh out of “This coffee’s too hot!” for how unnecessary and out of nowhere it is. I think it’s why Bob works so well as a villain for this show. I think everyone can relate to feeling as if life is specifically singling us out for suffering at some point or another; Bob shows how to endure it with charismatic wit and style.

Chalkboard Gag: The cafeteria deep fryer is not a toy.
Couch Gag: The dancing lineup.

This episode was written by Jon Vitti and directed by Rich Moore. The animation is really up and down this time around; there’s a few weird lip sync issues, and an entire monologue from Grampa that clearly uses the same three or four frames, but there are also a lot of great details, like Ned adjusting his glasses with his finger-claws or Bart waving his arms around as he says “waving your arms around”.

Obviously, the whole thing is a reference to both versions of Cape Fear. Bob getting stepped on by elephants is a direct reference to Wile E Coyote. The Itchy & Scratchy episode parodies James Bond. Psycho is referenced with Bob staying at the Bates Motel, complete with spooky owl. Homer’s newchainsawandhockeymask is a reference to the Friday The 13th films. While travelling, Homer and Bart wear hats in reference to I Love Lucy. Ned’s finger razors reference both Nightmare On Elm Street and Edward Scissorhands.

This episode was featured in multiple “Springfield Murder Mysteries” DVD and video collections despite having neither murder nor a mystery. It frequently lands in people’s Top Ten episodes, and is Hank Azaria’s favourite of all time.

Iconic Moments: 5 “Maybe you all are homosexuals too!” | “The Bart, The!” + “No one who speaks German could be an evil man!” | The rake gag. | “BARTDOYOUWANNASEEMYNEWCHAINSAWANDHOCKEYMASK?” | “Bake him away, toys!” (which is one of the top five quotes me and my best friend use with each other)
Biggest Laugh: