Let me tell you, I was looking forward to covering this little masterpiece, a genuine Top Ten, maybe even a Top Five; “Last Exit To Springfield” might be the most popular episode of the show, but I would argue “Homer The Vigilante” is a perfect episode, one where the concept is a perfect fit with the show’s skillset and world, and where each beat is perfectly connected in an unfolding twenty minutes of perfect madness. The central premise is that a cat burglar has come to Springfield, and you couldn’t ask for a better setup for either story or jokes (at least one for every character!); we start out zoomed in on our eponymous family, then we zoom out on the burglar’s effect on the whole town, then back in on Homer as he leads the vigilante group. A little hallmark of post-Golden Simpsons is arbitrarily working the family into plots for no clear reason beyond their name being on the show (like, why is Homer helping Skinner win back Edna?); this story pushes forward effortlessly, where each turn in the story feels logical, which only makes the absurdity funnier.
The episode has two satirical points, the first being how quickly Homer abuses his power. Angry mobs have long been one of the show’s staples, but this is one of the better riffs on that theme; Homer and the mob are initially driven by a genuine desire to do good, even being kicked off by Ned Flanders, the show’s anthropomorphic personification of neighbourly goodness. Homer himself is set off by a desire to get Lisa’s saxophone back, which is charming in and of itself even without the edge it adds to the satirical aspect; Homer genuinely has something he should be doing, but he’s too caught up in power and laziness to get the job done. I think my favourite sharp point the episode makes is when Homer kicks up that guy’s leaves for burning leaves without a permit when he does have one; real life mob justice has had so many victims unfairly targeted by mobs who’ve mistook them for the actual bad guy.
The other satirical point is ageism, with the cat burglar turning out to be the Retirement Castle’s newest resident, Molloy, and he’s caught by Grampa. I think this point was a logical result of the plot that the crew just rolled with, because it’s undermined at literally every turn in a way that the first isn’t; Lisa’s “Who will police the police?” sets up a joke but she isn’t just told to shut up. To be clear, “I’ve had my moment” is one of the funniest jokes in the episode and I love how seriously the show doesn’t take it; I enjoy any show that refuses to devolve into lecturing.
I often remark on lines that passed into the public consciousness, but this episode feels embedded in my brain! In the specific, “On one of my frequent trips to the ground” is exactly the kind of line I try to write all the time, a precise delivery of undignified content, but the straight-faced, fast-paced absurdity warped or created my sense of humour; it’s almost musical, bouncing from line to line, punchlines expertly tripping up a helpless viewer (“SOMEONE ELSE! SOMEONE ELSE!” / “I’m someone else!” / “He’s right!”). I think one of the great influences it had on me is how it never lingers on a joke, each quip getting in, doing its job, and getting out for the next one. It feels like a Rube Goldberg of comedy, a series of dominoes falling right up until “No, no, dig up, stupid.”
Chalkboard Gag:”I am not authorised to fire substitute teachers.”
Couch Gag: The family explode, leaving only Maggie’s pacifier.
This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jim Reardon, and it says something that I don’t think this is Swartzwelder’s true masterpiece. Sam Neill guest stars as Molloy, and he is a huge Simpsons fan who considers this a career high point; I love his charming, kindhearted, intelligent deadpan that’s just barely broken on his exasperated directions.
Molloy is a riff on David Niven’s performance as AJ Raffles in Raffles. The music in the opening scene is from The Pink Panther. Flanders comments that the thief took his Shroud of Turin beach towels (which cracks me up). Apu on the roof of the Kwik-E-Mart is a reference to the LA riots of ‘92. Homer’s dream of riding the bomb is a reference to Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, and I love that the reference is undermined with a sign. Homer’s vigilante story at dinner is a reference to the Flannery O’Connor short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. Homer and Skinner’s scene in front of the museum is a reference to Dragnet. The entire end sequence is a reference to It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The reporters politely watching dogs tearing out Wiggum’s jugular is definitely in the ballpark of that classic “politely applauding something absurd” gag the show went to so often.
The only bum note in the entire thing is that Marge is seen in the hole at the end despite being the one person in the town who wouldn’t do that.
“Bart’s pain is funny, but mine isn’t!” is such a wonderful line, very applicable and hilarious because it’s true.
Iconic Moments: 6 “Yes I would, Kent.” | Homer dancing to the jug. | “I’ll be Cue Ball.” | “I’unno. Coast guard?” | “Forfty percent of all people know that.” | “Any sign of the burglar yet?” | “Dig up, stupid!”