The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode Sixteen, “Homer vs Patty and Selma”

The relationship between Homer and Marge’s two sisters is a cultural cliche that’s taken on a life of its own. It’s the cliche of a man hating his mother-in-law transferred to his sisters-in-law, and I often find it’s a reflexive sexism mixed with terrible emotional awareness – a man meets his mother-in-law and she’s mean to him so he immediately decides she’s just a fucking bitch, or at least that’s how these stories play out (see also: the bitch ex-wife). The Simpsons doesn’t go in for easy, simple, or thoughtless answers, and there’s a real, understandable reason why Patty and Selma hate Homer: they love Marge. They genuinely provide her with emotional and practical support, they genuinely try to find solutions to her problems (this being a comedy, those solutions are often terrible or absurd, but still). They hate Homer because they feel he’s dragging her down, and, like, they’re not wrong – we’ve seen how Homer is impulsive to the point of being destructive, and we’ve seen him be a lazy asshole. I do love that they still aren’t completely sympathetic for this – the underlying love for Marge is sympathetic, but they cross the line past revenge into cruelty, insulting him at every opportunity and putting him through degrading experiences just for laughs. The line that makes me just straight up not like them is “You are a loser, Homer. And we’re winners. You gotta learn that.” They don’t just try to protect Marge, they have to absolutely destroy Homer past the point that he really deserves.

This is also where the show’s sophisticated understanding of class comes into play. There was discussion on “Sideshow Bob Roberts” with how the show’s takes on specific policies or problems tends to be less interesting or insightful than its exploration of attitudes and philosophies that drive them, and here the show gets a lot of fun from Homer’s particular lower-upper-middle class attitude. Working class life is one where you have two choices – get up and do mind-numbing, backbreaking labour for decades in the hope you can save up enough money to not have to work anymore, or hitting some incredible stroke of good fortune, whether that’s the lottery, investing in the right thing at the right time, or having some brilliant idea. I love how this interacts with Homer’s distinct kind of stupidity, too, because it feels so true to a pervasive attitude towards hard work and genius. Nikola Tesla was a genius so far ahead of his time that his work is still ahead of our time, but he also earned a degree in engineering from Austrian Polytechnic. His level of inspiration was incredible, but it was the extension of putting together a lot of dry data, and Homer somehow expects to jump straight to the inspiration without any of the data. It reminds me of Elizabeth Holmes trying to be the next Steve Jobs, of shows like The Event trying to cash in on the success of LOST. Admittedly, this is an idea slightly bigger than class, the idea of someone trying to imitate surface details without understanding the core of how and why something works, but it plays into it in that one of the things holding people back from crossing the class divide is basic human nature. The very things that make people functional on an individual, day-to-day level, are the very things perpetuating injustice.

Meanwhile, Bart randomly decides to play hooky on the one day the school is doing sign-ups for extracurricular sports, and ends up stuck in ballet (which, as my best friend pointed out when we watched the episode, means kids filled up T.S. over ballet). This is a very traditional ‘boy does something girly and ends up enjoying it’ story with some downright predictable Simpsons-style subversion of pop-culture expectations, both in how Bart completely fails to win the respect of his classmates and in how ballet doesn’t save him from injury (indeed, causing it). But I enjoy how it leans in on stuff we’ve been saying about Bart; ballet, a deeply physical art form with a lot of precise technique with a big audience, isn’t too far away from Bart’s pranks, or indeed the Junior Campers. I also enjoy how it explores the way children enforce gender roles and how tough it can be to be a kid wanting to go against the grain (“No, I fear the girls will laugh at me. I fear the boys will beat the living snot out of me.”).

The final act of the episode is some awesome storytelling – Homer’s secret getting out to Marge feels like it happens about a third of the episode before I’d expect, and him reaching his Popeye limit and throwing the sisters out is as satisfying as it is worrying, knowing Homer will have to act fast to get out of debt now, and seeing it come back on him when he has to turn to Patty and Selma to get his licence anyway, which unlike a lot of Simpsons twists doesn’t feel like a cheat at all. The climax of the story is the sisters seeing what Marge (and us) have seen all through the show, the way Homer is willing to actively degrade himself for Marge; it’s a repeat of the climax of “War Of The Simpsons” and “Lisa’s Pony”, and the first act of “Lisa The Beauty Queen”, but this time with Patty and Selma as witnesses to Homer’s decency. It’s a moment where we see Homer completely from the point of view of someone else, and it becomes clear that the things we love about him aren’t completely obvious to the people around him. It’s a way to be reminded of the good Homer does in a way that not only suits the episodic syndicated nature of television at the time, but actively leans in on it. The things that are true about us can be seen and understood by our community.

Chalkboard Gag: I will remember to take my medication.
Couch Gag: The family beam in a la Star Trek.

This episode was written by Brent Forrester and directed by Mark Kirkland. There’s the usual wonderful sense of comic timing, and I really love how spectacular the shot revealing Homer’s secret to Marge is. From a writing perspective, this has a really great example of the show knowing exactly when and how to break reality with the whole “Good thing you turned on that TV, Lisa!” scene, which is gutbustingly funny and somehow manages to break reality without breaking reality too much. You also have Mel Brooks showing up as himself in a scene that’s not only logical to the story (as opposed to Pelé wandering onscreen) but a genuinely funny satire about people overquoting comedy, satire that completely fell on deaf ears. Susan Sarandon guest stars as Bart’s ballet teacher, and like all the best guest stars she genuinely worked on her character, including the accent.

I notice Homer isn’t as enthusiastic about burning money as Krusty was. Beloved commentor Never Gonna Register has observed how funny Marge’s straight man lines can be, and this has a lot of examples he regularly uses (“Is this projection accurate?”). This is also a rare and wonderfully example of her doing what Bart or Homer usually do and becoming even stranger and funnier when pushed to the background (my favourite line being her genuine sorrow in only having Nescafe), which in this case is because the whole plot depends on her having to act as if everything is normal. I never got the cliche “birds and the bees” talk, so Bart’s understanding of birds and bees is my entire conception of what that talk is.

You can tell this is a completely grounded episode because there are no clear references outside of characters quite literally referencing Mel Brooks’ career.

Iconic Moments: “Homer’s a very complicated man.” / “WRONG!”
Biggest Laugh: There are two separate jokes that sent me to the floor in hysterics when I was a kid – Homer joining in on Patty and Selma’s evil laughter (“Cut him a check and get him the hell out of here!”), and Homer yelling “I never want to see you again! You either.” But the answer for this one is:

I’ve decided to set up a Ko-Fi page. Think of me as an internet busker essayist – if you like my work, consider chucking me a couple of bucks.