9. Life on the Fast Lane

(originally aired March 18, 1990)
This episode really, really surprised me. This season has showcased the Simpson family in a more serious light than later on, treating its internal issues like social ostracization, depression and economic woes in a pensive manner. But this episode is beyond what we’ve seen: the last half of it, apart from the slightly exaggerated nature of Jacques’ character, is extremely dramatic, a picture of a happy marriage quietly falling apart. It’s incredibly jarring and extremely effective. The show’s been on for over twenty years, we’ve had so many Homer-Marge marital trouble episodes, we know nothing is going to happen to them. The fact that I felt real tension and doubt from this show is a testament to how good it is. It may not be the funniest, but it’s definitely one of the most powerful Simpsons episodes ever.

We start innocently enough: Homer has forgotten Marge’s birthday, and with a mindlessly insensitive act presents her with a gift of a bowling ball, one drilled for his fingers and with his name on it. As an act of passive-aggressive retaliation, Marge decides to use the ball for herself. At the bowling alley, she has a run-in with Jacques, a deep breathy-voiced Lothario with a wavering French accent, voiced by Albert Brooks. Like Bob, Brooks seems to have a lot of improv in this, and commands each scene he’s in, which works for his commanding character, with a quivering Marge overcome by his sense of presence. As I said, Jacques provides the episode’s main outlet of comedy. The number of great lines are endless: “Throw, damn you!” “My mind says stop, but my heart, and my hips, cry proceed,” “Your laughter is like music to me, but if you laugh at what I say next, I will die,” and of course, his immortal description of brunch: “It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end. You don’t get completely what you would at breakfast, but you get a good meal!”

As great a performance as Brooks gives, one cannot ignore the fantastic jobs Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner bring to the table. Kavner plays against Jacques with a undertone of worry but still excitement about this potential affair, and Castellaneta really makes you feel for her dumb oaf of a husband. There’s an unbelievable scene that feels like it’s from some kind of psychodrama. With bizarre, maudlin non-Simpsons music, we see a despondent Homer take off his overshirt in his bedroom. He looks over at a picture of him and his wife sniffling, then notices something in the drawer. It’s the bowling glove Jacques had bought for her. With a confused wavering tone to his voice, Homer reads the sewed inscription, “‘For Marge’?” It’s fucking unreal. The building tension is so dramatic, so unlike the wackier Simpsons we’re more accustomed to. A later scene is just as amazing, when Homer walks in the kitchen to find Marge making her husband a sandwich. He goes up to reach for her hand, pauses, then grabs his lunchbox instead. In a so true to Homer moment, his flattery of his wife is represented in complimenting her peanut-butter-and-jelly making technique, and the fact that such a silly piece of dialogue is so heart-breaking is a testament to how strong these characters are. Backtracking a bit, there’s a fantastic sequence of a daydream Marge has of her and Jacques in a dream dance parlor. It’s all done in grey tones with some cool reds and blues, with scattered imagery of bowling balls and pins. There’s also a Jacques’ collection of trophies, which as he claims, are not for bowling, but love-making. It’s one of the most visually arresting sequences in the show’s history.

The ending is obvious of course: rather than go to Jacques’ apartment, Marge surprises her husband at work, where Homer sweeps her off her feet, and makes a grand announcement to his co-workers: “I’m going to the back seat of my car, with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for ten minutes!” Given how much has built up to this moment, it’s really an emotionally charged end. It’s a truly earned happy ending, after one of the most devastatingly real and emotional Simpsons ever. It may not be joke-heavy, but it’s definitely my favorite of the season thus far.

Tibdits and Quote
– I love Homer’s desperate search through the mall to find Marge a gift (“Too salty!” to the Jerky Hut, “Too exciting!” to Girdles ‘N’ Such Fancy Lingerie).
– The Singing Sirloin must do some good business. Four singers per table? That’s got to be some big payroll.
– Marge’s run-in with the bowling alley employee is great, with her indignation of being asked her shoe size and his continued pointing at policy signs. “Can’t bowl without a lane!”
– Jacques’ character is comprised of so many things: the great design with his constantly squinted eyes, like he’s always looking out for women to seduce, the great voice by Mr. Brooks as I’ve mentioned, his animated movements, always moving in towards Marge, overpowering her of sorts, and the great music cue associated with him.
– Homer taking care of the kids in Marge’s absence gives the episode some needed laughs (“Does the time always drag like this?”) Also Lisa’s descriptions of the eight stages kids go through during their parents’ marital squabbles, borrowed from a strip of Matt Groening’s Life in Hell.
– First appearance of Helen Lovejoy, who, for some reason, introduces herself as “the gossipy wife of the minister.” She’s animated with very quick movements, almost like a hummingbird flitting from place to place to nose into people’s business. Jacques has a great line when she leaves: “You have a lovely friend there. Let’s hope something runs over her.”
– Jacques preparing for Marge’s arrival in his bathroom is a great scene, a man truly in love with himself. His parting line, “You’re really going to strike out tonight!” ends up being oh so true.


6 responses to “9. Life on the Fast Lane

  1. This, and the Mindy episode, both surprised me at how carefully, but surprisingly (as in, not underplaying it), they dealt with the idea of martial infidelity. While nothing here surprised me more than Homer and Mindy kissing (I recall watching that scene with a girlfriend and her freaking out and going “I CAN’T BELIEVE HE KISSED A WOMAN THAT WASN’T HIS WIFE!” yada yada and then she bitched at me 2 years later when I wasn’t, you know, completely-obviously-totally-super accepting 100% with her going to work in the performing-pornography business; long story, anyway… we broke up), I seem to really recall thinking, ‘Huh, Marge might just cheat on Homer. Pretty crazy.’

    I mean, this isn’t a new concept, especially in 2012, but over 20 years ago and the NINTH episode and they’ve already kinda said and did things most shows would never think to say and do. Having an affair can be a pretty extreme and depressing thing and one I personally understand to an extent but find hard to accept (if that makes sense — I guess I know the difference between what people feel and what is actually right, and I also know some people, you know, don’t and can’t… I guess), and the writers could have made this episode and Marge could forever be kinda, you know, unlikeable. We will see later that if she has ever been distant from Homer, it’s pretty acceptable and understandable, and by now I’m surprised she hasn’t cheated… or at least divorced him finally… either way, by this point, as you said, parts of this episode are fucking unreal — in how real they actually are. As in true-to-life. On a “cartoon”. Shocking and mindblowing shit circa 1989.

    Go, Simpsons.

  2. This episode has my favourite line in the entire show:

    “To the most beautiful moment in life: better than the deed, better than the memory. The moment… of anticipation.”

  3. While I really love this episode for all the stated reasons, especially BArt and Lisa and the “welcome to stage 3 Bart”, with Lisa always trying to one up her brother on being further along (I wondered what stage eight was), I confess it does sort of feel a bit off that Marge and Jack would get on with jack being so pushy, especially after Marge’s arty experience.

    While I can certainly buy Marge falling for a more sensative man, and someone manipulative preying on that, jack just feels a bit too over the top for it to work, then again, maybe that’s the point? That this is so very obvious where as if Jack were a more realistic character it would’ve worked less.
    Either way, great episode.

  4. Maybe not a masterpiece in a Simpson way, but still a writing masterpiece. This episode is one of the best piece of comedy you’ll ever find.
    Above all I desperately love the tone of season 1, and I even like some of the characters better than their season 3-9 characterization(still awesome, obviously), especially Lisa and Bart: Lisa had more of a blues and lovably neurotic vision of life then later, where she becomes more of an intellectual and a nerd; and Bart in season 1 was a unmanageable pain in the ass, while his classic personality becomes more a Dennis the Menace of the 90s.

  5. I’ve never been a huge fan of this episode, but it does have its moments. I love when Jacque loses his accent when shouting onion rings and as you said, the dream sequence is animated so beautifully.

    It is interesting to see how a show did a possible affair episode in its first season, but then goes to show how strong the bond between Homer and Marge really is even to this day. The scene when Helen just stays at their table for a bit wanting to see something happen is also intriguing. I totally agree with Jacque about her needing to be run over.

    The stages of divorce aspect was hilarious, although I will admit it reminded me of the stages of death from the blowfish episode that will occur later.

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