(originally aired January 10, 1991)
Sometimes I wonder what the show would be like had Phil Hartman not been killed. His last appearance was in “Bart the Mother,” an early season 10 episode, about the time shit started to really turn sour. Coincidence? Probably. But can you really imagine Troy McClure showing up in a season 14 episode? I dunno, his characters are just such a staple of high quality the show once had, it would feel weird. But anyway, I mention this because this is the first episode where Phil Hartman guest starred, here voicing one of his two regular characters, and one of the best supporting players ever, Lionel Hutz, questionably accredited (if at all) lawyer. Everything about the character is sleazy, smarmy and undercutting, but he does his dardnest to appear on the level, almost to the point where he’s deluded himself to that effect. With his powder-blue suit, he tries to propagate a just and caring air for himself, and son-of-a-bitch, it almost works. Hartman gives such a phenomenal performance as Hutz, creating a shockingly lovable character out of such a sleazeball.
Lionel Hutz appears, almost from thin air, into the Simpsons’ lives to represent them when Bart is hit off his skateboard at a crosswalk by Mr. Burns’ limousine. Before we get here though, Bart has an out-of-body experience, takes a gilded escalator to heaven (with an angelic announcer voice, done by Hartman), defies instruction as usual, and is sent to Hell for a quick meeting with the Devil, and then is sent back to Earth. This all happens in less than three minutes, by the way. It’s an epic example of Simpsons pacing, nothing feels rushed, all organic, and feels completely within the show’s rights. I’ve always loved the show’s Devil, an impish, almost nerdy creature (with an equally so voice by Harry Shearer), pulling up mortal’s timelines on computerized spreadsheets. When he finds he’s taken Bart prematurely, he chuckles, admonishing, “Boy, is my face red!” Almost seems like kind of a nice guy.
Anyway, back to Earth. When Homer is offered a pathetic no-hard-feelings compensation by his boss, he decides to seek consultation from Hutz, in his convenient office in the middle of the mall. No punches are pulled on the credibility of his character; right as he and Homer sit down, his eyes light up as he hears an ambulance siren in the distance, but figures he’ll have to pass. He then addresses his potential client: “Mr. Simpson, the state bar forbids me from promising you a big cash settlement. But just between you and me, I promise you a big cash settlement.” The settlement in question is a cool million, which Homer immediately responds to. This leads to a follow-up examination of Bart by another fantastic Simpsons character of questionable moral value, Dr. Nick Riviera. Like Hutz, Dr. Nick tries to put forth a smile and a high attitude on his line of work, but not much to disgust his run-down, filth-ridden office. Homer, however, is a-OK with his workplace also located in the mall and framed plaque denoting Dr. Nick as a female body inspector.
With phony bandages and phony testimony, Hutz and Homer are ready to go to court. This looks to be an absolute open-and-shut case, with all sympathy in the room immediately landing on a crippled-looking Bart, and Mr. Burns’ constant outbursts don’t much help his case (“I should be able to run over as many kids as I want!”) An episode highlight is the two sequences of the two accounts of the accident from Bart and Mr. Burns. Bart’s recollection is of an insane psychopathic Burns sadistically mowing Bart down in “his luxury car of death.” Burns’ version, which he is clearly reading from cue cards, is a bright, wonderful tale of his selflessness and good will: off to deliver toys to orphans, a rambunctious Bart runs into his car, and Burn is quick to comfort the child, screaming to the heavens, “Take me! I’m old!!” The jury is not moved, much to Burns’ shock (“You believed his cock-and-bull story!”)
Marge ends up being Hutz and Homer’s undoing, as she is not as quick to tarnish her moral code. Called to the stand, she reveals her feelings on the legitimacy of Dr. Nick’s medical opinions, and of Bart’s mental anguish. Homer is absolutely devastated at this. With the fantastical opening of Heaven and Hell and courtroom shenanigans, the back half of the third act seems a bit out of place, but feels like something that was built toward. Homer is concerned that he’ll never be able to look at his wife the same way again, that to him, she’ll be “the dame that blew [his] one big chance.” The denouement of this is pretty silly and over-the-top, playing against the gasps in unison by Moe and the barflies, but it still manages to be sweet, even though we know the inevitability of Homer realizing his love for Marge will never fade. All in all, it’s a pretty wacky episode, a big part thanks to Hartman’s wonderful work with Hutz, with a sweet, grounded end.
Tidbits and Quotes
– I don’t know why, but I love that the title appears at the opening. This happened in “The Telltale Head” as well, as if it denotes this is a very special episode or something. I also liked that it said “Episode 23,” so I knew I haven’t been miscounting.
– Love the nod to Hieronymus Bosch in the depiction of Hell. It was later repeated in a much much later Treehouse of Horror, which was ruined by some dumb jokes to go with it.
– Man… it’s so hard to pick a great Hutz line since every word he says is so great. It’s just the performance Hartman gives, so loud and commanding, killing with questionable kindness, and even more questionable scruples, not above chasing down a gurney rolling down a hospital hallway (“What’s that, a broken neck? Great!”)
– Great early bit of Burns’ lack of strength: “Tangle with me, and I’ll crush you like a paper cup!” He strains and strains but eventually does it, and seems oh so satisfied of his achievement.
– Oh God, I LOVE the sequence of Burns imagining the “fallout” of him firing Homer after hitting Bart: the newspapers reading “Burns Fires Ungrateful Employee” and “Hooray For Burns!” For some reason, the voice-over of Burns making positive noises makes it.
– We also get the first appearance of Mr. Burns’ lawyer, still unnamed to this day. When he was released in action figure form (unbelievable), he was just dubbed “Blue-Haired Lawyer.” He’s mostly Burns’ lawyer, but he’s always on the side against the Simpsons, a very skilled, methodological man who can crack and twist testimony out of anyone. He’s such a wonderful character, and great foil to bumbling types like Hutz, and later Gil.
– I’ve always liked Burns screaming at his legal team after the session (“Hang your heads in shame, you overpriced, underbrained glorified notary publics!”) He’s always such a reserved and calculated man, always in control due to his affluence, but when things aren’t going his way, it makes sense for him to just lose it like that.
– My favorite line in the show is probably after Marge hesitates about her swearing in at court, Hutz worriedly comments, “She sounded like she was taking that awful seriously.” I also love when Blue-Haired Lawyer’s examination, starting antagonistically to get Marge to talk, then mellowing out, almost being glib toward the end, since he knows he’s got it in the bag. The scene where Marge is talking about the very minute negatives as a result of Bart’s mild injuries and he makes small commentaries here and there is great; definitely another instance where Castallaneta and Kavner were in the same session just going off on each other’s reads.