128. Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One)

(originally aired May 21, 1995)
Man I wish I hadn’t been a young’n when the “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” saga was underway. From what I read of it, it was quite the event, with widespread debate and discussion amongst fans regarding the mystery. The only two-part episode in the show’s history, it rides the line of being a gimmick episode, and being a parody of one. There was the 1-800-COLLECT contest and other FOX promotion around it, but the episodes themselves were filled with enough winking nods that they didn’t feel disingenuous (the conceit itself is of course a parody of the “Who Shot J.R.?” mystery from Dallas). But audience reaction to this event episode only came from how solid and well crafted it was. Such great care was put into setting up clues, giving every character a motive, and ending on a note where there’s no real definite suspect. Yet even with all the information to be fed and groundwork to be set, it all feels cohesive, and more importantly, it still feels like The Simpsons, with plenty of funny bits that work in tandem with the dramatic parts. I don’t know if I can call either of these favorite episodes, but they are definitely landmark shows of the series, put together with great attention to detail, and absolute treats to watch unfold.

Oil is struck at Springfield Elementary, much to the thrill of Principal Skinner, and to much chagrin of Mr. Burns and his energy monopoly within the town. Through slanted drilling, he taps the oil before the school, which results on many catastrophic events that cripple the denizens of Springfield. Saddled with the cost of drilling, Skinner had to lay off Willie and new music instructor Tito Puente. A jettison of oil from Burns’ drill destroys Bart’s treehouse, injuring him and his dog. Fumes from the rig end up getting Moe’s, leaving Moe out of work and Barney out of booze. Underground drilling creates a fault line under the retirement home, bringing half the building into the ground. Not even the tireless sycophant Smithers can stand for this level of dastardly deeds, resulting in his termination. Burns completes his complete takeover of the town’s resources by blocking out the sun, keeping its citizens totally reliant on his power supply. It’s soon after that the most hated man in Springfield is shot by an unidentified assailant, leaving him to collapse on the town square.

Most of the citizens’ hatred of Burns comes through chain reactions of his rampant greed, self-serving nature and desire for unchecked power. And while his plan and execution of blocking out the sun might be a little silly (or as Smithers puts it, a cross over into cartoonish supervillainy), it works perfectly as the proverbial last straw; with no natural light, Burns is completely at the town’s mercy. The two seeming front runners for the gunman are the two with personal grudges toward Burns. First, Smithers, whose thankless tasks and toadying toward Burns are emphasized even further until he is quickly fired after daring to finally say no regarding the sun scheme. Second is Homer, who falls into a ludicrous state because Burns continuously doesn’t remember his name. It’s sort of the last hurrah for this long running joke, being pushed way over the top until Homer just loses it. The climax at the town hall meeting is one of the greatest scenes in the entire series; the town is so impassioned in their unified hatred, while Burns just eats it up, loving every minute of it (as he wonderfully puts it, foreshadowing the ending, “You all talk big, but who here has the guts to stop me?”) I knew the conclusion before I watched the first part, but I really wish I didn’t. There’s so many hints and clues to extrapolate from, most damning being Burns’ missing revolver, that it would have been neat to be a part of unraveling this mystery. Of course the big reveal is something no one ever suspected, but more on that later.

Tidbits and Quotes
– I love Skinner’s official decorum in his dialogue at the beginning of the show, which is broken when he hesitatingly must identify the deceased class hamster Superdude by name.
– Wonderful sequence of Burns’ important piece of postage exchanging hands, with great music and dizzying use of alliteration (“Forgot prende asked for highly pressing package of power plant profit projections for Pete Porter in Pasadena.” “Priority?” “Precisely.”) This also effectively starts Homer’s growing antagonism when the letter ends up with him, who rushes it to Burns’ office, only having read the return address.
– There’s some great Skinner-Chalmers stuff in here (“Why is it when I heard the word ‘school’ and the word ‘exploded,’ I immediately thought of the word ‘Skinner!‘”) The two laugh uproariously at the suggestion they use the oil money to give the students college scholarships, and there’s a hilarious back and forth when Skinner blocks out the first word of a newspaper headline “Awful School Is Awful Rich.” (“An unrelated article. Within the banner headline.”) Very similar rhythm wise to the later “steamed hams” discussion in “22 Short Films.”
– Great montage of requests from the students and faculty: Lunchlady Doris is a highlight (“The cafeteria staff is complaining about the mice in the kitchen. I wanna hire a new staff.”) Requests from Otto (“You know those guitars that are like… double guitars,” Ralph (“Chocolate microscopes?”), and Skinner (“More rubber stamps,”) are also granted.
– I love Burns’ feeble attempts to trick Skinner, and Skinner’s deadpan affirmative stance against him (“I’ve got a monopoly to maintain! I own the electric company, and the water works, plus the hotel on Baltic Avenue!” “That hotel’s a dump and your monopoly’s pathetic.”) Burns’ feeble attempts to attack Skinner, and Smithers coming in with a stapler is just icing on the cake (“Please don’t waste those.”)
– Smithers’ turn against Burns is gradual through the show, and believable in his character: he’s fine with Burns’ ruthless practices in the workplace, since that’s all business, but his attempts at robbing a local school of funds it desperately needs is going too far.
– Great sequence of Burns and Smithers eating chocolates, with Burns identifying each Simspon on the photo inside, except Homer of course, whose face remained obscured by, of all things, a sour quince log. I don’t even know what quince is, but it sounds disgusting. The payoff is phenomenal when Homer gets a thank you note, but realizes his name isn’t included. He holds the paper up to his face and reads, then lowers it and his pupils get smaller. Calling the kids out of the room, he takes a deep breath, then… “Ffff-” Church bells chime and the entire neighborhood is stunned, including Flanders (“Dear lord, that’s the loudest profanity I’ve ever heard!”)
– Great “Aye carumba!” from Tito Puente when they announce someone’s tapped the oil.
Classic Burns line preparing for his oil rig to burst: “Ah, soon that mighty apparatus will burst forth with its precious fluid. Almost sexual, isn’t it, Smithers?” A still dissatisfied Smithers can only muster a murmur.
Classic Willie line upon his termination: “I’ll kill that Mr. Burns! And, er, wound that Mr. Smithers!”
– Moe’s becomes veritably toxic from Burns’ oil rig. Barney comments, “These fumes aren’t as fun as beer. Sure, I’m all dizzy and nauseous, but where’s the inflated sense of self-esteem?” Eco-suited scientists then enter (“Man alive! There are… men alive in here!”) and shut down the bar, prompting Moe and Barney to wield guns (“Ah: now there’s the inflated sense of self-esteem!”)
– I love how everything is set up fluidly, even mention of the sundial as Smithers protests Burns’ master plan (“Every plant and tree will die, owls will deafen us with incessant hooting, the town’s sundial will be useless!”)
– Homer’s descent into madness is fantastic, picturing Burns’ popping up in his car running through the thesaurus of insulting names to call him. He arrives at the plant and in large letters in Burns’ office spray paints “I AM HOMER SIMPSON.” Burns arrives, and of course, as flat as possible, asks, “Who the devil are you?” Homer snaps, and runs across the office (accompanied with a great camera move) and accosts Burns, only to be led out by security. It’s a bit outlandish, but I still believe Homer’s reached his breaking point.
– Stuck at the Simpson home, Grampa gets a great scene where Bart finds his old Smith & Wesson (“If you’re gonna play with it, be careful, ’cause its loaded.”) Marge finds it, and is understandably shocked. Abe retorts, “How can you have a house without a gun? What if a bear came through that door?”
– The town hall meeting starts out strong (“We’re all upset about Mr. Burns’ plan to, uh, block out our sun. It is time for decisive action. I have here a polite but firm letter to Mr. Burns’ underlings, who with some cajoling, will pass it along to him or at least give him the gist of it.”) During Quimby’s speech, we cut to shots of citizens’ hands brandishing guns, which the mayor’s aide quickly informs him of (“Also it has been brought to my attention that a number of you are stroking guns. Therefore I will step aside and open up the floor.”)
– After Burns arrives, and then flashes his weapon at a small child, the tension just builds and builds as the townspeople threaten the old man, and I love love love that in all of it, Flanders steps up and asks, “I’d like to hear from Sideshow Mel!” You know what? I would too, because I love that voice. Mel doesn’t disappoint, wielding a switchblade (“I’ll see to it that Mr. Burns suffers the infernal machinations of hell’s grim tyrant!”)
– Great subtle clues that Burns’ jacket swishes open as he swirls around the lamp post, reminding you the gun is still there, then later when he collapses, it’s not.
– And we end on a great call to arms from the fans to get involved in solving this mystery, as Hibbert seemingly asks the audience if they can solve the mystery. Actually he’s just pointing at Wiggum (“Yeah, I’ll give it a shot, I mean, you know, it’s my job, right?”)

Season 6 Final Thoughts
After a relatively insane season 5, I feel like things sort of leveled out and got a bit more grounded here in season 6. There were some insane bits, sure, but we got a fair share of episodes that were very down-to-earth stories, in their actual plots and just the way they flowed very leisurely (“Bart’s Girlfriend,” “Lisa’s Rival,” “Lisa on Ice,” etc.) Even episodes that were pretty out there like “Homie the Clown” still focused on the characters and felt very genuine. I guess largely this was a very character driven season; Homer’s relationship with his father, we delve in Marge’s troubled past, Bart and Lisa go mad in their own ways without school, and a look into the future at Lisa’s first love. Even without the change of show runners yet, it feels like one season segues into the next; Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s seasons are noted as being more emotional, and this feels like a balance between Mirkin’s insanity and the more level-headed stuff of season 7. Still, great, great, great, great stuff. Great.

The Best
“Treehouse of Horror V,” “Homer Bad Man,” “Homie the Clown,” “Bart vs. Austrailia,” “Lisa’s Wedding”

The Worst
“Another Simpsons Clip Show” by default, but as a clip show, I barely count it.

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6 responses to “128. Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part One)

  1. Really an incredible episode. They laid a bunch of very specific clues about a number of suspects, had some believable character moments, paid off on the longest running joke of the series, escalated the plot constantly, AND made the entire thing funny.

  2. one thing i didn’t notice until recently (and it made me feel like a complete dope, because i’ve quite possibly seen this episode literally hundreds of times) is that at the confrontation, when everybody averts their eyes from burns, maggie is the only one who doesn’t. cannot believe i never caught that.

  3. Best and Worst for Season Six

    Best: Homer Badman, Lisa on Ice, The Springfield Connection, Treehouse of Horror V, Lemon of Troy, Bart of Darkness, Homer the Great, ‘Round Springfield, Sideshow Bob Roberts

    Worst: Another Simpsons Clip Show, Fear of Flying, Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy, Lisa’s Wedding

  4. I saw these episodes “live”, i mean the first time they ran, and I remember the unbelievable atmosphere created among me and my friends(everybody in the world actually). We were always discussing about the culprit and the clues, and everyone of us had his own version. Only one had guessed right, but he was just joking so hes lost anyway(even if this is not his version).

  5. While we sadly missed the hype in the Uk, I can remember watching this one very clearly back in the day. I’d just come back from my school trip to Spain, and watched two new episodes, the junior campers one, and the first part.
    Needless to say my brother and I had quite the back and forth over this one, we actually thought Maggy was a possibility, but so was Smithers.

    Even when I know the culprit, I just really like the episodes, masterfully crafted in every way.

  6. This post is 6 years old, but I felt compelled to say that a quince is a type of fruit related to the apple and pear. I’ve never had one, and it’s certainly and odd thing to fill chocolate with

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