591. The Burns Cage

Original airdate: April 3, 2016

The premise:
Having finally given up hope on a future with Mr. Burns, Smithers starts cracking the whip at work, leading Homer to try to find him a boyfriend. Meanwhile, the school puts on a production of Casablanca, with Milhouse hoping for on-set chemistry with his co-lead Lisa.

The reaction: As with all our characters, Smithers has gone through a transformation (and denigration) through the years. The baseline joke with him is that he’s the ultimate sycophant, the yes-man to end all yes-men. He’s so devoted to serving his boss that he’s actually in love with him, despite Burns being an evil, decrepit skeleton. So he was always gay, but the humor usually always came from his interplay with Burns and his seemingly misguided affections. But as time went on, he became the show’s outlet for gay jokes; around season 13-18, goofs on his homosexuality became more and more overt and on the nose (at times teetering on the edge of queer bashing), to the point that I felt like they should just drag him out of the closet and have him profess his love to Burns since they were removing all doubt of his sexuality. So here we are now: Smithers realizes his puppy love is a futile effort, and ends up looking for love elsewhere, finding it with the flamboyant Julio. So if we’re examining Smithers’ affections seriously, then we’ve got to analyze why he was romantically interested in Burns. He must be into men of power, passion and determination, but he also likes being a caregiver, to be depended on and needed. But I’m putting much more thought into this than the show did. It feels odd that they would put Smithers and Julio together, other than they’re the only two gay men on the show (they’re made for each other!) I guess they were trying to make it like Julio was trying to loosen Smithers up and have him enjoy life a little, but as usual with this show, I have to squint charitably to try to figure out if this show is trying to actually say something. But as we just saw with Frink and Apu, this show doesn’t seem to really care about giving any more depth to Smithers. Between the time-eating B-plot and Homer and Marge arranging to set Smithers up, there’s not a lot of screen time devoted to seeing what he’s feeling or what he wants. I’m fine with giving these characters more nuance and learning more about our regulars, but the show has to actually… y’know, do it. Instead, this episode just feels like a meaningless exercise. In the end, Smithers admits he loves the “thrill of the chase,” whatever that means, and Burns’ honest moment to him to hire Smithers back/admit he needs him boils down to him just saying his catchphrase (His performance review? “Excellent.”) These episodes continue to truly say nothing, even when it seems like they’re trying to.

Three items of note:
– The B-story is boring. I guess little kids performing Casablanca is supposed to be the joke… but that’s really as far as they went. There’s a new little kid who acts like Humphery Bogart, Ralph does a Peter Lorre voice… do they think senior citizens and cinephiles are the dominant demographic for this show? Lisa is worried since Milhouse is a terrible actor, but one paltry compliment from Lisa turns him into a show-stopper. Or, more accurately, he delivers his lines limply and the audience goes wild in applause. Remember the light, realistic touch used with crowd reaction to Ralph in “I Love Lisa”? Me too. But then, in a twist, we see that he was actually the Bogart kid in disguise and he and Lisa walk off together. Like, who gives a flying fuck? Also, Janey Powell appears and introduces herself as “Jacqueline Jones,” and is voiced by Tress MacNeille, not Pamela Hayden. I know she’s a C-list character that they barely use anymore, but surely someone on the entire staff remembered the name of Lisa’s old friend.
– The show opens with Burns skydiving (with no explanation given as to why) and Smithers saving his life after he immediately goes limp. It’s just an excuse to show how Burns doesn’t give a fuck about him, but then they have him literally say that out loud because characters have to do that now. After that we have Smithers sing a song about how heartbroken he is, littered with nuclear puns. It’s not a terrible song, especially given some of the junk we’ve gotten lately, but Shearer is really pushing it with his voice here.
– George Takei guest stars as himself, because of course he does. It’s the gay episode, after all! And despite having a husband, he’s at Homer’s gay mixer hitting on guys. I mean, I guess it’s all in good fun, but this show has done a lot of predatory gay jokes in the past that it reminded me of those. It’s just amazing how far removed we’ve gotten from “Homer’s Phobia.” John as a gay character would be far too subtle for this show nowadays. How do you know he’s gay if he doesn’t act gay? The audience needs to tell right away that it’s a gay! Sigh.

One good line/moment: The show comments on the dumbness of its B-plot with a banner at the school (Tonight: Casablanca The Play, Tomorrow Night: A.M. Kindergarten present Equus.)

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10 responses to “591. The Burns Cage

  1. This episode was a preview of the Burns season (28).

  2. Smithers was always gay from the geto go, so I’m not sure what you mean by he wasn’t until Season 14.

    And yeah, Dillon is so right, there are A LOT of Burns episodes in Season 28. Although, I did think the one safezone joke when he was on a college campus in one episode was quite clever.

    • Smithers was always gay, yes, but I meant the jokes shifted from the humorous scenario of him being in love with his evil boss, to just simply “HE’S A GAY MAN! LAUGH AT THE GAY!”

    • Mike perfectly put it. Smithers was gay, but it was never the point of the thing; his homosexuality was consequence of this comic relationship, not the cause. In fact, now that they tried to “analyze” his homosexuality and relationships seriously, it is so awkward. As Mike said: if he is THE GAY MAN who loves Mr Burns, and it’s a serious thing, why does he love him then? What makes his heart beat fast when he sees Mr Burns?

      • I also agree with Mike here. I mean, they do say he is homosexual later on more overtly around Season 8, and there are a handful of jokes “hinting” it in the classic era, but it it was almost entirely a byproduct of his fixation on Burns. The comedy there was always more towards his toadyism and the cringe-horror of anyone being attracted to Burns in addition to Burns’ obliviousness. Burns knowing of Smithers’ personal attraction to him does ruin the dynamic for me.

        Now he’s like Mr Largo, more of “The Gay Man” and more likely to be involved in lazy gay jokes and anything character-oriented. In an episode like this, we should have learned exactly why he’s obsessed with Burns in particular, subservient to a straight, decrepit, greedy and cranky 100 year. In addition, why he would have any similar connection with a more openly gay and feminine person like Julio.

  3. Watching the early series for the first time as a kid, it never really occurred to me that Smithers, John and Karl were gay, until it was made obvious (Marge pointing it out for John, Karl kissing Homer, Smithers’s birthday cake daydream). Because they were characters first and happened to be gay second – even John, in an episode specifically about homophobia.

    Now we have Julio, which is just a lazy stereotype which no personality beyond being gay, or an Ugly Better/Sex & The City writer’s idea of a gay man. What impression are young viewers of the Simpsons today (assuming that there are any) being given of gay people?

    Were it not documented here and in other places so completely it would still be shocking just how dated series 13+ are compared with Simpson & Delilah and Homer’s Phobia.

    • Not just that, but all the truly offensive jokes about gays like the estrogen pills or Patty’s lesbian fiancee being secretly a man. Like, seriously, what the fucking fuck?

  4. How do you know he’s gay if he doesn’t act gay? The audience needs to tell right away that it’s a gay!

    I like my beer cold, my TV loud, and my homosexuals fuh-lay-ming!

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