“The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson” (originally aired 1/19/1997)

In which here come the pretzels…

As a writer, Jennifer Crittenden boasts one of The Simpsons’ best hit-to-miss ratios—in that none of her episodes are a miss. Joining the show at the height of its powers, she took lead on four of The Simpsons’ greats (“And Maggie Makes Three,” “The PTA Disbands,” “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield,” and “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson”) and contributed to one of its greatest (“22 Short Films About Springfield,” scripted in tandem with practically everyone employed by the show in 1995 and 1996). Crittenden had a particularly deft hand with Marge Simpson, and “The Twisted World” functions as a sort of pseudo-sequel to “Scenes From The Class Struggle.” In both episodes, Marge struggles to fit in with the women of Springfield, until she discovers a way to get ahead—by less-than-genuine means. In the first episode, she wows society women with Chanel suit alterations worthy of O. Henry. Here, her Pretzel Wagon franchise soars past the Springfield Investorettes’ pita truck with a little help from Fat Tony and friends.

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About those less-than-genuine means: Other A.V. Club reviewers have noted that The Simpsons goes through some noticeable shifts in style and tone in season eight, and that’s a minor factor here. While maintaining the Bill Oakley-Josh Weinstein era’s signature balance of warmth and humor, the third-act escalation of “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson” shoots the episode off a ramp so tall, a safe landing is all but impossible. In DVD commentary, Weinstein, Matt Groening, and director Chuck Sheetz discuss how the events of the episode—Marge quits the investors’ club, Marge starts her own business, Marge’s business is crushed by the investors’ club—painted the writers into a corner, and that feeling is as palpable as Marge’s powerlessness in the face of Fleet-A-Pita. It’s a desperate situation, solved desperately, and it works, to an extent. The final showdown on Evergreen Terrace honors the varied components of “The Twisted World,” and returns the focus to the Simpson matriarch.

Still, the final sequence puts the ongoing evolution of the show right on the screen: Their pretzel-making days at an end, Marge and Homer act out an honest, emotional resolution—against a backdrop of extreme mob violence.

The major problem with the Fat Tony turn is that it sweeps “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson” out from under its titular character. She’s an active participant in the ups and downs of the Pretzel Wagon saga, until she’s not: Homer brings Fat Tony into the proceedings, and the gangsters bring the episode to its conclusion. The mafia deal is a sweet demonstration of Homer and Marge’s marital bond, but Marge episodes are such a rarity that her removal from the game can’t help but disappoint. It’s rarer still that a Marge episode is handled with the sympathy of “The Twisted World”’s first two acts, a testament to Crittenden’s skill with the character. The first two-thirds of the episode give us a thorough, hilarious understanding of Marge’s comfortable, conservative niche: Who wouldn’t retreat to the relative predictability of the Simpson household when the local “lamb of God” is Agnes Skinner.

The smooth shysters running the Franchise Expo (“WHERE YOU CAN MAKE YOUR NONSEXUAL DREAMS COME TRUE”) give Marge further motivation to play it safe. Naturally, she gravitates toward Glengarry Glen Ross refugee/Gil Gunderson predecessor Frank Ormand. Both Frank and Gil are homages to Jack Lemmon’s down-on-his-luck Glengarry character, Shelley Levene, and Lemmon readily slips back into Shelley’s professional façade (and poorly disguised despair). Frank gives Marge someone else not to aspire to, and the gravitas of Lemmon’s performance helps land some of the episode’s biggest laughs. Frank’s retching at the millipedes in his pretzel ingredients is a fantastic marriage of acting and animation, but the actor takes the joke one step further, reciting the line “Check for millipedes” as if he knew the little bastards would be in there but convinced himself otherwise.

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Despite its outlandish detours (and sometimes because of them), “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson” is one of season eight’s funniest installments. The spaces between the plot points are absolutely crammed with landmark punchlines (“No deal, McCutcheon—that moon money is mine,” “Welcome back, Space Girl,” “Aaand here come the pretzels!”) and ingenious comic sequences (Cletus’ Rake Effect-style family roll call, the mob-movie montage). The show may be changing, but there’s still such care and precision evident in the episode’s highlights, like when Legs removes a pizza saver in order to make his intimidation of Luigi completely effective.

It’s the kind of care for this world and its fictional inhabitants that epitomizes a Crittenden script. Things go to Crazy Town, but Marge is recognizably Marge, gung ho when she finds a new calling, but that calling is like Frank and his sack of flour: She’s not surprised to find it’s riddled with millipedes. The “Twisted World Of Marge Simpson” script would be Crittenden’s last for the show, but it leaves an impression. It contains some mixed messages about the nature of failure, while demonstrating that failure isn’t inevitable. If you aim high, sometimes people will care if you succeed. (Sometimes those people are in charge of Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond, the next two series to hire Jennifer Crittenden.) “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson” keeps on spinning, piling up the pathos and the jokes like so many pretzels stacked atop the unconscious body of hall of famer Whitey Ford.

Stray observations:

  • Say, do you enjoy the television program The Simpsons? (You’ve read this deep into a review about an episode of the show that premiered 18 years ago, so odds are you enjoy The Simpsons.) Do you wish The A.V. Club wrote more about The Simpsons than we usually do? Well friend, this is your lucky week, because beginning Monday, January 12, we’re marking the 25th anniversary of “Bart The Genius” with a whole week of Simpsons-themed coverage. Tune in tomorrow for the start of Simpsons Week, and be extra sure to check back on Wednesday, when we begin a big countdown celebrating 25 years of The Simpsons and the sitcoms that followed in its wake.
  • The instrumental played during the Goodfellas/Casino montage is the classic NFL Films instrumental “The Lineman,” which modern-day viewers will recognize as SpongeBob SquarePants’ go-to Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy theme. According to the SNPP, closed captioning for the episode displayed the lyrics to Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Put A Lid On It,” which has the right tone for the sequence, if not the proper verve. (The Simpsons and Squirrel Nut Zippers would get their crossover moment when future “The Seemingly Never-Ending Story” director Raymond Persi co-helmed the video for “Ghost Of Stephen Foster.”)

  • Additional soundtrack notes: I assume the pairing of “Don’t Stop” and the red-white-and-blue Fleet-A-Pita truck is a reference to Bill Clinton using the Fleetwood Mac hit as the theme for his 1992 presidential campaign.
  • There’s some appropriately twisted humor in “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson,” no more so than Frank’s unfortunate fate. And then Homer asks to see the executor of the Ormand estate: “He’s right over there.” [Camera pans to second casket.] “They were in the same car.”
  • The many layers of Dan Catellaneta’s portrayal of Homer come through in “The Twisted World”’s power-plant sequence: “It’s one of those Pretzel Wagons the movie stars are always talking about” is such a blatant fib, but the glee in Castellaneta’s voice glosses right over the awkward, deliberately vague fabrication. Then, amid the chatter of Homer’s colleagues, the actor proves himself the King of Throwaway Ad Libs: “Yeah, Homer’s right!”
  • Tress MacNeille is on fire in this episode, too. The spite she breathes into Agnes is as delicious as a Fleet-A-Pita “crunch patty”: Marge: “Well, I guess Macy’s and Gimbel’s learned to live side by side.” Agnes: “Gimbel’s is gone Marge, long gone. You’re Gimbel’s.”
  • In light of the events at the Isotopes game, Homer suggests rebranding Marge’s pretzels: “You could call them Whitey Whackers!”
  • Marge, crushed (just like the dairy product beneath her chin): “Listen to your mother, kids: Aim low. aim so low, no one will even care if you succeed. Dinner’s in the oven. If you want some butter, it’s under my face.”
  • The finale justifies itself with some excellently orchestrated martial-arts action, as well as this observation from Homer. “But Marge, that little guy hasn’t done anything yet. Look at him! He’s gonna do something, and you know it’s gonna be good.” (And once the door is closed, he does.)

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