“The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons” (season nine, episode seven, aired 11/16/1997)

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In which all of your plans involve some horrible web of lies…

Most of the characters in Springfield can trace their names to a real-life inspiration—more likely than not a location in Portland, Oregon—but few of them have as auspicious an origin as Kwik-E-Mart manager Apu Nahaspeemapetilon. Apu is named in homage to Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy, the critically acclaimed (and recently restored) coming-of-age saga of a young Benghali named Apurba Kumar Roy. The Apu Trilogy follows its Apu through childhood poverty, the loss of both his parents, an unexpected marriage, and parenthood he’s wholly unprepared to handle. It’s a series of films that our own Ignatiy Vishnevetsky dubbed “a national epic” and Ryan Vlastelica called “among the greatest made anywhere, tracking a life… through despair to triumph and maturity.”

It’s fitting that Apu should share his name with such a storied trilogy, because of the tertiary characters of Springfield he’s one of its most developed residents. And even more fittingly, that character growth has its own associated trilogy, gradually explored throughout the first nine years of The Simpsons. “Homer And Apu” took him from caricature convenience store owner to a man with many hidden talents, yet who was ultimately lost without said convenience store. “Much Apu About Nothing” explored the past that brought him to Springfield and the war between heritage and home that ensued when it tried to kick him out. And in “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons” he graduates from bachelor to groom, in a episode that’s steeped in farce yet still manages to take his journey seriously.

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That journey is triggered by the reveal of yet another detail of Apu’s character, in that he’s one of the most eligible bachelors in Springfield. After a bachelor auction yields depressing results for the local fire department, Marge pressures Apu to introduce himself, which he does by leading with the best traits: small business owner, doctorate in computer science, and a hobby of building furniture and having discussions about where to place said furniture in a room. It’s a conclusion that makes a lot of sense in terms of the competition, and also in terms of this being the first time it’s come up. Given that Apu’s life is the Kwik-E-Mart first and foremost, it’s perfectly logical that he wouldn’t see himself as a hot commodity until other people saw him in that same light. (Hank Azaria does some particularly fun yet unsettling work as Apu starts laughing at his good fortune.)

And much as Apu didn’t realize how attractive he was to women, he also doesn’t remember that he’s already promised to one. What appeared to be a throwaway joke in a “Much Apu About Nothing” flashback has (lotus) blossomed into a major story with the coming of his arranged marriage. The Simpsons has always been good about depicting Apu’s Hinduism with respect, and that continues throughout this episode. There’s no mockery of the idea of arranged marriages—if anything Apu’s weak stat about their four percent failure rate is an endorsement of the practice—and it doesn’t try to paint Apu or his mother as being in the wrong here. To her it’s a long-standing cultural tradition that it’s his duty to follow through with, and to him it’s an onus that has no bearing on the life he lives far from India.

Given that the episode is so willing to take a frank look at Apu’s life and culture, it makes the second act shift into farce a bit jarring. Homer offers his family up as a fake family, and they half-heartedly work to pull the wool over Mrs. Nahaspeemapetilon’s eyes. It’s a classic sitcom plot, one that offers some new laughs in how badly Bart and Lisa play along (“As long as you have absolutely no follow-up questions, yes. Yes we are”) but also one that feels thin in the execution. Despite casting SCTV alum Andrea Martin as Apu’s mother, the character just isn’t in the episode enough to leave an impression beyond that of disapproving matriarch, offering appropriately cutting phrases for her alleged daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

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A large part of that focus may be because so much time winds up spent on Homer, who ducks out of the mess he created and goes undercover at the Springfield Retirement Community under the assumed identity of Cornelius Talmidge. Showrunner Mike Scully and writer Richard Appel discuss on the commentary track how this was a story that was originally considered for its own episode, and it definitely has the feeling of being stitched onto the rest of the narrative. Despite breeding some great jokes about Homer’s laziness as he falls in love with electric wheelchairs and kidney mush, there’s no connection to what’s going on in the rest of the episode. It’s the story equivalent of the bag of liquid potato chips, easily sucked down but forgotten once it’s done.

The third act is where things start to get interesting, as it strikes the perfect balance between the farcical and serious elements. Appel steers away from the obvious solution of having Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilon be swayed by Apu’s desire not to be married, and the Simpson backyard becomes the stage for an elaborate Hindu wedding ceremony. (The Simpsons’ willingness to let their house be used even after their sham is exposed becomes a joke in its own right.) Scully and Appel talk about how the writers conducted extensive research to keep things accurate, and the animators clearly paid a lot of attention to the ceremony details. It’s a colorful and vivid portrayal of events, one that may not capture all of the nuances but also doesn’t present it as a caricature of valued traditions.

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Yet in that uniquely Simpsons way, it manages to find a way to have a sense of humor about the proceedings. There’s the little details like Bart using a book of hymms to sanctify a fire and taking advantage flower garlands to kick Moe, and then there’s Homer’s grand eleventh hour play to stop the wedding by stepping into the tusks and extra arms of the god Ganesh. Even with this instance of false idolism, there’s never a feeling of blasphemy to the events, just your typical American levels of missing the point. Plus, it’s just funny to watch Homer try to be serious as he stumbles around in an elephant mask and ultimately gets chased up a tree.

In the midst of all this ceremony and chaos, the perfect solution to the problem steps out of the tent with the reveal of Manjula, who turns out to be the opposite of all Apu’s fears about marriage. She’s more beautiful than any of the women he’s dated previously, has a quick wit (as would befit any character voiced by Saturday Night Live alum Jan Hooks), and fondly remembers the boy who sold her her first kiss. Most reassuringly, she’s not any more enthusiastic about the prospect of the arranged marriage than he is, something that in its way is even more romantic than love at first sight. This doesn’t have to be an obligation or a burden, it could turn out to be something that makes both their lives better. And if it doesn’t? There’s always divorce. God bless America!

While “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons” suffers from some pacing issues—more time with Apu’s mother and less time at the nursing home would have suited it better—it makes for a fitting third act in the journey of Apu. Once again, he ends it a deeper and more realized character than he was when he went in, a new understanding of the life he came from and the life he’s looking forward clearly established. The disastrous efforts of “The Principal And The Pauper” cast doubt on the ability of The Simpsons to believably expand its universe at this stage of its life, and “The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons” proves that’s an ability not out of reach just yet.

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Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

  • Homer’s disconnect with the entire scheme is one of the funniest parts of the episode. He forgets to even tell Marge about it until the Nahasapeemapetilons are on their front door, excuses himself from the proceedings almost immediately, and then when he returns makes it clear it hasn’t even been in the back of his mind. “Oh right, right! The fake marriage thing! How’s that going?”
  • The retirement home is Homer’s second choice for a hideout, as Moe’s closing the bar to go on vacation. “I’m finally gonna see Easter Island.” Homer: “Oh right, with the giant heads.” Moe: “With the what now?”
  • Reverend Lovejoy’s breezy condesension toward non-Christian faiths (best expressed in “Homer the Heretic” with “Oh, that’s super” re: the total number of Hindus) continues here as he agrees to perform the ceremony. “Well, Christ is Christ. Plus I consulted a Hindu website.”
  • You’d think of all people, Lisa would know the significance of the bindi.
  • Evidently there’s a Bombay to Springfield flight every 15 minutes.
  • Bart: “Wow, I wish I had an elephant.” Lisa: “You did, his name was Stampy. You loved him.” Bart: “Oh yeah.”
  • “The pink ones keep ya from screaming.”
  • “And here I am using my own lungs like a sucker.”
  • “Moe, what do you recommend for severe depression?” “Booze, booze, and more booze.”
  • “Come on, elephant! Stop! Hey, everything’s upside down.”

Next time: In preparation for our review of “Lisa The Skeptic,” Kyle Ryan is issuing a restraining order: Religion must stay 500 yards from science at all times.

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