“You Only Move Twice” (originally aired 11/3/1996)

Springfield is The Simpsons and The Simpsons is Springfield. The city of unknown geographic coordinates is TV’s richest setting, and it’d be foolish to change that for more than one episode (or a few acts of The Simpsons Movie). The universe always finds a way to push the Simpsons back to their hometown.

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In the brilliant spy spoof “You Only Move Twice,” that involves each member of the Simpson family reacting violently to the world beyond Springfield. Literally, in the case of poor Lisa, who breaks out in hives upon encountering genuine nature.

It’s a case of everything about the family’s new home, Cypress Creek, being too good to be true. The Tex Avery “House of Tomorrow” pushes Marge toward the bottle; better schools mean Bart is completely unprepared for the fourth-grade challenges of grammar and cursive. (But he has a genius’ grasp on cursing!) There’s a hidden malevolence to the entire town, the full extent of which is revealed only to Homer—though he’s too oblivious to catch on. You see, Cypress Creek and the corporation that built it, Globex, are [Cue “Marge The Alcoholic” orchestral sting.] EVIL!

In a post-Archer world, Globex’s true nature might not be that surprising. Then again, “You Only Move Twice” was produced three decades after Get Smart, so it’s not like The Simpsons was the first TV show to explore international espionage as a workaday job. But there remains a specificity to the episode’s take on the material, fixed in time to the era in which it was produced and elevated by special guest Hank Scorpio (voiced by Albert Brooks in his first Simpsons appearance since “Bart’s Inner Child.”). In his script for the episode, John Swartzwelder portrays this Ernst Stavro Blofeld of the late 20th century as a Silicon Valley mover-and-shaker—a “disruptor,” in 2014 terms. Hank has the jackbooted thugs and the doomsday machine, but he’s also interested in his employees’ dreams, no matter how laughable they may be. Hank Scorpio is accustomed to the laughter of others—but he’ll show the whole world how serious he is (in a friendly and conscientious manner).

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Brooks turns in an absolute monster of a performance as Scorpio, channeling the pep, optimism, and zeal of man who’s gotten everything he wants, yet still hungers for more. (If the “Scorpio” theme song wasn’t so on-point with its corporate-culture jibes, “he’s got all he ever wanted, and still wants more” would make for a decent fake Bond-theme lyric, too.) Without aiming at any one target, Brooks nails a whole generation of tycoons, boomer tycoons like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Steve Jobs, who did away with their fathers’ suits and ties and dared to wear jeans with a sport coat. (But only after they saw Scorpio doing it.) Long before Homer accidentally intrudes on Hank’s video conference with the United Nations, the new boss drops hints about ulterior motives: There’s the “They laughed at me” line, but there’s also his allusion to Mike Milken, the “Junk Bond King” who spent a decade in prison on charges of security fraud.

Hank’s mid-fun-run introduction is a triumph of condensed characterization; even better is his motor-mouthed, too-supportive rundown of the stores in Cypress Creek’s extensive Hammock District. The sequence, like much of Brooks’ dialogue in the episode, was totally improvised by the actor, lending an authenticity to Dan Castellaneta’s befuddled reactions. The sequence is lightning in a bottle, the as-close-to-the-truth communication of two people who are vibrating on completely separate frequencies.

With the Simpsons’ disappointment in their new home providing the emotional glue, “You Only Move Twice” is free to go all out with its spy-movie accoutrements: The Goldfinger laser, the threats to world leaders, the bikini-clad background extra strangling a Norman Schwarzkopf lookalike. Swartzwelder reimagines the genre from inside-out: It’s not enough to merely emulate 007 and his contemporaries, so great care is taken to show what it would be like to be a cog in this giant mechanism of doom and destruction. Homer’s colleagues are just regular working stiffs, the kind who keep their heads down and drive themselves to pieces in order to stay ahead of the weather machine and germ warfare divisions. It’s the perfect front for Scorpio’s nefarious doings.

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Mike B. Anderson’s direction hews closer to the source material, particularly during the episode’s climactic/anticlimactic firefight with “the government.” (Which one? Scorpio doesn’t say, in one of those rare instances when non-specificity makes the joke.) A cast of dozens marches through the cavernous confines of Hank’s other office, the final conversation between Homer and Hank serving as the foreground to a man on fire and speeding transport carts. The shadows are especially sharp, each flare-up adding new definition to Hank’s face. It’s as good an approximation of this type of James Bond sequence as you’ll see outside of the first Austin Powers movie, with the added twist that Homer’s resignation holds our attention better than any cauldron of scalding-hot green liquids. Character and relationship holds sway—even when one of those characters is strapping on a flamethrower.

“You Only Move Twice” has a well-earned reputation as one of season eight’s best; it’s an entertaining flight of fancy before a full-fledged return to the Simpsons’ established reality. Maybe make that “fuller-fledged”: A curious side effect of season eight’s broadcast order is that the fancifulness of “Treehouse Of Horror VII” and “You Only Move Twice” trickles down through the rest of the season. It carries across production cycles as well: “You Only Move Twice” and “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer” were produced separately from most of the season’s episodes. (Two more installments that take place in a, shall we say, heightened reality, “The Springfield Files” and “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious,” were produced under Al Jean and Mike Reiss’ watch, not Bill Oakely and Josh Weinstein’s. That makes them the Never Say Never Again of season eight.) But no matter how crazy things get, we’re still dealing with the same old Simpsons, the same old Springfield, the same old ludicrous Homer dreams, like owning the Dallas Cowboys. The show could spend all the time in Cypress Creek that it wants to, and it’d still have these essential building blocks to return to.

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Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage (also Hey! It’s 1996!):

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  • Lisa’s so wowed by the promise of Cypress Creek, she doesn’t even pause to think about all of those redwoods being chopped down to coat the vomit at a Disney theme park.
  • Two great putdowns for your own hometown: “Somebody ought to build a town that works” and “So long, Stink Town!”
  • “Don’t call me ‘Mr. Scorpion.’ It’s ‘Mr. Scorpio,’ but don’t call me that either.”—Please, Mr. Scorpio is his father.
  • “Guys like me! I’m a guy like me!”
  • Homer sums up the feelings of the entire Denver-Boulder region from 1960 to 1997: “Aw, the Denver Broncos!”
  • Next week: The ruiner of events worldwide—title fights, the Super Bowl, and the Nixon funeral. Ladies and gentlemen, the Fan Man! (Also: Kyle Fowle and “The Homer They Fall.”)

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