Waylon Smithers being acknowledged as a gay man might be greeted with a collective shrug of “Didn’t he do that a decade or more ago?” (he hadn’t), but “The Burns Cage” both finally makes Smithers’ sexuality a matter of public record and gives Springfield’s most slavishly dedicated lickspittle a little glimpse of what a life outside of Burns’ contemptuous orbit could be. That he ultimately doesn’t take that step makes sense for the character and is—in Harry Shearer’s performance and the script (credited to Rob LaZebnik)—quite touching in how it reaffirms that being a character on The Simpsons means giving up hope of ever really changing much.
The Simpsons has mined Smithers’ unrequited love for his decrepit boss Monty Burns for laughs over the years, but usually not at Smithers’ expense. Like this season’s deconstruction of/apologia for its treatment of stereotypical “Indian guy” Apu, “The Burns Cage” elaborates on the idea that Smithers’ sexuality—an ever more open secret in Springfield over the years—has sometimes defined him. Smithers, like Apu, has transcended that narrow conception by generally being portrayed as one of the smartest, most fundamentally decent people in town as a rule (apart from the occasional celebrity kidnapping), although that doesn’t mean there aren’t occasional lapses like the show making a smutty joke about him having something jammed up his butt, or, to pick a more recent example, a cheap laugh about him being excited to climb up through the ass of a Mr. Burns statue. But, as with “Much Apu About Something,” “The Burns Cage” acknowledges that Smithers’ gayness has sometimes been drawn broadly while at the same time asserting that that just makes him one of the gang. In the animated sitcom world of Springfield, everyone is a type and, even if decades of refinement (and occasional derailment) have sanded down the crudest edges, they have to stay who they are in order to stay a part of this world.
And we want Smithers to be part of this world. He’s got his foibles, but there’s a reason why, in the still-groundbreaking season 8 episode “Homer’s Phobia,” Smithers’ tetchy “I know the Simpsons” upon seeing that apparent boyfriend John (all-time great guest voice John Waters) has stood him up still stands out as a deceptively important moment in the show’s history. In it, Smithers asserts his independence of the Simpsons’ world (and, by extension, their show)—he’s a real guy in that moment, annoyed with his boyfriend, and he’s not interested in anything to do with America’s favorite family.
So tonight, when Homer, Lenny, and Carl overhear Smithers singing a nuclear plant-themed lament about his seemingly doomed love for Mr. Burns (like you do), their matter-of-fact decision to, essentially, get him laid in order to get him off their backs at work is sort of sweet. Gathering at Moe’s—along with a helpful Marge—there’s no judgement or condemnation or sniggering. It’s a typically blunt sitcom plan they settle on (Marge accidentally found Grindr while looking online for pepper grinders), but the episode just brushes past the expected “Of course Smithers has always been gay” jokes. They’re trying to set him up for their own selfish reasons, but the fact that Smithers’ sexuality is just another fact of life they incorporate into their scheme grants Smithers the commonplace dignity of being just another neighbor. It’s nice.
Similarly, it’s a light touch with which LaZebnik and the writers room don’t make a big deal about Smithers’ new relationship with Hank Azaria’s Cuban bartender character (Azaria doing an ever-so-slightly watered down version of his Agador from The Birdcage, from which the episode cribs its name). The guy’s nice, likes Smithers, and shows that love between two men doesn’t have to involve, say, cutting up your partner’s meat for him or pulling bits of old popcorn from under his bridgework. Sure, he turns out to have a wandering eye, but the fact that he treats Smithers like an equal goes a long way toward making us like him. (Plus, his sadness dance upon realizing Waylon will never truly be over Burns is both genuine and silly).
Here, too, the episode swerves away from laying things on too thick. Waiting in line at a window marked “licenses” looks like it’s working up to a too-mushy marriage subplot before we see the two contentedly fishing, their joint fishing license nearby. This new, uncomplicated guy represents a life full of little pleasures, of comfort, of mutual respect, and fun. That Smithers realizes that’s not enough when all you want is—for whatever maddening, life-deforming, ultimately heart-destroying reason—someone much more complicated is another instance of the show letting Smithers be a real person.
Confiding to a similarly heartbroken but determined Milhouse at episode’s end, his self-awareness in holding onto a dream he knows will never happen is as profound as it gets, without overdoing it.
As for love—what keeps you going is the thrill of the chase. The possibility that you might get what you want, even though the reality is you probably never will.
It’s the kindest, most thoughtful resolution of that shrug that no doubt occurred to so many Simpsons viewers upon hearing that this was the “Smithers comes out” episode. Even when his inexplicable longing for Monty Burns has been handled deftly over the years, it’s still been a joke. LaZebnik and company ruefully (but not hopelessly) posit that we’re all the butt of our own jokes—and that we’re lucky if we can come to even as much peace with that fact as Waylon Smithers does here.
A word on Harry Shearer’s performances in this episode is in order. We all know that Shearer has a long history of criticizing The Simpsons (even dating back to when everyone else still more or less agreed the show was pretty solid). When that, among other factors, culminated in Shearer quitting the show last year before ultimately being lured back, the prospect of losing someone so central to The Simpsons’ cast of characters was, even at this late date, dismaying to a lot of us. Tonight, playing not only both sides of a 27-year relationship but also a sizable Skinner role, Shearer proved once again how indispensable he is to The Simpsons.
Even Monty, whose trips into cartoonish super-villainy are pretty well locked in at this point, is, in his reunion with Smithers, handled deftly. (That being said, the whole “roomful of trap doors” bit was pretty great.) Prepared to give his sorely-missed assistant a check for a million dollars and a gift card seemingly good for all Broadway shows for all time, the fact that he instead gives Smithers his never-completed performance review (“excellent,” of course) and a hug isn’t played off as a joke. Like everything else here, it’s not overdone, as Burns demands the show cut the sentimental score, but, as Shearer’s Smithers says to Shearer’s Burns, “amazingly, it’s enough.” Despite the fact that Shearer at this point literally phones in his performances from his home, he never actually phones them in. As cynical as late-career Simpsons can make viewers feel, episodes like this one only underscore that recasting any of the major roles would gut whatever heart the show has left. And I continue to argue that there’s yet some heart—and some hope—left in there.
- George Takei makes an appearance, showing up at Homer and Marge’s gay mixer. Asking one guy, “Would you be charmed by hearing horror stories about William Shatner?,” he responds to the man’s ignorance of who Shatner is with a pleased, “We’re gonna get along juuust fine.”
- Rob LaZabnik, in an interview with Rolling Stone, says the episode was inspired by his experience with his son, Johnny, who came out as gay when he was a teenager. It’s a short piece, but sweet, and worth a look.
- As in “Much Apu About Something,” the episode tosses out some of Springfield’s broadest stereotypes to underscore the point. Luigi rattles off an even longer string of Italian dishes. Comic Book Guy gets caught by Bart and Milhouse in his Hello Kitty costume. Lindsey Naegle shows up as Smithers’ replacement and is as strident and officious as ever. Even Smithers’ new boyfriend suggests a trip to Cuba, “My homeland, where my accent is not so ridiculous.” Everyone in Springfield is who they are.
- Oh, there’s a B-plot, which is… fine. Springfield Elementary is putting on a production of Casablanca, forcing Lisa to cope with the fact that Milhouse takes the place of the suspiciously Bogart-esque new kid. While Milhouse’s rebound into acting competence recalls Ralph’s similar acting triumph in “I Love Lisa,” it’s not as impactful. The main reason is that Lisa’s attraction to the new cool kid isn’t given much weight (Lisa comes of as something of a jerk, in fact), and Milhouse’s performance as Rick isn’t the obvious tour de force Ralph’s was.
- Still, there’s some very funny stuff between Skinner and Chalmers as they really get into the casting, planing to let a popular girl who can’t act play Ilsa because her father owns a copy shop and can get them free four-color fliers. As Chalmers says, “You can teach acting, you can’t teach popular.”
- And I love that Chalmers sees Milhouse’s acting ceiling as “young Noah Wylie.”
- Lisa, joyous over being cast as Ilsa: “The role I was anagrammed to play!”
- Conversely, Milhouse, finding out he’s backup to new kid Jack Deforest as Rick: “Understudy? Both those words are horrible!”
- I mean, he has given Casablanca some serious thought. “Also, why would Nazis respect letters of transit signed by de Gaulle? I may be pulling a thread here, but hear me out.”
- Ralph as Ugarte I can see, but I’m not sure about Nelson as Louie.
- Loved Julie Kavner’s underplayed response to Moe’s poorly disguised words of love: “Moe, this is why I don’t come here much.”
- Homer, happy that his plan to fix up Smithers has worked: “Are there any gay theme songs about celebrating?”
- Burns proposed author photo for his memoir? Him holding a gun to a globe. Sounds about right.