Assemblywoman Maxine Lombard, Plutocrat Montgomery Burns (FOX)

Monty Burns is one of the greatest all-time TV villains, his position at the center of all Springfield’s evils allowing him to embody whatever plutocratic wickedness the Simpsons’ writers want to take a whack at. This week, Monty’s all about padding his inestimable wealth with fracking, the controversial method of extracting natural gas from permeable shale and—here, I explained it better elsewhere. The Simpsons—prickly writing genius John Swartzwelder aside—comes down generally on the liberal side of any issue, so it’s not surprising that “Opposites A-Frack” finds Burns at fault for wanting to frack the hell out of Evergreen Terrace. Or that Homer would find his boss’ overtures (to act as the folksy, Joe the Plumber, Promised Land shill for the big frack) attractive, at least until the humanistic pleas from Lisa and Marge shake the scales from his eyes.

When The Simpsons goes political, it necessarily sides with the little guy over the big—if desiccated and decrepit—guy. Comedy lives in that divide, where the underdog fights back, where the slobs beat the snobs. That’s why comedy is essentially a liberal art form—comedy from the point of view of the powerful makes us recoil, instinctively. (Unless you’re Mr. Burns, I suppose.) Regardless of the issue under discussion, laughs from on high sound mean and cruel. The Simpsons, centered as it always has been on the everyman (or every family), is all about the struggle.

So when Mr. Burns’ fracking plan wins over most of Springfield with platitudes and $500 checks, it’s up to the moral forces of the family (Lisa and Marge) to appeal to Homer’s better nature. Homer Simpson is, as ever, the easily swayed blue collar slob who wants nothing more than to eat, drink, and snuggle his way through life—and he’s therefore especially susceptible to outside forces that promise the security to do those things. Over a quarter-century and over 500 episodes, Homer’s been twisted and contorted, sometimes distastefully, but the reason why he endures as a viable character is this essential humanity. He’s the assembly line American suburban male—exhausted, lazy, willfully ignorant, and liable to get swept up in any issue that promises he can just be all of those things in peace. But he’s also acutely vulnerable to higher feelings that he only half understands and doesn’t especially want. Like Marge says—after Homer finally turns on Burns’ latest evil scheme and turns his flammable water into a napalm hose-spray and melts Burns’ fracking apparatus— “You always do the right thing. Sort of.”

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As for the episode itself, legendary (to some infamous) liberal crusader Jane Fonda’s on hand to voice Burns nemesis Assemblywoman Maxine Lombard, leading to one of those mismatched James Carville/Mary Matalin, Jack Donaghy/Celeste Cunningham “fight, then make out” relationships. Fonda’s fine—the passing of time threatens to make people forget what a good actress she was—but her muted performance sounds a lot like one of Tress MacNeille’s crotchety old woman characters. (And any seemingly incongruous “pairing with a billionaire who seems to stand for things she’d find objectionable” parallels with Ted Turner remain unaddressed.) There’s a chilling sadness to the end of the episode, with Monty and Maxine reassuring each other that their differences don’t matter as long as there’s passion—only to cut to them (before and after the credits) scrolling separate iPads and barely tolerating each other in bed. (For some reason, Maxine asking if he prefers “nickel or brushed nickel” kitchen fixtures sent a shiver down my spine.) Considering the guest star, there’s no way that we’ll see Maxine again, but their coupling is another restatement of the idea that pesky humanity is always going to trump ideology—for better or worse.

Overall, the episode is functional—the setup, with Patty and Selma’s inability to stop smoking revealing the flaming tap water, is responsibly laid in, and while the whole fracking issue is softened somewhat when it’s revealed that Burns has been doing his dirty deeds illegally, it’s nice to see the show get fired up on a real issue once in a while. (Frink’s ineffectively factual presentation names some of the actual, very toxic chemicals involved in the process, which is bold as far as it goes.) And while there’s no question where the show’s sympathies lie, there are enough swipes at Maxine’s agenda to qualify for even-handedness. (Her opportunistic photo-op “Does anyone have a baby we can hold near the flames?” lands nicely.)

In the end, fracking is just another outside intrusion into the Simpsons’ world that reaffirms the characters’ essential decency. It could be funnier, but the collision of Shearer’s Burns and the family’s heart brought out enough of the show’s strengths.

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Stray observations:

  • Always a sucker for dark gags that take their time, I appreciated watching the Simpsons’ goldfish very slowly die in the background after Patty and Selma desperately toss their cigarettes in the bowl.
  • Counted three reality-stretching gags this episode (Patty and Selma’s killer black mold, Homer’s shattering eyeballs, poor, mutated Charlie at the nuclear plant). I’m not a fan—Springfield’s reality is malleable, sure, but each of these gags was presented without the logical escape of fantasy, dream, etc. This isn’t Looney Tunes—cheap gags for the sake of them just make the show seem less consequential.
  • Homer, horrified at Patty and Selma’s e-cigarettes: “But if you fall asleep with them will you even burn to death?”
  • “He made us watch him dance for three hours—and he really only has one move.”
  • NPR’s Robert Siegel made an appearance. See?

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  • As crabby as Harry Shearer can be about The Simpsons, his work as Burns is never less than amusing. Calling Maxine a “Capitalism-castrating suffragette” vies with his description of sex with Maxine as “spats-snapping” for all-time Shearer/Burns-isms.
  • “Money is like a job you don’t even have to do!”
  • “A project this bloated and ill-thought-out could only be the work of an angry liberal!”
  • I liked that the fracking-related earthquake shook away Lisa’s Etch A Sketch unicorn. Less thrilled that it was the cause for a “Milhouse’s face in Bart’s crotch” gag.
  • When Maxine’s limo pulls up out front, Homer calls out a bored, “Lisa—motorcade.” Lisa’s always getting motorcades.

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