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The Simpsons schemes up a noir without a femme fatale

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Moe Szyslak doesn’t have much luck in love. “It’s been four years since my last date with a whatchacallit—uh, woman.” Even his mail-order bride preferred her old life “diving for tourists’ pennies in a Micronesian swamp.” But Moe don’t blame ’er: “No girl wants to end up with a Joe Pukepail like me.”


When Homer reassures Moe that he’s “a fabulous catch”—except for his ugliness—he’s not far wrong. Moe’s most successful opening line to date is “Hi there, don’t scream,” but his rough exterior barely disguises a romantic streak and ardor for anyone who shows him affection. He’s also generous to a fault, which leads to his downfall in “Dumbbell Indemnity.”

Homer takes him out for a night of dancing and striking out at “the darkest bar in town,” where even the Bacardi-shilling stealth marketer puts up with his overtures for mere seconds before turning sardonic on him. “Ahhh, there’s nobody for Moe,” Moe laments as they leave. “I’m just gonna die lonely and ugly and dead.” Overhearing his despair, a florist operating a nearby cart gives him a flower to cheer him up. He’s suspicious—”What’s the catch? A gorgeous woman don’t just hand you a free daffy-dil”—and she’s smitten. “Really, you think I’m gorgeous?”

Well, smitten with reservations. But she’s willing to give Moe a chance. “She,” by the way, is Renee (Helen Hunt, then romantically involved with Hank Azaria, who voices Moe). When she introduces herself, Moe crows “Who cares? You’re goin’ out with me!”

That’s about all “Dumbbell Indemnity” reveals of Renee’s character: She’s goin’ out with Moe, and she’s improbably charmed by him. On a double date to The Gilded Truffle, Marge asks with insistent, unflattering bluntness why Renee’s taken such a shine to the barkeep, and Renee’s answer—“at first, it was just pity”—quiets Marge’s doubts. If anyone understands how pity can lead to appreciation, it’s the former Marge Bouvier. Renee appreciates Moe’s “insecure, sweaty charm”—and the doting way she dabs his dripping brow throughout the episode suggests genuine affection—and Moe appreciates Renee takin’ a chance on ol’ Joe Pukepail,

“He’s got this insecure, sweaty charm.”

“Don’t eat nothin’ for the next three days,” he babbles when she accepts his first tentative invitation, “’cause I’m taking you out for a steak the size of a toilet seat!” That’s a hint of Moe’s insecurity, the heartbreak that leads to the scheme at “Dumbbell Indemnity”’s heart. Convinced that no woman could love “a gargoyle like” him, Moe shells out for extravagances to entice his new girlfriend: buying out a whole theater so they can be alone (and because the sound of laughing and clapping makes Moe want to “start poking eyes out”), tandem orca rides at Marine World, The Gilded Truffle’s finest dish stuffed with their second finest. (“Excellent, sir,” the haughty waiter replies, “lobster stuffed with tacos.”)


Renee sees more in Moe than most, but she doesn’t see how his generosity of spirit—and of wallet—is costing him, or what drives him to it. In his largesse, Moe maxes out his Player’s Club card. Homer urges him to consider everything he has to offer a woman besides lavish gifts and outings, and Moe immediately concludes, “I need cash, and lots of it.”

In the commentary for “Dumbbell Indemnity,” writer/producer Ian Maxtone-Graham says credited writer Ron Hauge “does have a flair for the noir,” and executive producer/showrunner Mike Scully agrees, “You are very noir.” Hauge’s episodes—which include “Bart After Dark,” “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace,” and “My Sister, My Sitter”—often skew dark, and not just narratively. Like its namesake, “Dumbbell Indemnity” is hinges on insurance fraud and railroad tracks, and like its namesake, it’s full of artful shadows, starting with the scene where Moe outlines his plan to cash in on his rattletrap old car.


The writing disposes of all alternatives and objections with plausibility and humor. Moe’s regulars smash out windows as they flee his call for outstanding bar tabs. He can’t sell his car, it ain’t worth nothin’. He can only hope to wreck it and claim the insurance money—after which, Homer agrees, “Your troubles will be over for a couple of months!” Even Homer’s objections to colluding are tidily settled: Homer worries what Marge might say, but in his imagination, what Marge says is, “Homer, I insist you steal that car.”


Maybe the most plausible element of the plan is the unexamined self-loathing driving it. Moe believes Renee is his “last chance for true love,” and that she only loves him for his generosity—that Renee “ain’t going to want to hang around with no Joe Pinchpenny.” “Dumbbell Indemnity” is a monument to Moe’s belief in his fundamental unlovability.

It’s a pretty good plot, actually: Moe will establish a rock-solid alibi at the Springfield P.D.’s moonlight charity cruise with every cop in town aboard, while Homer steals his car and parks it on the railroad tracks. When the 10:15 train comes along–wham, 5,000 clams! The biggest hitch is the plan relying on Homer Simpson. This should go great for everyone!


It doesn’t.

Distracted by a showing of Hail To The Chimp, Homer dozes off at the drive-in, and his tardiness leads to a great action sequence. Homer peels out in Moe’s beat-up car as the train–its wheels angled forward to hint at its breakneck speed–races in the opposite direction. The screen fills with the black of the tire as he skids off. The hectic cuts culminate in anti-climax as Homer pulls onto the railroad crossing, peers down the tracks) in a great POV shot), hoping—and presumably fearing—to see the train barreling toward him… then pulls his head back to reveal the 10:15 receding into the distance behind him.


Homer’s improvised idea to wreck Moe’s car results in another excellent sequence. Driving down the hillside toward the waterfront, Homer jumps from the car before it goes over the cliff, but he rolls onto a slanted rock that trundles him back into the car’s open door. With Homer firmly in the driver’s seat, the car plunges into the water as Moe, Renee, Chief Wiggum, and his officers watch.

On the commentary, writers and producers credit director Dominic Polcini, co-executive producer Richard Appel, freelance layout artist Istvan Majoros, and the entire animation team with the car wreck’s creation and execution, which Mike Scully describes as one of his “favorite, all-time” sequences, and with good reason. The timing is flawless, grounding the preposterous physics of the gag in something other than cartoon elasticity.


“Moe will take care of everything,” Homer assures Marge, but just as Homer was diverted by drive-in monkeyshines, Moe is distracted by a travel agent’s Hawaiian holiday display—or by its appeal to Renee. He spends Homer’s bail money on first-class tickets, and he and Renee (none the wiser) hula away while Homer languishes in jail with the terrifying trip to the exercise yard—the exercise yard!—looming ever closer.


The scene of Moe and Renee outside the tourist agency shows the subtle brilliance of The Simpsons at its best. The elaborate Hawaiian tourism display boasts alluring colors and swaying dancers, but from the back, it’s just cardboard and springs, just as Moe’s romancing of Renee is a bright, sunny front with a lot of subterfuge and scheming behind it.


The tragedy of “Dumbbell Indemnity” is that Renee is no femme fatale. She was never interested in his money. Throughout the episode, she cares about simpler things: Moe’s face full of character, his darling bowtie, a kiss under the full moon, his voice in her ear. Moe thinks she’s hinting at a trip to Hawaii, but Renee demurs. “Oh, no, that’s too expensive. Let’s just get a can of poi and eat it in the tub.”

Renee is shocked but sympathetic when Moe confides in her, but he just can’t stop plotting. A confession mailed out to clear Homer, two corpses from the cemetery, and a brandy-fueled burning of the bar, and fwoof, they can start a new life together in Hawaii! Hunt’s reading as Renee moves from compassion to realization to repulsion (especially her dry “Yes, Moe, I’m going to find corpses”) is perfectly calibrated, and even Moe understands: “She ain’t comin’ back.” It’s Moe’s own certainty that he’s repulsive, and his compulsive scheming to overcome it, that makes him repulsive.


Stray observations

  • This week in Simpsons’ book jackets: Homer uses How To Tunnel Out Of Prison, imprudently shelved on the jail’s library trolley, to knock out Hans Moleman and escape.
  • Bart’s chalkboard gag: “Silly String is not a nasal spray.”
  • It’s always fun to see Lisa acting like a child, even a brat, as she does during the “Texas snowball fight” (she and Bart whip scoops of ice cream at each other) that opens the episode.
  • Like Renee, I’d fall for a date who asked the waiter to “park the dessert cart under this beautiful lady’s nose.”
  • At Stu’s Disco, that’s Luann Van Houten dancing with Rainier Wolfcastle, Otto doing the splits for Princess Kashmir, and Groundskeeper Willie in the foreground with someone whose face is never visible. Those of you who can identify a Simpsons character by hairline, feel free to leave your answer in the comments.

Next time: Quit it. Quit it. Qui—you kids knock it off! Dennis Perkins is watching his stories, starting with “Lisa The Simpson.”

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