Simpsons Classics: Life on the Fast Lane

In my review of the first season of The Simpsons, I mentioned that “Life on the Fast Lane,” was the season’s only episode that contended for a spot in the series’ pantheon. In “Simpsons Classics,” I’ll do my best to explain why “Life on the Fast Lane” and episodes like it belong in said pantheon.

The first great episode of The Simpsons, Life on the Fast Lane” deals with Marge’s temptation to cheat on Homer with Jacques, a French bowler impeccably voiced by Albert Brooks.

Most Simpsons episodes that consider extramarital temptation in later years do so from Homer’s perspective. Homer is wooed by country star Lurleen Lumpkin, has trouble resisting coworker Mindy Simmons, and even gets married to a second woman in Las Vegas. Each of these episodes places moral culpability on Homer; in other words, it’s never anything Marge does that leaves Homer vulnerable to outside affairs.

“Life on the Fast Lane” is very different. Marge is driven away from her husband by Homer’s own selfishness, illustrated first by his forgetting her birthday (thinking momentarily that it was his own) and then presenting her with a bowling ball—with “Homer” engraved on it—as her present. This reprehensible act of husbandry isn’t even isolated; as Patty/Selma detail earlier in the episode, Homer’s past birthday gifts to Marge include a tackle box and a Connie Chung calendar.

It’s easy, then, to sympathize with Marge’s view that perhaps destiny has brought her to Barney’s Bowl-A-Rama, where she meets Jacques. Jacques is more attractive than Homer, he is wittier than Homer, and he is more caring than Homer; he is obviously an upgrade. The second time he meets Marge, he presents her with a bowling glove: “You got it in my size, and it has my name on it; it’s really for me!” Marge responds. Indeed, getting a gift all her own seems a first for Marge.

Marge is drawn to Jacques, who is perhaps the finest of Brooks’ many characters on The Simpsons.* His wit plays well off of Marge’s naïveté, even if his definition of brunch—“You don’t get completely what you want, but you get a good meal!”—strikes me as inadequate. Marge blushes when he asks if she wants a mimosa, thinking it’s a pet name he has for her. Jacques explains it’s just orange juice and champagne before adding, “You’re so wonderful that you thought it was something offensive.” Later, after infamous gadabout Helen Lovejoy spots Marge with Jacques, he says, “You’ve got a lovely friend there. Let’s hope something runs her over.”

*You can make a case for Hank Scorpio, but I’d stick with Jacques for two reasons: 1. He’s not a clear parody of a Bond villain; 2. Brooks’ voice for Jacques is unique, and he doesn’t use it again and again for various characters as he does with Scorpio’s (which is the same as the voice for Russ Cargill in The Simpsons Movie, among others).

This is all to say that BOTH Marge’s attraction to Jacques and her considerations of leaving Homer are justified in the episode. That’s different from Homer’s temptations, where although we could understand why he wanted to be with Lurleen/Mindy,* it’s hard for him to justify leaving Marge. I mean, the worst thing Marge does in “The Last Temptation of Homer” is get a cold. The way these episodes operate also speaks to the implicit assumption all viewers of The Simpsons have: that Homer is lucky to be with Marge, and not vice versa. “Life on the Fast Lane” helps cement that perception in the series’ first season.

*And especially Mindy. She’s the ideal woman.

While Jacques attempts to woo Marge, we see the effect her absence has on her family’s home life. She herself overcompensates by offering the kids oversized lunches, Lisa and Bart endure various stages of grief, and Homer is completely resigned to losing his wife (best shown when he glumly puts away the glove Jacques gave her—he won’t be the one to bring it up—and by his game of “catch” with Bart, when he doesn’t even say “Ow” as a baseball at full speed hits him in the head). Throw in the fact that Marge contemplates the affair right after her birthday—a time of increased introspection for a woman—and “Life on the Fast Lane” possesses a tone of distinct realism, where almost all of the characters’ actions are both in character and understandable.

In the end, it’s a small compliment from Homer about how Marge makes his peanut butter and jelly sandwich that saves his marriage. The way Homer (or Dan Castellaneta) delivers the line is evocative of the line that initially won Marge’s heart in high school: “I’ve got a problem. Once you stop this car, I’m going to hug you, and kiss you, and then I’ll never be able to let you go.”

The episodes that deal with Homer and Marge’s marriage always strike me as some of the series’ most realistic and best. And it all starts with “Life on the Fast Lane.”

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7 responses to this post.

  1. “Most Simpsons episodes that consider extramarital temptation in later years do so from Homer’s perspective. Homer is wooed by country star Lurleen Lumpkin, has trouble resisting coworker Mindy Simmons, and even gets married to a second woman in Las Vegas. Each of these episodes places moral culpability on Homer; in other words, it’s never anything Marge does that leaves Homer vulnerable to outside affairs.”

    This isn’t entirely true and there are, in fact, several examples off the top of my head here are more examples from marge’s perspective in later seasons (I don’t want to search the snpp database at this time) that aren’t matched by homer…There is a lot that could be said about this (especially with respect to how the series subsequently decided to treat homer as a character) , but the point I want to make is that regardless of who found themselves in this position, in the later seasons of the show, it was always handled in a rather tasteless way…even beyond extramarital temptation, general points the show has made about their marriage always lack the poignancy of the first few seasons…To watch the series from the last 8 years or so is to understand that it is not a serious show that could really have anything serious to say about people…

    On a very related note, I watched a relatively new episode that was airing in syndication the other week…Marge and Flanders came about two inches from kissing in this episode…I almost threw up…Just knowing that this had been absorbed into the Simpsons canon was eminently disturbing

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on November 30, 2009 at 5:19 PM

    Yeah, I consider The Simpsons canon as nothing really past the 12th season, so I don’t really “count” those later episodes. I remember one where Homer thought Marge was cheating with Kirk Van Houten; I mean, come ON.

    Reply

  3. If I may borrow a feeling, that plot line is disgusting

    Reply

  4. […] attention than that (and they sent us an e-mail).  Here they are discussing “Mr. Plow”, “Life on the Fast Lane”, and “Lisa the Iconoclast”.  Tim, the guy who writes these, has a very keen bead on […]

    Reply

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