The Simpsons – “A Streecar Named Marge”
All right, confession time: my very first exposure to Tennesse Williams’s classic play A Streetcar Named Desire came from this episode of The Simpsons. I am a 90s kid, no apologies. So after finally getting around to watching the great Elia Kazan film adaptation, I had to revisit this classic bit of my childhood. As an adult, I can appreciate how Llewellyn Sinclair’s musical adaptation Oh Streetcar! comically misses the point of Williams’s tragedy. From its opening number “New Orleans” (based on “London” from Sweeney Todd) that royally pissed off the city for which it is named to its bizarrely cheerful closing number “You Can Always Depend on the Kindness of Strangers” as Blanche is carted off to the mental institution, Oh Streetcar! is a crass and hilarious parody in the absolute classic Simpsons fashion. Then there’s the casting of Bible-thumping goody-goody Ned Flanders as the drunken brute Stanley Kowalski. (Although we don’t see any of it, I am also amused by the idea of Lionel Hutz playing Mitch… as he heads up a class action suit on behalf of actors not cast.)
Of course the main point of using Streetcar (even a horribly bastardized musical version thereof) is to highlight one of the many problems in Homer and Marge’s marriage. Homer Simpson has often been exactly as stupid or awful as the writers need him to be in any given episode. In some he comes off as a downright decent, if moronic, human being. This is not one of those episodes. Homer dials the asshole-ness up to 11 for this one, flat out belittling Marge’s interest. He never rises to the violence and rape of Stanley Kowalski (man, that would make for a heavy cartoon), but there are definite parallels, if not equivalency. Homer even adopts Brando-esque body language as he shouts “Hey, Marge!” at the top of his lungs. Marge’s gentle spirit though is never quite broken by Homer’s selfishness and Homer does have the presence of mind to realize at the end of the episode that he has been a dick. Homer will always try to be better for Marge and that is why the Streetcar parallels thankfully fall apart.
Of course the episode is filled with other pop culture references. There’s the Ayn Rand School for Tots, which aims to teach Rand’s objectivist philosophies to the preverbal. Posters on the wall read “Helping is Futile” and “A is A.” This leads to a parody of The Great Escape with Maggie in the Steve McQueen role. Then of course there’s the weird baby-centric parody of The Birds (complete with Alfred Hitchcock cameo). Also, in what be an even more hilarious case of missing the point then even Oh Streetcar! could muster, the episode begins with a beauty pageant were the contestants sing (without any apparent awareness of the irony) the opening to Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen.” The difference between this and say whenever Glee completely misses the point of a song they sing (“Glory Days” at a high school graduation? REALLY?), this is a show that knows exactly what it’s doing. This was The Simpsons in its glory days. I still enjoy the show, and likely will for the rest of its run, but for about 3 years the show could do no wrong and produced some of the best television ever. This episode serves as evidence.