Sunday, 12 January 2020

Some Enchanted Evening (aka Harsh Reality Time)

I don't think there's ever been a Simpsons episode with more infamously tortured origins than "Some Enchanted Evening" (7G01). Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood, writing in I Can't Believe It's An Unofficial Simpsons Guide, call it "confident", "fully rounded" and "the perfect template." In the episode's DVD commentary we hear series creator Matt Groening describe it, less flatteringly, as "the show that almost killed The Simpsons." We also hear that, once upon a time, producer James L. Brooks referred to it, less flatteringly still, as "a foul substance which causes disease", albeit in reference to an earlier version of the episode in which the animation was reportedly so unsightly that the producers deemed it unfit to be brandished before the eyeballs of an innocent public, and so they sent it back to Korea for an overhaul. In a more efficient universe where everything ran according to plan, this would have served as the series opener in the fall of 1989 - instead, its miserable unveiling caused a production shake-up which led to it being knocked to the back of the queue and "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire", technically the eighth episode, getting to launch the series in December 1989. "Some Enchanted Evening", meanwhile, became the series finale, debuting on May 13th 1990. When I covered "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" last month, I noted how this was probably all for the best, given that "Roasting" is a warmer, more human story, and a much better starting point for longer-form Simpsons, whereas "Enchanted" showcases the Simpsons universe at its most hypnotically kinky. It's not for sensitive eyes, which always makes it a fascinating episode to look back on.

"Enchanted" is somewhat notorious among Simpsons fans because the producers' revulsion toward that early animation was apparently potent enough that they considered canning the series altogether, and only when the second episode, "Bart The Genius", came back in better shape were they convinced that the situation was salvageable. On the DVD commentary, the production staff tell an amusing anecdote, which gives us insight into just how heated the reaction to the initial version of this episode was. The episode was screened before a gathering of staff at the Gracie Films bungalow, and Brooks, horrified at the results, declared, "This is shit!", at which point most of the staff in attendance, sensing that harsh words were about to be exchanged, made a mad rush for the door. Animator Gabor Csupo (they don't identify him by name in the commentary, but it's nevertheless blatantly obvious that they're talking about him) challenged Brooks on this point, suggesting that, "Maybe this shit isn't funny!", in reference to the screenplay. Brooks clearly took that to heart, because later, when the series won its first Emmy award (albeit for "Life on The Fast Lane", not this episode), he took the opportunity to taunt Csupo at the ceremony by repeating Csupo's own line, "Maybe this shit isn't funny!", which Brooks admits on the commentary was probably quite petty of him.

So unbridled was Brooks' reaction that you might assume that he had that early offending footage squirreled away in the same impenetrable vault where he keeps the excised musical numbers from I'll Do Anything*, so that nobody will ever see what ungodly, eye-bleeding horrors were once intended to constitute The Simpsons. And yet, he hasn't. Or rather, he part hasn't. The entire episode has never been released, but you can watch a few minutes' worth of footage from that disastrous version on the Season 1 DVD release and judge for yourself. You can also watch it with an optional commentary, so that you can hear the producers' howls of "OH MY GOD!" every five seconds. In my opinion what we're shown isn't exactly eye-searingly awful (as with The Sweatbox, I was expecting something so much worse from its reputation), but the Simpsons universe does seem to be a whole lot more flexible and surreal in this particular take. It feels like a slightly different vision for the same show, closer in spirit to some of those early Tracy Ullman shorts than the quasi-realistic approach the producers were seeking for the series. Like those Ullman shorts, it has an affinity for ugliness, and for slightly strange sight gags - there's a particularly striking one where we see Marge retreating dejectedly down a corridor, having been unceremoniously deserted by her ungrateful clan, and the whole set-up seems spatially disorientating, like something out of M.C. Escher. I think it's an effective means of illustrating Marge's domestic oppression, but probably a bit too way-out for The Simpsons. Incidentally, the moment where Homer and Marge dance actually looks really good in the initial version, which was apparently a problem in of itself, as the script had stipulated their movements be awkward in order to convey that they hadn't danced together in years. (In the final version it's possibly a mite too awkward.)

On the DVD commentary, they estimate that at least 70% of the final episode consisted of retooled animation, but the surviving 30% from that traumatic first screening goes a long way, and "Some Enchanted Evening" may well be the most singularly grotesque-looking installment in the series' run. The characters' faces contort in ways that seem positively monstrous now - in particular, there's that unsightly Moe close-up in which his facial features, gargoyle-esque at the best of times, are exaggerated to a near-horrifying degree. I actually don't think it hurts the episode at all; as a self-contained installment, I think the looser animation compliments the story's slightly more off-kilter mood, and it is interesting seeing a marginally different visual interpretation for how the series might have gone - although in terms of commercial success it was obviously for the best that they were able to rein in much of that outlandishness. The look "Enchanted" goes for is probably too much of an all-out freak show to appeal to mainstream sensibilities, but for those who revel in that kind of thing, it's quite the beautiful little nightmare.

Appropriately, "Enchanted" boasts a climactic revelation that feels straight out of a nightmare, when Bart, Lisa and Maggie find themselves in the company of a notorious marauder masquerading as a not-so-genial babysitter, while Homer and Marge are off attempting to reignite their fizzling romance with an evening of dinner, dancing and waterbed surfing. The fraudulent babysitter, Ms Botz (who was voiced by the late Penny Marshall, best known for playing Laverne in Happy Days and its spin-off Laverne & Shirley, and for her work as a feature film director), is a startling character, in that she comes off as genuinely dangerous in a way that no other Simpsons antagonist ever really was - as a result, she's constantly giving off this air of having wandered in from a different show altogether, or as if she's attempting to pull the series in a direction that it's not so set on going. Certainly, I don't think there's any other point in the first season in which the children feel as immediately imperiled as the sequence in which Ms Botz stalks Bart and Lisa and flushes them from their respective hiding places down in the basement and beneath the kitchen table. But before Ms Botz even enters the picture we have to deal with another, more mundane but no less potent threat to the family's domestic stability, and one that won't be so readily dispelled as a light-fingered home intruder - that is, the tepid state of relations between Homer and Marge, a problem which has evidently been in the making for well over a decade. When we join the family at the start of the episode (and what should have been the start of the series), we find the household already in decline, with Homer so at ease with his assumed stability that he sees little reason to even acknowledge Marge, and Marge beginning to seriously question her life choices. The uncouth manners of the children aren't helping matters, but it's Marge's disillusionment at the gradual devolution of her husband since marriage that's really troubling her. The relationship between the Simpson parents was never explored in the Ullman shorts, where Marge was so infrequently the focus that her name was never even revealed, but once the family moved into longer-form storytelling it was swiftly established as one of the series' most enduring narrative threads. Here, it serves largely to set the events of the episode into motion; Marge is so distraught following one morning too many of her family's ingratitude that she's compelled to call into a radio show hosted by popular shrink Dr Marvin Monroe, who urges her to inform her husband that she won't stick around if he's not able to get his act together (Monroe puts words in Marge's mouth, but she nevertheless responds with such hot-blooded fervor that's clear that he's stoked some long-repressed rage of hers). As chance would have it, Homer hears the broadcast on the job, and is so freaked out that he retreats to Moe's Tavern in order to put off the problem by staying away from the house for as long as possible; Moe, however, convinces him that there is a far more productive (and genteel method of putting off the problem), by taking Marge out for dinner, then to a motel, and hoping that she'll be so momentarily satiated that she'll forget about her deeper grievances for the time being. The solution is certainly no long-term fix, as anyone even remotely familiar with the rest of the series can attest, and lo, the very same problem would resurface again in "Life on The Fast Lane", where it gets to be the full focus of the episode. On that note, there is a slight curiosity - when Marge calls into Dr Marvin Monroe's radio show in "Some Enchanted Evening", she gives her age as 34, which is how old she turns in "Life on The Fast Lane". And since "Some Enchanted Evening" technically should come first in terms of the series' internal chronology, this raises questions. Either this was a straight-up continuity error, Marge's age was altered in order to account for the episode rearrangement (although I very much doubt that they would take the trouble for such a minor detail) or, most likely, Marge is perpetually 34, in the way that Bart is perpetually 10 and Lisa perpetually 8. She isn't getting any older, much as she isn't likely to escape her rut any time soon.

The central irony in "Some Enchanted Evening" is that, in staving off one threat to his domestic security, Homer ends up letting in quite another, and in this case it's the kids who have to pick up the slack and prevent the household from being torn apart, albeit in a more material sense. But in that regard Ms Botz ends up functioning as the perfect metaphor, in being this insidious destructiveness that's always nestled not far beneath the veneer of calm respectability. While all this is unfolding down in Evergreen Terrace, Homer and Marge are drifting peacefully through their enchanted evening; their tranquility is obviously intended to contrast with the ordeal the kids are suffering in their absence, but it's also evocative of the idea that they assume their troubles are all over, when there is one festering at this very moment. From the start, The Simpsons took delight in desecrating the established ideals of the conventional family sitcom, and what better way of illustrating that than with a marriage on the rocks in the (intended) very first episode, a problem which, by the end of the outing, has been remedied through the sleaziest, most superficial means possible, while the Babysitter Bandit steals off into the night, ready to strike again on some other enchanted evening (although she's yet to show up at the Simpsons' door again - nor does it seem likely that she will following the sad loss of Marshall in 2018). There are some issues that just won't be solved so readily within the space of twenty-two minutes, and the world is no safer at the end of the episode than when this particular misadventure began, although Marge suggests that they should at least take comfort in the fact that their offspring's capacity for hell-raising - qualities that have earned them so much scorn from the local babysitting community - made them such Grade A vigilantes. (Incidentally, Lisa's characterisation is closer here to her depiction on The Tracey Ullman Show than the general series - she and Maggie are apparently regarded as as much of a menace as Bart by the Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper Babysitting Service, and she is complicit in Bart's prank calls to Moe, although we do see evidence of her blossoming melancholia when she mournfully compares Bart to Chilly, The Elf Who Cannot Love.)

I'd say that "Enchanted", more so than any other episode of Season 1, has a fascination with surrounding the family with this aura of banality, a sort of vapidity disguised as harmony that seems purposely designed to downplay the uglier truths of day-to-day living. We sense this in the incongruously bland elevator music that accompanies KBBL's promotional spot encouraging listeners to call in with their personal problems, trappings that seem curiously at odds with the spectacle of human misery being reeled in and packaged as mindless entertainment for anyone who might care to listen. Their grief becomes background noise, or reassurance for the schadenfreude-starved that their own lives are comparatively orderly. Homer will avidly listen to the "wackos" so desperate for affirmation that they would call into Monroe's show, so long as he can be confident that a safe buffer exists between his own world and the hidden disarray he hears about only from a seemingly comfortable distance. When that disarray suddenly intrudes into his personal reality, it becomes as terrifying as when, later on, Botz reveals her true intentions and the alleged cinéma vérité of America's Most Armed and Dangerous begins manifesting directly in the family living room. Furthermore, the universality of this one wacko's plight is underscored when the indifferent producer to Monroe's show categorises her, in his written prompts, as "another unappreciated housewife". Marge's deep-seated personal grievances amount to one of many identical stories in a world where individual despair is seldom heard - much less acknowledged - above a constant slew of easy listening and barely intelligible traffic reports. (Note: if you're particularly sharp-eyed, you might also notice that waiting on Line 2 is Paul, 51, who is a nail biter, not his own).

This vapidity is enforced even more pointedly through the contrast between the show we're watching and the insipidness of the Happy Little Elves videotape the children are made to view under Botz's watch. I mentioned in my coverage of "Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire" that the Ullman shorts and some of the earlier episodes featured this in-universe media franchise called The Happy Little Elves, which was beloved by Lisa and Maggie but reviled by Bart, who found the cartoon way too saccharine for his rebellious tastes. The Happy Little Elves basically stopped appearing after the first season - we still had the occasional reference here and there, but they ceased to be a prominent fixture of the Simpsons universe a la fellow show-within-a-show Itchy & Scratchy. One reason for their relatively fast fade into obscurity, I suspect, is that the specific kind of cartoon they were lampooning - cute, highly merchandisable programs about wholesome characters learning wholesome lessons - became less relevant as the world entered the 1990s. It was more of an 1980s thing, what with Snorks, Care Bears and The Get Along Gang all being rampant and numbing the world to the omnipresent threat of nuclear annihilation. In the beginning, The Simpsons took on that brand of cartoon as a means of declaring that they were radically different from the kinds of animated series that had dominated the cultural landscape of the 80s (while still being every bit as merchandisable), although it has to be said that The Simpsons was considerably less savage in its mockery of that entire ilk than was Rugrats, which yielded the Dummi Bears, about as viciously unsubtle a send-up of the Care Bears as one could imagine. Here, things take an interesting twist when Bart finally tires of the elves' antics and switches over to America's Most Armed and Dangerous, a pastiche of America's Most Wanted, the show that The Simpsons would later scramble into bed with in the run-up to the second half of their "Who Shot Mr Burns?" two-parter in 1995. Ostensibly, this is the antithesis of everything the Elves have to offer; Bart assures Lisa that, "This is cinéma vérité; when the brutal, slow motion killing starts I'll tell you to shut your eyes". A small scratch beneath the surface, however, and it becomes apparent that America's Most Armed and Dangerous is really just a part of the same cycle of banality, in which domestic stability is exemplified by material acquisition and consumerism - the Babysitter Bandit is deemed a menace not because she traumatises her young charges by gagging and binding them while she raids their houses, but because she depletes their property of the "valuable objects it took the family a lifetime to shop for." As menacing as Botz is, what she does to the children unfortunate enough to be left in her care is really just a means to an end - she attacks the households she infiltrates right where it hurts, by stripping them of the superficial comforts that make their humdrum existences vaguely tolerable. Once again, the spectacle of human misery becomes the feeding ground for mindless entertainment, with the especially ludicrous detail that anyone who assists the program in successfully apprehending the advertised criminals is promised an inane incentive in the form of a free t-shirt.

Ultimately, the kids use the insipid little Elves as a weapon against Ms Botz when, having subdued and hogtied her, they force her to watch the tape while they're out contacting America's Most Armed and Dangerous from a public payphone, Ms Botz having destroyed the telephone line earlier (it is interesting that they would opt to contact the series and not the authorities directly - why would Lisa go to the effort of dialing that ridiculous number instead of 911? - which I suppose speaks volumes of the family's reverence for the chattering cyclops as the ultimate authority figure). Homer and Marge return to find the defenceless Botz in a wall-eyed state, numbly begging for them to turn off the tape, for the hardened criminal is truly appalled by the horrors of the Elves' artificial sunniness. At the end, we get what appears to be a moment of genuine affinity between Botz and Homer - although she is perfectly happy to accept triple her pay and a couple of suitcases' worth of the family's personal belongings, Botz does afford her unsuspecting victim a smidgen of respect when she warns him not to underestimate his son. This is seemingly her way of thanking Homer for aiding her escape, but also her acknowledgement that there are more treacherous forces at work in this world than even she's prepared for, although she speeds away before a sympathetic Homer can air his own grievances at Bart - there are limits to how far their solidarity can go, given that she's just pillaged this man's home. Shortly after, the press and the authorities arrive, and Homer's gaffe becomes apparent. Homer is dubbed a "local boob" by the local media, but thinking it over I feel that he's served kind of a raw deal at the end of this episode. Under the circumstances, it's not an altogether unreasonable mistake to make, and the people who should feel really embarrassed are the dupes at Rubber Baby Buggy Bumper Babysitting Service for employing this woman in the first place; were background checks really this slack back in 1989?

So ends "Some Enchanted Evening", the episode that came notoriously close to sinking the series before it even began, and instead survives as a funny little footnote to the first season, conspicuously out of joint in terms the show's chronology, and slightly out of step with the rest of the season with regard to how far it's prepared to go with both its dark subject matter and its cartoon flexibility. The note is ends on is dually unsettling, with the Babysitter Bandit at large and, more subtly, uncertainty as to how long the rekindled romance between Marge and Homer can reasonably hope to last. But the final observation is one of perverse optimism, with Marge suggesting that the family's anti-social quirks may have left them better equipped for survival in a world so precarious. In other words, the family's dysfunctionality is really the mark of adaptability. All the same, the ability to knock out and hogtie a total stranger was, thankfully, not one that the Simpsons children would be required to use again too often. By the time this episode finally aired, the world was moving on, and we were already into the non-threatening nineties, after all.

* According to Albert Brooks, he does have the three hours' worth of unused ad libbed material between Marge and Jacques from "Life on The Fast Lane" sealed away in that same vault (A. Brooks is quoted as saying as such in John Ortved's book Simpsons Confidential). So obviously we're storming that vault one day.

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