“Greats are always trying new things, like Michelangelo, or Shaquille O’Neil!” – Marge Simpson. Maybe I should frame this quote and send it to Al Jean.
Airdate: April 11th, 1999
Written By: Al Jean
Plot: Homer’s attempts to build a backyard barbecue pit go rather awry when the parts and the instructions fall into the cement. (“Le Grill? What the hell is that?”) After his attempts to return the… barbecue, I guess… fail, it winds up crashing into the car of Astrid, a member of the local “Original Art” scene. Taking an interest in the disaster, she invites Homer to a local gallery, where Mr. Burns buys his art (to collect the royalties, presumably). Thus begins his new career as an artist.
Season 2 of The Simpsons is one of the show’s more underrated seasons. I mean, yeah, seasons 2-8 were (with one or two examples later on) sublime all around, but Season 2 is often skipped over, as far as I can see. It doesn’t seem to have the rubbery charm of 1, nor is it acclaimed like 3. It’s a shame because, in my view, Season 2 is when The Simpsons really began to kick into top gear.
Among the episodes in season 2 is “Brush With Greatness”, an episode that explores Marge’s artistic talent. The episode focuses on Marge rekindling her high-school interest in art – one that was crushed by a callous teacher. Her big challenge in rekindling her love is trying to reconcile her technique – focusing on one’s inner beauty and goodness – with a mandate to paint Mr. Burns for his new wing at the museum. It’s a fantastic episode, although I could say the same for most of Season 2.
Now, we get something of a sequel. Eight years on, and the overall tone of the show has changed dramatically. Rather than an ensemble focusing on the Simpson family as a whole, we instead get a sequel focusing on Homer’s accidental foray into absurdist modern art. So, is this episode a genuine Mr. Burns, or a quick painting of a sad clown?
Well, let’s get the obvious out of the way – this is another “Homer Gets A Job” episode. We’re on seven “definite new jobs” this season, and three borderline examples (“D’oh-in in the Wind”, “Homer to the Max”, “I’m with Cupid”). Much like most of those examples, here’s a case where he fails upwards – failing so hard at basic masonry that he actually beats it into a piece of modern art, apparently. OK… does it fit his character? Well, this season, unfortunately. I can buy the destruction of the Barbeque Pit as something that finally pushes him over the edge of sanity, although it’s dulled a bit since he’s been a grade-A impulsive jackass through much of Season 10. (Still, I won’t deny that it’s among the funnier scenes that I’ve seen in the Scully era, even if it is symbolic of the four years of madness.)
And, wouldn’t you know it, he’s a pompous maniac through much of this episode – even getting praised for his masonry by the art scene, who declares it… well, art. This would probably be more irritating if the modern artists weren’t portrayed as pompous, elitist snobs themselves. I mean, Jasper Johns is a kleptomaniac, for cripes sake. And the rest of the artists react to Homer’s stagnation by insisting that they try heroin. This show ain’t treating these artists with kid gloves by any stretch of the imagination, and even as a non-artist such as myself, I think that their scenes delivered some of the best laughs through the episode.
Unfortunately, the crux of the episode is still Homer’s art. And while the arrogance of the modern artists brings this episode up, his arrogance and brief ultra-success (apparently, he gets named in a major art magazine) take it down quite a bit. Again, though, most of the cast has little problem with his outlandish behavior – as if they now expect him to threaten people at the front door, or make his eight-year-old child lay down a layer of cement, or scream that he has wrath when his art career stagnates. Attempts to give him pathos are rather hard when he declares “worship me or feel my wrath” – pathetic as that line turns out.
I think what makes this more irritating to me is the decision to call back to “Brush With Greatness”, and note the fact that Homer has become successful with little effort while Marge has been invested in artistry all her life. Yes, Marge did get her fifteen minutes of fame with her paintings of Homer and Mr. Burns, but did she get her picture in a major art magazine? Her jealousy is understandable – and is fuelled by Homer’s increasingly selfish and street-rat crazy attitude during his stint as an artist.
Unfortunately, the writers don’t develop on it enough. When it all comes crashing down on Captain Wacky, Marge assists him in finding some level of inspiration – taking him to the local art museum. There, a series of events drive him to actually do a real-life recreation of the Streets of Venice (…yeah…), which Marge paints. It’s almost like they drop the jealousy angle to focus more on the resolution… or the lack thereof. The ending would be cuter if it wasn’t so cheap – like they realized as they were getting to the last few pages of script that they needed to resolve the “jealousy” plot, and stuck that on the back end to resolve it.
Yeah, the show’s plotting has gone down the tubes quite a bit. Again, it feels like the writers just throw stuff at the wall – discussing concepts quickly over an order of Taco Bell…
Al Jean: Mmm, this quesadilla is a mess. So, Mike, what are you doing after production on Season 10 wraps up?
Mike Scully: I’m heading to Venice. Wanna see – morons forgot the tomatoes on my Tacos – the canals and just how much art regarding the city doesn’t revolve around them.
Al: Canals… revolve… can I have Homer try and recreate Venice in the show?
Mike: Well, didn’t we almost do that with some Sideshow Bob episode a while back?
Al: Well, I also went to the Modern Art museum. I’ll have him flood Springfield to satirize Modern Art.
Mike: Not a bad idea. Can you have a script on my desk by Friday?
Al: Pass the nachos, and I’ll have it by Wednesday.
But, to this episode’s credit, there were quite a few memorable jokes and scenes. To keep it simple…
- “Mom and Pop Hardware” being a big-box mart. It’s my second-favorite “big box mart” parody in the series that I can remember (superseded only by Monstromart – where shopping is a baffling ordeal.)
- Homer’s attempts to dump the barbecue in the Toys for Tots bin is stopped by Chief Wiggum, even though he describes it as an “activity set”. The mafia is more creative – arguing that a body they’re dumping is a bag of Beanie Babies.
- “I’ll give you two bucks for that bird if it’s still alive.”
- Credit where credit’s due – Homer’s dream at the art museum was pretty damn funny.
- Say what you will about the floods, but Milhouse’s flood pants come in handy, bringing with it one of the last iconic Simpsons lines – “Everything’s coming up Milhouse!”
These are just a couple of the jokes that do rescue the episode. Still, it’s only a partial success. Maybe it’s just me and my relatively light knowledge of Art, but I merely thought that this episode was “meh”. Its pros do elevate this above “Make Room For Lisa” and “When You Dish Upon A Star”, but there’s a tad bit too much Jerkass Homer and silly plot twists to keep it much more than “watchable” for me.
- This episode aired the same night that Family Guy aired its second episode – “I Never Met The Dead Man”. “Maximum Homerdrive” aired the night Futurama debut. I mention that because this is really going to swing the show for the next two seasons – Futurama poached the show’s writers, and Family Guy‘s different attitude gave it a cult following over its first three seasons that The Simpsons tried to take notice of.
- Loved the joke about where Burns got some of his money, from “White Christmas” royalties.
- While Homer is doing his second project, he asks Bart and Lisa to irritate him. Bart – most likely getting Homer’s goat – tells him that he’s flunking English and was a little attracted to Milhouse the week prior. Homer responds by beating the stuffing out of his clay. I would call this a lapse in character continuity (given “Homer’s Phobia”), but given that The Simpsons runs on a somewhat loose sense of continuity, I guess I can let the character inconsistency slide a little. (And besides, that’s the least of the issues I have regarding character here.)
- They wound up using the “Ray Jay Johnson” bit in a Season 13 episode, “The Old Man And The Key”. At least, here, they joked about how annoying it could be.
- Seriously… a bunch of stolen doormats, plus every single fire hydrant being turned on, managed to turn Springfield into Venice. Makes sense…
Favorite Scene: Homer’s dream in the museum, mainly because of his interactions with the various art styles.
Least Favorite Scene: Anybody else hate that scene where Homer brags to Marge about his success and ignores her concerns while going to sleep?
Jerkass Homer Meter: 4.
Zaniness Factor: 4. Seriously… Venice…