One of the most persistent narratives about how and why The Simpsons fell from grace is that, at some point, the series lost its tether to reality. The argument goes that the tone of the show was always meant to be exaggerated, but also ultimately grounded, and that as the series got on in years, its quality suffered as it moved further and further away from the conceptual limits that kept The Simpsons at least nominally within the real world.
And yet “You Only Move Twice,” one of show’s most acclaimed episodes, also features one of the most outlandish twists in Simpsons history. After Homer moves the family for his new job in faraway Cypress Creek, it turns out that, unbeknownst to him, his cool new boss, Hank Scorpio, is actually a Bond villain. The twist isn’t depicted by way of subtle hints here or there or a last-minute reveal. Instead, the episode spends much of its run time ensconced in city-destroying lasers, ineffective death traps, and flame-thrower battles to repel the U.S. military, the very sort of farfetched fare that typically rankles diehard fans.
Then, to add to the absurdity, at the end of the episode, Scorpio seizes the East Coast and gives Homer a special parting gift — ownership of the Denver Broncos, replete with the team practicing on The Simpsons’ front lawn. It’s so far from reality, not to mention the standard rules of the show’s universe, that the series doesn’t even begin to address these developments in later installments. It’s exactly the kind of ridiculous, game-changing-yet-ignored ending that hated former showrunner Mike Scully and current ruler of The Simpsons roost Al Jean are routinely excoriated for today.
So why does this work so well in “You Only Move Twice”?
One possible answer is that nothing really distinguishes the Bond riffs in “You Only Move Twice” from the breaks with reality Scully and Jean would eventually employ in the show’s later years. Defenders of newer Simpsons episodes often maintain that the naysayers simply love to complain about the post-classic incarnation of the show, regardless of whether their criticisms apply just as well to the series at its peak. Another response is that it’s no crime to stretch the reality of The Simpsons’s universe now and then; it just can’t become a habit. As Dave Mirkin taught us, it’s okay to send Homer into space; you just can’t do it every week or the show’s reality starts to break rather than bend. A third is “The Rule of Funny” — the idea that you can play with the limits of the show as much as you want if you can wring a corresponding level of humor from it.
There’s a degree of truth in each of these explanations, but there’s another key element of “You Only Move Twice” that, to my mind, makes all the difference in the world as to whether episodes like this one succeed or, instead, feel like too much — tone.
The central conceit of the episode (and the one that not only makes it work but also makes it hilarious) is that all of Scorpio’s enterprising efforts toward global domination, which would certainly be front and center in a standard James Bond flick, are almost entirely relegated to the background. Not only does the spy-thriller bombast take a backseat to the domestic strife of The Simpson family, but Homer himself is characteristically oblivious to it, to the point that many of the episode’s laughs come from how blasé Homer (and Scorpio himself) seem about the whole thing.
Homer literally looks the other way when his boss takes time out from their chat about hammocks to threaten the U.N. He prevents a knockoff version of Bond from breaking out of Scorpio’s lair, and rather than appreciating the magnitude of the fact that he just helped recapture 007 (which, in a hilariously dark scene, leads to Scorpio’s goons just shooting the guy), Homer simply tells his family that he “tackled a loafer at work today.”
When, hat in hand, Homer talks to Scorpio about leaving the company and heading back to Springfield, Scorpio is only intermittently engaged with the third act action sequence going on in the background. And Homer, for his part, is almost completely unaware of it. The matter-of-factness with which the espionage and super-villainy are treated in “You Only Move Twice” sets a tone that lets the other aspects of the episode flourish despite the exaggerated elements at play.
Mixing the mundane and the fantastical is a venerable mode of comedy. In a recent interview from Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland about their fantastic show Rick and Morty, the pair explained that part of what makes that series function despite its insane universe is that everyone in it essentially takes that insanity for granted. There’s little marveling at whatever new futuristic device Rick has invented that week or the madcap science fiction plot that inevitably takes hold. Instead, the characters more or less take the outlandish sci-fi elements of the show in stride. That tonal choice keeps the series from drifting too far into the craziness of its world, allowing the humor and storytelling to work in concert with it.
The same is true for the Blofield-inspired antics of “You Only Move Twice.” Homer Simpson, easy-going fellow that he is, doesn’t appear to even notice the evil nature of his new workplace, let alone understand it. (Perhaps he’s just inured to evil after working for Mr. Burns for so long.) And the rest of the family is completely insulated from it. The result is an episode that is, first and foremost, about Homer unwittingly succeeding at his job and experiencing some unexpected professional fulfillment, while due to allergies, boredom, and the vicissitudes of “The Leg-Up Program,” the rest of his family is miserable.
Ultimately, the episode hinges on Homer having to choose between his own happiness and satisfaction and that of his family. In isolation, it’s a startlingly standard sitcom plot, but grafted onto the ridiculousness of a cross between SPECTRE and a Silicon Valley startup, and buoyed by the tremendous voice acting and unparalleled humor the show had at its disposal in its classic years, the narrative not only works; it soars. The contrast between the blockbuster action taking place at the margins of the episode and Homer’s garden variety work-life dilemma is incredibly effective, and lends humor to even the least straightforwardly comic moments.
Oddly enough, the idea for the episode reportedly came from Greg Daniels, who’s best known for co-creating both King of the Hill and the American version of The Office, two shows that certainly had their exaggerated elements, but which generally tried to keep their proceedings within some recognizable, if slightly outsized version of the real world. That oh so vital tone can then, perhaps, be attributed to the credited writer for the episode, John Swartzwelder. Swartzwelder is legendary and prolific among Simpsons scribes, and he’s known for consistently putting The Simpsons into off-kilter, absurd situations in classic episodes like “Itchy & Scratchy Land” or “Rosebud,” without ever losing the audience. He’s no stranger to putting the spotlight on the ordinary and the mundane in the shadow of the extreme and the ridiculous, and he can wring comedy from that contrast like no other.
Rest assured, “You Only Move Twice” is one of the funniest episodes The Simpsons ever produced, and that goes a long way toward making it work. Almost every line in the episode is laugh-worthy, from Marge’s sad-but-succinct protest that “I’ve dug myself into a happy little rut here and I’m not about to hoist myself out of it,” to Homer casually mentioning that his “team is way ahead of the weather machine and germ warfare divisions.” Each member of the family has something to do, and every bit in the episode is subtly or overtly hilarious in its own way.
Much of the episode’s success in both tone and humor is also due to Albert Brooks’s virtuoso performance as Hank Scorpio. Brooks is the linchpin that makes the tone of “You Only Move Twice” work. One of the reasons that nearly every second of this episode manages to be so funny is that Brooks can take otherwise unremarkable lines and make them uproarious in his delivery. He can plausibly jump back and forth between expressing sincere concern for his employee’s well-being and unleashing an evil cackle while taking out an enemy squadron. He has a great rapport with Dan Castellaneta. (The hammock exchange between Homer and Scorpio was reportedly improvised). And his superb comedic timing and unique speech pattern let him stand out on the show and come off as a believable cross between Richard Branson and Dr. Evil.
That balancing act, from Brooks’s unforgettable turn as an evil mastermind-cum-new age CEO, to Homer’s characteristically guileless response to the megalomaniacal trappings of his new job, to Daniels and Swartzwelder figuring out how to patch a Bond flick into The Simpsons’s world without breaking anything, is what allows the episode hit such amazing heights of comedy and storytelling. It put “You Only Move Twice” onto the short list of greatest Simpsons episodes ever and set a standard for blending the absurd and the mundane that has rarely, if ever, been matched.
Odds and Ends
- I love the delivery of the line “I start fires!” from Warren, one of the kids in Bart’s remedial class. It’s the perfect mix of chipper and lightly unhinged.
- I also enjoy the fact that the cool kid in Bart’s new school is wearing a tie-dye shirt and Ringo glasses. It gives you a good sense for how old the folks behind the scenes are and what their conception of “hip” is.
- The dramatic music that plays when Marge drinks a glass of wine is terrific. There’s a hilarious contrast in her plotline between how minor her “drinking problem” actually is and how dramatic it feels to Marge in the throes of her button-down life. It’s a great use of the perpetually underrated Marge.
- As someone born and raised in Texas, I’ve always taken a small bit of pride in the fact that Homer’s dream is to own the Dallas Cowboys. There were a number of seasons where having Homer as the Cowboys’ owner might have been a preferable option to Jerry Jones.
- While most of “You Only Move Twice” is timeless, there are a couple things that do place the episode firmly in 1996. The first is that Cypress Creek Elementary’s website was meant to be a joke at a time when an elementary school being on that new-fangled internet just seemed silly. Another is that the military leader who’s strangled by the woman in a bikini (herself a takeoff on Mrs. Goodthighs from the 1967 Bond spoof Casino Royale) is modeled on Norman Schwarzkopf, the leader of coalition forces in the first Persian Gulf War.
- I enjoy the occasional Bond movie, but I laughed heartily at the show’s take on the old “set Bond in an easily escapable death trap and turn your back instead of just killing him” routine that the film series returned to again and again. The Simpsons had previously referenced the same laser death trap trope in an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon.
- Yet again, I find myself reluctantly playing PC police in these reviews. When Globex’s femme fatale tells Smithers that the job the company’s offering would include benefits for him “and his life partner,” it’s a tidy little detail about how the Globex folks have done their homework on Smithers. When Homer blithely repeats the same “life partner” line to Marge, the joke is that the Globex folks could have, in fact, simply used the word “wife” with him, at a time when the idea of a “life partner” was a “crazy” new thing in the United States. A lot of the humor about Smithers’s homosexuality hasn’t aged well, and the joke certainly takes on a different tone in 2016 than it did in 1996. That said, the “life partner” quip isn’t used to make fun of Smithers’s sexual orientation, and the heart of the humor in Homer’s repetition of the phrase is, again, his obliviousness to what the term connotes, rather than any sort of jab at gay people. To my mind, the jokes still work today because of this. This has been your latest dose of a straight white male approving jokes involving marginalized groups. Take that for whatever it’s worth.