“Ow!” – Bart Simpson
“Excellent.” – C.M. Burns
To say that the evil and charismatic Mr. Burns enjoys having people perform for him is something of an understatement. This is a man who has crippled an Irishman for his own amusement and tied a bundle of cash to a string to taunt an eight-year-old girl. He kidnapped Tom Jones and made him sing while shackled to the stage. The Burns we all know and love to hate likes to see people squirm under duress, preferably duress that he’s causing.
You can see this trait in spades in “Burns’ Heir”. In this episode alone, we see Burns fire a pistol at a man’s feet to make him dance, laugh as Homer is plunged into an industrial smokestack, and drop Lenny into a pit while he was pleading for his job. In keeping with his cruel and callous nature, Burns summons many of the town’s children to his mansion so that they can try to impress him and win his money. Since he doesn’t really tell them what he’s looking for (other than no girls and no geeks), the entire idea is borderline sadistic. Young kids have to stand on a stage so that all of their insecurities and shortcomings can be picked apart by an old man who plainly despises most of them. True to form, Burns proceeds to humiliate the ones he doesn’t like and either applauds or instigates physical violence against the ones who really displease him.
Give the bully an extra point.
The entire scene is exactly what we expect from Burns. He’s evil, in charge, and taking out his frustrations and fears on people who are hopelessly weaker than he is. The only kid who even kind of impresses him is Nelson, and that’s because Nelson’s the one who shares Burns’ contempt for the rest of them. This is Burns wallowing in his own crapulence with no one to stop him or even mitigate his actions.
The opposite of that scene occurs in “Grift of the Magi” when Skinner takes some of the kids to Burns Manor to beg for help for the school. In both cases, the kids are there because their adults want money from Burns, but that’s where the similarities end. Consider, just for a minute, how everyone got there. In “Burns’ Heir”, it’s made explicitly clear that these children are there only on the sufferance of Burns.
See, Zombie Simpsons? Sign gags can be in service to the plot.
By contrast, in “Grift of the Magi”, the kids just show up and start putting on a show which Burns, for some unexplained reason, sits patiently and watches. Having the episode skip over the how and why of Skinner and his charges getting into Burns Manor, as well as the how and why of Burns paying attention instead of instantly releasing the hounds, is yet another example of the declining give-a-shit level of the show as it became Zombie Simpsons.
It wouldn’t have been hard for them to come up with some kind of excuse or joke for how they all got into Burns Manor or why Burns is listening to them. Maybe they poisoned the hounds, maybe the security guards are all illiterate, who knows? Anything would’ve been better than the nothing they actually did. No sooner has this episode said that it’s impossible to get into Burns Manor than Skinner and the kids just appear, and Burns is fine with it. They don’t even care enough to give us a single line (from Burns, Skinner, anyone) that makes light of the fact that they just skipped over a gaping plot chasm and contradicted one of the most well established traits of one of their best known characters.
Somewhat impressively, things manage to get even worse once the little production actually starts. Skinner’s play is predictably stupid and cut rate, nothing wrong with that, but then Burns falls for it, not realizing it’s for charity until the very end. This is a man who wanted to drive on after he hit Bart with his car, a man who kidnapped a Brazilian soccer team to work in his nuclear plant, a man who was once accurately described by Judge Snyder as having an, “unbelievable contempt for human life”. No part of the real Burns would ever be so gullible as to find Skinner’s toddling morality play plausible or so empathetic to care that someone might be served rat poison:
Nelson: Hmm, which one of these is the salt? Too bad I’m an idiot cause my school closed. Oh, well.
Burns: No, that’s the rat poison!
It actually goes downhill from there, but in just that single exchange we can tell that Burns simply isn’t who he’s supposed to be anymore. The smart and unlimitedly cruel Burns is gone, and in his place is a doddering fool who is dumb and caring. As Bart and Ralph(!) get their turns on stage, this new Burns continues to lap up their transparent bullshit:
Skinner: Now, who in Springfield will eat the poisoned broth? It could be anyone, even Mr. Burns.
Burns: This play really speaks to me.
Ralph Wiggum: Hello, I’m Dr. Stupid. I’m going to take out your liver bones. Oops, you’re dead.
Burns: I never liked that Dr. Stupid.
Skinner: Mr. Burns, I’ll be honest. We had a hidden agenda tonight.
Burns: [gasps] No!
This is precisely the kind of weak, stupid, and generally helpless Burns that never existed during The Simpsons. Compare that to the way Burns reacts to the kids who are auditioning to become his heir:
Milhouse: I have nothing to offer you but my love.
Burns: I specifically said no geeks!
Milhouse: But my Mom says I’m cool.
Nelson: Gimme your fortune or I’ll pound your withered old face in!
Burns: Oh, I like his energy. Put him on the callback list.
This is the real Burns: mean, evil and with no patience for those who aren’t. When he eventually settles on Bart for being “a creature of pure malevolence”, he does so because Bart is smashing his windows and decapitating his statues, actions that would presumably shock and horrify the feeble man in “Grift of the Magi”.
On top of all that (of course), is the fact that in “Burns’ Heir” the scene with the performing kids is crucial to the overall story, whereas in “Grift of the Magi” it’s an unnecessary and time filling detour that has almost nothing to do with the main plot. But plot irrelevance is par for the course in Zombie Simpsons. The real damage here is to Burns, and by extension to the show, since turning him into a husk of himself destroys all the fun that comes with having a wealthy man who revels in the misery of others.