“This can’t be what it looks like. There’s got to be some other explanation.” – Bart Simpson
“I wish there was some other explanation for this, but there isn’t. I’m a murderer, I’m a murderer!” – Ned Flanders
“Then that’s not the real Ned Flanders.” – Bart Simpson
“I’m a mur-diddly-urd-ler!” – Ned Flanders
“If that’s not Flanders, he’s done his homework.” – Bart Simpson
The Simpsons had a long and proud tradition of using classic movies or plot ideas as the basis of an episode. Being The Simpsons, when they aped something, they didn’t just follow it, they used it as an ingredient in something larger and more varied. The examples of this are too numerous to list comprehensively, but think about the way “Like Father, Like Clown” took some of its major elements from The Jazz Singer, or the way “Rosebud” used the central mystery of Citizen Kane for a story about a teddy bear, or the way “You Only Move Twice” followed the general James Bond template but from a very different perspective. None of these are straight parodies, instead the source material functions mainly in the background to give the story a coherent structure and a satirical theme (in addition to plenty of material for references and gags).
Season 6’s “Bart of Darkness” is a stellar example of that kind of episode. Its main story is about Bart going slightly stir crazy after being shut out of the usual summer fun by a broken leg, which is basically the same plot as the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rear Window. But that’s only a part of what’s going on in the episode.
Grace, come here, there’s a sinister looking kid who’s making fun of our movie.
Rear Window is a movie that relies on suspense, doubt and belief to create a lot of tension. Sensibly, The Simpsons dropped those parts and only really used the main plot device, building the rest of the episode around that. (There is, for example, no swimming pool in Rear Window.) It’s still easily recognizable as a Rear Window send up (even without the two Jimmy Stewart appearances), but the menacing tone of the movie is completely absent for the simple reason that it wouldn’t work at all in a comedy show. The episode certainly plays with the idea that Flanders murdered his wife, but as Bart says, “This is Flanders we’re talking about”. There are jokes and gags aplenty (Schuman Farms Head of Lettuce, mur-diddly-urd-ler) to make sure that things never become dire or dangerous because, c’mon, it’s Flanders.
Compare that light and effective use of source material to the slow footed, heavy handed, and tone deaf “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge”. There the basic plot is a take off on those (typically bad) movies where a manipulative stranger moves into the house and begins to fuck with the people that live there. I’m not enough of a film buff to know the background of this particular sub-genre, but there was a spate of them in the early 1990s, most famously Single White Female, Poison Ivy, and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle. That last one is the closest analog to “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge”, but they’re all pretty similar: a new woman moves in and begins destroying things.
Images yoinked from respective Wikipedia articles.
Like I said, there were a lot of these.
As the basis of an episode of The Simpsons, you could do much worse. Sure, such movies tend to be formulaic and bland (I once had to sit through Pacific Heights, a particularly wretched example with Michael Keaton as the interloper), but it’s a recognizable enough idea and you’ve already got the family in place. The problem with “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge” is in the execution. Instead of using the “other woman moves in” plot as a comedy where little or nothing is at stake, Zombie Simpsons plays it straight ahead, with lots of suspenseful string music and Marge going crazy in ways that are far more bizarre than entertaining.
That opens the episode up to all of the same problems that plague those kind of domestic thriller movies: wild and completely unbelievable plot twists, inexplicable but harmless incidents of danger, and characters who are repeatedly and unconscionably naive and stupid. All of those happen in this episode, and while there is the occasional nod to the absurdity of the source material (“powerless to help you, not punish you”), for the most part they just stumble forward with Marge yelling and screaming and everyone else not believing her.
The freakout ratio between these two episodes is like 10:1, minimum.
This is how we get scenes with cut brakes and a chase through a marching band and Marge generally acting like a nutbar. (What was with her praying – out loud – in the middle of her commitment hearing?) At the same time, her family just kind of watches all this happen (including Lisa, who would know better and who is basically set aside for most of this episode). Worse, there’s nothing else going on. The entire plot is Marge vs. Becky, which, since the conclusion is foregone and we’re watching an animated show, isn’t the least bit suspenseful.
Oh, no. How will Marge and the gang get out of this one? I’m on the edge of my seat.
“Bart of Darkness” understood all that, so when it comes time for the scene where Lisa, a la Grace Kelly in Rear Window, goes to the Flanders’ house to investigate Bart’s suspicions, the scene is light on suspense and heavy on comedy. Even when Flanders is walking up the steps, ostensibly to hack Lisa to death with an ax, the episode never takes things seriously in the least (the dog attached to Bart’s cast always gets me) and wraps itself up quickly. The last scene (other than Martin’s humiliation, of course) is Homer quickly parodying those cliched reveal scenes from detective shows with his sarcastic sounding sincerity.
By contrast, even after all the crap Marge has been through by the end of “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge”, the episode can’t end without one more drawn out scene with suspenseful string music. And even then it doesn’t make sense (so Becky really was trying to steal her family?) because Becky herself is as empty and incomplete as a character can be. Recall that the show offers zero background on her or why she’d move in with the Simpsons after Otto took off. Does she not have a place of her own? Doesn’t she have any friends or family? Shouldn’t there have been at least one person – at her wedding – that she knew besides them? The episode is completely silent on those rather glaring questions, so when it comes time to end, it pulls that classic Zombie Simpsons move of just throwing up its hands and rolling the credits.
“Bart of Darkness” is its own creation, one which uses Rear Window extensively, but which has so many other things going on (Krusty re-runs, Bart’s play, Lisa becoming popular, etcetera) that the movie it’s parodying is only a small part of a much larger whole. On the other side of the ledger, you have “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Marge”, the script for which is so hacktacular that it could probably be turned into an actual mediocre suspense movie with just a little bit of padding and an extra character or two.