“I was wrong to have a dream. Wrong as usual. I mean, if you’re nothing special, why kid yourself?” – Marge Simpson
The obvious choice for comparing and contrasting Marge’s sandwich shop in “Super Franchise Me” is her pretzel wagon in “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson”. In both episodes, we see Marge not only strike out on her own a bit, but into the food industry, and with eventually poor results. Of course, in Season 8, we get into the story right away, instead of wading through an unrelated opening (montage included); and it makes a lot more sense that she’d be able to open a garage-based franchise with $500 instead of the never mentioned five or six figures required for a full blown retail store; and the endings are vastly different, with one tying nicely into the rest of the episode, while the other involves another random incident in an episode that already had way too many of them. (Oh, and they needlessly repeat Cletus listing his kids.) Instead of getting into all that, however, I’d like to take a closer look at Marge’s competition and, more broadly, what it says about how Springfield itself is presented in The Simpsons and Zombie Simpsons.
The first scene in “The Twisted World of Marge Simpson” is a meeting of the “Investorettes” over coffee. In addition to Marge, we’ve got Helen Lovejoy, Luann van Houten, Maude Flanders, Edna Krabappel, and, of course, Agnes Skinner (It means Lamb, Lamb of God!). The setup doesn’t require any explanation because we can tell right away what they’re doing: they’re a group of women with a few extra dollars who are getting into business.
“Children are so fat today! Isn’t there some way we can make money off that?”
The conflict that will eventually escalate into a mob war is all set up right here in the opening scene. It’s Marge versus her erstwhile partners, and it’s strong enough to carry an entire episode without any assistance from a B-plot. After their initial falling out, we see each side countering the other a couple of times, and it builds on itself all the way to the little guy asking for “forgiveness, please”.
Moreover, the Investorettes are clearly the stronger party. They get the sleek, looks like it doesn’t even need your business, Fleet-A-Pita truck, while Marge is left hauling pretzels around in the back of her beat up station wagon. They kicked her out, they go after her business when all she’s doing is trying to work, and they hire even more vicious mobsters than Homer does. They are a strong and worthy foe for Marge, and the episode reflects that in everything from Marge only buying a franchise to spite them all the way to Chief Wiggum and Helen diving away from the exploding truck.
The story is well built enough to both fill the time and add emotional heft, which means that the show is free to crack jokes and cram in as many funny scenes as possible. There’s Jack Lemmon’s terrible introduction video (where he has to walk away from the camera before he sits down, check for millipedes, and extol the futuristic virtues of working in a garage). There’s the franchise saleswoman allaying Helen Lovejoy’s nativist suspicions by calling a pita a “Ben Franklin”. There’s Homer guilting Fat Tony, Skinner’s “boaking” accident, and the barrage of pretzels knocking Whitey down. The combat between the two groups gives a purpose to all the mayhem.
Compare that to the complete lack of friction between Marge’s sandwich shop and the one that the Cletus clan opens across the street. They have no history with Marge and aren’t even in the episode before Bart points out their competing franchise. We don’t see why they’d want to do this, why the franchise lady would set them up next to Marge, nothing.
Oh, look, the antagonists have arrived . . . fourteen minutes into a twenty minute episode.
Compounding the stupidity is the way that, as soon as they open, Marge’s shop is simply assumed to be kaput. If anyone should be able to compete and win against Cletus – in food, no less – it’s Marge. But Zombie Simpsons doesn’t so much as entertain the idea. Instead, they cram a bunch of weak redneck references in there because . . . well, because that’s what they think is funny with Cletus. It sucks for the same reason that there’s a difference between Skinner getting his hand broken, and Skinner getting his hand broken so that the mob can force him, at laser targeted gunpoint, to use school money to buy pretzels from an unsuspecting Marge. Goofy shit is a lot funnier if it has a reason to be goofy, or, as Krusty once put it, the pie gag only works if the poor sap’s got dignity.
Beyond just the plot flimsiness, however, Cletus and family showing up out of nowhere to succeed for no reason is another manifestation of the many ways Zombie Simpsons has hollowed out the wonderfully bleak premises of The Simpsons. Opening a national fast food franchise costs a lot of money and, if it works, is a ticket to serious prosperity. By contrast, paying five hundred bucks for a poster and a bug infested bag of “ingredients”, or even opening a food truck, is the kind of low-rent adventure the citizens of a small and poor town might actually do. It fits with who we know the characters are, which not only makes it easier to believe in the story, but also opens the rest of it up for satire.
Frank Ormand isn’t a bad guy, but he knows how hard and humiliating it is to hang off one of the lowest rungs in American capitalism. He’s a good natured and well meaning hustler, but a hustler nevertheless. The mystery lady who only shows up when the plot demands it, on the other hand, is just another Lindsey Naegle clone, with no motivation, no backstory (implied or otherwise), and nothing to do but spit out exposition and shallow punchlines (mostly exposition, though). To wit:
Frank Ormand: Ooh, you sound like me. Well, the old me, which was, ironically, the young me. I was once like you were, young lady, like all these people, lost in a sea of flashy gimmicks and empty promises. Then God tossed me a life preserver, a tasty, golden brown, life preserver.
That’s how he starts his pitch: homey, friendly, and encouraging. In just his few brief scenes, we see a guy who’s not trying to scam anyone, he’s just locked into a shitty business that, despite decades of evident failure, he even still believes in. The earnesty and desperation are what makes his cornball pitch funny, like a used car salesman who’d be personally hurt by anyone who thinks his overpriced jalopies aren’t quality automobiles at bargain prices. Then there’s this:
Trudy Zengler: Marge, see this face? It’s opportunity. Blink and you’ll miss it. . . . Just kidding, I’m right behind you. I’m Trudy Zengler, vice-president of development for Mother Hubbard’s Sandwich Cupboards. How would you like to run your own business, take control of your financial future?
We don’t know who she is or why she’s there, but she’s got a zany pitch and a helpfully expository question that just happens to apply to some worries that neither we nor she knew Marge had at that moment. Ormand’s is great because it’s a Simpsonized version of what a guy like him would actually say. Hers falls flat because it’s a rote recitation of facts that don’t make any sense. Frank Ormand’s desperation is genuine; Trudy Zengler, on the other hand, has about as much personality and depth as the cardboard cutout they later have Burns fall in love with.
On The Simpsons, trying is the first step towards failure. So when Marge tries her best, she indeed fails miserably. (If you want some butter, it’s under her face.) But on Zombie Simpsons, cool stuff just happens all the time. The sandwich shop is a hit and only gets stopped because someone else’s is an even bigger hit. In the Springfield of The Simpsons, neither Marge nor Cletus would ever have had the money to even open the store. But in the Springfield of Zombie Simpsons, money is no object and even the dirt poorest are rich when they need to be. Cloying optimism was never part of The Simpsons, but it’s hard to imagine Zombie Simpsons without it.