“Goodbye, Springfield, from Hell’s heart, I stab at thee!” – C.M. Burns
The line everyone knows from 1987’s Wall Street is, “Greed is good”. Of course, Michael Douglas doesn’t quite say that; his actual line is “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”. Either way it’s not the best line in the movie. That honor goes to Martin Sheen, playing the skeptical head of an airline mechanics union. Sitting in Gordon Gekko’s excessively 1980s penthouse as the iconic bankster of the time licks his chops over wage cuts now for theoretical profit sharing tomorrow, Sheen sagely notes:
“The rich been doing it to the poor since the beginning of time. The only difference between the Pyramids and the Empire State Building is the Egyptians didn’t allow unions.”
The fight between labor and management is as old as the hills, and labor has only one weapon: organizing. Not that unions are all smiles and sunshine. They can be every bit as corrupt, short sighted, and greedy as their opponents, and the conflict between the two are often complicated, messy and painful. In other words, the whole thing is fertile territory for satire, parody and general yuk-yuks.
Like many rich comedy veins, whether fart jokes or mocking those clowns in Congress, taking a swing at employers, employees and their eternal struggle against one another can be done with verve, insight and wit, or it can be done quickly and cheaply with the barest minimum of thought or humor. Not being particularly fond of either thought or humor, Zombie Simpsons went with the second option.
Lisa’s cheerleader union plot begins after she is twice magically transformed by the cheerleaders into and out of a cheerleader outfit, so things don’t exactly get off to a good start, but they do manage to cover the bare minimum of "strike" plot points. Basically these:
1. The need to strike
2. The decision to strike
3. The strike itself
4. Management’s counter moves
5. The resolution
All of these have been done by The Simpsons, of course, most completely in "Last Exit to Springfield". Obviously the B-plot for “Labor Pains” has much less screen time than the A-plot of “Last Exit to Springfield”, so instead of comparing them in whole, just consider those five scenes that they have in common.
1. In Zombie Simpsons, Lisa discovers how poorly compensated the “Atomettes” are when the Rich Texan walks over to them and pays them their meager wages, helpfully expositing the amount just in case anyone wasn’t paying attention. It’s perfectly hacktacular, with characters walking on and off as needed, repeated explanation, and no real connection to anything we’ve seen so far. (And nevermind pulling a theoretically 8-year-old girl out of the crowd and putting her in a skimpy costume to dance around in front of a bunch of drunken dudes.)
In The Simpsons, Burns decides he wants to cancel dental insurance for his workers more or less out of spite. He remembers the good old days when you could wall up impudent employees and wants to get back to that. He doesn’t specifically target the dental plan because it’s expensive or he needs the money, he just wants to screw his workers on the principle that workers should be screwed. This being The Simpsons, the union doesn’t come off any better. They almost accepted a keg of beer in exchange for dental coverage and then elected Homer as their leader. Not only does all this mesh with the B-plot of Lisa needing braces, but it’s a lot more interesting and involved that some simple and heavily exposited pay dispute. The conflict flows directly from the evil of Burns, Homer gets naturally caught up (instead of just happening to be there), and things can proceed.
“Unless you’re crooked.” “Woo-hoo!”
2. From there, we see our two opponents, Burns and Homer, hilariously misunderstand each other, starting with Burns trying to bribe Homer and Homer thinking Burns is hitting on him. Homer hates his new position so much that he goes to resign, but the hotheads in the union cut him off and assume he wants to go to war with Burns instead. The whole strike is a farce, built on one comic misperception after another. In "Labor Pains", Lisa and the Rich Texan both wander to cheerleading practice for another exposition and coincidence filled meeting that sees both of them going through the motions.
I’m sure Jerry Jones has done some terrible things to Cowboys cheerleaders over the decades, but even he doesn’t pay their pittance personally.
3. Both episodes feature quick strike scenes and little montages, but all you really need to know is that The Simpsons wrote a strike song and had Lisa sing it whereas Zombie Simpsons grabbed an old Woody Guthrie song called “What Are We Waiting On”. That’s pretty lazy, but it’s even worse than it first seems because while the song does contain the word “union”, Guthrie isn’t referring to a labor union, but rather the Union (as in the United States of America). The song is about fighting Hitler, not fighting management. So not only did Zombie Simpsons just buy a song, they picked a song by Woody Guthrie, most famous for singing about the lives of working people, that isn’t actually about working people. Jebus.
Oh, Patty & Selma, remember when you were awesome and didn’t take shit from people?
4. When Burns counterattacks the union, he goes with head busting strikebreakers, fire hoses, and robot workers. His ideas are very Burns like: outdated and/or insane, but ruthless and at least theoretically effective. The Rich Texan, on the other hand, makes just a single countermove: hiring Patty, Selma, Nelson’s mom, and the Crazy Cat Lady to replace the hardbodied twenty-somethings who make up his usual cheer squad. Say what you want about the robot workers, but the box did say they’d be “100% Loyal”. It could have worked. Crazy Cat Lady in spandex, on the other hand, is weak tea gross out humor that nicely demonstrates just how empty this conflict really is.
The kind they had in the 30s . . .
5. And what happens at the end? Well, the Rich Texan goes to the Simpson house (which is where the strike is being organized because shut up that’s why) and concedes because apparently it never occurred to him to hire more hardbodied twenty-somethings. Compare that meek surrender to Burns, who deliberately blacks out all of Springfield (even the red light district and the fake vomit factory) while quoting Captain Ahab’s speech from the end of “Moby Dick”. Having tried to destroy the entire town rather than surrender, Burns finally admits defeat. The Rich Texan went down with hardly a peep.
Ladies, I’m here to wrap up this B-plot because the A-plot has scenes even worse than this coming right up.
The Simpsons mocked both labor and management to within an inch of reality and let the good guys win only because the bad guy is irredeemably insane. Zombie Simpsons had some cheerleaders giggle and shake their stuff.
The tragedy of all this is that “cheerleader union” is a fantastic idea. Real NFL cheerleaders are basically paid in pompoms, and an actual Simpsons episode about them unionizing or just getting something more than a token salary (most make well under $100 per game, and they have to do lots of uncompensated non-game stuff as well) could be hilarious. Instead we got this. Oh well.