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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Static Thoughts - Who Shot Mr. Burns Retrospective

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Tonight marks the return of Twin Peaks to our screens.  The original show and its question of “who killed Laura Palmer?” were some of the biggest TV mysteries of all time.  It’s approach to world building and blending high concept mysticism with potboiler mystery is still the gold standard all others strive for today.  Unfortunately, Twin Peaks is also one of those groundbreaking shows that’s already been dissected and explained to death, so instead I'm going to focus on one of its sister mysteries of TV, the Simpsons two-part episode “Who Shot Mister Burns?” 

Produced near the closing of the show’s so-called Golden Age, ‘Who Shot Mister Burns’ may be the largest the show ever loomed in the broad, pop-cultural eye and its approach to audience interaction and mystery has had almost as much impact on TV and movies as Twin Peaks or their shared predecessor Dallas.  I’m not at all kidding when I say ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns’ paved the way for modern cultural darlings like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and new classics of animation like Gravity Falls- let’s dive in. 

Just from the outset let me say this article is more about history and context than it is an appraisal of the episode’s actual quality.  Honestly, I’m not sure there’s much point in diving into the subject of quality on most Simpsons episodes from Season 2-8 AKA the Golden Age.  That idea of The Simpsons Golden Age is pretty important as well given the timing of this episode, slotted firmly at the finale of season 6 and the premiere of season 7.  

This was The Simpsons at their most powerful- they’d outgrown their clunky origins as an up jumped spin-off and cult curiosity, burned through their period of mass merchandising under the Bart Man banner and settled in nicely as satirical appointment viewing for all of America. 

The show was on top of the world and still fresh enough to feel invigorating, with self-critical episodes like ‘Hurricane Neddy,’ ‘Homer’s Enemy,’ and ‘The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show’ still a season away.  In essence, this was the perfect moment for The Simpsons to attempt the kind of big, multi-media event that ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns?’ turned into. 

The idea for the episode came about sometime in late 1993/early 1994, when Matt Groening pitched writers Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein the idea of a mystery episode.  Groening got the idea for the episode from the American prime time soap opera Dallas, which had been one of the biggest TV successes of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.  

That show had ended its third season on the cliff hangar of its lead character J.R. Ewing getting shot by an unseen assassin, which kicked off a nationwide uproar and marketing machine around the question “Who shot J.R.?”  What’s more, in 1990 Twin Peaks’ marketing had captivated the nation around the question “who killed Laura Palmer?” thus renewing the idea of national mystery TV.  Both programs ended up spoofed as part of ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns?’ 

Groening had wanted to do something similar with The Simpsons, specifically basing it around Mr. Burns getting shot but also preserving the structure of an actual mystery.   The idea was later hammered out by showrunner David Mirkin and executive producer James L. Brooks, who were the ones that came up with Maggie shooting being the culprit.  The original plan had been for Barney Gumble to be the shooter and for him to actually leave the show for a few seasons, but ultimately the show is called “The Simpsons” so a Simpson had to be the one to pull the trigger. 

From there, Oakley and Weinstein set about trying to craft a plausible mystery, complete with clues hidden within the episode.  The idea quickly developed that the entire town would have a motive against Burns, turning him into more of a cartoon monster than usual and that the ending would suggest several possibilities.  Nowadays plenty of shows have big mystery elements and hidden clues, but back in 1995 the idea was incredibly new and daring and could really only be achieved by The Simpsons. 

While The Simpsons had cultivated mass audience success its place as on the line between slapstick cartoon and adult media satire made it the perfect sweet spot for a generation of teens, especially teen geeks who were already interested in cartoons beyond the standard fair. 

As such, the show had developed a hardcore fan base out of the first wave of Internet users who would record the show through home VCRs specifically to collect the various freeze frame gags of the show.  This was the fan base the clues and mystery of ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns’ were appealing to, basically creating a mid-'90s answer to the stuff in modern mystery cartoons like Gravity Falls. 

Things like DVR episodes, message board chatter, and community manicured encyclopedias that now generate so much of modern fandom were in their infancy at the time, and this episode took advantage of all of them.  Nowadays we know these kinds of methods can help build a stronger and more engaged fan base, the way the Marvel movies use their Easter eggs and references to turn audience engagement into hype for their next film, but back in 1995 the idea of using the Internet to build moment for a story was entirely new, and Fox made the most of it. 

Within the episode, the central clue was that Mr. Burns collapsed onto a sundial with his hands pointed west and south.   The idea was that fans would interpret the letters of the directions as initials, so the episode took pains to set-up a lot of people with those initials as suspects.  Obviously, there was Weyland Smithers as the prime suspect, but they also introduce the idea that Principal Skinner’s full name was W. Seymour Skinner thanks to a diploma in his office.  They even revealed Moe’s last name to be Szyslak in case any fans realized that Mr. Burns was seeing the W upside down and thought he was pointing at M.S. for Maggie Simpson. 

Also, when Mr. Burns collapses on the sundial you can see that his pistol is missing, setting up Maggie having used it to shoot him.  What’s more, the clues exonerating Mr. Smithers were actually hidden in the first episode through an advert in Moe’s bar for the fictional series Pardon My Zinger, airing at 3 PM, which Mr. Smithers later says he never misses.  Probably the strangest clue is an incredibly brief moment where Homer passes in front of some lettering on the ground causing it to spell out “NO” along with an arrow pointing to him. 

Aside from a collection of clues for fans turned sleuths, Fox also wanted to find a way to cross-promote the episode in the burgeoning online community.  As such, they created the Simpsons Mystery Sweepstakes, a call-in contest to guess who shot Mr. Burns.  It was a major promotional sweepstake pushing the show, Pepsi, 7-Eleven, and above all else 1-800-COLLECT.  If you don’t remember, 1-800-COLLECT was a system of reverse call charges when making a phone call, usually from a payphone, the kind of thing that peppered a lot of the dark ages before cell phones became prominent and the WWE used to shill for all the time.  In addition to the contest, Fox also created as a dedicated fan site complete with “Bullet-In Burns Bulletin Board” forums and dossiers of all the suspects.  Basically, this moment in time was the genesis point for a studio managed online footprint backing up a show or movie. 

Of course, not all the marketing for the episode was quite so ahead of its time while also being very dated, some of it is just plain dated.  Specifically, the revelatory episode ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns Part 2’ was preceded by the incredibly embarrassing Springfield’s Most Wanted.  Springfield’s Most Wanted was a 30-minute TV-special in the style of America’s Most Wanted and actually hosted by John Walsh.  What I mean is, this was a live action production starring the host of a show about real murderers done in the style of his show but about a gimmicky cartoon shooting. 

The special also featured cameos by actors from Melrose Place and NYPD Blue though I’m not terribly sure why.  The entire thing has been uploaded to Youtube in its entirety, but it’s honestly too painfully awkward and embarrassing to watch.  For the sake of perspective, John Walsh started America’s Most Wanted specifically to try and help solve real crimes after the tragic death of his son, so the whole thing feels unbearably tone deaf and in pretty bad taste.  Really, if the following episode hadn’t been good there’s a decent change Springfield’s Most Wanted would probably hang as more of an albatross around the series neck- luckily the finale paid off in spades. 

A big part of the success of the second episode came from the revelation of the mystery remaining a complete secret.  As I said, this was the dawn of the Internet age, and while the net wasn’t as saturated by production chatter as it’s become now, there still was some concern over keeping the reveal under wraps.  To that end, and as any Simpsons fan knows from the ‘138th Episode Spectacular,’ they actually did create several alternate solutions.

They even went so far as to break up the production of the last episode, giving little pieces to all the various animators rather than letting any of them see the thing in its entirety and hiding the reveal from the episode’s director up to the last minute.  The episode even became accidentally tied to the O.J. Trial, which was going on during the summer of the mystery.  The Trial became a flashpoint in real life for the use of DNA forensics, mainly introducing the nation to the idea overnight and The Simpsons featured a similar key point about DNA in its own mystery. 

The Simpsons have always been a show trapped between its own legend as a comedy classic and the very real moneymaking machine it’s metastasized into.  The show’s longevity and near universal branding spread has always threatened to completely subsume the nostalgia and goodwill held towards the genuinely funny episodes that populate the series.  And amid that clash, the groundbreaking elements of The Simpsons outside the obvious have a bad habit of going unacknowledged. 

Maybe that’s the curse of distance, the show’s Golden Age is as far away now as Dallas was from ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns?’  Stuff we’ve come to take for granted on the series like the characters bursting into song or the ferocious streak of self-criticism that informs a lot of its best episodes was decidedly new and daring at the time.  The precedent set by this show is still very much in effect and we’re still feeling its impacts even 20 years later as we’re now catching up to it- it’s a Simpsons world, we’re just living in it.    

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