A Quick Note on Narrative Mirroring, or: Learning from The Simpsons

Watching the Ruth Powers episode of The Simpsons. When she picks Marge up for their night out, Marge says Ruth looks “Nice,” and Ruth insists that nothing about this night is going to be nice. Then she pops a tape into the stereo: it’s Lesley Gore’s “Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows”. Maybe the nicest song ever written. “Sorry,” Ruth says. “Wrong tape.” Then she pops in “Welcome to the Jungle”.

Skip ahead four scenes. Wiggum is giving Homer a ride home, after coming across him up at the top of Mt. Springfield. (Or at least wherever the Hollywood-esque sign that reads “SPRINGFIELD” sits.) He’s behind Ruth’s car (stolen from her ex-husband) and decides to pull it over because the left taillight is a little smaller than the right. Wiggum turns on his lights, Ruth speeds off, and Wiggum says, “Looks like we got an old-fashioned car chase!” Then he pops in a tape.

Of course: it’s Lesley Gore. But instead of switching it to something more appropriate, he starts to sing along. “Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows” is what he meant to pop in.

I think I learned my first semester of graduate school that this kind of mirroring—bringing scenes, actions, gestures, or images back later on in a story—is just a really effective way of showing plot progression, because every time you bring it back, something had inherently changed. It’s like sticking a signpost in your story that reads: HERE’S THAT SHIFT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. And yet I don’t know that I’ve ever actually employed the device. I need some kind of string tied around my typing finger.

But here what’s indicated isn’t so much a shift in plot or mood, but rather a difference in character. I don’t know, it’s just such a smart joke. But like such an obvious one, or a joke with such an obvious lesson: make comical characters act contrary to our expectations.

One thought on “A Quick Note on Narrative Mirroring, or: Learning from The Simpsons

  1. Thinking in terms of the traditional _Simpsons_ arc (I used to be a HUGE Simpies fan back in the day…), this technique is an interesting one because of the way whole episodes are constructed. The first segment of each episode begins with a story or incident that is quickly departed from and never again addressed or resolved, and often has nothing to do with what becomes clear is the “main” part of the episode. It’s been a really long time since I’ve partaken in an episode so I’m having a hard time thinking of an example, but a quick Wikipedia-ing of Season 10 (when I was a college junior and really into this show) reveals some of these kinds of shifts. For instance, in “Lisa Gets an ‘A’,” which is also the episode in which Ralph Wiggum calls Superintendent Chalmers “Super Nintendo Chalmers” (awesome), it begins with a Reverend Lovejoy sermon and then a trip to the grocery store for delicious samples, but is all about Lisa becoming addicted to a video game and then cheating on a test, and to a lesser extent about Homer cultivating his lobster, Pinchy. Homer got the Pinchy idea at the grocery store, but the main focus of the episode, Lisa cheating on the test, has nothing to do with how the episode begins. Nothing ground-breaking here in my analysis, but an interesting contrast to the mirroring you address above since it is an overt shift, and something that happens in pretty much every _Simpsons_ episode.

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