One of the innumerable plus points of The Simpsons comes in the form of its secondary characters. The titular family provide the anchor of which Springfield and its residents latch, but once that’s aweigh, we have an endless supply of fully-formed folk teeming with back stories. By Season Seven, the show was exploring this untapped potential more and more.
However, many would be hard-pressed to think Troy McClure would ever have his own spotlight. McClure was particularly prominent in the very early seasons, usually appearing on cheap, crass infomercials that Homer would lazily watch while on the couch (shilling anything from gravestone polish to a suntan lotion / laxative hybrid). While other characters such as Mr. Burns, Apu and even Krusty would permeate through the Simpsons’ suburban substinence, McClure was someone they interacted through, not with. Until A Fish Called Selma, that is.
Even with the peerless presence of Phil Hartman as the voice of Troy, an episode focused on the guano-eating grinner and Selma Bouvier, Marge’s less abrasive sister, doesn’t immediately strike the viewer as intriguing watching. Kudos to the talents of the writing team, then, for not only writing an episode that is rich with side-splitting jokes, but also with enough heart to flesh out these characters from sideshows to standouts.
In later shows, Selma would become an animated version of Darren Day, getting engaged to anyone from Fat Tony to Grandpa Simpson (in an episode that’s as wince-inducing as it sounds). Here, though, the show’s development feels organic and natural – Troy McClure, after a late night drive to the aquarium (more on that later) results in being ticketed by Chief Wiggum, bribes Selma at the DMV with dinner in exchange for keeping his driving license. Straight away, it’s clearly portrayed Troy is never once interested in Selma, but like the perma-smoking sister herself, we go along for the ride.
What is intriguing about the episode is how it shows Selma. There’s an element of pathos portrayed throughout, similar to her browbeaten bent on Principal Charming, in the sense that she deep down probably understands Troy isn’t really in love with her, but never once does it drip into cloying self-pity. The writers also flesh her character out to show her as intelligent and strong-willed, but also sensitive – she may start dressing more and more glamorously as her relationship with Troy goes on the upswing, but her embarrassment at being lambasted for smoking shows remarkable self-awareness, as does her lukewarm reaction to Troy wanting (or is that needing?) a baby. Even when Troy reveals it’s a sham marriage, purely to further his stuttering career, she has the nous to know that while it might be loveless, she’s enjoying herself and might as well just see it through.
And then there’s Troy himself. This is easily Phil Hartman’s finest hour, as he squeezes every modicum of simpering self-aggrandisement out of every platitude he musters. Seriously, almost every phrase he states is merely empty rhetoric and movie jargon, but delivered in Hartman’s slick brogue, they’re all hilarious. “Troy’s back from the gutter and he’s bought someone with him!”, “it’s a good day for me too, baby”, even “that’s not cigars…that’s love.” On the outside, Troy is desperately clinging to his fame, and after seeing the press plus points he receives from dating Selma, knows this is what he needs to reestablish himself. It’s a neat premise that shows Troy’s determined side, but throughout the show we feel for Troy as much as Selma, two lost souls connecting out of necessity.
The show is surprisingly serious throughout, gliding along at a leisurely pace that mainly involves one-way conversations – including those between Troy and his agent McArthur Parker (played by Jeff Goldblum, who does a great job). However, the beauty of The Simpsons is even within an episode that’s more grounded, out of nowhere can come some of the finest jokes in the show’s history. The Planet of the Apes musical is one of the show’s exemplary moments, from the glorious title to the grandiose, big ballad ending (“You’ve Finally Made a Monkey Out of Me”). Even Troy’s closing shout – “I love you, Dr Zaius!” – is wonderful.
Of course, Selma comes to her senses and realises that bringing a baby into a sham relationship would be cruel and unfair. She leaves a sullen Troy behind, but not before a hilariously awkward scene in which the two try to ‘get jiggy’, a concept Troy seems so unfamiliar with his agent offers to send a pamphlet. Throughout, Troy operates in some sort of celebrity vacuum, concerned only about himself and his bizarre fish fetish, something so creepy it’s funny.
A Fish Called Selma throws into sharp focus just how much myself, and all Simpsons fans, miss the great Phil Hartman. He delivered all of Troy’s lines with the self-congratulary fakeness he needed to be endearing, and his tragic passing still rankles with us today. You’re missed, Phil, but thank you to the writers for giving him this spotlight – an episode that deserves praise for not just fleshing out two secondary characters, but for making them more than one-dimensional gags.