To this day, there is an ongoing debate on the exact moment you can pinpoint where The Simpsons started to falter. Hardcore Simpsons all seem to agree that Seasons 2-9 are the best in the series. Which season is the best? That is another hard one. With the 25th anniversary of the infamous “Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part 1)” episode, it made me realize that this was the peak of The Simpsons.
The Simpsons had made changes behind the scenes in the mid-‘90s. The original team went on to different projects like The Critic and Futurama. Enter David Mirkin: the showrunner for Seasons 5 and 6. The Simpsons became wackier with a larger emphasis on captain wacky later renamed Homer. Mirkin would be the producer for “Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part 1)” with future showrunners, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, as the writers.
The concept for “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” is an obvious homage to the show Dallas. “Who Shot JR?” pulled in huge ratings. Along with a contest with 1-800-Collect, this concept seemed to be easier than taking candy from baby. The biggest television moments from the ‘90s that stuck with me growing up was the OJ Simpson verdict, the Cal Ripken Jr. iron man streak, and “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” Sunday became must see TV. The Simpsons had moved back to Sundays for Season 6 and our family VCR would never miss a recording.
Besides the dreaded clip show about love, Season 6 does not have a bad episode. The week before “Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part 1)” was “Lemon of Troy,” unanimously beloved as one of the best episodes of the show. “Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part 1)” would be the first and only cliffhanger the show would produce.
“Who Shot Mr. Burns? (Part 1),” as an episode, is flawless. Every second is paced beautifully by delivering comedy and murder mystery clues at the same time. Mr. Burns is the billionaire villain who is threatening to block out Springfeld’s sunlight to force the town to rely on the energy from his nuclear power plant. He got funding for this project from stealing oil from the underfunded public school.
Tensions were boiling in Springfeld. The episode gives just the right amount of time to explore the motives from different popular characters. In Homer Simpson’s case, he was losing his mind that Mr. Burns cannot remember his name. There are numerous references to earlier episodes that are satisfying for hardcore fans that have been paying attention. This was a classic ongoing joke which Burns would inquire to Smithers who this man was. “Homer Simpson, sir, one of the carbon blobs from section 7G.”
After a town meeting, Mr. Burns reveals the sun blocking machine. Eternal darkness. As Springfeld departs from the meeting, Mr. Burns is shot and collapses on the town sun dial. Everyone in town is a suspect.
I was obsessed trying to figure out “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” It quickly became the episode I watched the most. My brother and I noticed a key clue. Mr. Burns did not have his gun in his holster before collapsing. Someone had to take it from him. We deduced the shooter to be Sideshow Mel because he was one of the few to be holding a knife instead of a gun like the majority of Springfeld at the town meeting.
I just noticed that Groundskeeper Willie is holding a hatchet in the background next to Sideshow Mel. Willie is too strong for Burns though. The sound of Burns struggling (which is offscreen) from the assailant did not sound as aggressive as Willie would be.
The episode leads to you to believe Mr. Smithers as the obvious suspect. Mr. Burns fired his assistant over disagreeing with his business ethics. Smithers was left empty, drinking cheap scotch and watching Comedy Central. Even though Smithers seemed too obvious, he was plausible for Mr. Burns to forgive and the show could return to normal.
Simpsons writers considered making the shooter Barney Gumble. Moe’s, his favorite bar, closed because of Mr. Burn’s oiling drilling. The Simpsons staff was not a fan of Barney. Eventually it would lead the character to become a recovering alcoholic down the line. Barney’s motives were not as strong as Smithers, but Barney was a more disposable one note character that the show could easily write off.
They laid the groundwork for the audience to figure out the mystery. There was also plenty of misdirection. There’s emphasis on the initials W and S. When Mr. Burns collapses on the sun dial, his hands fall on the west and south sides. I dismissed this as misdirection because I was convinced that Smithers would never shoot Mr. Burns. Smithers was depressed but I thought deep down Smithers still had affection for Mr. Burns.
Mr. Burns hands were also in the three o’clock position. I completely missed this clue. There are numerous references to the time being three. Homer delivers a package to Burns at three earlier in the episode. In the end, Mr. Burns unveils the sunblocking machine at three. This was all coming back to the initials.
Right before Mr. Burns is shot, there is a sequence of odd anomalies. Carl notes Mr. Smithers left his jacket behind. Otto notes Principal Skinner left his mother behind. Marge cannot find Homer, Lisa, Bart, or Grandpa. The Simpsons don’t match with W and S but Skinner does. His full name is Walter Seymour Skinner (not Armin Tamzarian). Skinner does not have the cobbles though. He is also shown wielding a gun with a silencer. Does not line up with Burns stolen gun.
I did not enter in the 1-800-Collect contest. The commercials are etched in my brain. It was the prize of a lifetime to be animated with The Simpsons. The commercial also proposed two suspects in Groundskeeper Willie and Snake. This only heightened my excitement and determination to find out who done it.
It is interesting to look back at why this was successful. Today every show on Netflix ends multiple seasons on a cliffhanger. 1995 was an innocent time. Television commercials were effective. The internet was still in its infant state. There were no plot leaks. No hot takes or sharing theories on an instant global platform like Twitter. The service sponsoring this contest does not even exist anymore. Nothing but time and my VCR to rewind to the beginning of the episode.
On the Season 6 DVD commentary (another dated reference), Mirkin mentions someone did solve it on the internet. There were multiple attempts of tracking down this person for a reward. At the time of the recording, this individual remains a mystery.
Well I couldn’t possibly solve this mystery. Can you?
It was a long summer and I did not solve the mystery. The 25th anniversary of part one made me realize this may have been the downturn of the Simpsons for myself. All that anticipation built up over the summer. Only to be severely let down with the conclusion. More on that with my write up on part two.
Seasons 7 and 8 are some of the best from The Simpsons. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were the perfect showrunners to take over the show. The reveal of the shooter was the first crack in the armor of my love of the Simpsons. It was the first time I remember doubting my favorite show. I remember turning to my mom and brother in shock. Did they just do this?
Does the conclusion diminish the greatness of the setup of part one? Only slightly. When part one comes on during syndication, there is no way I am changing the channel. It was never skipped during DVD marathons either. It will always make me wonder what if the show went in a different direction? What if they broke the status quo? Oh, I’ve wasted my life.