There are a few key relationships that keep The Simpsons on course: Bart & Lisa’s plucky sibling camaraderie, Selma & Patty’s mutual hatred of Homer, and Smithers’ blind love of Mr. Burns. The most central and important to the series though is the mutual love between Marge and Homer. For all the ups and downs they’ve had, there is no denying that they are head over heels for each other. Even if he says he [understands but] doesn’t care, you just know Homer’s love for Marge is the strongest force in his life. As for Marge, she didn’t hesitate for a second when asked to remarry him in “A Milhouse Divided” (Season 8, Episode 6).
It’s a cliché to say that love makes us better people–but not a bad one. It can make a hero of a coward, a leader of a rebel, a saint of a sinner. It can also break hearts, and crush the most embiggened spirit. CASABLANCA is one of the most romantic movies ever made (and it makes a good case for the top spot). Unlike most films where the love story is built around ‘the chase’ though, by the time we enter Rick’s Café Américain the sheen of love has already rusted. Morocco is filled with frightened and broken people, if they have anything ,they’ll barter it for escape, and love is just another currency to trade.
When casting our Casablanca, the not-too-obvious choice for Rick was Springfield’s own booze-slinging part-time smuggler, Moe Szyslak. There’s some debate among fans of the show as to whether Moe is a dirty, underhanded exploiter of addiction who occasionally shows an altruistic side, or a secret angel in Farah slacks who also shills cheap drinks. At the very least he’s a morally gray character, which is a rare trait in sitcoms and cartoons. We know Moe’s always harbored a sweet crush on “Midge,” and he’s come to the rescue of friends in need too, including saving the town’s stranded children from a deserted island. He’s even traveled the world via fan-chute to find himself and explore altruism. It really isn’t hard to imagine Moe going the distance for the woman he loves, or even the whole free world.
Ilsa wasn’t a hard casting choice either, there’s two women in Simpsons’ history who’ve been gold-hearted temptresses. First came Lurleen Lumpkin, the lowbrow but sweet ‘n sincere singer who Homer plucked from bar-dwelling obscurity. She idolized Col. Homer, but he wisely turned away from her carnal advances. A couple seasons later in “The Last Temptation of Homer,” Mindy arrives at the power plant as his gluttonous equal; a lady who shares his base needs, whom he was definitely smitten with too. In making our choice, Mindy makes more sense because there’s a mutual passion between Rick and Ilsa. Powerful and profound, the two love each other enough to be torn between their ideals and what they want–just like Homer and Mindy. Where Mindy comes really ahead though, is her decision to give up power to her paramour: “Homer, you know how I feel, so it’s up to you. Look in your heart. I think you’ll see what you want.” Ilsa doesn’t want to take her choice either, for different and even more compromising reasons, but she makes her personal desire known.
Would Moe make the same trade as Rick does in Casablanca? How secure can we feel about leaving the fate of the European Resistance in the hands of man who makes money off Russian Roulette in the back of his bar, on top of whale and panda smuggling? We can’t ever know, but time and time again when push comes to shove, Moe has grudgingly done what’s right, even if he does it with a gravelly sigh.
Comparing Casablanca to The Simpsons is an interesting exercise. The defining trope of sitcoms is that the cast can never really change, and aside from Lisa’s vegetarianism and some facets of a few minor characters, the show never really did over the course of 10 years. The Simpsons coalesced into more purified versions of themselves, but they remain remarkably consistent to their core personalities.
Casablanca though seems to be about upsetting the status quo of Rick and his family of expatriates, forcing the lead characters to make Big Important Decisions. Rick starts out like Surly the Duff–only looking out for one guy: Surly!–but after colliding with his lost love, and the living embodiment of Virtue that is Victor Laszlo, he can’t help but do the right thing. Not as much changes as you think, though. Ilsa arrives at the Café Américain with her husband, and despite some heart-rending effort eventually leaves with him too. Rick, Capt. Renault, and Sam are stuck in Casablanca at the start of the film and when it ends they’re still there.
There’s a line in the movie, Bogart’s character says, “It’s December 1941 in Casablanca. What time is it in New York?…I bet they’re asleep in New York. I bet they’re asleep all over America.” Watching today, that line might not sound particularly important, but to audiences at its premier in November of 1942 it was meant as a retroactive warning; If it’s very early in December of 1941 no one in the movie knows that the Japanese are about to attack Pearl Harbor. As much as Casablanca is a romance, it’s also a propaganda piece: the movie wasn’t about moving the characters forward, its about moving the audience, a rallying call to put others first, enlist in the military, go to Europe and defeat the Nazis.
Both Casablanca and The Simpsons have moral lessons to teach. Casablanca dealt with one big message particular to one moment in history, but The Simpsons had 10 years to delve into the emotional nooks of its characters. Because of that freedom, even though the cast has remained static, they also became more three-dimensional, real. Which helped forge a bond that kept viewers coming back week after week, to be entertained by little morality plays that they could also learn from.