Lemon of Troy, episode 24 of season 6 of The Simpsons, written by Brent Forrester is a masterpiece in storytelling, joke delivery, and cultural criticism. While it’s debatable which episode of The Simpsons is the best — you can leave your pick in the comments — I would say that Lemon of Troy would have to be in consideration just for its writing alone.
As a writer, I look to this episode often when I consider how I introduce conflict and establish the structure of a story. This episode is loaded with literary devices and while it still follows the traditional 3-act structure, it is so concise, and the jokes are so economical and funny, that it should be shown to anyone who aspires to write a story of any length.
While I’m passionate about this episode, I often have a hard time communicating everything I love about it. There is just so much! I get overwhelmed and I trip myself up. This episode links so perfectly that one thing I like immediately connects to another. So I decided to make it easier for all of us and break it down to 10 aspects that make this episode great — and it’s also something writers can acknowledge and perhaps even gain some inspiration from.
Okay, so 10 things that make Lemon of Troy the best episode of The Simpsons:
1) The MacGuffin: Lemon Tree
Let’s start by talking about the MacGuffin. Is it a Scottish person? No, well — it could be — but not really. A MacGuffin — a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock — is often an object, device, or event that acts as the motivation for the characters but is typically simplistic in and of itself. For example, The Maltese Falcon, the suitcase from Pulp Fiction, or the jade sword from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, are all MacGuffins.
The lemon tree itself has no significance, it’s not magical or anything, but it is the importance that the people of Springfield puts on it that gives the story stakes when it is stolen by Shelbyville.
2) The Catalyst: Marge’s Speech
While the lemon tree is important, what actually slingshots the story forward is Marge’s passionate speech about being proud of Springfield.
“This town is a part of who you are. This is a Springfield Isotopes cap. When you wear it, you’re wearing Springfield. When you eat a fish from our river, you’re eating Springfield. When you make lemonade from our tree, you’re drinking Springfield.”
A catalyst, or an inciting incident, can sometimes be a major event, but sometimes it’s as simple as a character being influenced to evoke change. Without this speech, Bart wouldn’t have the desire to protect the lemon tree. He wouldn’t have pride that sustains itself for the full duration of the episode. Thinking about it as a chemical reaction, Marge had mixed her ideology with Bart’s spontaneity, which in less that a few minutes of screentime, we already get. All we need now… is something bad to happen to the lemon tree.
3) The Perfect 3-Act Structure
Writing a three-act structure story sounds easy to anyone who’d never tried it, but it can actually get messy. Certain events need to happen at certain times and — in this case, if we are talking about a televised sitcom — we need to do it all in approximately 22 pages. But Lemon of Troy does it so effectively that if you ever get assigned with a task to write a three-act television show, you can literally use this episode as a template.
Act One: The Lemon Tree
In the first act, we get to know all the characters involved and most importantly, we understand the significance of the lemon tree. It’s not only a metaphor about what life gives you, we also know what it represents to the protagonist, Bart. With that, we are also introduced to the antagonists, the kids of Shelbyville. We know who the heroes are and who the enemies are. The stage is set.
Act Two: Entering Shelbyville
Here is where it gets exciting, as the characters cross the threshold, or as Bart intrepidly announces:
“And now, the time has come to cross this line into mystery and danger — to step out of childhood and become men.”
It’s the progression of danger that makes the second act so effective. The deeper and deeper Bart and his crew get into Shelbyville, and closer they get to the Shelbyville kids, the more risky the venture becomes, until eventually it turns into a mission not to find the lemon tree, but just to merely survive.
Act Three: Escaping Shelbyville
To conclude the third act and wrap up the story in a satisfying way is not an easy trick to land. But what Lemon of Troy does — that makes it so great — is capture moments that tied back to earlier in the episode: from the Roman Numerals joke to the Milhouses finding common ground to the RV gags that don’t disappoint to the cheeky line by Homer “Hee hee hee, no one in history has ever done anything this clever,” a line that makes the title “Lemon of Troy” just another joke in an already multi-layered episode.
Not only does the third act conclude with Bart and Homer “saving” the lemon tree, it ends with the lore of what the episode was — another nod to the legacy of how stories and misinformation passes through time, and instead of wrapping it up completely, it opens the discussion to what will happen between Springfield and Shelbyville in the future as the next generation matures.
4) Genre: Capers/Heist
Familiarity and originality. When a story can give us a good balance of both then it becomes a novel experience for the audience while still being approachable, and Lemon of Troy does this by grounding the story in a specific genre which is the capers/heist genre.
I often think of this genre as The Reservoir Dogs or Ocean’s 11 genre, because there is this ragtag crew where each member with their own unique set of skills — “I’m the leader, Milhouse is my loyal sidekick, Nelson’s the tough guy, Martin’s the smart guy, and Todd’s the quiet religious guy who ends up going crazy.” — will trespass, break in, infiltrate, and eventually steal (what is often money) but in this case the lemon tree.
5) Types of Jokes:
When you watch other sitcoms on television — I won’t name any names —, or even later seasons of this one, you’ll often find that the writers would get lazy and reuse the same joke styles and structures in the same episode. For smart audiences, this can get repetitive and predictable, and result in fewer lols.
Lemon of Troy, in just over 20 minutes, delivers such a wide range of jokes that even after all these years, having seen this episode so many times, the humour still remains fresh. The variety in what the set ups are, which characters are delivering the jokes, diversity of what the joke is referencing, and when the punchline actually hits in the story keeps the pacing and the energy of the episode going the way a song with a really good beat does, where you can play it back and it just doesn’t get old.
It wasn’t easy categorizing the jokes or even qualifying what a joke was, and in respect for your time and for fear of potentially ruining the jokes, I’ll just highlight a few that I think are notable.
- Instant Payoffs:
- A part of us all… repeating in Bart’s head immediately after the speech.
- Call Backs:
- Roman numerals
- Flying motor cycle
- Recurring Jokes:
- Milhouse thinking he’s being copied
- Shelbyville citizens finding their cousins attractive
- Sight Gags and Audible Gags:
- The lemon shaped rock
- Homer cooking multiple turkeys and showering in the RV
- Milhouse’s camo outfit
- The fire hydrant is yellow.
- Pop Culture and Historical References:
- Rocky Movies
- Trojan Horse
- Lisa being sarcastic when explaining to Marge where Bart is, and she believing every word.
- All this talking had made me hungry.
- Shake harder boy
If you are writing comedy, take this lesson from Lemon of Troy, don’t just keep throwing right hooks, you gotta jab, you gotta throw some kicks, you gotta have some headlocks, that way, when you get to the punchline it won’t be predictable because anything prior could’ve been a setup.
6) Character Arcs: Bart/Milhouse
It’s hard to believe that there are any character arcs in this jam-packed episode, but two characters actually go on a profound journey.
Bart goes through a somewhat conventional hero’s journey. He gets a call to adventure from his mother, he crosses the threshold into Shelbyville, he encounters challenges (friends, allies, and temptations) along the way, faces tremendous turmoil and defeat, but refuses to quit — and in the end, returns to Springfeild not only as a proud member of the town, as his mother had wanted, but as a hero.
Milhouse, insecure and lacking a sense of self, is the deuteragonist, a confidant to the protagonist, but with a different character arc. Milhouse’s character arc is more personal. He is self conscious when he sees the Shelbyville kid copying the way he’s holding his backpack or when he says “Radical”, it becomes this possessive thing he struggles with for the whole episode.
We get some back story for why Milhouse may react this way and it’s perhaps his parents — his mother actually being from Shelbyville — that cause some self-hate that lingers inside of him and it comes to the surface when he sees the Shelbyville kid doing what he’s doing. What annoys us the most are often the same things we do that are done by others. For example, if we commonly forget people’s names, what might annoy us most is when other people forget our names. Yet, in the end, Milhouse and the Shelbyville Milhouse find common ground; they can open up and be vulnerable for the first time.
Bart and Milhouse went on the same journey but went through two different changes to their characters.
7) Character Relationships: Martin and Nelson
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this entire episode is none other than the relationship between Martin and Nelson. These two when partnered together act as a contrasting comedic pair, Martin playing the stooge and Nelson the straight man. From “Team Discover Channel” “Your wussiness better come in handy” to “Spring forth burly protector and save me”, their chemistry is so delightful that it simply adds another flavour to the already diverse combinations of jokes.
8) Antagonists: Shelbyville
Every good story could use a good antagonist that is both despicable and empathetic. The Shelbyville kids are clearly bullies and we have no problems cheering against them, but it’s their lack of better judgement, wasting their energy stealing a lemon tree with little but bragging rights to gain, we understand that they live in a community that is suffering as much as Milhouse is emotionally.
They live in a taboo place, after all, where it’s cool to marry your cousins. As messed up as that is, you kind of feel bad for them, because these kids didn’t choose to live there. They were just born there, it was the luck of the draw, the lemons they were given. The Simpsons could have as easily been living in Shelbyville. And because of that — and their taboo culture — no wonder they feel so insecure. But even with all that empathy, at the end, we can’t help laughing as they shook their fist harder to no avail.
9) B-Story: The Parents:
In some episodes of The Simpsons, the A story and B story are completely different, but in Lemon of Troy, they aren’t. The A story is the kids entering Shelbyville to find the lemon tree and the B story is the parents going after them. Only when the parents find the kids do their storylines converge, which is what a good A and B story should do, it should link together in the end in a cohesive way.
While the B story isn’t a particularly significant aspect of the episode, it is that restraint that is worth commending because the danger of writing a B story so similar to the A story is that the B story can easily become the A story.
Whenever we focus on the parents in this episode, it never overshadows what Bart and the kids are doing, it only increases the stakes and supplies some backstory. It’s not repetitive even when Homer, like his son, takes initiative by volunteering Flander’s RV. When you need to jump between characters from A story to B story, you don’t need to think of them as different tracks, but instead as an expansion of the A story, supplying the details necessary for the characters to eventually connect in the third act.
10) Theme: Tribalism and how history can be misinterpreted
Lastly, Lemon of Troy is a brilliant observation of societal behaviour between neighbouring communities and how tribalism can both unite and divide us. This episode addresses how natural resources, historical events, and cultural rituals can create animosity that drives two groups to engage aggressively to one another.
Tribal wars have existed since the beginning of human history and Springfield and Shelbyville are no exemptions. But what this episode highlights is how pride can turn into radicalism and how the two sides — regardless of the facts — can tell their own separate stories, casting themselves in a better light, both manipulating their youth and continuing a tradition of disdain. This type of behaviour is of course still happening today, whether it’s neighbouring countries or roommates in a two-bedroom apartment.
There are many things that make Lemon of Troy great, but it’s the theme that seals it for me, because it reminds us of the importance to respect those around us and to acknowledge what’s causing the negative emotions to rise to the surface. Are we like Marge simply encouraging town pride to prevent our children from vandalizing? Or are we telling our children stories of glory that didn’t happen to harbour a sense of superiority?
If you think Lemon of Troy is the best episode of The Simpsons let me know, it’ll be nice to know that other people out there feel the same way, but if you have another favorite, please let me know as well!
For more writing and editing inspiration and stories, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only works that I’m most proud of.