The springs of Springfield: Gil Gunderson

As I sit down to write this, nestled within the sundry walls of the Manitoban office, I’m receiving some flak from other writers about my choice of character. In this instance, the character is Gil Gunderson, the sad, lonely, frequently out of work pariah who used to pop up on The Simpsons, making us laugh purely on account of his heartrending woe.
“Why would you write about him?” people are asking me, “He’s so one-dimensional.” To that I say, “Exactly!”

Like many of The Simpsons’ more tertiary characters, Gil was only useful in small doses, containing just enough dimension to show up unannounced, provide some biting comedy within a quick 30-second time frame, and then disappear, presumedly onto the next folly of his life. Based upon Shelley Levene’ as played by Jack Lemmon in David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Gil was a one-trick pony. He was funny, yes (he made me laugh, at least), but he was also refreshingly simple. You knew what to expect from Gil and he never disappointed, even as he always walked away disappointed himself. An episode entirely devoted to Gil, in which he lived with the Simpsons for a whole ageless year, was a disappointment mostly on account of some supreme overkill of his character. Keep him short and sweet — that’s how he should remain.

Yet what many people, including the show’s writers, overlooked was how ironic he was. Gil first showed up nine seasons into The Simpsons’ seemingly infinite run, originally showcasing his pathological incompetence as a 42-year veteran of the real estate business in the episode “Reality Bites.” Any 20-plus year veteran of the show should also know that the ninth season is right around the time that it took a drastic dip in quality, desperately reaching for plot devices and allowing its characters to become paper thin. So ironically, Gil’s incompetence reflected the show’s incompetence.

In “Reality Bites,” Gil’s realtor profession abruptly ended (on account of Marge), and from then on he drifted from job to job, never being able to hold onto one steadily and never being able to make ends meet. His wife cheated on him with an acquaintance named Fred, and, for a time, his place of residence was a grounded hot-air balloon. Gil’s life, like his hair, was a mess. In this fashion, he almost entered The Simpsons as an unintentional metaphor for the show itself. His shtick was that he couldn’t do anything right, and at that time, neither could the show, a trend that many will argue continues to this day. “Not the air balloon, I was living in there — at least until things pick up,” Gil once exclaimed. The show, however, never did pick up, and his grim journey from one failure to another rightly paralleled The Simpsons’ growing creative incompetence, its failure after failure.

Maybe the writers finally caught on to Gil’s obtuse sense of symbolism, because as it would seem, they took the step of killing him off in season 19’s “I Don’t Wanna Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” As a testament to how reliable Gil’s one-dimensional routine really was, I haven’t even seen the episode, but I am still laughing as I read a description of it. Apparently Gil is gunned down by robbers on his first day as a bank security guard. Trust Gil to make a bank worker’s ultimate sacrifice, and on his first day. Too bad the writers didn’t take the cue and parallel Gil’s fate with that of the show once again. I mean really folks, it’s time to move on.

Then again, if we haven’t seen the last of The Simpsons, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we haven’t seen the last of “Ole Gil.” If his plight has shown us anything, it’s that he is a magnet for second chances. Here’s to Gil doing better for himself in his second life.