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The Simpsons’ original pitch for ‘Who Shot Mr. Burns?’ reveals a very different cliffhanger

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Mar 12, 2018

One of the most iconic cliffhangers (and cliffhanger parodies) in TV history started out as a simple old-fashioned whodunit, one intended to leave real clues that even kids could follow all the way to the guilty suspect. 

That is, before the creative team at The Simpsons decided to play its season-ending story arc for the two-part “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” episode, all the way back in 1995, into something a lot more satirical — and, probably, more satisfying.

Emmy-winning former Simpsons writer Josh Weinstein must have been memory-tripping through some of his old things over the weekend, because he posted to Twitter an artifact from the 1994 development for the season-bridging episode, revealing in the process that the story pitch for "Who Shot Mr. Burns?" could have resulted in a very different turnout for then-ancillary characters like Barney, Patty, and Selma.

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“([W]e thought it could be Barney but on the very next page  — so within minutes of discussing it — someone suggests Maggie) And Patty & Selma could've been suspects,” Weinstein revealed. That certainly could have altered the long-term fate of characters that have since become Simpsons staples — even though the show has demonstrated, time and again, that there’s no story arc too far-fetched for a character to come back from.

In the show that actually aired, Maggie turns out to be the innocent culprit after the silent toddler accidentally (or was it an accident?) jostles for control of Mr. Burns’ gun, causing it to go off and hitting the rich old coot, putting him in the hospital to set up the whodunit cliffhanger. 

Burns’ scheme to literally block out the sun and force everyone in Springfield into total dependence on his power plant already had made him loads of enemies, but the brain glitch that causes him to say only one name when he first wakes from his coma puts the heat, for a hot minute, squarely on Homer. That move set up one of the two-part mystery’s many red herrings, before the show revealed Maggie as the would-be assailant.

Not only did “Who Shot Mr. Burns?” end up riffing on the famous Dallas story arc it parodies; it also squeezed in plenty of parody covering everything from Basic Instinct to The Fugitive to Twin Peaks. The writers preserved the original idea of leaving clues for viewers, but instead of leading to a culprit whose motive could be known, they settled on the one person in all of Springfield whose intent — as the second episode’s famous ending made clear — would remain hidden behind a pacifier forever.