Let’s get this out of the way first: Albert Brooks basically makes this episode. We’ll see marital discord between Homer and Marge again and again (and again and again! and again! from different angles!), but it’s done so well here, and Jacques is so sleazy, that you have to love this first trip down infidelity lane. Who wouldn’t want to fall for Brooks’ Jacques?
Though one might nominally think this episode is about Marge, and her needs, I think a strong argument could be made that Homer is really the key figure here. His thoughtless birthday gift caps off a long history of being indifferent to Marge’s needs, and Patty and Selma rightly tease him for it. We don’t, however, see him learning anything from this experience — in fact, it’s never evident that he even understands what the problem is. (Bart: “When something’s bothering you, and you’re too damn stupid to know what to do, just keep your fool mouth shut.”) It isn’t surprising he makes no changes to his behavior, acknowledges his role in pushing Marge away, or apologize for his lack of interest in Marge, her hobbies, or her needs; the guy Doesn’t Get It, but Marge comes back to him anyway. (This becomes something of a recurrent theme in the show, where we are continually amazed that Marge’s love for Homer brings her back over and over again.)
I know I’ve written about this before, but I’ll be damned if I can find it, so here it is, once again, for posterity:
Most everyone can quote the first part of Kennedy’s speech, the part that ends, “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Most people cannot, however, quote the second part of that speech, which explains why the hard things are worth doing. We like to think of Kennedy as being some bold visionary when it came to all sorts of things — like most historical figures, he was, and he wasn’t — but he was absolutely a pragmatist when it came to goals for Apollo. In the context of 1962, seeing the Russians way ahead of the United States in space, knowing the US would never beat the Soviets in low-earth orbit, Kennedy needed a literal moon shot to get back ahead. That it provided an organizing goal, a task to which the entire nation could rally, was icing on the cake, a perfect win-win.
Starry-eyed fans of the space age sometimes find it difficult to look at the pragmatic, cynical way in which national space policy has been conducted. We look at things like STS and the International Space Station as weak because the political will was lacking, and we’re right, but we’re wrong about why. Great things like Apollo are historical accidents; NASA has spent 50 years pretending that the funding levels of the Apollo program were the normal, and that everything since then has been an aberration. It hasn’t, and they’re finally starting to grasp that, difficult though the concept may be. Those of us who are science fiction fans, who dream of a future in space, are having to face the unpleasant truth that this kind of future probably won’t happen — that barring great national pride issues, we aren’t heading back into space in a big way anytime soon.
If you ever find yourself in an argument with someone about whether “The Simpsons” contains generally acceptable societal values, this is the episode you need to point to. (I will admit the odds of this happening are greatly reduced from decades previous.) George and Barbara Bush famously made a bunch of snide comments about the show, opining that they wished TV was more like “The Waltons” and less like, well, this thing — and I gotta say, I’m not really sure what they were getting at. Or what their point was. (I could make a bunch of snide jokes, but hey, we’ll save that for another day.) “The Telltale Head” (7G07) is basically the sort of thing that could have come from “The Waltons,” and contains themes that basically reflect just about any sitcom made in the last 40 or 50 years. It’s bland, it’s inoffensive, and exactly why anyone would think it’s not affirming is confusing.
This is, essentially, a peer-pressure parable. We see Bart’s willingness to impress people he probably shouldn’t. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done the dumb shit. That gives the scene resonance and meaning, and we’re supposed to sympathize with Bart despite the obvious wrongness of his act of vandalism. He is wracked with guilt over his decision, eventually confessing — which makes him feel better. (“The truth shall set you free,” surely.) But that confession doesn’t come without cost, and the townspeople turn against him with literal pitchforks and torches — the mob mentality. (“The truth shall set your teeth free.”) But the mob ultimately forgives, and we’re left wondering what the more important message was — is it about the redeeming power of confession, or the importance of mercy and forgiveness? Both of these are explicitly Christian concepts, but pretty inoffensive regardless of where you are on the socio-religiousness scale. You should be able to endorse these ideas regardless of who you are.
Like I said, I’m not sure who would find this particularly objectionable. There’s even a section where Rev. Lovejoy decries the evils of gambl–oh. Riiight.
Here is “The Simpsons” at its most brilliant. Start the episode off with a heaping dose of cynicism, poking fun at the hypocrisy of some of our more sacred institutions. Throw in some deeply awesome sight gags (I defy anyone to watch Lovejoy’s speech with the football soundtrack overlaid and not laugh themselves silly), and cap it off with a reductive, absurd element. The best part about it is that unless you’re reading closely — always, always, always read the signs in “The Simpsons” — it’ll zoom right past you. I’d actually forgotten about this part, which I suppose was part of the reason why people complained about the show. But to do that you have to decide to not look at it in context, and focus instead only on the parts that pissed you off.
The basic plot: Homer buys an RV. Chaos ensues. Also, Bigfoot!
This is the first episode I remember actively disliking. In hindsight, it’s probably because it’s a little too surreal for the show. The setup is brilliant; the execution flops. There’s so much promise at the very beginning — the envy, the RV dealership, “the little one” — it’s great stuff. Then it falls off the rails right around the point the RV goes over the cliff.
So let’s talk instead about Ned Flanders. Ned will eventually become something far different from what appears in this episode. The transformation happens pretty quickly, over the next couple of seasons; I’m not sure I’m able to pinpoint exactly when he turned from being an annoying neighbor who liked to go to church on Sunday to the pious Christian caricature we know and hate today. (TV Tropes tells me things have gotten a bit better lately, but… yeah, no, I’m not investigating that for myself.) In early seasons, he’s almost kind of, you know, normal — he’s got an RV (on credit, no less!), he’s installed beer taps in his house (but see what happens in “Duffless”), he gets into a stupid contest with his neighbor on a point of pride. Later-season Ned wouldn’t ever do that kind of thing; I kind of like this early Ned, if only because he’s more versatile as a foil to Homer in this kind of role than as a character in his own right.
Put another way, Early Ned is basically the polar opposite of Early Homer within the same socioeconomic bracket, and it’s easy to see why Homer can’t stand the guy. We’re not supposed to like him much, either; he’s representing everything Homer wants, but can’t have, and what’s worse is he makes it look effortless. Remember “There’s No Disgrace Like Home”? They were spying on Ned (not explicitly, but you have to figure they at least went next door and looked through the window) as the example of what Homer thought made for a good family life. No wonder Homer hates his guts. It’s a pity this didn’t continue on, because it would have been interesting to see how long Homer could have kept up the antipathy without the whole thing going all Frank Burns on us.
Then again, TV Tropes’ comments make me think that Ned would have evolved into the more pious version we see today anyway, if for no other reason than because the concept of a devout Christian in American society has changed significantly from 1990.
The basic plot: Lisa’s depressed. Can music pull her out?
Lisa-centric episodes have a special place in my heart, and I have a tendency to gush over the richness she brings to “The Simpsons,” both as a family and as a show. Because she is so markedly different from the others, mostly by being smart, and because she’s capable of so much more introspection, her plots feel deeper, more complete than those given to most of the other characters. We’re still fleshing out the characters, and now we get to understand something more about Lisa and her world. This is the episode that reveals her as the most soulful of all the Simpsons, and the one with the greatest potential for stories. I’ve often thought that these kinds of episodes are the strongest, because they resonate so strongly with the smart, cynical viewers the show tried hard to cultivate.
Homer’s total lack of understanding about depression is amusing, but to quote Fat Tony, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Despite being nearly 30 years into the Prozac revolution, where we all know people who are “depressed” (and people who are Depressed), we still treat sadness — depression, sorrow, dysthymia, topor, whatever you want to call it — as though it’s something that you can just snap out of. It isn’t. Far be it from me to turn this into a PSA about mental health, but a lot of the well-intentioned friends and family of depressed folks come off looking a lot like Homer, and about as helpful, too. The resolution to Lisa’s depression — blues music — is a bit too pat, but it does underscore the idea that people need outlets, even in grade number two. (Also, it’s worth noting that the blues aren’t really about making yourself feel better, they’re about making other people feel worse.)
There’s a great little feminist angle to this episode as well. Marge’s advice is so bad, it’s transparently bad. And, to her credit, it backfires horribly and provides a great example of why it’s awful advice. Yet women are continually bombarded with this kind of message — smile, pretend to be happy, don’t be sad, don’t be angry… guys never get that sort of shit. It’s profoundly misogynistic, a lot of people buy into it, and Marge needs a lot of credit for acknowledging it and allowing Lisa to feel the way she wants to feel. (Can you tell I just had a discussion with someone about this very issue?)
The majority of Lisa episodes — at least the ones we’ll be looking at — are pretty women-positive, and they’re actually good messages for girls. Lisa is smart and talented, unashamedly so, and not really willing to take crap for it. As we see here, she suffers as a result of it, but learns how to manage that sadness (I won’t say “cope”) by channeling it into an appropriately creative outlet. It’s rare that we’re allowed to see really smart women on TV — it was definitely rarer in 1990 — but here in a cartoon we get to see a woman with actual story lines, emotions, feelings, and able to have conversations with other women that don’t revolve around boys. This is the Bechdel test, and I encourage you to apply this everywhere you go. (The test passes no judgment on whether a particular work — it’s intended for film, but you can extrapolate to other media — is any good, but it does raise the specter of sexism wherever you look.) You will be shocked, shocked, shocked by how many things fail it. You’ll also be shocked by how often the Simpsons actually doesn’t, primarily through the character of Lisa. And if I can make a bit of a leap here — I need to watch more episodes to confirm this theory — “The Simpsons” could be called fairly good for women in fiction.
(This may be one of those damning-with-faint-praise things — the number of strongly drawn women characters on the show, and the plots that are given to them, is notable only because the alternatives are so bad. Note to self: think about this as the project progresses.)
You gotta love the B-plot here, too; you could have taken the whole thing and made an entire episode out of it. “The saddest day of my life was when I realized I could beat my dad at most things.” God, the things you could do with that concept!
The basic plot: Bart takes on Nelson Muntz and wins.
I can’t decide what’s better about this episode: the introduction of Nelson Muntz or the introduction of Grampa Simpson. Both will go on to play huge roles in this show, and it’s difficult to imagine the series without either of them. My first instinct is to declare Nelson the bigger influence here, if only because his catch-phase is so meme-tastic, but I suspect Grampa is the more significant addition — he provides backplot, an explanation for why Homer (and by extension Bart) is so screwed up, and he’s just damn funny.
Put another way, Nelson is — until quite late in the show — essentially a one-dimensional character. He’s the show’s bully, the embodiment of everyone’s nightmares about grade school. In that sense he’s someone we can all relate about, if not necessarily to. Grampa, on the other hand, is epic from the beginning: even before we meet him, we know he’s going to be a bit different. (“Remember the fight he put up when we put him in the home?”) Cut immediately to the first of many cranky letters, and see him taking a swipe at the people who were taking swipes at “The Simpsons” for being degenerate humor. Note we still meet these people today, and they’re just as wrong now, though there are a lot fewer of them.
This is actually pretty affirming stuff — stand up for the weak, protect the innocent, never betray the code of the schoolyard… which we all know is bullshit, but we operate on this level every day and won’t rat each other out, even when it’s the right thing to do. Homer’s worse-than-useless parenting advice is well-established in the series, even by this early point, and you have to love the way his memory shrugs when Bart is getting his ass kicked after trying to fight dirty. The good advice ultimately comes from the crazy guy, but what makes the whole thing work is teamwork, the willingness of a bunch of kids to band together and not take it anymore. I’ll come back to this idea later (there’s a point here, I promise), but from a values perspective this isn’t really bad at all. I’m not sure what got George H.W. Bush all worked up.
The basic plot: Homer is embarrassed by his family’s behavior at Burns’ employee picnic, and packs everyone off for electroshock-based aversion therapy.
My goodness, is this episode ever funny. It contains the series’ first honest-to-god laugh-out-loud moment in the form of the electroshock session, the closing of which (“I thought we were making real progress!”) is just about pitch-perfect. There are such a wide variety of throw away one-liners, all of which are blatantly hilarious:
“When will I learn? The answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle — they’re on TV!”
“Look! Napkins!” “These people are obviously freaks.”
“Couldn’t we pawn my engagement ring instead?” “I appreciate that, honey, but we need $150 here.”
Etcetera. You’ve seen this episode. You know how funny it is.
Still early in the series’ history, though, and it shows. A great many roles are completely opposite to what we would become accustomed to; usually, it’s Lisa and or Marge that are embarrassed by the family’s behavior, not Homer, though as in later seasons Homer gets the blame for most of the problems here, too. Lisa’s behavior here stands out as particularly weird — we’re not used to seeing her as an uncontrollable kid, and we’re certainly not used to the idea that Homer might be the controlled voice of reason. What is familiar is Homer’s typically ham-fisted attempt to fix things, and his total inability to understand that it’s a process, rather than a single act, that results in domestic bliss. Marge’s indifference here stands out particularly strongly: she is, for the most part, proud of her family and not generally one to add to the debauchery, so much so that when she does fail (see, for instance, “$pringfield”) it’s actually quite shocking. You’d think, given how her character evolves over the life of the series — at least, the life of the series we’re considering here — that Marge would be the one to pawn the TV, not Homer. (Though note Lisa’s acid comment about the interruption of the first appearance of Itchy and Scratchy: “Why can’t we have a meeting when you’re watching TV?”)
This whole concept gets a do-over five years later in the form of “Bart’s Inner Child,” when Marge’s attempt at promoting domestic harmony also goes horribly awry, but with wider consequences.
I can’t decide whether this is a swipe at traditional family values, the idea of family counseling sessions, or a celebration of the dysfunction of the Simpsons as a group of individuals. I can certainly see why you might think this is an attempt to hold up the chaos of the Simpsons as something laudable, but I kind of doubt that’s what Al Jean and Mike Reiss were really getting at. It seems more likely it’s a jab at family therapy generally; what ultimately brings some level of domestic happiness is the purchase of a new TV, made possible through the collaborative efforts of everyone being as much of an ass as possible. It’s teamwork, but not as we know it.
“Unlike most of you, I am not a nut.” (Homer’s Odyssey)
The basic plot: Homer gets fired from the nuclear power plant, suffers a crisis of confidence, and finds a calling as a crusader for safety.
If “Bart the Genius” defined the basic persona of Bart for us, “Homer’s Odyssey” obviously defines Homer’s. It’s actually a more gentle, well-intentioned Homer than what we got used to seeing in later seasons. Later versions of Homer focused on his propensity to be a dick (the “Jerkass Homer” problem — you can blame Mike Scully for that) — though most serious Simpsons fans can pinpoint the development of Jerkass Homer to Season 9 or so, you did see flashes of this in earlier episodes. The younger Homer, however, could be insensitive and mean, but there was always this core of decency to him, an inevitable recognition that whatever foolish or nasty thing he did, he’d see the error of his ways and be redeemed somehow. Eventually we’ll talk about what happened to Homer to provoke this change, and why I think it was done, but that’s for later.
There’s a fascinating kind of pathos about this episode that probably wasn’t evident when it aired back in 1990; it’s only the events of the past four or five years that have brought it into sharper focus, at least in my own mind. Homer, desperate for a job, essentially trades his principles for money — putting the interests of his family and his wallet ahead of his soul; time and time again, Homer accepts the humiliations that come with working for Monty Burns (as accurate a caricature of modern capitalism as you’re likely to find) because the alternative is worse. Here, we (and Homer) discover that principles have a price, and that those principles occasionally have to be sacrificed in the service of something else — family, stability, survival. Note the way in which Burns holds the job over Homer: in accepting this job, this lifeline, you have to repudiate your previous stance and become someone else. It’s a profoundly evil act, and it’s to Homer’s credit that he figures out a way to outsmart Burns.
After the Great Unraveling, do we see the allegory in these scenes more clearly than we did back in 1990? Does Homer’s relationship with the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, and its owner, have more resonance for us today than it did 20+ years ago? Back then we all had bosses we hated and jobs we couldn’t stand; this is all true now, too, but there’s an edge to that kind of thinking, a malevolence that wasn’t there once upon a time. Do thy master’s bidding, or starve in the street.
As far as recurring themes go, “Homer’s Odyssey” also begins the fabulous tradition of making fun of old educational films, and introduces the prank calls.
The basic plot: Bart cheats on an intelligence test, which gets him labeled a genius. His behavior in school is thus apparently driven by boredom and restlessness, and so he gets transferred to a school for the gifted — which manages to hit every stereotype you might have had about those kinds of programs, and some you probably didn’t. Meanwhile, Homer tries to cope with the idea of having a son much smarter than he is.
One of the interesting things about this project is going back and seeing what the characters we would come to know and love were like in the beginning. The defining traits of everyone — Bart’s rebelliousness, Lisa’s intelligence, Homer’s doltish-but-kind-hearted nature — are all there, albeit in a rough form. It was also the dawn of the couch gag and the chalkboard gag, elements that would define the show in their own right. But everything is just a bit cruder, a bit more broadly drawn, a bit less subtle, and feels slightly weird given what we know about the future for the Simpsons and their world. Martin, Skinner, and Edna Krabbaple in particular come off as stiffer, somehow wrong given how they would be portrayed even a year later. Some stuff is kind of freaky: you can, for instance, read the entire Bart-as-genius concept as a satire of contemporary educational theory, even 20+ years later, and presages the development of the “indigo child” movement (don’t read that link if you don’t want to beat your head against the keyboard) — the prescience is shocking, really.
If I wasn’t a big fan of the plot of this episode (and I’m not), the set pieces were brilliant. Consider the Scrabble game at the beginning of the show: the Simpsons, working on small, simple words. Homer, baffled how anyone could make a word out of the letters O, X, I, D, I, Z, E. Lisa, pulling a concept out of Freudian theory and putting it in play. Bart, introducing the world to the kwijibo. Doltish, slyly brilliant, and creatively lazy, all in order; this set the trend for years to come. You’ve also got to love the rendered depiction of a math problem on the exam.
I think the really interesting part of this episode isn’t Bart’s adventures through the gifted educational system. It’s actually the way in which Homer and Marge try to cope with the idea they’re parents to an exceptionally gifted child — Homer suddenly finding reasons to try bonding with Bart (and his clear and obvious discomfort at the idea of expressing love for his son), Marge trying to find activities that “smart people” would enjoy so as to nurture Bart’s gift. It’s particularly poignant given how Lisa’s brilliance goes effectively unnoticed and neglected for so many seasons after this; Homer and Marge are more interested in the fiction of their son’s intelligence than the reality of their older daughter’s.
One thing that I’ve always wondered: since Bart stole Martin’s test, it would follow that Martin’s IQ really was 216. So why didn’t Pryor go back, find the person who really took the test, and throw him into the Enrichment Center?
Inspired by Shaenon Garrity’s similar project for “Babylon 5”, I’ve decided to go back through “The Simpsons” and watch all the episodes I own, in order, and talk about them a bit here. It’s mostly navel gazing stuff about the show’s first seven or eight seasons in retrospect, and yet another opportunity for me to bitch about how good it used to be and how bad it has become now. Also, I kind of miss being a TV critic and writing reviews.
Don’t panic; I’m not going to write on every episode. Not a chance.