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.