“Take thy beak from out my heart / And take thy form from off my door.” (7F04)
This was the original Treehouse of Horror, and even if you were to accept the idea that the first two sketches aren’t much good — which is a pretty dubious proposition — the final act pushes this over into greatness. Other versions of Treehouse of Horror might be funnier, or more creative, but “The Raven,” as portrayed by “The Simpsons,” is one of those divinely inspired comedic moments, the sort of thing that changes the way you see the original work forever. I cannot now read “The Raven,” or even hear bits of it, without immediately picturing Homer as the antagonist, or Bart as the Raven. And so far as I’m concerned, the poem really does go “– here I opened wide the door — this better be good — darkness there, and nothing more.”
As far as one-off sketches go, it’s one of the best things this show has ever done.
Harvey Fierstone makes this episode. Much like Albert Brooks’ various characters over the years, Fierstone’s Karl lingers even though we never see him again. It’s the show’s first dalliance with gay culture, and it’s interesting to see how LGBTQ issues have made their way into the show over the years. Back in 1990, this was pretty much the only way you could get gay culture onto TV — you had to make it campy, you had to make it non-threatening, and it always had to exist in some kind of outside context that had nothing to do with the main characters (at least, beyond the bounds of the episode). This was the first kiss between men on network television, like, ever: the first kiss between actual, live men came a full decade later (on “Dawson’s Creek,” of all places). This shouldn’t really have surprised anyone — Matt Groening had been drawing Akbar and Jeff cartoons for years before “The Simpsons” ever came around — but it’s a sign of how far the show was willing to push the envelope at the time.
Karl himself is a fascinating character. I spent some time digging into the story of Samson to see if there’s some kind of Biblical parallel, and it turns out there isn’t, so how it is that this guy turned up in Homer’s life at exactly the right time, threw himself on the grenade, and walked off isn’t entirely clear. But his commitment to his boss, and his devotion to service, is truly remarkable — even if the things he convinces Homer to do are pretty penny ante stuff. If you look at what Homer “accomplishes” in his turn as an executive, it’s small potatoes… but I think that’s sort of the point: Homer isn’t a guy possessed of a great deal of ambition, drive, or the belief he’s capable, or even entitled to try. Viewed through the lens of contemporary life, there’s even more pathos than you expect: this is, fundamentally, a story about the tyranny of lower middle-class life, and how success can be arbitrary, capricious, and dependent on very shallow externalities — none of which have anything to do with who you are as a human being. 1990 is too far back in time for me to remember whether these kinds of anxieties were present in families back then, but today, there’s a significant number of people in the United States who feel helpless and stuck because of their economic circumstances, and it’s not entirely clear why they’re never able to get ahead. (Well, actually, that’s not totally true — but I’ll undertake liberal ranting another day.)
When you look at the cultural impact of “The Simpsons,” it helps to remember that “Bart Gets an F” aired over twenty five years ago. A lot has changed since then. Back in 1990, this was pretty much the most controversial show on television; it was crossing a lot of boundaries, attracting a lot of attention, and drawing a lot of fire from people whose views were not considered wildly out of sync with society’s. If you listen to the DVD commentaries on a lot of these episodes, you get to learn all kinds of interesting things about Fox, censors, and social pressures on the show runners. Today, of course, the idea of showing a main character failing at something so fundamental seems normal, even expected; when this episode first ran, it was shocking. James L. Brooks was apparently quoted as saying he didn’t care, because it reflected reality — kids try and fail in school all the time — and depending on TV characters to be role models was stupid. I’m amazed that this kind of thing was even up for debate, but as the saying goes, the past was a foreign country (and they did things differently there).
“Bart Gets an F” shows a lot of the elements that form the backbone of Season 2. There’s some fairly meaningful storytelling, an interesting B plot, a significant amount of highbrow material, and a fair whack of pathos. Bart’s anguish over his failures is palpable, and still feels real in a way that a lot of TV drama doesn’t (never mind comedy): we’ve all been that person who, for whatever reason, just can’t make something work. Speaking to relatively universal sentiment is something the show has done well with in the past, and here we see the beginning of the show hitting its stride with this kind of narrative arc. To me, the more interesting part is the final act — the desperation of prayer, the miracle of reward, and then the struggle to fulfil a mortal’s end of the bargain. There’s deep theological content here; Bart’s acknowledgment of God’s contribution to his D- notwithstanding, it begs the question whether divine intervention ever carries with it the burden of reciprocation. Even if you’re not into the metaphysical issues, some of the set pieces — Martin’s transformation into one of the cool kids, the interrupted Continental Congress session, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke therein (“don’t sled on me”) — are worth the price of admission.
You might remember me from a few years ago, where I embarked on a project I called “Now I Watch All the Simpsons” (archived here), which was discontinued prematurely. It turned out that Season 1 was a lot more of a slog than I remembered — there wasn’t a lot to like, and the show was very clearly trying to find its own voice. While the material was fresh and new, it suffers tremendously in comparison to later seasons (but not, mind you, in comparison to much later seasons). It didn’t seem like I was going to get around to reviewing the rest of the first season, so that brought the project to a screeching halt.
Later, I realized that hey, this is my goddamn blog, and my goddamn project, and I can start reviewing again whenever the hell I want. So that’s what I’m going to do. “Now I Watch All The Simpsons” is starting again, and I’m starting again with Season 2.
First off, I’ve skipped over “Homer’s Night Out.” After two weeks I still couldn’t think of anything worth saying about it — the episode bugged me on a couple of different levels, but I couldn’t summon the energy I needed to be really vitriolic about it — so I’m moving on.
Once again we’re confronted with Homer’s total idiocy when it comes to his family, and his desire for a perfect family dynamic. Adil offers him something to latch on to; we’ll see this again when Homer takes on the role of being a Bigger Brother in a couple of years — this idea that his relationship with Bart is so fundamentally flawed, or damaged, that it cannot be saved or repaired. Lisa’s frostiness when she realizes he’s willing to trade her out to get a better daughter is absolutely priceless, and worth the price of admission to this episode alone (though I don’t really buy her impassioned defense on the part of capitalism — freedom, sure, but capitalism? nah).
“The Crepes of Wrath” made me miss the Cold War. Not the whole threat-of-nuclear-annihilation bit, but the background of paranoia and espionage that made the Cold War so damned intriguing. I know the two often went together, but there was something fun about cleaving the world into two camps and glaring pointedly across a no-man’s land. (There was also the joy of rooting against the Soviets at the Olympics, something that other people miss too.) It was a simpler time, at least from a fictional perspective. Now you gotta write about nefarious government agencies, not just individual governments, and the bad guys are more apt to speak your own language than another.
Put another way, could you make this episode today? Who would you pick as the villains in this story, considering you have to find a backwards country that’s vaguely sinister? Most of the former eastern bloc countries are well on their way to being capitalists, if not already there, and there’s a never-ending quest to find the new Prague, the new hip place to get bombed for a weekend away from the United Kingdom. The best you could hope for is to return to the former Soviet bloc states, and hope you can pull off a Borat-style Kazakhstan-ish parody — I think Tajikistan might be my current choice, but the problem now is that every place that’s likely to be sufficiently screwed up to be funny also comes with a big serving of sadness: there are plenty of personality cults in the world, and lots of kleptocracies, and a large number of deeply screwed up countries, but none of them are really funny anymore, because life in those countries is so abysmal. We could at least buy into the propaganda of places like, say, Albania or Bulgaria back in the day, but we know better now. And the only people who might conceivably want to spy on a US nuclear power plant are in the Middle East, and those guys aren’t funny at all. Albania was perfect, back in 1990, by being faintly ridiculous while at the same time being exceptionally paranoid and somewhat spooky to the outside world. You can thank Enver Hoxha for all that — and for Adil’s last name, too, for that matter.
Cesar and Ugolin have real-ish world equivalents, too; they’re basically lifted straight out of Claude Berri’s “Jean de Florette” and its sequel “Manon des Sources.” As an officially certified Francophile, I loved the French parts of this episode — the godawful accents most of all (save for the cop, who speaks a completely perfect French, which is even funnier). Linguistically, the writers and actors got the English parts of the French characters mostly right; you really will hear people speaking like that in France. It’s hard to find fault with the portrayal of France here; for a show like “The Simpsons,” you need to traffic in the gross stereotypes, and that’s OK, because they’re essentially gentle and done with love.
A solid show all around, and maybe one of the only episodes from the first season that has a special place in my heart (“The Tell-Tale Head” is the other one).
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.)
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.