I Will Not Burp In Class

“Sometimes I think we’re the worst family in town.”
“Maybe we should move to a larger community.”
There’s No Disgrace Like Home (7G04)

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.

I Will Not Skateboard In The Halls

“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.

I Will Not Waste Chalk

“This game is stoop-id.” (Bart the Genius)

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?

Now I watch all “The Simpsons”

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.

“Hitting Zero”

I saw this Darlene Lim short on an Air Canada flight back in 2006 and have spent the last six years looking for a readily-accessible copy to watch. It is just as good as I remember it being at the time. Do you remember the anxieties of being in your early-to-mid twenties, trying to figure out how the world worked and why your (objectively insignificant) problems seemed so huge? Of course you do.

Share and enjoy.

The view from up here

I saw an interesting thing last night. “Combat Hospital” — a Shaw Media-produced show about life at KAF in the middle part of the decade, with a multinational health care team at its centre — featured the death of a Canadian Forces officer. It made me think about Nichola Goddard (the analogy having been pounded home thanks to the presence of The Trews and their song about Captain Goddard and highway 401), but it also made me think about the last time I saw any military death on television that didn’t feature an American.

What I’ve been thinking about, though, is how this played out down south. “Combat Hospital” is, like I said, a Canadian production; Shaw owns it and produces it, and it’s filmed in Etobicoke. But it also runs on ABC. And as has been a trend over the past few years, it’s one of these shows produced by Canadians that explicitly features Canadians, or is set in Canada, yet it runs in the United States with absolutely pretentions of being anywhere or anything else. This is the “Rookie Blue”/”Flashpoint”/”The Bridge” phenomenon; “The Bridge” flopped because it was awful, but “Flashpoint” and “Rookie Blue” seem to be doing OK by whatever standards are used to judge television these days. (I watch exactly zero of these shows so I can’t even begin to comment on their quality or how their Canadian-ness is displayed or handled.) Still, you don’t have to be very old, or very sheltered from a media perspective, to remember a time where setting a show, destined for any market south of the border, in Canada was absurd. You just wouldn’t try it. I can’t think of a single time that was done up until a few years ago.

So it was nice to see, acknowledged on TV on both sides of the border, that people not carrying US passports get killed in Afghanistan, and it’s not all stars-and-stripes draped coffins and dead bodies coming home to Dover. The inclusion of The Trews was a nice touch (and one that thoroughly screwed me up) though I wonder how many people watching in the US really understood what it was talking about: that hundred-ish mile stretch of the 401 from CFB Trenton to the Forensic Institute in Toronto, and the bridge guards and the bizarre and yet uniquely Canadian thing that happened without any prompting or poking by anyone in any position of authority at all. I hesitate to call it sublime, but it might have been the most moving and perfect moment of dramatic TV I’ve seen in years. Not necessarily because of what it showed, but what it left out, what every Canadian knew would be next for this fictional officer — and I don’t know a single person in this country who doesn’t get hugely weepy when they think about what process.

Did American viewers get it? I dunno. But I also know I don’t care, because that scene wasn’t for them — it was for us, for the memory of our dead, in recognition of their sacrifices. The returning soldier is something of a cliche, but I think this was different, and more meaningful for the difference.

As it turns out

I’m not the only person who has problems with “The Bridge.” This guy goes into some greater length about the background to the series, and its problems, then viciously dissects a particularly egregious example that prompted me to start writing the post below. It turns out that “The Bridge” can be seen as less a TV drama and more as a rhetorical exercise by a particularly notorious figure in Canadian policing history — background I was wholly unaware of when I wrote my own review. So when I wondered whether “the producers [had] created this world through inattention and laziness — that it came about by accident, rather than because they wanted a framework to explore complex issues,” it turns out that my charitable explanation of laziness and stupidity was exactly that — charitable — and that the venality of the whole show is probably deliberate.

As one of the linked posts puts it:

But I’m quite confident in saying there’s barely anything in “The Bridge” that ever really happened — except to some guy with his own private movie playing in his head.

The entire series operates on a level of paranoia and self-delusion that beggars belief. Leo and his fellow officers are downtrodden and abused by all those of higher rank. Every Captain and Deputy Chief practically sneers with venality while twisting their Snidely Whiplash moustaches — and those are just the women!

Do read the whole thing; it made me feel much better. One should not get into the habit of changing a review based on information received after the fact, but this is particularly bad, so F– is now the new score for “The Bridge.”

I watched so you didn't have to

The “I Spent More Time Thinking About This Than The Guys Who Made It” Review of “The Bridge”

Back in the late 1990s and the early part of 2000s, I had a part time job as a TV critic. It was an interesting thing, inasmuch as I made a few strange acquaintances, and I discovered that fans have a lot invested in their favorite shows. It started as a labor of — well, maybe not love, but certainly as an enjoyable hobby, but because my team and I started right around the point where things started to go downhill, it quickly turned into a weekly slogfest. Things got so bad at one point where I stopped reviewing actual episodes at all, and pre-emptively wrote my snide, acerbic commentary ahead of time. (“It probably sucked, so… fuckit” was our motto towards the end.) Inevitably, we drifted away from the project — it had become too much like work-work, rather than fun-work, and life’s too short to spend doing Internet projects that cause you agony.

This may be why I have a difficult time forming attachments to television these days, and why my TV watching is almost entirely opportunistic, save for a couple of UK shows that get stolen on a regular basis.

One of the best pieces of TV I’ve seen in the past couple of years was “Battlestar Galactica,” so when I learned that Chief TyrolAaron Douglas was going to be playing a Serpico-esque cop in a new CTV series, “The Bridge,” I naturally thought I should pay attention. The pilot episode was somewhat promising, and the premise itself certainly holds a lot of potential: cop plans to clean up the department, the city, and the world, at some considerable risk to his/her own life. Yeah!

Only, you know, not so much. I’ve now watched all 11 episodes that have run on CTV this spring, and I have some… issues… with the show.

Continue reading “I watched so you didn't have to”