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.