The Simpsons

The Simpsons, Season 1, Episode 3, “Homer’s Odyssey”

Well, it didn’t take them that long before they made a reference to the Odyssey.  

Now I did say that I didn’t want these write-ups to be “reviews” in the strict sense, mostly because I’m more interested in exploring The Simpsons as a cultural phenomenon (but also because I think I suck at reviewing comedy, although in my defense it is one of the hardest elements of entertainment to explain).  However, I should say off the bat that this episode was strange to watch, because – even more so than with the last two episodes of the first season – the jokes were few and far between.  I should add right away that I think this was deliberate, and in a lot of ways the whole episode felt like more of a quasi-dramatic American sitcom than any I’ve watched yet, just with the occasional touches of the surreal made possible by the wonderful possibilities of animation.  In fact, “Homer’s Odyssey” is interesting to watch just because it contains within it a couple of potential “alternate universe” Simpsons series “in utero” – one that had a more realistic and even a dramatic bent, and one that would have been a working-class comedy like Roseanne except centered around a lazy but well-meaning father instead of a hard-working but cynical mother.

“Homer’s Odyssey” gives the viewer a familiar sight:  Homer goofing off at work to the point that he causes a hazardous accident right in front of Bart and his class during a field trip.  From there, though, it’s strange waters.  Homer doesn’t launch a zany scheme or a bizarre career change;  instead he’s so depressed that he’s failed the family and that Marge had to return to her job as a rollerskating waitress that he plans to commit suicide (although he intends to do so in simultaneously the most impractical, hilarious, and painful way imaginable).   When Marge and the kids rush to save him from a watery grave, Homer ends up rescuing them from a dangerous intersection.  This launches him into a crusade to get the town council to set up a stop sign at the intersection, which they do casually and with great apathy, but that doesn’t stop Homer from taking it as a life-affirming triumph.  From then on, Homer dedicates himself as Springfield’s number one safety advocate, finally leading him to confront his former employers at the nuclear power plant.  Mr. Burns gives Homer the diabolical choice of either remaining an unemployed and broke hero of principle or accepting a paying job as the nuclear plant’s chief safety inspector which would nonetheless force Homer to betray his newfound principles.  Much of his own surprise, Homer is stunned by the ethical dilemma, but decides to accept on the rationale that he could actually be a force for safety competence at the plant (which is not what happens in the slightest, but I digress).

We don’t get as scathing and thorough a look at the world of adult employment in the same way we got a look at institutionalized education in “Bart the Genius”, but regardless the episode does touch on a lot of things about modern America.  I said I suck at reviewing comedy, and maybe that’s true, yet I like to think I know enough to realize that comedy is about telling the truth, especially the truths we don’t like to think about.  In the opening act, we already see Bart punished after being set up by the “good, smart kids” Sheri and Teri  (I do wish they were developed more;  I kind of like the idea of them as malevolent versions of Lisa Simpson).  Then Bart, Sherri, Terri and the rest of their class are herded into the nuclear power plant to watch a very thinly veiled propaganda film that cheerfully explains with a friendly cartoon character why the existence of nuclear waste isn’t a big deal.  Homer does deserve to get fired, but in a society where one is defined mostly by their job and their paycheck he is so destroyed as a person he sets out to kill himself.   Another sitcom or drama would have been more explicit about Homer failing his responsibility as a “brreadwinner.”  Maybe it’s meant to be subtle, or lines making it more explicit were cut at some point, but in the end it makes it more depressing and real – especially the point that it’s not the job that’s important and validating to Americans like Homer, but just being able to claim that they get a paycheck at all.  Then there’s Mr. Burns, who makes his debut as Springfield’s leading plutocrat.  Now Mr. Burns hasn’t quite “crossed the line into supervillainy” yet by trying to block out the sun, but he shows no regard whatsoever to actually improving his plant’s safety record;  he only cares about getting the public off his back, even if it means putting the guy who by his own admission  “caused more accidents around here than any other employee and a few doozies nobody else ever found out about.”

However, there are gentler and kinder ideas here too.  Homer’s despair is very sincere, but so is his later enthusiasm for improving the community.  When Mr. Burns plays Mephistopheles by getting Homer to trade in his heroism for a steady income, Homer actually hesitates when Burns orders him to tell his supporters that the plant is safe (when Burns points out that he’s about to turn down a better-paying job for his principles, Homer admits it’s a little “far-fetched”).  There isn’t really a moral here;  it’s pretty obvious even here, and without knowledge of the episodes to come, that Homer is going to revert back to his doughnut-inhaling, accident-prone self.  Hell, he knows this.  And yet we do end knowing that Homer for all his flaws is a fundamentally well-meaning person, and the sense that maybe there is more to life than just wading through a job you can barely stand to just occasionally pick up a paycheck.  It’s that balance between cynicism and optimism that will drive the episodes that come, even here in the first season where Moe’s tavern looks completely different and where Mr. Smiths is black.

Favorite Lines and Gags 

Is the “Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today” sticky notepad on the Simpsons’ refrigerator a They Might Be Giants reference?  Or vice versa?

Mr. Burns to Homer:  “You’re not as stupid as you look. Or sound.  Or our best testing indicates.”

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The Simpsons

The Simpsons, Season 1, Episode 2: “Bart the Genius”

So it came to my attention that, around the time I started doing my “Simpsons” write-ups, Onion AV Club writer Nathan Rabin has been doing his own reviews. This was kind of discouraging, since one of the reasons I do pop culture write-ups is to make a desperate shot in the dark toward getting a paid writing gig. And while I’m just some random person on the Internet, he gets paid for writing for a major website, which in the light of the Internet’s hierarchy means that I’m a groveling peasant and he’s a bejeweled archbishop.

I honestly did think about giving up this series before I even really began it, but it occurred to me that I’m not writing these as strictly reviews but as a reflection on a show that I literally grew up with. Also I said that I would try to generate more substantial content in this space to try to get you all to throw some change my way, and so here we are.

At least most of the first two seasons of “The Simpsons” are built around Bart’s perspective, so it’s no surprise that the earliest big target of Simpsonian satire is the American public school system, if not the entire modern concept of education. If the entire city of Springfield is an American dystopia, then Springfield Elementary is a greater dystopia within dystopia. The teachers have been broken down and drained bone-dry of any idealism they started off with, the administrators are more concerned with appeasing the almighty budget or enforcing arbitrary rules than with pedagogy, a budding genius like Lisa is at best left perpetually underengaged or at worst is encouraged to become a careerist and view her education as little more than a series of hurdles, and a problem student like Bart is just treated like a nuisance who has to be ignored for the sake of the “smart” kids. Now, in what is the first post-pilot episode to hit the air, little of this is evident just yet, but the grim and all too real portrait of Springfield Elementary does start to surface here.

After being ratted out by Martin Prince, in his gloriously fey debut, Bart gets into trouble for spraypainting a caricature of Principal Skinner (leading to the first uttering of the immortal line, “Eat my shorts”, against Martin). The day only goes downhill when in class Bart has to take an aptitude test, which Mrs. Krabappel describes in a line that is just so depressingly true: “Now I don’t want you to worry, class. These tests will have no effect on your grades. They merely determine your future social status and financial success…if any.” For some mysterious reason, the letters S, A, and T immediately sprang to mind when I heard that line. I have no recollection of how my much younger self reacted to this depiction of school life, but I know got another sense of deja vu and a chill as Bart struggled with one of those horrendous and purely evil math word-problems. His earnest try at solving the problem through visualization (after Mrs. Krabappel silences his attempt to working through it by running through the question aloud) only results in chaotic frustration and jumbled imaginary numbers. A lesser show would have all but spelled out that Bart’s class clown persona is because he is overwhelmed by school, but here the screenwriters take the chance to show without outside comment Bart’s genuine struggles with schoolwork. It’s something that gets much further developed later in “Bart Gets A F,” but it’s something else that injects an uncomfortable piece of realism into the proceedings. Back to the plot, seizing an opportunity to kill two birds with one slingshot, Bart gets his revenge on Martin by switching his test with Martin’s.

This triggers a series of events that sees Bart mistakenly identified as a child genius and sent (with the help of Principlal Skinner who one suspects must know something is up but just wants to get rid of someone who has always made his already barely bearable job even worse)to a special school for geniuses. I think here we have the first real sign that “The Simpsons” is a cut above other satires; it’s easy enough to mock the public school system, especially at a time when it was fashionable to do so among both conservatives and liberals, but it really shows commitment to “take no prisoners” satire to also skew well-meaning and suburban liberal-approved alternatives to traditional education. At the “genius school” Bart finds himself in, the students are blessed with free rein and are not even told to “Take a seat” but to “Discover your desks.” It is a step above the spirit-chewing system that is Springfield Elementary, but it also becomes clear that the students are not really challenged, but instead are just allowed to wallow in the fact that they already belong to a precocious aristocracy of the mind (the kids are even made to see comic books as a relic of the unwashed masses, which Bart learns when he comes across a Radioactive Man comic that the class used “as a prop in a film about illiteracy”). In a way, it mocks the all too easily mockable “unschooling” movement before it even exists, kind of like how “Homer Badman” was disturbingly prescient about the contemporary state of the American media.

Bart quickly finds that his situation at the “genius school” is even worse than the one at his old school. The other students quickly figure out that he’s no genius and start right away to take petty advantage of the discovery while his old friends (even Milhouse!) reject him for being an uncloseted nerd. At home Marge, who has not quite evolved yet past her persona as the quiet housefrau, feels guilty that she never noticed Bart’s “gifts” before and makes a bid for lost time by subjecting the entire family to opera and arthouse cinema. There is one bright spot for Bart; Homer, beaming with pride, is actually connecting with Bart, who wants to fess up but knows that after he does his relationship with his father goes back to its dysfunctional and borderline abusive normality. It’s not hammered in by the plot really, but watching this again I was a bit depressed by the implication that a ten year old boy is fully aware that his father’s love for him is totally conditional. Even more depressing is that Bart is absolutely correct. Once he inevitably confesses out of guilt driven how Homer has been doting over him, Homer curses him and chases him through the house, causing Lisa to grimly comment to Marge that things really are back to normal. Who knew that the “reset the status quo” nature of the sitcom could be used to put a bit of tragedy into the proceedings?

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The Simpsons

The Simpsons: Season 1, Episode 1, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”

So I realized that I do, in fact, own the first ten seasons of “The Simpsons,” which is one season plus what I consider to be the show’s “golden age.” Also I realized that I had actually been with the show all through that era, beginning with “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire.” Because I can never lack excuses to waste valuable timebuild up my writing portfolio, I thought I could start doing what I’ve been doing with “Doctor Who” and just reflect on the episodes – what made them work and why I was in love with the show for so long.

So without further Apu (rimshot)…

“The Simpsons” are the Beatles of my generation.

Honestly, I don’t think that’s hyperbole or pop culture blasphemy. More than a TV show, it was a cultural event that, on one level, was just generating the usual wrong-headed and easy-way imitators, cheesy music videos, and shitty video games (I think trying to get through “Bart vs. The Space Mutants” was a rite of passage for anyone who was a kid and owned a Nintendo in the early ’90s), but on another level it molded the way an entire generation thought about animation, social satire, and even humor itself. Like it’s impossible to imagine a world where Archduke Ferdinand was never assassinated or what rock music after 1990 would have sounded like if Black Francis and Joey Santiago were never dorm mates at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a contemporary American cultural landscape where Matt Groening was never commissioned to produce cartoon bumpers for the “Tracey Ullman Show” is likewise beyond our comprehension.

Even though the show was clearly a rare successor to “The Flintstones” as a prime-time animated sitcom for adults, the FOX marketing gurus had unleashed an advertising blitzkrieg aimed toward children and adolescents, which for a long while skewed the public’s perception about what “The Simpsons” basically was and helped cancel out any long-term success the show might have had in showing that animated shows were not inherently juvenile (an idea still with us, in spite of the most optimistic pronouncements of anime geeks and the like, if the way the Oscars treat the animated film category is any indication). Anyway, since I was not only in elementary school when “The Simpsons” first came out but actually saw the Christmas special that first detached the Simpsons from “The Tracy Ullman Show” (I wish I could claim I was there from theabsolute beginning, but I don’t think I was even aware of “The Tracey Ulman Show”‘s existence*), I was at ground zero. I even remember kids wearing t-shirts that showed a black version of the Simpson family.

Of course, it was all about Bart Simpson, the twentieth century’s Dennis the Menace. In hindsight I can understand the appeal, since he came along after it became less acceptable in Hollywood to show adolescents and children, especially young children, acting and talking like foul-mouthed adults – in other words, to show them like they fairly often are in real life. Yet it was always clear that the writers did not mean for Bart to connect with the kids, but to remind adults of their own precocious (genuinely or rose-colored precocious) childhoods. Now it’s hard to imagine that “The Simpsons” was ever seriously pushed as a kids’ show. That may be because the show has been on so long that the audience literally grew up with it, but also it was not all that long before the show’s focus unquestionably shifted toward Homer. Even the video game spin-offs have moved from being about Bart to starring the entire family. Speaking for my very young self, I never got some thrill from seeing Bart defy authority figures and spout off allegedly relevant slang, but because the show felt honest. It seemed refreshingly true about what school was like, how adults and especially my parents and teachers treated me, and about the society around me in ways that barely, if at all, existed in anything else that was on television or even in most mainstream movies at the time. I can’t be sure, but I suspect it was like that for many of the other kids my age who tuned in.

To really understand why “The Simpsons” was so quickly successful and came along at the right cultural time, you have to remember that they were riding the crest of a “backlash against a backlash.” The Norman Lear philosophy of the sitcom, that they can address the social and political concerns of the day, was one of many casualties of the cultural wing of the Reagan Revolution. The dominant species of ’80s sitcom was in the main sanitized celebrations of middle-class life, designed to assure audiences that personal happiness really can come hand-in-hand with financial security. Even sitcoms with potentially controversial premises, like “My Two Dads”, tended to be straight and without bite. While you did have “Cosby Show”-esque sitcoms all through the ’90s too, I still think you can say that the sub-genre was dying out by at least the early ’90s. After all, nothing signifies the death of a sub-genre or of a specific approach to a genre like seeing it boiled down to its purest, most nauseating element. And what represents that happening to the typical ’80s sitcom better than “Full House”?

Where was I? Oh yes, the backlash. I don’t think there’s a question that the very last years of the ’80s brought about a significant and lasting backlash against “The Cosby Show”-esque television; in fact, I’d argue that the late ’80s/early ’90s were a period of revolutionary television that hasn’t been matched in network TV since. Suddenly instead of more Cosby clones, we had shows centered around single, liberal Jewish New Yorkers; about single women in their 50s enjoying active sex lives; and a working-class Chicago family who were poor, miserable, and built around a dysfunctional marriage. Most strikingly, all three of these shows had the audacity to be tremendously successful, and if it weren’t for the late ’80s backlash there probably would be no FOX network.

Even the family sitcom did not go unaltered. There were the “Roseanne”s, which purported to offer a “realistic” reflection of working and lower middle-class life, and the “Married With Children”s, which went one step further by answering the successful, loving, upper middle-class family of “The Cosby Show” with impoverished, cynical, and self-loathing lower-class families, offering a kind of deconstructed “hyper-reality,” arguably (it’s no surprise that an early working title for “Married With Children” was actually “Not The Cosbys”). As much as the show stands out now in hindsight, “The Simpsons” was meant to be sitcom in this vein, only animated. Believe it or not, but in the first season “The Simpsons” was actually intended to also be realistic. Instead of presenting a distorted and satirical view of American life, at first it was supposed to give viewers a family that had actual financial struggles and interactions that were at least somewhat relateable.

This is probably why not many people, even people who claim to be diehard fans of the show, actually like the first season. In quite a few ways, it’s a completely different show from what “The Simpsons” became by the third season, even by the standards of all long-running and popular shows that experience an inevitable process of evolution. I’ve met people who say that they want to collect every DVD set of “The Simpsons,” but they still feel free not to bother with DVD sets of the first two seasons. Is this omission warranted? Is “The Simpsons” v1.0 any good at all?

Technically “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” was the first episode, even though it was the eighth one to be produced. Ironically, though, it works as an ideal introduction to the series, even in hindsight, since the characters really haven’t changed all too much. Lisa is intellectually precocious, gently but logically explaining to Aunt Patty that mocking her father will damage her perception of manhood and affect her adult relationships; Marge is the long-suffering but eminently forgiving mother; Patty and Selma are the joyless sisters-in-law (although they have yet to capture the je ne sais quoi of female, working-class, midlife singledom); and Bart is the softcore delinquent (if anything, he’s toned down over the years; I can’t imagine him saying “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” in any of the recent seasons of “The Simpsons.”) Surprisingly it’s Homer who is the least recognizable. He’s much less “borderline insane” and far more “disgruntled lower middle-class patriarch”, although there is a point where he has no idea who Tiny Tim is.

I honestly don’t have too much to say about the first episode, partially because I feel like I cut down too many digital trees already giving the background. Even with the gap between “The Simpsons” circa season one and circa season three, quite a bit of what makes “The Simpsons” great can already be glimpsed. The show is already just able to grab at the essence of American life: the pathetic nature of the elementary school play (and Lisa’s bizarre effort to breathe some life into it); the false and forced sense of “family” in work settings (although the writers do tip their hands a bit when Mr. Burns brags that safety costs have not touched management’s salaries); and Homer’s overriding sense of responsibility. There’s even a taste of reality about the way children think in Bart’s fantasy about why his mother would be overjoyed at the sight of his “MOTHER” tattoo. Even the strange logic of children is captured here and will stay on display, as we get to see more of life at Springfield Elementary.

To be honest, it’s not a particularly funny episode, especially if you’re used to the gag-a-minute nature of the later seasons. But it’s still quite good, a look at the very core of what will drive the show for years to come. Plus, even the stone-hearted among you have to admit that the plot – a desperately poor family salvaging a crappy Christmas by taking in an abandoned dog – is pretty damn sweet.

Favorite Lines and Gags

I don’t know why, but Maggie’s immobilizing star-shaped coat never fails to crack me up.

“And now, our boss and friend, Mr. Burns…”

Manager: “Do you like children?”
Homer: “What do you mean? All the time, even when they’re nuts?”

Homer stealing a Christmas tree from someone’s property – pretty funny. The fact that he apparently didn’t notice the birdhouse in it when he put it up – hilarious.

*Like 99.97% of all Americans, apparently. Zing!

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