Monthly Archives: June 2011

19. Dead Putting Society

(originally aired November 15, 1990)
Homer’s undying disdain for his neighbor Ned Flanders is one of the show’s long-standing hallmarks. Hell, “Shut up, Flanders” is basically one of his catchphrases. The two have a great dynamic; it’s almost playing off of the lovable neighbor character who stops by the core sitcom family’s house, except here the patriarch can’t stand them. But here in the first show to examine their relationship do we see what’s really going on. Homer’s antagonism stems from a deep-seeded jealousy. The Flanders are an affluent, caring, well-off family to which no wrong seems to befall them. As lazy and uncaring Homer seems in many aspects, he is truly envious of that. They could actually be good friends (which they would be in one later glorious episode), or at least somewhat amiable, but Homer’s sense of pride won’t let him. This episode is a real showcase of Homer’s blind emotions, starting off angry and getting progressively more irrational as the show goes on, and it is ever so hilarious.

We start with Homer being invited to Ned’s house for the first time, where he is blown away with his lavish rumpus room, his doting wife and loving son, and the newly installed beer tap with imported brews. Despite Ned’s penchant for alcohol (though maybe he has it exclusively for his guests), he’s pretty much the man we know and love him as today: selfless, cheerful, and always willing to help out a neighbor-eeno. All these things slowly eat away at Homer, until it explodes in an angry rant. Ned responds in the crossest way he can think of: politely but firmly asking him to leave. Following this we get the two men talking the spat over with their wives. Homer is unable to articulate how Ned was rude to him (because he wasn’t), while Ned feels awful at “erupting” and calls up Reverend Lovejoy for guidance. We also get a better glimpse at their relationship, with the Lovejoys clearly exasperated by Flanders’ constant pestering over every little thing (“Probably stepped on a worm…”) But as I mentioned before, Lovejoy isn’t a cynical character, as he manages to give Ned some good Biblical advice, at least how he takes it. And Ned isn’t the insane Bible-thumper caricature he would later lean towards: he’s just an honest man who holds religion very dear to him and his family.

The two families later cross paths at the miniature golf course, where Homer invariably creates a rivalry of skill between Bart and Ned’s son Todd. When the two express interest in a mini golf contest, Homer is quick to sign his son up, hoping he can vicariously best his goody two-shoes neighbor. Bart is a fine golfer in his own right, but not so much when Homer is loudly coaching/berating him in the background. Lisa takes pity on a despondent Bart (“It’s times like these that I’m thankful Dad has little to no interest in almost everything I do”) and trains him, enhancing his mind with age-old proverbs and examining each of the 18 holes to find the perfect angles to hit the ball (“I can’t believe it. You’ve actually found a practical use for geometry!”) Meanwhile Homer’s unabashed goading his raised the stakes of the event: a bet is forged, where the father of the loser has to mow the winner’s front lawn in their wives Sunday-best dress. I always found this plot point hilarious: it’s introduced toward the end of the second act, followed by a short bit of Homer’s berating Bart at the course causing him to widely miss his shot, then the act ends with Homer mournfully looking at his options in Marge’s closet. This wildly ridiculous addition to the bet that he insisted on has backfired on him within minutes.

Civility wins out in the end as a deadlocked Bart and Todd realize this manufactured competition is stupid and call it a draw at the last hole. However, Homer is still unmoving that the father of the boy who doesn’t win has to suffer the embarrassment, so they both end up going through with the ridiculous bet. This is Homer at his most psychotic: completely blinded by anything except his petty grudge. Some of the best scenes here are Homer attempting to motivate and encourage (in a loud, obnoxious way) a completely indifferent Bart. This episode sets up the Homer-Flanders dynamic absolutely perfectly, something we’d come to love from the show years to come.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The scene where the Simpson family are laughing over Ned’s note is beautiful. Not only is it one of those few times all the actors are clearly in the same session, but it’s always so great whenever the family can get together and have fun in unison. Even Marge gets in a giggle, albeit out of the rest of the family’s sight.
– I love Sir Putts-a-Lot. I remember wishing that I had a mini-golf course as lavish and fun as this one, but alas, I was stuck with mere rock obstacles and water traps. Also like the bit where a frustrated Homer is jumping about similarly to the giant mechanical ape.
– Homer: Son, this is the only time I’m going to say this: it is not okay to lose!
– I love Todd happily waving to Bart’s window, his pose mirroring the photo Homer gave Bart to glare at angrily. Alone it’s funny, but as the capper to a fantastic scene where Homer is giving Bart an angry pep talk, it’s hilarious.
– Always good to see the ol’ card catalog. I’m just old enough to have remembered using it as a kid before they put computers in the libraries.
– I’m all for Bart in his technique for one-hand clapping. And if a tree falls in the woods, it does make a sound. Come at me, fools.
– There’s two great bits where Homer misunderstands Lisa:
[Lisa] I’m studying for the math fair. If I win, I’ll bring home a brand new protractor.
[Homer] Too bad we don’t live on a farm.
And…
[Lisa] Oats are what a champion thoroughbred eats before he or she wins the Kentucky Derby.
[Homer] Newsflash, Lisa, Bart is not a horse!
– The final hole with a stone-faced Abraham Lincoln mechanically swinging his legs back and forth revealing the hole… there are no words. How amazing that is.
– The announcer for the competition is fantastic. I have no idea why he’s taking a kid’s event so seriously, but I’m glad he is. Upon Bart and Todd’s decision for a tie, he fights back tears and reports, “This is the most stirring display of gallantry and sportsmanship since Mountbatten gave India back to the Punjabs.”

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18. Dancin’ Homer

(originally aired November 8, 1990)
Perhaps “Dancin’ Homer” suffers from following an episode that tackled so much and felt so epic in scale. Here we have a decidedly smaller, more low-key and leisurely saga featuring Homer’s trials and tribulations at a brand new job, the first of many many MANY occupations he would briefly hold over the next twenty years. There’s something about this story that doesn’t quite ring true with me, though. There are elements that are spot-on, a lot of funny bits, but it doesn’t pack the punch that it feels it does.

We start at Moe’s Tavern where a despondent Homer spins this tale of woe, a wrap-around that I never thought was too effective. The story begins at the ballpark during the “Nuclear Plant Employees, Spouses, and No More Than Three Children Night.” In a bit of a reprisal from “There’s No Disgrace Like Home,” we get Mr. Burns’ contractually obligation to warm up to the lower, less financially well-off life forms that are his employees. Homer fears that being seated next to his boss will ruin his good time, but shockingly Burns proves to be good company, buying them beers, heckling players and doing an off two-man wave. Though last episode showed Burns straining to smile and his vow to destroy Homer’s life, we can still believe these characters can get along in some degree. Their banter back and forth is charming, it’s like the oddest of odd couples. Attempting to rouse up the crowd to aid the failing Springfield Isotopes, Homer cavorts and dances about like a fool in the dugout, sparking a rise out of the crowd, and in turn the batter, who hits a homer, winning the game.

Homer is soon after hired by the team to be their official mascot. Dubbed “Dancin’ Homer,” his crowd-pleasing buffoonery carries on the Isotopes’ winning streak, and he gains greater and greater popularity. Perhaps part why I’m not so into this episode is I don’t understand the in-universe Dancin’ Homer phenomenon. I get that that’s part of the joke, and the character is partially based off of overenthusiastic fans’ chants and rituals becoming fan favorites and stadium institutions, but really, Homer’s act is not all that rousing. The big finale where the Capital City folks don’t “get” him is not so much a letdown as it was redemption for me. Sure, I felt bad for Homer, but at least my feelings were vindicated. But I’m skipping ahead here…

It isn’t long until Homer is called into the big leagues: Capitol City. The true savior of the episode is the Capitol City montage. Firstly, it establishes the Simpsons as small-town rubes in the face of the big city, full of mystery and wonder. Accompanying their drive in is an ode to the city in song, sung by the great Tony Bennett, kind of a riff on “New York, New York.” We also get our first instance of a celebrity playing themselves as Marge points him out singing the song, and he gives a quick aside, “Hey, good to see you!” It’s a sweet little moment, and the song is so brilliant. It really sets the mood, of a city that makes a bum feel like a king, and makes a king feel like some sort of nutty coo-coo super king. Also brilliant is the Capitol City Goofball, the mascot Homer is filling in for, an bizarre, mismatched whatchacallit mascot design, a weird Muppet-type creature with deely bobbers, a baseball torso, a giant horn nose, and voiced very mellowy by Tom Poston. Part of the fun is the two sitting and talking about their acts very seriously. It’s where I most buy the premise: as preposterous and stupid as this game is, Homer is taking it to heart, and trying as hard as he can. However, his best efforts don’t cut it for the Capitol City crowd, and he and the family are sent back from whence they came.

I like the basic premise of chronicling the story like it’s of a master athlete’s rise and fall, but it’s just of the goofy mascot. We even get a great play off of Pride of the Yankees, wherein Homer considers himself the luckiest mascot on the face of the Earth, is comforted by a Babe Ruth lookalike, and stumbles into the dugout on his way out. There’s plenty of parts that work in it, but all-in-all it doesn’t resonate with me as a whole story. The wraparound and Homer’s interruptions about the seriousness of the story feel so out of place. Perhaps if they had stuck with the story playing out on its own it wouldn’t have had that odd story bit over its head. But with “Capitol City,” Bleeding Gums Murphy’s 26-minute national anthem, and “little baby batter can’t control his bladder,” this episode is still deserving of classic distinction.

Tidbits and Quotes
– A true classic Homer line: “Marge, this ticket doesn’t just give me a seat, it also gives me the right, no, the duty to make a complete ass of myself.”
– Another call-back to “Disgrace” with Smithers giving Burns cards with his employee’s family’s names. Homer seems to have grown a bit more backbone in correcting his boss’ labeling them as “The Simps.”
– All the bits at the ballpark are really funny: washed out played Flash Baylor’s baseball inscription to Marge (and Homer’s immense pride of it), the Jumbo-tron, and, as mentioned, Bleeding Gums. I also like how sweet it is that Lisa remains standing and attentive to her hero’s whole performance.
– Here we get the first real great “Burns talk,” where he speaks of shaming and taunting Satchel Paige and Connie Mack, players who were in the leagues over (then) eighty-some-odd years ago.
– Marge’s line upon seeing a Dancin’ Homer shirt (“A Simpson on a T-shirt? I never thought I’d see the day.”) is a great subtly remark about the rampant Simpsons merchandising at the time.
– Kind of shocking to see Homer concerned about seeing if he can get time off from work, when in recent years he mostly doesn’t even show up. We get a great quick scene where his supervisor is more than happy to give Homer as much time away from the plant as possible (“Sure, what would you like? Four years? Five years.”)
– [The Goof] What exactly do you have planned for us?
[Homer] Well, I get up, I dance, I spell out the name of the city, all to the tune of “Baby Elephant Walk”.
[The Goof] Ah, Mancini. The mascot’s best friend.
– For some reason, I always love Homer’s assertion that the Dancin’ Homer costume is buried. Like he felt so ashamed he couldn’t even bear disgracing his trash cans with it.

17. Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish

(originally aired November 1, 1990)
The series shows some growing up this episode in size and scope: we go from one boy’s concern on passing a test to an entire gubernatorial race from start to finish in just a few shows. We continue to see the show’s evolution in its greater showcase of the world of Springfield, and a more extended look at our favorite heartless billionaire C. Montgomery Burns. This episode is a real tour de force, working as a character examination, a rife on smarmy political tactics and the media feeding into it, and some parody worked in with pieces of Burns echoing Charles Foster Kane. Even with all this, we still work in the Simpson family, who provide running commentary from the common decent man, and inevitably become the undoing of the greedy, wealthy ruling class.

This episode feels so current, but has classic, old-timey elements to it: the media circus we see in the third act is as accurate now twenty years later, but we begin with a 1930s reporter coming to town looking for a hot scoop. Against the hokey Americana scene of Bart and Lisa fishin’ at the ol’ swimmin’ hole, it looks perfectly at home, and absolutely reeks of Swartzwelder (just look at his comedy novellas for more of this stuff). The reporter hits the jackpot in the form of a three-eyed fish (its second appearance, now dubbed Blinky; the creature is kind of the show’s unofficial mascot), which clearly has been contaminated by run-off from the nuclear plant. After a great sequence of inspectors examining the egregious safety violations, they demand Burns bring the plant up to code with a $56 million price tag, or they’ll shut it down. We see Burns at his most vulnerable (and a tad inebriated) after this, as does Homer, who has managed to sleep in at work. The two share an odd emotional moment as Burns explains the dilemma, and Homer inadvertently gets the plot rolling by off-offhandedly mentioning that if Burns were governor, he could do whatever he pleased.

So the Burns campaign begins. Everything about it is so spot-on in so many ways. His team seems to be broken into two halves: one to elevate his public image from despicable monster to respectable human being, and the other to make his opponent, the incumbent Mary Bailey, look the other way around. The Simpsons mocks the ham-fisted, pandering nature of political promotion by managing to spin a widely hated man like Mr. Burns into a Samaritan. We start with a PSA hosted by Burns in explaining the phenomenon that is Blinky. It starts with the classic gag of Burns badmouthing the public unaware that the camera is going live. On a shitty show, this would be the climax of the third act, and Burns’ shameful undoing, but here, we just gloss over it. As long as Burns makes a convincing-ish argument, the short-attention-span-adled public will forget all about it. And what a show, complete with an actor portraying Charles Darwin giving his expert opinion on Blinky’s rapidly accelerated, but completely natural evolution. Ending with a catchy jingle (“Only a moron wouldn’t cast his vote for Monty Burns!”), the public is instantly swayed. Brilliant.

I love how Burns not only is clearly tortured that he must act open and approachable, like an actual human being, but has nothing but absolute contempt for the common man. His actions are purely self-serving, and he’ll put up with whatever he has to to get them, but throughout the entire episode, he treats the normal actions and behaviors of common class people like they’re aliens from another planet. There’s also the overt parallels to Citizen Kane, in Burns’ rise to power, in the characters themselves, bold, powerful men who are dwarfed by their crippling loneliness, and obvious references to the film, such as Burns’ campaign speech before a giant photo of himself, and his breakdown at the very end. For many people like myself, The Simpsons was our introduction to classic films like this, The Godfather, It’s a Wonderful Life, and many others; I remember watching them exclusively to see the origination of the parodies (and who’d have known that they’re actually pretty good films?) But the references are actually worked into the characters and the situations; the joke works because Burns works as a Charles Foster Kane type. It’s the correct way to do a parody, rather than expect the joke to be the reference itself, like another FOX animated show that I will not speak the name of here.

Burns’ campaign would have gone off without a hitch had it not been for those meddling Simpsons. Homer has his boss’ full support for obvious reasons, but Marge remains steady in her opinion of Burns being pure evil. In one final pandering publicity stunt, Burns has dinner at the Simpson house the night before the election, an event full of cameras, cue cards and lack of anything of a genuine nature. But Marge puts an end to that last bit: inspired by a off-hand comment Homer made about how she can express herself through the house she keeps and the food she cooks, dinner comes in the form of a three-eyed fish, and Burns finds he can’t swallow his own hypocrisy, spitting out his first bite, ruining the election (odd how two absent-minded comments Homer makes both start and complete the plot). Burns throws as big a tantrum as he can, weakly managing to topple a few things at the Simpson home, promises to destroy Homer’s dreams and takes his leave. Marge reassures her husband with a sweet capper (“When a man’s biggest dreams include seconds on dessert, occasional snuggling and sleeping in til noon on weekends, no one man can destroy them.”) While the aim of this show reaches so high with the Burns stuff, it never loses sight of the emotional core, which is the Simpson family, who is given equal attention and merit in the episode, without feeling shoehorned in. It’s a shining example of showcasing a minor character while allowing the main characters their own time to shine as well. This is the first episode I would label as perfect, the definition of classic Simpsons

Tidbits and Quotes
– Lisa, responding to the reporter’s question of their bait: “My brother’s using worms, but I, who feel the tranquility far outweighs the actual catching of fish, am using nothing.”
– The plant inspection is a fore-bearer to the goofier the show would become later (“Gum used to seal crack in cooling tower… plutonium rod used as paperweight…”)
– Burns’ arrogant and ruthless behavior is revealed early on, he is completely aghast that the inspector isn’t taking his bribe? Why not? He doesn’t know much about the common man but they’ll shut up if enough dough is thrown their way, but not this time.
– This is the first episode that the question of what state Springfield is really starts to creep in. The state flag really nails this pointless debate, stripes, a star, and the slogan, “Not Just Another State.”
– I love Dan Castellaneta’s performance as “Charles Darwin.” I can’t even place that accent, I guess it’s sort of English… I guess?
– The foreshadowing is so subtle here, where Burns claims that Blinky is “a miracle of nature, with a taste that can’t be beat!”
– Grampa, after the Burns PSA: “That Burns is just what this state needs: Young blood!”
– I don’t think Smithers says a word in this episode; he’s basically replaced by Burns’ campaign manager. But I love seeing him in the background standing and smiling wearing pro-Burns paraphernalia.
– I couldn’t figure how to wedge it in, but Burns is also so pandering in his political jargon: all he ever rants about is how he’s going to show those bureaucrats what for and he’ll lower taxes. He doesn’t care about any of that, he just chose an issue he thinks the public will respond to, and, as established earlier, the only thing he knows is that he can mollify others by promising them more money.
– [Advisor] The voters now see you as imperial and god-like. But there’s a down-side to it. The latest polls indicate you’re in danger of losing touch with the common man.
[Burns] Oh, dear! Heaven forbid!
– I love the absolutely synthetic nature of the question Lisa is forced to read (“Mr. Burns: your campaign seems to have the momentum of a runaway freight train. Why are you so popular?”), and the great deadpan read Yeardley Smith gives it.
– A fantastic, daring joke of Bart saying grace (“Dear God: We paid for all this stuff ourselves, so thanks for nothing.”) I also love Mr. Burns’ save: “Only an innocent child could get away with such blasphemy. God bless them all!”
– There’s so much bizarre animation associated with Burns eating the fish, be it his disturbed, disgusted look chewing and spitting, the cameramen and political team looking shocked (the dropped jaw guy), and the great slow-mo bit where the media circus has their fill of the spitted up fish and leaves (“Ruined before it hit the ground.”)
– [Burns] Ironic, isn’t it, Smithers? This anonymous clan of slack-jawed troglodytes has cost me the election, and yet if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That’s democracy for you.
[Smithers] You are noble and poetic in defeat, sir.
…huh, I guess Smithers had lines in this episode after all. My mistake.

16. Treehouse of Horror

(originally aired October 25, 1990)
While I was still sitting through the show’s later seasons, what always killed me most was the decline in quality of the Treehouse of Horror specials. They were always a season highlight: for one special show a year, the Simpsons universe’s rules and regulations would be broken down, and the family be thrust into a spooky situation or classic horror parody to fend for themselves. The show would riff on scary story conventions, but also had the potential of being genuinely creepy and unsettling themselves. I love the idea for many reasons, a main one being these specials bring the Simpsons back to their cartoon ancestry roots: having characters so established that they can be put into any situation, and the entertainment is seeing how they react. As we love seeing Daffy Duck attempt to be Robin Hood, we love to see the Simpsons fend off a zombie apocalypse. They used to be the greatest episodes of the season, but when it got to the point where they would be parodying Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Transformers, two things not even remotely Halloween-y, it got pretty depressing. These segments must be hard to write, no doubt, but it was always worth it.

This very first one starts with a brief disclaimer from Marge on the show’s off-color content, which she claims to have totally washed her hands of. Not only is it a great mimicry of the similarly opened original Frankenstein, it refers directly to its audience who might not be prepared for a silly primetime cartoon delving into serious horror parodies. We then get into the show proper, featuring Bart and Lisa in the treehouse telling scary stories (the only Treehouse of Horror to actually use the treehouse). First up is “Bad Dream House,” where the Simpson family move into a suspiciously cheap mansion. Come to find its price point is due to it being built on an Indian burial ground, so they must endure bleeding walls, floating objects, and a brief possession or two. Homer is unmoving in his assertion that these minor quibbles are worth the great deal, but finding the basement cemetery is the last straw. In one of my favorite Simpsons scenes ever, he angrily calls the realtor to yell at him about it, then his rage subsides and he retorts, “Well that’s not my recollection!” He then hangs up and says, “He said he mentioned it five or six times.” The segment ends with a nice subversion where the house reveals consciousness to the family, but chooses to implode upon itself rather than live with them. The Simpsons were the unwelcome guests; Lisa surmises, “It chose to destroy itself rather than live with us. One can’t help but feel a little rejected.”

The second segment has our family abducted by Rigelians Kang and Kodos. Before they were annual regulars to the show with normally nefarious purposes, they quite cordially offer the Simpsons a fantastic banquet, but Lisa remains suspicious of their true intentions. It’s a great “To Serve Man” riff when Lisa reveals the “How to Cook Humans” cookbook, but after a back and forth swiping of dust between her and Kang, reveals “How to Cook For Humans,” “How to Cook Forty Humans” and finally “How to Cook For Forty Humans,” revealing them to benevolent all along. It’s one of those hilarious-in-hindsight bait-and-switches: why were the aliens so suspicious sounding to begin with? So impressed by how much weight they’d gained and the chef droolingly telling Homer his wife is “quite a dish,” none of it makes any sense, but that’s why it’s so funny. Of course Kang and Kodos would become firm members of the Simpsons canon, for good reason: their grotesque, classically alien design, with tentacle appendages and giant heads encased in helmets, booming, self-competent voices, and their braying evil laughter. Perhaps they were kindly all along until meeting the Simpsons, and a simple misunderstanding turned them to wanted to enslave the human race. Nice going, Lisa.

The final segment is an odd one: a retelling of Edgar Allen Poe’s classic poem, “The Raven,” featuring Homer as the visualized narrator (with James Earl Jones actually narrating), and Bart as the eponymous raven. What seems like a tedious exercise on paper is actually quite riveting, from the rousing score and the wonderfully choreography of the sequence. David Silverman does an amazing job as usual spicing up the segment, visualizing ghostly hands caressing Homer’s face, odd sweeping scenes of a ponderous nature, and cutting to rise the tension between Homer and the Bart raven. Dan Castellaneta also deserves credit for his performance, keeping with the intensity and passion of the read, but always remaining true to Homer. The seriousness of the sequence eventually gives way to a brief silly end where Homer goes into a rage trying to catch the bird, but it becomes his own undoing as it comes to a close. I always praise Silverman for his direction, so I apologize for overlooking the other great Simpsons directors. Wes Archer and Rich Moore, who did the other two segments, are fantastic in their own right, doing fine work for this series, and others.

I like how we end with Bart mentioning how the poem wasn’t scary, and Lisa justifying that since it was written over a hundred years ago, maybe people were easier to scare. It really reflects with the Halloween specials; the bit with the family trying to kill each other in the first segment was a bit rough, but compared to how much darker and bloodier these shows would become, this truly is tame by today’s standards, as Bart puts it. Later we would delve further into the macabre greatness that Halloween specials could be (and scary Halloween credit names too), but this is a grand first outing signaling things to come. Spoooooky things.

Tidbits and Quotes
– A long-deserted Halloween tradition we first see here are the scary tombstone names. They’d get funnier as years went on, until the writers got sick of writing them. I do like the one for “Casper the Friendly Boy” though.
– I do like how James Earl Jones is in all three segments, like he’s the weaving thread for the three stories. Also that his roles increase in size, from one line as the mover in the first one, Serak the Preparer, a minor role in the second, and the main event as the narrator in the third.
– I remember loving the vortex gag as a kid. For some reason, I thought I remembered Homer thinking it was some kind of new-age dishwasher. Guess I imagined it.
– Kinda subtle bit with Marge telling the kids to get their coats, and they just float onto them.
– The house seducing the family to kill each other is pretty grim. Perhaps the disclaimer really was necessary. And why the hell would Marge need THAT big of a knife to spread mayonnaise on her sandwich?
– I love how the house physically emotes by changing in color, light and shape with its dialogue. Kudos to Wes Archer for that. See? I can compliment other directors.
– I know the show has two gags with Homer pouring the entire can of gasoline onto the grill before turning it on. This one has a mini-inferno go off, but I know another show does the same thing but the grill turns on normally. I forget which episode it is though… guess I’ll find out soon enough.
– Brilliant glossing over of the language barrier between humans and aliens by Kang: “I am actually speaking Rigelian; by an astonishing coincidence, both of our languages are exactly the same.”
– I love the sequence where the family derides Kang and Kodos’ crowning achievement that is Pong. The aliens get so defensive, while even Marge finds it hard to sound genuine in her patronization.
– Homer kind of mirrors the suspected worrywart audience, while Marge (the writers) dismiss the show as “just children’s stories.” Then he’s frightened by a bird out the window. Classic.

15. Simpson and Delilah

(originally aired October 18, 1990)
Episodes like these are the reason I’m doing this massive re-watch. There are plenty of classic Simpsons episodes that I vaguely remember parts of, but definitely warrant another refresher. Last season we got a good sense of Homer as a family man, but here we get a look at Homer the man, and his feelings concerning his job and his station in life. For a man of 36 (!), baldness is a mighty sting for Homer, but he is in shock of a new “miracle breakthrough” being advertised on TV: a hair-growth product Dimoxinil’ Unfortunately, it carries a heavy price tag of a thousand bucks. However, figuring how to slip it under the radar of the power plant’s health insurance plan, he gets himself a kit, and after one day of caressing and primping his scalp, he awakens with a full head of bushy, unkempt hair. It’s Homer’s unabashed, child-like enthusiasm that really make you completely invested in the character. He runs out of the house and throughout the town bidding one and all a good morning, Jimmy Stewart-style. He even encounters a fellow newly saved soul doing the very same thing: one look at each others’ new hair growth leads them to cry out “Dimoxinil!” and they have a warm embrace.

This episode also features the first look at the dynamic between Mr. Burns and Smithers. Burns may be a cruel, heartless bureaucrat, but he’s also easily dissuaded. I wouldn’t say naive, but at times he sees what he wants to see, projecting his own views on others even if they’re not there. In this case, Burns lays down an arbitrary promotion to Homer, purely based on his new luscious locks. Later in a staff meeting, he calls upon Homer for his ideas, and out of Homer’s nervous ramblings about tartar sauce portions, he surmises that “a happy worker is a busy worker” and that keeping the mindless drones well fed will make them more productive. In one of the best Burns lines ever, he concludes with a dark undertone, “Let the fools have their tar-tar sauce.” Smithers is, as we’ve seen, Burns’ doting boot-licker, but we start getting hints of his deeper affections to his boss as he becomes frustrated at Burns’ growing liking toward Homer. He may be demeaned and under appreciated in his line of work, but it’s where he belongs, it’s who he is.

With his new job title, Homer finds himself an assistant, the sage-like Karl voiced by a gravely Harvey Fierstein. Karl’s character may be somewhat dubious, as his only purpose in life seems to be pep-talking middle-aged men less qualified than him, but he works because his actions and affections toward Homer feel so sincere. Some of his lines are funny just by the level of intensity Fierstein brings to them. Smithers uncovers Homer’s Dimoxinil purchase under the plant’s insurance (Homer’s brilliant cover for the expense was “to keep brain from freezing”), but Karl ends up taking the fall. When Smithers asks him what he cares if Homer is bald, he responds, “My reasons… are my own.” It may be the best line in the whole show; Karl is such an enigmatic character, a Magical Negro-type, except of questionable sexuality. When he returns to help a newly bald Homer one last time, he attempts to instill confidence back in Homer, claiming “my mother told me never to kiss a fool!” right before laying a big one onto a stunned Homer. That may be the first real gay kiss ever seen in animation, or even in primetime (outside a crossdressing Bugs smooching Elmer Fudd, of course). It’s a real nice, ballsy moment, wonderfully concluded with the equally subtly pat on the ass Karl gives Homer on his way out.

In typical Simpsons fashion, we follow an emotional realization to a backhanded climax. Even with his bravado restored, and with Karl’s flashcards that have some actually well-thought out and valid proposals for the plant, no one will give Homer the time of day due to his newly recovered baldness. Burns is incised, but in a great, true-to-character bit, his rage is softened by his connection to Homer’s plight of male-pattern baldness, thus he gives him his old job back. It’s a great, rollicking road right back where we started, ending with a Homer and Marge moment that would be cliche and corny in any other show, but thanks to the strength of the characters and the performances, feels like such a sweet and real end to a great episode.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The Dimoxinil commercial is a great and quick parody of these kind of miracle remedy commercials, with the balding man walking on the beach with a pensive look on his face. “Today, I’m gonna do it.”
– I love the Dimoxinil salesman’s alternate option for Homer: Hair in a Drum (“I must assure you that any hair growth you experience while using it will be purely coincidental.”)
– We’ve seen Lenny and Carl, Homer’s work buddies, in the first season, but here’s where they first start to take shape and resemble their modern-day selves. Lenny’s defense of Homer using the plant’s insurance plan is pretty great: “Why should you get nothing, while some guy who loses a finger hits the jackpot?” Homer muses that $1000 is a lot to bilk the company out of, to which Lenny scoffs that Burns won’t be able to afford another ivory back-scratcher. This leads to a great callback when Smithers alerts Burns to the purchase, to which Burns angrily murmurs about wanting to have purchased said item.
– Homer’s ever-changing hairstyles throughout the episode are really fun; the progression of 80s and 90s hairdos is like a timeline through the show, but also like Homer trying out all the styles he missed out on during his life of baldness.
– I love the executive washroom juxtaposed with the shitty, uncleaned normal bathroom, a great parallel between the two classes.
– There’s a great transition from the tiled floor of the washroom panning and dissolving to the paneled windows outside the plant, building Smithers’ frustration and finding Homer’s secret. Between stuff like this and what we saw last episode, I’d forgotten how creatively directed this show used to be. In more recent years, we’d only get interesting stuff like this if the show was doing a parody, in which case it would just be straight mimicry of the source material.
– So many great Karl lines… but aside from “my reasons are my own,” I love his speech to Homer on why he took the fall: “Have I done something extraordinary here today? No. I did what I was born to do, what any good soldier would have done if a live grenade threatened his commander: I threw myself upon it, and bore its terrible brunt!” Such intensity.
– Great stuff with Homer’s rage against Bart after spilling his Dimoxinil: his strangling is cut short by Bart telling his father he loves him (“Dirty trick.”) Collecting himself, Homer tells his son three things he hopes will harm him more than his hands around his throat: “You’ve ruined your father, you’ve crippled your family, and baldness is hereditary!” Following this is a truly high moment for Homer as he kneels over on the floor trying to sop up the spilled formula in his hair, sobbing uncontrollably (says Lisa, “Dad is taking this in a less than heroic fashion.”)

14. Bart Gets An F

(originally aired October 11, 1990)
If season 1 was a 13-episode experiment for this radical new series, it left season 2 in a tough bind. Everyone, the writers, animators, actors, needed to take what they’d gotten right and what they learned from the original run and build upon it for the next series of episodes, and after watching this premiere, that’s exactly what they did. The leap from “Evening” to this is absolutely staggering in every aspect of the show. The animation is richer, the world of the show feels more fleshed out and authentic, the characters feel more familiar (and on-model), it’s a big improvement from a first season that was already pretty good to begin with.

“Bart Gets An F” follows “Bart the Genius” in its illumination of Bart’s troubles in school. He’s a kid who exhibits creativity and ingenuity, but in none of the ways that involve standardized tests and book reports. As such, he is stuck with his weekly chalkboard punishment. This is a show that never creates clear heroes or villains; everyone is shown to be of blame of Bart’s situation. Bart shown persistently procrastinating and could care less about colonial history, the school seems to give no mind to tutor or help Bart until it’s too late, and Homer and Marge seem mostly oblivious to Bart’s struggles, or gloss over it, as in Marge claiming her son is just a late bloomer. And where any other show would paint Bart as a bastard child who doesn’t give a fuck, here he truly is concerned and worried about his situation, vowing he will buckle down and pass the fourth grade (never mind he’s still there twenty years later.)

Desperate to do well on the final test, Bart enlists the help of fellow classmate Martin Prince. Now Martin may be a relatively minor character now, but like with Krusty in “Krusty Gets Busted,” we are starting to see secondary characters come out of the woodwork and being more fleshed-out. Also, this is a show that never sticks with typical archetypes. Martin could have easily just been a run-of-the-mill geek, but he’s not that cut-and-dry. As we will later see from Milhouse, Professor Frink, Comic Book Guy and others, the “geek” is merely an umbrella term for a whole variety of breeds of nerd. Martin is a real teacher’s pet, but he exhibits a weird brazen-ness to his geekiness and intelligence. He’s shocked to find that none of his academic achievements have gained him popularity, he just can’t comprehend that they don’t hold any clout. He agrees to help Bart if he will help him become popular. This backfires when Martin gets a screw loose and becomes more rambunctious than Bart, stealing his friends away in the process. Unhinged Martin is fantastic, just all that pent-up kid-like mischief finally allowed to release.

This is another episode by the great David Silverman, and as such we see some more great animated sequences and direction. The night before the big test, Bart prays for a miracle and gets one in the form of a blizzard. Realizing he can’t squander the opportunity he’s gotten, he takes the day to study, where outside the funnest day of all days is happening. In one long panning shot we see dozens and dozens of characters playing, sledding, throwing snowballs, skating, all sorts of stuff. It’s a breathtaking sequences; nowadays this would be no problem done digitally, but in 1990 having to composite so many animations on different cel layers must have been a pain in the ass. But it looks fantastic, a true animation highlight for the series. The scene where Homer and Marge are called into discuss Bart’s grades is great, with Dr. Pryor and Ms. Krabappel talking back and forth in varying tones and concerns, as we cut to different angles of the three Simpsons reacting blankly as the pace increases. In some ways, this show feels like the spiritual successor to “Bart the Genius.” We even get another great limited-color-palette dream sequence as Bart imagines himself at the First Continental Congress, which is quickly interrupted by its own snow day (one delegate gleefully exclaims, “Look, everybody! John Hancock’s writing his name in the snow!”)

In true Simpsons fashion, we get a within-reason happy ending: Bart barely passes with a D- by ways of parroting a historical fact he’s somehow memorized. In a triumphant ending, his paper is placed on the fridge and his parents compliment him on his “achievement.” The Simpsons is a show built upon the idea of backhanded accomplishment and accidental success, but there’s always some earnest nature on the way there. As we see, Bart’s grade is well-earned, and we are filled with a weird sense of pride by it. We feel for Bart and his struggle. There’s so much stuff I’ve left out here, but I think with some of the best episodes, that’s going to happen. “Bart Gets An F” is a true signifier of the brilliance to come, and that’s saying a lot.

Tidibts and Quotes
– Starting the show off with Martin’s book report, in Ernest Hemingway garb, is good groundbreaking, and is brilliant and disturbing at the same time: “To catch a fish, to kill a bull, to make love to a woman… to live. I thank you.”
– Always loved when asked the name of the pirate in Treasure Island, one of the names swimming in Bart’s head IS Long John Silver, but he lands on the most preposterous option: “Bluebeard?”
– The Simpsons is full of products I would love to have, one of which being video games. “Escape From Grandma’s House” seems like a lot of fun to play (“Hide in the closet! Oh no, deadly mothballs!”) Also in the background of the arcade is “Robert Goulet Destroyer;” I can’t even imagine what that game is, but I want to know more about it.
– The scene at the dinner table showcases the family’s evolved personalities: I love Lisa’s sheepishness of talking about her latest in a long line of A’s, and Homer’s half-earnest, half-pandering over-the-top exuberance over the announcement. We also get first real look at Homer’s other true love: TV, especially when it involves movies with monkeys in them.
– [Bart] Hey, Otto-man. I got a big test today I am not ready for. Could you please crash the bus or something?
[Otto] Sorry, little buddy. Can’t do it on purpose. But, hey! Maybe you’ll get lucky!
– [Martin] As a natural enemy I don’t know why I should care, but the information pertaining to America’s colonial period that you’ve just received is erroneous.
[Bart] So you’re saying…
[Martin] A blindfolded chimp with a pencil in his teeth has a better chance of passing this test than you do.
– Small details matter: when Bart enters the nurse’s office, she is picking up tongue depressors she’s spilled out of a jar. This simple action sets her up to be somewhat incompetent, or at least gullible enough to believe Bart’s act of being sick.
– The first act break of Bart passionately vowing to pass fourth grade is topped with a great Homer line: “And if you don’t, at least you’ll be bigger than the other kids.”
– I forgot all about the other dream sequence of a middle-aged haggard Bart still in fourth grade: “Look lady, I’ve got a peptic ulcer, a wife bugging me for a new car and a root canal. Quit bugging me about this damn pirate.”
– Again, I love crazy Martin: “Who would have ever thought that pushing a boy into the girl’s lavatory could be such a thrill! The screams! The humiliation! The fact that it wasn’t me! I’ve never felt so ALIVE!”
– Bart’s prayer to God treads the line of sincere and self-serving, and is 100% funny and sweet: “Well, old timer, I guess this is the end of the road. I know I haven’t always been a good kid, but, if I have to go to school tomorrow, I’ll fail the test and be held back. I just need one more day to study, A teachers strike, a power failure, a blizzard… Anything that’ll cancel school tomorrow. I know it’s asking a lot, but if anyone can do it, You can! Thanking You in advance, Your pal, Bart Simpson.
– Lisa has a great assertion to who actually God is: “I’m no theologian; I don’t know who or what God is exactly, all I know is He’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together, and you owe Him big.”
– Never really bothered me, but there’s a snow day before the last day of school… in June. I guess it truly was a miracle after all.
– And of course, the greatest final line of an episode: “Part of this D- belongs to God.”

13. Some Enchanted Evening

(originally aired May 13, 1990)
So we cap off the first season with the first episode produced, oddly enough. When the writers and producers of the show got this show back from overseas and screened it, it was horrifying: characters were off-model, the look was brash and ugly, and the laws of physics seemed to not apply to people and objects in motion. It was practically unusable, and left the fate of the Simpsons in limbo until the next episode in “Bart the Genius” ended up being a huge improvement in quality. As such, “Evening” was sent back to be reanimated, with over 3/4 of the footage completely redone. Perhaps this was all for the best though: transferring the Simpsons from the five-minute Tracey Ullman shorts to a Christmas special, then to series seems like a smoother transition than than an episode featuring a deranged thieving babysitter and a rocky marriage saved by seedy motel sex.

The episode begins innocently enough: once again, Marge finds herself unappreciated and unacknowledged by her family, particularly her husband. Fired up by the urgings of radio psychiatrist Marvin Monroe, she stands by the door, stewing with bottled up rage ready to unleash at her husband when he comes home. Having overheard the radio show at work, Homer attempts to make things right with a box of chocolates and one piddling rose. But when she opens the door and Homer lets out a sincere but trembling, “I love you,” all of Marge’s hate dissolves into a puddle of love. They make plans for a romantic evening: dinner, dancing, and a night at the Ye Olde Off-Ramp Inn (another great Simpsons name).

The children are left in the care of a mysterious Ms. Botz, a snidley hunched-over woman who treats the kids with nothing but contempt. Whilst channel-surfing to “America’s Most Armed and Dangerous,” the kids discover that Botz is actually the “Babysitter Bandit,” a notorious crook who cons parents to gain access to their home and raid their stuff. Again, it’s so odd to think of this as the pilot; Ms. Botz is a truly bizarre and unsettling character, even before the reveal of her larcenous ways. Two young children bound and gagged whilst a stranger robs the house blind would be horrifying on any live-action sitcom, but the Simpsons manages to squeeze dark comedy from the set-up, with baby Maggie becoming their savior and Bart enacting swift vengeance on their captor. However, a bumbling, oblivious Homer lets a tied-up Botz go free (paying her triple, no less) right before the police arrive, giving this dark show a similarly dark ending.

With some of the original footage sprinkled through this show, it feels pretty rough after seeing the show evolve slightly over the thirteen shows, but there are still a lot of bits of animation I really appreciate, like Homer and Marge dancing and the thoroughly creepy movements of Ms. Botz. There were still kinks to be worked out, but the overhaul of the episode ended up mostly successful, giving us a very suitable finale: bizarre happenings befalling a simple American family.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Always love the psych call-in number: 555-PAIN.
– “You’re a pig. Barney’s a pig, Larry’s a pig, we’re all pigs, except for one difference. Once in a while, we crawl out of the slop, hose ourselves off and act like human beings.” Speaking of, the animation on Moe during this line is such grotesque, but wonderful at the same time. His face just morphs as he speaks, he’s so misshapen.
– Homer’s expressions on being inadvertently insulted by the babysitter service receptionist are so great; through gritted teeth, he attests, “Actually, the Simpsons are neighbors of ours, and we’ve found them to be a quite misunderstood and underrated family.”
– I’ve always loved the Happy Little Elves. We barely see them now, but they were a brilliant parody of limitedly animated, overly peppy kid’s shows, like the Smurfs meet Dora the Explorer.
– Maggie proves once more to be an infant savant in escaping her crib and working a remote control. That kid’s gonna go far.
– The end moment with Homer and Marge is pretty sweet, with Marge successfully lauding her husband: “The way I see it, you raised three children who could knock out and hog-tie a perfect stranger, you must be doing something right.”

Season 1 Final Thoughts
One down, nineteen to go. As I mentioned at the start, I pretty much write off season 1 when I categorize the classic years. Sure, parts of it feel like a different show, and there’s plenty to be ironed out and retooled over time, but this season surprised me a lot. A lot of these twenty-year-old shows really hold up, with solid stories, great gags and character humor, and a consistent theme of the misadventures of this quirky offbeat family against the world. For a show that broke so much new ground with its concept, its material and its medium, I’d say this is a dynamite first season. Cheers all around. I’m ever so ready for season 2!

The Best
“The Telltale Head,” “Life on the Fast Lane,” “Krusty Gets Busted”

The Worst
I have a feeling I’m not going to make much use of this column until season 9 at least, but for now I’ll name the two stand-out “meh” shows of the season: “The Call of the Simpsons” and “The Crepes of Wrath.”