(originally aired December 20, 1990)
The Simpsons is always up to tackle any subject, but never takes things in a cut-and-dry manner. Characters with viewpoints from both sides are questioned and held under scrutiny, as the show examines both sides of a particular coin. This episode is a key example of this, as the show takes aim at the media in general and censorship, what is acceptable for general audiences, in almost a veiled commentary on the show itself. I was a mere infant when these shows aired, but I’m aware that FOX was a nothing network until controversy from Married with Children caused a public interest (any publicity is good publicity). Not long after our favorite family caught some flack for its off-beat content, and this show almost acts as a response to all of that, a brilliant look at what one screwball can accomplish.
The in-universe target is the grossly violent antics of cartoon cat and mouse Itchy & Scratchy. We’ve seen them a few times previously, but this is the first show to highlight them. The idea of a cartoon within a cartoon is interesting enough, let alone the content; like Tom & Jerry but taken to an overly graphic extreme. We get our fair share of I & S clips here, all of them highly gratuitous in their carnage, but funny for that very reason, just different bombastic variations for that mouse to brutally murder this poor cat. After a highly impressionable baby Maggie whacks Homer on the head with a mallet, Marge discovers it was television where she witnessed and emulated the act. Stepping to her soapbox, she starts a campaign against cartoon violence, picketing the studios. Her efforts build momentum up to an appearance of late-night panel discussion show Smartline where she faces against I & S studio head Roger Meyers, Jr. and Dr. Marvin Monroe. Her urges to the viewers to write in their complaints leads to a flood of letters at the studio’s doorstep, creating a rift in the cartoon world.
The final act of the show is filled with so much stuff on different topics, but is always true and on-point with the story. It begins with Marge getting a call from Meyers Jr. and the distressed I & S writers who are trying to figure out how to rewrite their show. I’m sure the Simpsons writers have had to deal with many a corporate executive with no creative experience giving them notes on what to change about the show, so the frustration of the scene feels so organic. In the end, the show is reduced to the most bland, offensively inoffensive material imaginable: a doe-eyed and stoic Itchy & Scratchy sitting on a porch drinking lemonade, with actual voices (like Tom & Jerry were given in later years, to horrifying effect). The kids of Springfield find the cat & mouse’s less exciting activities boring, and must find something else to fill their time (Lisa comments, “Maybe there’s something else to do on this planet.”) Following this we get an absolutely beautiful montage where the children discover that beyond mind-rotting, violent television is a great big beautiful world to explore, where one can fly kites, play baseball, jump rope, or dance around a maypole. Life sure becomes grand and fulfilling.
Not to last of course. Marge’s fellow censor-happy harpies approach her over banning a planned Springfield tour of Michelangelo’s David, but she considers that particular freedom of expression to be high art. In a follow-up edition of Smartline, Marge muses “I guess one person can make a difference, but most of the time, they probably shouldn’t.” Perhaps our lives would be better without us being glued to the yammering idiot box, but if we must live with new forms of technology and creative output, we have to learn that the bad and the good, as we perceive them, are of equal value and validity, be it the works of Michelangelo, the symphonies of Beethoven, or The Simpsons. At this concession, the playgrounds are again empty as an ever-violent Itchy & Scratchy returns to the airwaves, as it should be. This is an episode that tackles so much, but still retains a sense of itself, staying with Marge and her crusade the whole way through as these various big topics happen around her. If this episode has any failing, it’s that it makes Marge a minor antagonist in my eyes, as I’m very much against censorship, especially involving animation (the butchering of Looney Tunes shorts in the 90s still infuriates me). But her journey is a just one, having only best interests at heart, and all is well, sort of, in the end: she is pleased to hear that Michelangelo’s David will be seen by the kids of Springfield on a class field trip, and despite her rabble-rousing, we’re happy for her too.
Tidbits and Quotes
– I could write a whole other article just about Itchy & Scratchy. The opening of the show is perfect, with the xylophone melody, high-pitched theme singers, and the two character’s clueless expressions as they bash each other repeatedly. Could you think of any better way to start a cartoon like that? I also love the effort made to make Itchy & Scratchy look and feel more like a cartoon within the cartoon universe of The Simpsons. With a needle drop-esque score, less detailed backgrounds, and an overall zanier feel, it really does feel more like a “cartoon” than the one you’re already watching.
– The Psycho shot-for-shot riff with Homer getting “attacked” is fantastic; remaking such a classic, serious scene in a ridiculous fashion like this is such a wonderful parody.
– I love Marge wondering where Maggie got the idea to wield a mallet to her father right as she places the baby right in front of the television, which then airs an I & S short that opens with the two inexplicably placed in a kitchen whacking each other repeatedly with cooking mallets.
– As I mentioned, the cartoon clips seem to get more and more gratuitously violent as the episode goes. We have a short where Scratchy opens his front door only to get a ballistic missile to his face by Itchy, then one that consists of Itchy blowing up Scratchy’s grave with TNT, and finally, a cartoon that is just the two pulling out bigger and bigger handguns until they are larger than the Earth itself, followed by an explosion and Scratchy being shot into the sun screaming. What a treasure trove of hilariously violent cartoons.
– I love Marge’s list of offensive material from I & S, particularly “dogs tricked,” “gophers buried alive,” and one check mark of “brains slammed in car door.” I want to see that episode very much.
– First appearance of Sideshow Mel, and to a lesser extent, another of Krusty’s co-stars Corporal Punishment. I feel we don’t see enough of Krusty’s show, we’ve never seen the Corporeal, or Tina Ballerina, or even much of Mr. Teeny the monkey in action on camera.
– Great line from a self-immobilized Homer on the couch: “You know, some of these stories are pretty good. I never knew mice lived such interesting lives.”
– Roger Meyers on Smartline is so brilliant, with his undercutting and undermining of Marge’s chance to respond, and his defense of his work with a shocking revelation (“I did a little research and I discovered a startling thing… There was violence in the past, long before cartoons were invented. The Crusades, for instance. Tremendous violence, many people killed, the darned thing went on for thirty years!”)
– Oh my, and I LOVE the new Itchy & Scratchy theme (“They love, they share, they share they love they share…”) And the David statue covered up with blue jeans on the Smartline segment.