(originally aired November 14, 1991)
This episode features Homer realizing he’s been a poor father to one of his children and tries to set things straight. So did the last episode. This show is no stranger to retreading over tread ground, but the great thing about the classic seasons is their ability to take worn material and make it feel new again. I would have gone right through these two without thinking twice about the similar elements if I hadn’t listened to the commentary. Anyway, while Homer is completely out of his element with handling Lisa, he’s got a better shot with warming up to Bart, who is at about the same maturity level as him (maybe a bit lower in some regards). Where last show Homer failed a task for Lisa, here he barely even acknowledges his son’s existence until he fails a magazine quiz on fatherhood. At that point, he leaps into action, helping his son with his latest hobby: building a soapbox racer.
When Homer gives it his all, he gives it his all. The end result may be pretty shoddy, but he’s still all in. When Bart tells his father he’s going to ride Martin’s car in the final race, Homer is understandably hurt, and we feel for him. Never mind a mere eight minutes ago we saw him leaving his son alone to use a blowtorch (and chastise him for using such a low flame); we still feel for him. When Lisa tries to present a distraction to him, all Homer can see is another chance for him to screw up as a father. Small-minded in his behavior, one bump in the road will leave Homer moping in a corner, or rather lounging on the couch the day of the big race, stewing in his own failure juices. But, he comes to cheer his son on in the end, of course, and Bart wins the race. Father and son childishly taunt the loser Nelson, united in their slighlty infantile nature.
This episode also showcases a lot of TV and movie parodies, a real staple of the Al Jean/Mike Reiss years, who would later do as many parodies as they pleased in their series The Critic. We open with an installment of the infomercial series “I Can’t Believe They Invented That!” with Troy McClure and Dr. Nick. Both Phil Hartman and Hank Azaria are fantastic of course, both selling their own unique brands of smarm and scammery. Everything about the segment is perfect, from the lame product name “Spiffy,” the inane banter, and the inexplicable fact that apparently they ripped Edgar Allen Poe’s tombstone out of the ground and hauled it into a studio to film this stupid advertisement. Later at the video store we get an equally fantastic McBain clip, in which his dedicated older partner is talking about how he’s leaving the force, only to be killed mercilessly, shown from a number of gratuitous angles. The prelude to this is absolutely perfect, with every note hit to show this guy has a great life ahead of him, capped by a photo of his wife christening his boat, the “Live 4-Ever.” And of course, we get the immortal line, “MENDOZZZAAAAAAAAA!!!” ‘Nuff said.
Tidbits and Quotes
– Everything in the infomercial is quotable, but the last bit is especially great. Dr. Nick demonstrates the product (“With one application of Spiffy, you’ll think the body’s still warm!”) and McClure comments (“Quoth the Raven, what a shine!”) Also great when the audience violently turns on Nick for his original, too steep offer, and Nick sweetening the deal with a Kansas Jell-O mold… which is just a rectangle.
– Homer fumbling through the fatherhood quiz is a great back-and-forth between him and Marge. Especially love his attempts to name Bart’s friends: the fat kid with the thing, and the little wiener who always has his hands in his pockets.
– Second of three (I think) instances of inappropriate hold music: “Cat’s in the Cradle” plays when Homer calls the Fatherhood Institute. Also, I love when the Institute heads haul Homer off, Bart, believing his father is being committed, quietly muses, “Maybe it’s for the best.” Like he’s been anticipating this day for a long time.
– The underwater fatherhood tank is so pointless and ridiculous to begin with, so I don’t know how much good wondering how the hell a shark could get in with the father and son will do. It’s funny, leave it at that.
– Great overt references to Bill Cosby, the show’s rival at the time, but a relative high road is taken. His book “Fatherhood” is even cited, and helps Homer out (“Thank you, Bill Cosby, you saved the Simpsons!”) Also, first time Homer is outwitted by his own brain, which seems not so much stupid as a sign of severe schizophrenia.
– This show is all about cramming as many jokes into a scene as possible. Martin smashes his soapbox racer into a wall, then the parachute deploys. Then the car sets on fire, and Martin as well, who runs out of the car screaming. That’s not funny enough though, as a fire engine arrives to put out the fire… of the car. Brilliant. Also love Martin’s anger toward Dr. Hibbert (“Save your palliative clichés for the next poor sap, doc!”)
– Homer passionately calling Martin a homewrecker may be one of my favorite moments of the whole series.
– Homer getting increasingly excited for finishing the fatherhood quiz ends with a great moment of throwing a random question at Flanders, then driving off before Ned can get two words out of his mouth.
– Love how the Fatherhood Institute is apparently filming the soapbox race. I guess they have cameras everywhere. They’re an insanely well-funded organization, doing incredibly dubious work: they fit right in with the Simpsons universe alright.