Saturday, September 22, 2012
After watching the second season of The Simpsons for the first time in a decade or more, I think I've judged it unfairly over the years. I always think of it as the big sophomore slump before things get going in the third season, but watching it again has changed my opinion. I think a big part of that is that it's like watching a completely different series than what the show later became. This one has characters and stories that develop out of those characters. I know it's boring to hear people complain about how The Simpsons isn't as good as it used to be, but, you know, there's a reason people say it.
1. Bart Gets an F (my rating: 4/5)
What this episode especially reminds me of is that this was the time when parents were getting all worked up into a lather that Bart Simpson was a terrible influence on children. Did you go to one of those schools that banned Bart Simpson t-shirts? I did. (This was the year I was a freshman in high school.) As with most of these things, it was ironic, especially since this episode really punishes Bart for being such an underachiever. It's a good episode, a story about a character and that character's response to the situation he's in informs the way the story plays out. Seems simple, but a look at television today shows it isn't. Great animation, too; I love the animation and the animation direction this season, especially some of the great stuff they do with colors and lighting. (By the way, what teacher actually gives you a point on your grade for applied learning? Even my college professors wouldn't respond to that, the bastards.)
2. Simpson and Delilah (4/5)
Fantastic episode. I love how after Homer grows hair, he has it styled differently in every scene. Mr. Burns is one of the best supporting characters on The Simpsons, and the writers realized it early; he's really brought to the foreground in a lot of episodes this season. But what really enhances this episode is Karl, Homer's secretary, played wonderfully by Harvey Fierstein. Truly one of the great Simpsons guest voices.
3. Treehouse of Horror (5/5)
It's kind of funny to look at this episode now. The bizarre, surreal stories were just for Halloween, but later the show became so surreal and bizarre that by comparison this one looks reined in. This is still one of my favorites. "Bad Dream House" is mostly cute, and "Hungry Are the Damned" is very funny, but it's "The Raven" that really stands out for me. James Earl Jones' narration of that great poem is wonderful, but it's also very much in the tone of the series. It doesn't stop being The Simpsons just to get literary (which was apparently one of Matt Groening's concerns about it). Dan Casetellaneta is especially good in this segment, and I love the end of the episode with Homer scared by the stories which had no effect on the kids.
4. Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish (4/5)
Great satire of the political process, which has only gotten more transparently ridiculous in the two decades since. Now I kind of wish for a political campaign with this relatively low level of corruption, dishonesty and pandering. I love how Marge turns it around in the end. I know this is because of the production order, but I love how Mr. Burns doesn't know Homer despite having just spent all that time making an executive out of him in "Simpson and Delilah" (something which later became a running gag). There's an environmental message and a political satire, but the show doesn't get heavy-handed with either and ties them together neatly. I love the ending, where Marge soothes all of Homer's fears.
5. Dancin' Homer (4/5)
If I have one complaint about this episode (co-written by Ken Levine), it's that it's so densely packed with story that the gags don't always have room to breathe. But so much happens here that it's a pretty weak complaint, and even though I'm not the biggest baseball fan, I really enjoyed the episode. I enjoy it more now than I did as a kid, probably in large part because it makes me think of my Grandpa Davis, who died just four years later but who loved the Chicago Cubs. I can't articulate it. Something something tradition of being a baseball fan something. (Leave me alone, I have a headache.) I love the Capital City montage and Tom Poston as the Capital City Goofball. A miniature epic of Homer's success and failure.
6. Dead Putting Society (3/5)
Here's where the writers start to flesh out the Flanders family. Ned Flanders is so recognizable to me from having lived in one of those suburban village centers where people are in the upper middle class. There's always that one guy who's really nice and does really well for himself and always has the newest gadgets and the finished basement and is just friendly and neighborly in a way that becomes grating; not because they're trying to make you feel bad on purpose, but because you don't know what you're not doing right to have everything he has. I also liked Lisa's zen training of Bart and his one hand clapping.
7. Bart vs. Thanksgiving (3/5)
I don't think The Simpsons does Thanksgiving or Christmas episodes particularly well. As a result, I usually skip them in reruns (though I haven't even watched Simpsons reruns in a couple of years), and I hadn't seen this one since I was in high school. I was surprised by how much I actually did enjoy it. You know, part of the reason I think I didn't like it at the time was that my parents were newly-divorced and it made Thanksgivings a stressful nightmare, because it's hard to choose which parent to spend the holiday with. You end up feeling disloyal to one if you pick the other, and it's a lot of stress for a high schooler to go through. I think this must be the first time I ever watched it and wasn't uncomfortable remembering how that stress used to build up for me. Instead, I laughed at a lot of the jokes about family stress on the holiday (Marge's mother's "I have laryngitis and it hurts to talk, so I'll just say one thing: you never do anything right." made me laugh embarrassingly loudly.) And I remember a little too well, too, how it feels to do something mean in front of everyone and then feel guilty and embarrassed about it. This episode was very human and very familiar, and I liked that about it rather than shying away from it. Lovely ending, too.
8. Bart the Daredevil (4/5)
For some reason, I remember this being one of the first episodes that I ever sat down and watched with my Mom. She wasn't quick to get into the show, like I was, but I remember her howling with laughter when Homer fell down Springfield Gorge. Besides being a really funny episode, I love how it explores the relationship between Homer and Bart as father and son. Their relationship was different in the earlier seasons; Bart could be defiant, of course, but he looked up to Homer more often than he did later. For me, that's the core of this episode. Also: Truck-O-Saurus.
9. Itchy & Scratchy & Marge (4/5)
The writers take on a big issue in this one, and it's nice that they don't come up with any pat answers about censorship. This episode has one of my favorite animation sequences, where the children of Springfield, "freed" from the tyranny of violent cartoons, venture forth into the sun and play outdoors to the strains of Beethoven's 6th Symphony. It just cracks me up when it ends on Nelson whitewashing that fence. I like Alex Rocco as Roger Meyers Jr. so much that it actually rankles me when they use the character and Rocco doesn't do the voice. It's like using Fat Tony without Joe Mantegna.
10. Bart Gets Hit by a Car (4/5)
It's kind of an old saw premise (Wikipedia notes the episode was inspired by the great Billy Wilder movie The Fortune Cookie, which I like better than any other Matthau-Lemmon pairing), but I'm always up for a Mr. Burns episode and this one gives us the first appearance of Lionel Hutz. God, I miss Phil Hartman. I like the brief sequence in Hell; the Devil seems like a nerdy middle manager.
11. One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish (4/5)
Homer is my favorite character on The Simpsons, and this episode has some great character development. When Homer thinks he might be dying, he makes a to-do list of everything he wants to do in his last 24 hours (and promptly sleeps until 11am). I love the scenes with Homer and his father as they finally bond after all these years, to the point where Homer can't stand another moment with him. Larry King reading the Bible always makes me crack up, too, with Homer fast-forwarding through all of the begats. I was deathly sick when this episode aired in January 1991; sicker than I've ever been in my life; so sick that I missed the first couple weeks of my second semester as a freshman. So watching Homer worry he might be dying added another layer to it.
12. The Way We Was (5/5)
Still one of my favorite episodes, and the one that really cemented Homer and Marge as characters you could really care about. For me and the version of The Simpsons that I truly love, this is a central episode, showing us that first spark for Homer and Marge that grew into the love they share, and that for me is the real heart of the entire series: that through all that happens, through the imperfections of their relationship, their love overcomes all of the hardships. I also like the sense of place and character it gives the episode, setting the high school years squarely in 1974; Homer and Marge are only about two years older than my parents, and so the way they were written at this time is very recognizable to me; they remind me of my own Mom and Dad. I think the show eventually destroyed all of this to perpetuate a brand but, you know, that's television. Oh, well. Remember when TV shows would do those episodes where the power went out and they told a story about the family? Now it's "Oh, power's out, let's reenact Star Wars down to the smallest detail only with characters from the show as the characters in the movie because we can only relate to life through stuff we've seen." Jon Lovitz is great (as always), and the episode manages to be sentimental without becoming gooey and collapsing on itself. I love the ending.
13. Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Amendment (3/5)
Not a terrible episode, but I find the moral dilemma at the center of it a little tiresome and almost quaint. Sometimes the Lisa episodes don't connect with me. I like that they made the real conflict not whether stealing cable is wrong, but what Homer will do to restore Lisa's faith in him. This season is full of episodes with morals like this, even as the media was often holding up The Simpsons as an example of pushing the envelope too far (which is hilarious to think of today). There are still a lot of laughs, though; I think it's interesting, too, that it examines how we justify our casual thievery. It's a layered show. Troy McClure's first appearance.
14. Principal Charming (3/5)
Cute episode, and the first appearance of Groundskeeper Willie. I didn't realize just how many love stories there were this season. Maybe that's why the season has the reputation it has for not really being funny; they focus a lot more on character-driven love stories than on out and out comedy. It's going to be interesting to see that develop, and frankly I think spending so much of this season on character is what makes the comedy possible.
15. Oh, Brother, Where Are Thou? (5/5)
On the one hand, I've always been a little sorry that Homer's long-lost half-brother Herb Powell only appeared twice; on the other hand, they never ran him into the ground that way. Herb is a great character, and I love Danny DeVito's performance. The family stuff, with Herb connecting with the family he always wanted, is wonderful, and the idea of Homer coming up with, basically, the Edsel, is hilarious.
16. Bart's Dog Gets an F (2/5)
My least favorite episode of the season. I'm not sure why; it's just the frustration of watching Santa's Little Helper (always one of my least favorite things about the show) destroying everything. The sentimentalism in the last act is a little much for me, too, though I certainly understand the trauma of losing or almost losing a pet. It's just never been an episode I enjoyed that much.
17. Old Money (3/5)
I never used to like this when I was younger; now I like it more every time I actually see it. I guess I just understand the perspective of it, and having experienced the death of loved ones more times than I'd like since I was in high school, the sentimentalism doesn't bother me. This seems to be a fairly unpopular episode, but I liked it and I like what Abe Simpson does with his inherited money in the end. And Audrey Meadows had such a great voice.
18. Brush with Greatness (5/5)
This episode is perfect. The horrific events of Mt. Splashmore kind of scare the hell out of me, though; I'm obese and a little bit claustrophobic and it makes me shiver to think about that. I love Marge's story, the way she finds confidence in herself and uses it to find the humanity in Mr. Burns, all leading up to that hilarious final line. And the Ringo cameo is fantastic.
19. Lisa's Substitue (5/5)
One of the truly great episodes of The Simpsons. I think this may be the first time that Lisa had a story that I ever felt really emotionally invested in. I guess it's because she was going through something recognizable to me: feeling like you don't belong anywhere, only to make a connection with someone who encourages the things that other people make you feel weird about, and to sadly have that connection turn out to be only temporary. Mr. Bergstrom's note to Lisa--"You are Lisa Simpson"--always gets to me. And I love how Homer redeems himself in the end. Warm and fuzzy, but not in a reductive or lazy way.
20. The War of the Simpsons (3/5)
This is another episode that I always remember not really liking much. It's interesting how time and experience change your perspective. I remember as a kid always thinking that Marge was being selfish and petty but, you know, in my defense, I was a stupid high school kid who didn't have his first date until senior year. Having been in a relationship for a long time, I recognize the way it changes you. I love the party scenes at the beginning; I think it's cute how the sophisticated adult party has a soundtrack mostly from the mid-1960s. I love when Homer later tries to remember the party and it looks like a New Yorker cover. Abe babysitting the kids falls a little flat, though. Some decent lines and a nice payoff, but for the most part it feels like filler to offset the marriage retreat scenes. My favorite exchange in this episode: Flanders: "Sometimes Maude underlines passages in my bible instead of her bible by mistake." Homer: "Gee, good thing you don't keep guns in the house."
21. Three Men and a Comic Book (3/5)
Fun play on Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and the first appearance of Comic Book Guy (who I, like everyone who sees him, would swear is based on my local comic book guy). It's pretty obvious what ends up happening, but there are some really funny scenes. Still, as a former comic book collector, I still wince and think, jeez, Milhouse, take the broken leg for the sake of the comic, wouldja? Great animation on the storm and the next morning's glowing light. I said it before, but I love the coloring on this season.
22. Blood Feud (3/5)
Something of a filler episode, but I liked Homer in it and certainly sympathized with his dilemma over his angry letter to Mr. Burns getting mailed. I find the ending kind of interesting. There's really no moral to the episode, but having the Simpsons talk to each other at the end about how they really didn't learn anything from their experiences manages to be clever without being smug. It feels like a satire of sitcom formula rather than what the show would later specialize in: mocking the audience for wasting its time. I think the bigger mystery here than the episode's moral is how they managed to fit that giant Olmec head through the front door (and still later into the basement).
After sitting through this season, I can honestly say my perceptions of it were all wrong. Modern wisdom seems to hold that the season isn't as good as the show later became, but I think that's not quite accurate. This season explores the main characters so thoroughly that it really lays the groundwork for the later shorthand that makes some of its best comedy possible. It's not a fast-paced, laugh-filled season; it specializes in sweetness. But it's a marked improvement over the shaky first season and doesn't really have a single episode that's just a flat-out clunker. The worst you can really say about it is that it hasn't realized its full comic potential yet, and has to settle for being a well-written, enjoyable show with a real sense of character and emotion instead.
I think it's unfairly judged against the seasons still to come. Taken on its own, it's marvelous.