Friday, February 08, 2013

The Simpsons: Season 3

I did only two of these in 2012. Let's see if I break that average.

The third season continues the increase in quality begun with season 2. I felt that season 2 specialized in sweet love stories that grounded the characters and made them three-dimensional. It's because of that groundwork that season 3 is so confident and so willing to experiment with some of the humor and methods of storytelling. They can do comedy premises that resonate harder because we now know the characters so thoroughly and the show has such a heart right at its center: this a family that loves each other and, in the end, sticks by each other, even through all of their faults. The show doesn't have to keep telling us who the characters are; it can instead explore how the characters and their reactions drive the plots they find themselves in.

It makes for one of the most consistently entertaining seasons of television in history.

1. Stark Raving Dad (my rating: 4 out of 5)
The Michael Jackson episode. Well, the Michael Jackson acting episode (he doesn't do his singing). I love the device of having a large, crazy white man who believes he's Michael Jackson; that's a much more creative way to get Michael Jackson on the show than just having Michael Jackson come on and be himself or a thin parody of himself. It's a genuinely sweet episode, and I like the birthday song.

2. Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington (3/5)
Cute episode, not one of my favorites but I really dig the political satire, right down to the cheesy ending where Lisa's faith in the system is restored while justice is carried out in mere minutes. If only. I love how indignant the Thomas Jefferson Memorial is, too.

3. When Flanders Failed (4/5)
Remember when Homer used to be able to redeem his nasty side by eventually doing the right thing? This is a good examination of jealousy and schadenfreude that handles the ideas with surprising seriousness without compromising the show's humor, and I think Homer's eventually doing the right thing felt true to the character: I like that his guilty conscience would (eventually) overcome his darker emotions. The b-story of Bart in karate class feels a bit like filler, though.

4. Bart the Murderer (5/5)
Welcome to the show, Fat Tony. Fat Tony used to be one of my favorite characters on the show before they eventually ran him into the ground, and Joe Mantegna's performance in his first go at the character doesn't disappoint. The Goodfellas references are fun because the show doesn't depend on them to work. And Principal Skinner is really in fine form in this episode, every bit the personification of staid elementary school cliche. I love how what saves him when he's trapped under a pile of newspapers is a fourth grade science project. I find that funnier now than I did in high school.

5. Homer Defined (3/5)
Ah, Lovitz again. Dig it when Lovitz is on the show. It's a bit of a slight episode, but Homer's funny and the Bart plot is sweet, defining some of the power dynamic of his friendship with Milhouse.

6. Like Father, Like Clown (5/5)
One of my favorite episodes of the show, and one of my favorite guest stars: Jackie Mason as Krusty's estranged father, Rabbi Herschel Krustofski. A sweet and touching episode, but also a very, very funny one. My favorite bit is probably just how close Bart and Lisa's plan of having Rabbi Krustofski and Krusty running into each other at a deli comes to actually working. (Rabbi Krustofski thinks he's meeting Saul Bellow for lunch, and Krusty's line--"Can you please show me to President Francois Mitterand's table?"--kills me.) This was a time, too, when the show acknowledged that the religious backgrounds of the characters could be fertile territory for their identities rather than just a source of cheap gags. For instance, Flanders hasn't really been the butt of the joke so far; in fact, the joke about Flanders at this point is that he's just so resiliently happy because of how he chooses to see the world rather than just being preachy. I find that weirdly refreshing after years of every television series sort of smugly refusing to acknowledge that religion is something that gives some people meaning. It's another interesting way to explore the characters and find pieces of character-based humor.

7. Treehouse of Horror II (3/5)
Not quite as much fun as last year's episode, I think, but I think some of it has to do with the sequencing, which is a bit of a letdown. In the first "Treehouse of Horror," they went from the weakest segment to a strong segment to an excellent segment. Here they go from strong to not bad to weak, starting with the monkey's paw story (which is fantastic, especially Homer's turkey sandwich and the return of Kang and Kodos), a Twilight Zone parody which works but doesn't really go anywhere, and finally to Homer's brain being put in a robot, which is just kind of weak sauce. Some good laughs, but a bit of a letdown on this sophomore effort.

8. Lisa's Pony (3/5)
This is one of those episodes I skipped a lot in syndication because I never liked it much, but now that I'm older and the show is what it is now, my opinion of a lot of those episodes has really gone up. Homer and Lisa are probably the most opposite characters in the family, and it's interesting to see what makes them work as members of the same family, and what lengths he's willing to go to when he thinks Lisa doesn't love him anymore. I like that Homer can recognize that he's not a great father and is willing to try anything to make up for that. For whatever reason, that really hit me. This episode also has one of my favorite animation flourishes for the show, with Homer falling asleep and having a Little Nemo-style fantasy of floating in a bed while a very pretty instrumental of the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers" plays.

9. Saturdays of Thunder (3/5)
Now it's Bart's turn. Homer tries to make up for being such a distracted father by helping out Bart with a soapbox derby. Some great visual gags during the derby races; I particularly like Martin's crash, where he comes running out of the flames and the firemen put out the racer instead of him. I don't mind that a number of episodes this season focus on Homer's parenting; it's usually a good well to go to, and I like that Homer wants to do right by his children even though he's not on the ball about it. Maybe I just like knowing that the big, needy loser can redeem himself occasionally.

10. Flaming Moe's (3/5)
I love the parody of the Cheers opening. It's in the same style and obviously a reference, but it's so much more creative a wink than what I'm sure other shows would do, which is the Cheers opening exactly with that show's characters pasted in instead, as though that itself were a joke. I don't have much to say about the episode itself, other than that I found it really funny. This is long before Moe wears out his welcome, and having an episode revolve around him really works here.

11. Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk (4/5)
Since taking four semesters of German in college, all I can think is "verkauft! verkauft das Kraftwerk!" I do love the German jokes, the "Land of Chocolate" sequence, and the ways the Simpsons try to save money after Homer is laid off. It's a better examination, too, of Homer's incompetence than "Homer Defined" was.

12. I Married Marge (5/5)
A worthy sequel to last season's great, defining episode "The Way We Was." This one takes place in 1980 and covers Homer and Marge's marriage and the birth of Bart. For some reason, it was lost on me before that Homer and Marge dated for six years before they got married. That's very Homer and Marge; he doesn't get it together until he absolutely has to, and she's patient about it. It's an excellent build on "The Way We Was," continuing to deepen and explore Marge and Homer's love for one another in a way that I just find so affirming. Again, it cuts right to the heart of the version of the show I loved best. My favorite moment is Homer's determination at the end, in which he basically demands a job from Mr. Burns (while promising to be an easily-pushed around employee) and then stands up to Patty and Selma. I love that they even call back to "Marge, pour vous" from the previous episode. It's so genuine. And I thought it was sweet and funny that the story involves Homer telling the kids about it while waiting to hear if Marge is pregnant again, and their being genuinely relieved when she isn't. (We'll find out in a few episodes that Homer is sterile, anyway.)

13. Radio Bart (5/5)
A genuine classic, and one of the episodes I still basically know by heart. I have a nice memory of watching this episode on Thanksgiving Day 1992 (it originally aired in January) at my Aunt Marge's house with her family and everyone just laughing so loud. That was nice; I was told a lot at that age that I was too loud when I laughed, and just having all of that hearty, boisterous, (and, for some, drunken) laughter was really, really fun when watching what was absolutely the funniest show on TV at the time. Sting is hilarious on this episode. Also: "Hey, good-lookin', we'll be back to pick you up later."

14. Lisa the Greek (5/5)
We sort of just went to this well with "Lisa's Pony," but I found this exploration into Homer and Lisa's relationship more satisfying. I'm not sure why, there was just something that clicked a little more with me, with Lisa unsure whether Homer loves her or just loves her talent at picking winning football teams. There's a real emotional dilemma to it, in which we get to see that Lisa really does want to spend time with her dad, and Homer becomes genuinely worried that she might be too disillusioned to really love him anymore.

15. Homer Alone (4/5)
Nice to see Marge focused on in an episode, where she finally snaps from the stress of holding the family together and has to go relax in a spa. They don't always find the most interesting ways to use Marge on this show, but she's an integral character, and this episode shows us exactly why, because Homer crumbles while she's away and the kids are put through hell staying with Patty and Selma. (One of my favorite touches: when Bart asks for a drink, Patty or Selma tells him they only have Clamato, Mr. Pibb, and soy milk. I find that very true to life. Didn't it always seem when you had to stay at a relative's house for a few days that they only had off brands, gross drinks, and stuff you just wouldn't put in your mouth if you could avoid it?) Some of the animation on Marge in the spa is really great, especially the scene where she slowly submerges herself in the tub and comes up with her hair all tousled around her, supremely relaxed. I tell you, this wasn't an episode I ever liked as a kid and skipped a lot in syndication, but I relate to Marge's stress now more than ever.

16. Bart the Lover (5/5)
A real classic, with Bart pranking Mrs. Krabappel with fake love letters and then actually feeling remorse and putting things right. It's surprisingly sweet, and another great episode that's born of one character giving in to their darker impulses and then trying to make up for it when their guilt weighs too heavily. Again, it's a show that once had a heart. The side plot about Homer trying to build a doghouse and getting in trouble with Flanders for swearing too much lends the episode a nice sense of pacing and some great gags, letting the episode as a whole steer clear of the sappiness it could easily have descended into. And the film strip about living in a world without zinc is priceless. Do kids today even get those jokes? They probably don't have to watch the same crappy film strips from the fifties and sixties that I did, right?

17. Homer at the Bat (5/5)
This is easily my favorite episode of the season. It's an interesting departure for this season; the plot doesn't grow out of the characters, but is really a sort of typical guest star episode for a sitcom, focusing on the comedy and the guest stars themselves (nine of the best baseball players of the time, though I think my favorite on this episode is Ozzie Smith and his experience at the Springfield Mystery Spot). But I think all of the great character work they've been doing gives them some leeway to do this kind of "event" episode, one that's just pure comedy. It helps that the episode is incredibly funny and fun. I love the accidents Burns' ringers get into one by one and the endless stream of gags. This is pure classic Simpsons at its funniest.

18. Separate Vocations (3/5)
Oh, those aptitude tests. Did you take one? Mine told me I was going to be a park ranger. I wonder if I could still get into that... Not one of my favorites, but snappier and better-paced than I remember, and I like how it comes out with Bart taking the blame for Lisa to protect her school career. The ending, with Lisa playing the sax while Bart writes on the chalkboard ("I will not expose the ignorance of the faculty" is a particularly brilliant line), is lovely.

19. Dog of Death (3/5)
Again, Santa's Little Helper is not one of my favorite elements of this series at all, but I liked this episode better than last year's "Bart's Dog Gets an F." I guess I relate to it a little more, too, with the stuff about having to pay for the dog's operation (I think one of my favorite lines is always going to be "Lousy chub night") particularly hitting home, because I remember a time when I was worried about how we were going to pay for the operation to fix Thumper's molar occlusion.

20. Colonel Homer (5/5)
This is a surprisingly full and well-written episode, and also one of the best-animated early Simpsons episodes. At this point, the show was still being animated by Klasky Csupo, and I think they did a lot of neat stuff with the show as far as movement and color design went. Almost every animated show on TV right now is static and has perfect lines, and it's kind of boring. Here, the characters seem vibrant and alive, and there are a lot of things the show communicates about the characters through the visuals, like the great scene with Homer and Lurleen Lumpkin in her trailer, which forces a kind of intimate feeling that everyone but Homer gets. Lurleen is a great character (Beverly D'Angelo is fantastic in the role), and I love that so much of this story hinges on the fact that she's in love with Homer and totally offering herself to him and he's completely oblivious to it until the end. I love the finale of the episode, which reaffirms Homer and Marge's love and the devotion to one another that can easily be taken for granted.

21. Black Widower (3/5)
The return of Sideshow Bob, one of the show's best characters, here trying to carry out a plot to marry and murder Selma. It's a nice mystery, and I love Kelsey Grammer on the episode, especially his reaction to seeing MacGyver. The episode doesn't quite catch fire the way I would've liked, but there's a lot of funny gags in it, and Grammer is great. I forgot, too, just how much Patty and Selma were around in the early seasons, how involved they were in Homer and Marge's lives, always trying to undermine their relationship with their little digs.

22. The Otto Show (3/5)
Love everything about the Spinal Tap appearance. I actually bought the album Break Like the Wind before this episode aired, where they partially perform the title track. I like the Otto stuff in the episode, actually, but it's really all the character has, and it's probably for the best that they never did an episode with him as the central character again (or if they did, I don't remember it). I particularly like Homer in this one, especially his glee at finding a can of Billy Beer and singing along with "Spanish Flea." Milhouse's concert attire is truly hilarious.

23. Bart's Friend Falls in Love (3/5)
I'm not really a fan of the Milhouse-falls-in-love story, but I love the bits in the b-story with Homer attempting to use subliminal tapes to lose weight and instead accidentally building his vocabulary; his newly florid speech is a thing of beauty. This episode also opens with the famous Raiders of the Lost Ark parody, which is one of the show's best moments (and is a great bit of pure animation, without any dialogue). The 1970s sex education film is truly wonderful.

24. Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes? (3/5)
It's nice to get some closure on Unkie Herb, so that Homer can have a brother that he never sees ever again. Ah, well. Not as great as Herb's first appearance, but Danny DeVito is still in top form and is welcome on the show. The baby translator is cute; it's a fun, silly idea that we never see again, because it's not that kind of show. I love Homer's vibrating chair, and the way sitting in it is like going through the stargate in 2001. It's a nice little episode, and a nice cap to a very, very strong season of television.

This is the last season animated by Klasky Csupo, so I'm interested to see how the changeover to Film Roman looks now that I've really warmed up to this style again, particularly the show's color scheme and the vibrancy of the character animation.

This season was a nice balance between character-driven and plot-driven humor, taking some chances with its format while rounding out the characters and exploring their quirks. I'm looking forward to more strong stuff in season 4, which has at least five of my favorite episodes, including one that was my favorite episode of the entire series for years...

Previously: Season 1, Season 2.

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