In a new project I’m undertaking, I’ll be rewatching every episode of one of my favorite television shows of all time, The Simpsons. After completing every season, I’ll come here for a write up that includes a multitude of details that may range from favorite episodes to moments to couch gags. I’ll also be doing a brief analysis of the themes explored each season, and how these evolve as the show ages. Being such a long running series, plan on this taking quite a while though.
I remember the exact moment I fell in love with the Simpsons as a kid. My father had brought home a DVD of the first season, and I had enjoyed the first few episodes, but it hadn’t been anything more. Then, in Bart the General (S1E5), Homer encouraged Bart that, in a fight, he should go after the family jewels. It was a classic Simpsons move. It’s a lowbrow moment, for sure, but its one that really got me laughing as a young, impressionable, and immature child. It also didn’t hurt that Bart the General ends up being the funniest episode of the season, grafting the style of war movie Patton onto the struggles of a child against a bully in a relatable manner.
It struck me that, more than any season, the first episodes in the series are about Homer’s struggles as a father and human, trying to come to terms with his place in the world. The ancillary characters are introduced slowly—Kent Brockman, Apu, Mr. Burns, Sideshow Bob, (Black) Smithers—they’re all there, but they don’t have the emphasis of later seasons, allowing for a more complex inquiry into just the family unit that is the Simpsons.
One of the largest threads that ties together each installment in the first season is this idea of how the American Dream goes wrong, and how this is, in fact, more relatable than when it goes right. This is, indeed, what makes Homer such a central figure to the first season, whereas further seasons move outwards and explore the intricacies and stupidity of the town. In the early going, however, even the set up accentuates the binary nature of the American Dream: you have Flanders, who Homer notes makes just a little more money than him yet has so much more, living in relative comfort with all of the material goods Homer longs to provide for himself and his family just a fence away. While the Homer-Ned rivalry is taken for granted as the years go on, in the beginning Homer’s jealousy is rooted in his inability to live up to the dream his suburban life is supposed to be emblematic of. When Ned Flanders buys an RV, Homer Simpson needs to buy one and it needs to be better; of course, while its so easy for Ned, Homer’s poor credit is the red flag that makes him incapable of luxury. Even in the season opener, as Homer struggles to provide the perfect holiday for his family and degrades himself to being a mall Santa to cover the loss of his Christmas bonus, he runs straight into Flanders and his mountains of presents. Is some of Homer’s behavior petty? Certainly, but it comes from a certain cynical insecurity the cartoon is showing, and is showing to be much more truthful than what lies across the fence.
Homer’s also a much more sympathetic figure than in later seasons where he is flat out jealous, and one who is just as aware as he is stupid. In There’s No Disgrace Like Home, Homer takes things a step further, trying to fix his dysfunctional family by pawning the TV for therapy; a moment like this wouldn’t really work with the way that Homer evolves into a selfish, TV obsessed buffoon in the later seasons. Though Moaning Lisa sees the start of his fight against Lisa’s saxophone playing, Homer can tell his daughter is sad but doesn’t understand how to make it better. At the end of the episode, he is only briefly insulted by a lyric referring to his inability as a father, but willing to indulge his daughter in her interests at the jazz club. In the same episode, he quietly confesses to Marge how disappointed he was to learn he could do so much better than his father, and how bad he feels that Bart had learned that by age four. Furthermore, he seems resigned to the marital problems that pop up in episodes like Homer’s Night Out, Some Enchanted Evening and Life on the Fast Lane; it’s clear Homer loves Marge, but it’s also clear he has no idea how to handle or read the relationship at certain points (shades of his selfishness only manifesting themselves in Fast Lane).
All of these moments show Homer as a giving caretaker despite his flaws of unintelligence, but one who is completely aware of the limits of his life. Despite all the cynicism prevalent in the way The Simpsons skewers the flaws and inaccessibility of the American Dream and the suburban family unit, there’s a certain sympathy that comes out of how much more relatable the family is than the Flanders’ idealistic situation. The whole tone of the season strikes itself somewhere between a cynicism of the perfect, American nuclear family—which lends credence to where Homer works—but sympathetic, suggesting that these struggles are commonplace and often the results of just wanting to provide a family with the unrealistic standards that have been set out in society.
Of course, there’s other reasons for the party line that cries the earlier Simpsons are better, and that’s because there are just so many great moments that transcend this analysis—what about Mr. Burns thinking Homer is a modern Valentino in Homer’s Night Out (before the wonderfully progressive moment in which he cuts off a son to enlighten everyone in the club that, yes, women are more than objects). There’s Krusty Gets Busted, which not only introduces everyone’s favorite villain, Sideshow Bob, but also serves as a totally sweet look at childhood fandom side of rampant commercialism. The moment at the end of that episode where Bart goes to bed surrounded by his Krusty propaganda is such a great moment.
Favorite Episode: Bart the General (Episode 5)
Favorite Couch Gag: Not much going on here in the early season: maybe when the sides give in and the family falls on the cushions to the floor? (Homer’s Odyssey)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “I Will Not Call My Teacher ‘Hot Cakes’” (Homer’s Night Out)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Bob of Bob’s RV Round-up and his quick talking sale, definitely. Season 1 also reminds me of how much better the short term characters get over time.
Favorite Quote: “The Blues isn’t about feeling better. It’s about making others feel worse, and making a couple bucks while you’re at it.” -Bleeding Gums Murphy
Favorite Early Season Character Introduction: It’s a hard choice–there’s something to be said for the way Santa’s Little Helper enters the picture, I think, but I have to go with the Sideshow Bob centric episode because come on….
I’ll be back soon with Season 2–it took me about a week and a half to get through the first season, which is by far the shortest, but with a little good will I’ll pick up the pace.