Last night as I finished watching the second season of The Simpsons I paused for a brief calculation: as much time as I had put in, I had finished but 6% of my goal. It was a pretty awe-inspiring moment because, up until now, I never really thought of how much time I’ve spent watching the series. I mean I’ve seen all of these episodes already, and what’s more, I’ve seen them all multiple times. Just some food for thought before proceeding.
If Season 1 was, focused on debunking the American Dream through a detailed focus on the dysfunctional nuclear family unit, Season 2 is where The Simpsons begins to look outward to try to find a place for this new, more realistic family in society. Case in point: where conflict in the first season arose from inside the family unit, most conflict in the second season comes from outside interaction with the titular family. It’s interesting to see the early characters that Groening & Co. decide to focus on: Mr. Burns is probably the most utilized of the ancillary characters in the season. Appearing in his final form, he takes the spotlight or serves as a major catalyst in the plot in at least a quarter of the episodes (appearing in many others as well), from running over Bart to waging a fierce political campaign to requesting a painting from Marge. This focal point, of course, situates the Simpsons as a story of some sort of ease and tension between classes, trying to find where exactly the nuclear family actually sits in terms of leverage, etc. in society. There is sometimes fluidity, as in Simpson and Delilah (S2E2), where Homer is promoted to an executive position as a result of his secretly committing insurance fraud to grow hair. Homer is aided by Carl the Assistant, who outlines the speeches and outfits necessary for him to succeed. Interestingly, this episode ends on a very mixed note: certainly, it suggests Homer’s insecurity about how his family feels about him, and how he feels about his level of success, as he starts and finishes the arc in a self-proclaimed ‘dead-end job’. The fact that Homer’s success is so strongly tied to his hair, and that his silly suggestions are taken so seriously when he has it, yet an intellectual speech is disregarded when he becomes bald once more, suggests that Homer is absolutely stuck in society, and that class fluidity is a myth debunked, and perpetuated, by appearance. The ending is not completely cynical, however, as while he is rejected by high society Homer is still loved by his family, yet this episode certainly suggests a darker side of American class structure, bald jokes aside. In Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish, The Simpsons (S2E4) suggests despite the family unit’s lack of social standing they still form the backbone of, and heavily impact, society as Marge’s choice of a dinner option is a final nail in the coffin of Burns’ campaign. Interestingly, when Marge paints Mr. Burns (S2E18) her final portrait does not uphold the image of a powerful tycoon, but instead attempts to lower him down to society’s level, presenting him as a frail human being just like the rest of us. There are, of course, two other Burns centric episodes which explore class tension: one in which he hits Bart and Homer attempts to extort extra cash from a shady lawyer (S2E10), and another in which Homer gets incredibly angry over the lack of a payback he expects to receive after giving his boy’s blood (S2E22). Perhaps the Simpsons’ exploration of class struggle and their place in society is a great point to hit off on another wonderful episode featuring a rich centerpiece: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (S2E15)*. In this episode, Homer discovers that he is related to Herb Powell, and helps him create the car for the average man. Herb Powell is representative of earned wealth, as he remarks early on how he had to pay for his education and build his empire, unlike the wealthy descendants he employs. Of course this is short lived because, as Lisa remarks “his life was an unbridled success until he found out he was a Simpson,” another quite cynical remark about class fluidity protected by the smoke screen of humor. Lisa dicates another important remark in the episode in which they move to Capital City for Homer’s short lived career as a mascot (S2E5), that they should stay in Springfield because everyone there has already forgiven them.
Outside of this exploration of the Simpson’s place in society, and in an apparently rigid class structure, I was surprised at how much Martin Prince factors in to these early Simpsons episodes. A great character, he’s often been relegated to the background in later seasons, but here he serves as a foil for Bart Simpson repeatedly, whether it be as they take the same dog training class to contrasting degrees of success (S2E16), the episode in which Bart enlists his natural enemy in order to try to pass the fourth grade (S2E1), or the episode in which they are in direct competition for the spot of class president (S2E19). It was amusing to me to think that the two are set up in such opposition, as later episodes seem to pit Martin against the bullies (mostly Nelson). Much the same, in several instances the dichotomy between Ned Flanders and Homer Simpson continues to boil up and serve insecurities about failing to live up to the American Dream, mostly notably in Dead Putting Society (S2E6) in which Homer is so offended by Ned flaunting his success (his beer is from further away, his children like him, etc.) that he instigates a direct competition between offspring. This is, perhaps, the most overt example over these earlier episodes of the point I was hitting at in my earlier post.
The Simpsons also seems to be using this general exploration of the family’s place in society to figure out the series’ place in popular culture.Perhaps the most essential episode of the entire season, and its centerpiece, is Itchy and Scratchy and Marge (S2E9), in which Marge tries to get her childrens’ favorite cartoon banned as it encourages Maggie to be violent towards Homer and repeat actions seen on TV. When she succeeds in getting the cartoon off the air, a long middle section shows Springfield as a sort of suburban utopia, with children out, happily playing and getting along with each other. There is, of course, an obvious layer of reflexivity in this episode, as The Simpsons is asking both what its effect is on society, if it encourages violence and repetition, and if its partaking in a culture where TV is increasingly important is, in essence, taking away from a more perfect world. Of course, this facade is broken with the arrival of Michalangelo’s David, a piece Marge’s supports find to be profane and wish to be censored due to its containing nudity. At this point, Springfield must return to status quo as Marge realizes her hypocrisy, and that she cannot censor one artwork for violence and allow the other, for nudity, in a sort of all or nothing proposal. So what does this episode reveal about Groening’s idea of the Simpsons as a popular culture figure? It seems that he lends credence to the idea that its lewdness may be damaging, but he suggests that it is an artwork that must be allowed to express itself like all others. It’s telling that the last remarks of the season circle back to this point, as the family debates the moral of the story, and settles on the fact that there was, in fact, no moral: it was just a series of random things that happened. Self critique that this may well be, the longer thematic thematic strands that search for where and how the new family unit fits into American society by expanding and searching Springfield seem to debunk the fact that there’s nothing playing beneath the surface.
Also, how can I end without mention of the start of something great? The first Treehouse of Horror appears in this season, which is just a great overall moment because, though Marge warns the parents to put children to sleep lest they be scared, the episode suggests this is over parenting as the one who is, in fact, frightened, is Homer. Talk about reflexivity!
I feel like there’s still so much more to talk about with this season, though. I didn’t even hit all the episodes, or expand as much as I could have into my general argument because it was getting long. Any comments, questions or feedback? Just want to throw a quote out? Up for a discussion? Feel free to post in the comments.
*Side Note: how many secret brothers does Dr. Hibbert have? One at the orphanage in this episode, and later in the series I remember it’s inferred Bleeding Gums is also his long lost relative.
**Also of relevance, this is the season where my favorite character pops up! Look out for Hans Moleman at the DMV.
Favorite Episode: Three Men and a Comic Book
Favorite Quote: “Okay. I’m not going to kill you, but I’m going to tell you three things that will haunt you for the rest of your days. You’ve ruined your father, you’ve crippled your family and baldness is hereditary.”-Homer, to Bart (Simpson and Delilah)
Favorite Couch Gag: Grandpa is asleep on the couch, the family rushes up and startles him (Bart vs. Thanksgiving)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “I will not hide behind the fifth ammendment” (Brush with Greatness)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Mr. Bergstrom the substitute teacher, but I fought hard with myself because I do love Carl the Assistant.
Favorite Early Season Character Introduction: That moment when Bart wakes up and Lionel Hutz is greedily peering over the bed
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Porch Pals (Itchy and Scratchy and Marge)