“Oh Marge, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.”
The aforementioned quote is, of course, accompanied by Homer Simpson getting off the couch and just showing the slightest bit of his butt crack to elicit laughter. Try as Homer might to convince Marge that this is the sole purpose cartoons serve, I’d hesitate to believe that his argument resonates with anyone in Springfield or on their couch watching the actual show. In fact, I found that grouping The Simpsons into larger thematic patterns was reasonably easy over the first two seasons because they were so focused; the plot was rarely linear outside of singular episodes, but their scope felt small, especially in an introductory season so concentrated on comedic family tension and inner workings. While the second season took strides to move the spotlight beyond focusing just on the family unit, it still felt rather narrow in the sense that even those episodes that were brought in other characters were heavily interested in the Simpsons’ relations to them, rationalizing and examining the new nuclear family unit’s place in contemporary society. This was further underscored by the fact that Homer Simpson’s boss, Mr. Burns, was the most important of the supplementary characters in the season. After Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes? (S3E24) ended, I was left thinking about what was the best way to approach Season Three, because it’s the first time the show truly begins to balloon outwards in a meaningful way: guest appearances are plentiful, episodes heavily focused on non-Simpsons are recurring features, and small bursts of linearity appear with regards to Sideshow Bob and Herb Powell. This all lends itself to a more episodic feeling than the prior two seasons which, in many ways, is more in line with the route the show will take from here on out. This may all seem unwieldy, but it isn’t a slight or complaint at all, as Season Three is a step above its predecessors in terms of quality, memorable episodes, and quotable moments, and it shows as it’s the first season in which I’ve really struggled to pick a favorite episode. This, though, leads to a bit more unfocused review.
I believe the best place to start is with how Season Three is the first instance in which The Simpsons family becomes truly grounded in the real world; while they were developed to be the relatable, new standard of the modern family unit from the start, the influx of real world guest stars means that fiction collides with the real in an impactful way. In just this season, we see Magic Johnson, Aerosmith, Sting, Neil Patrick Harris, the members of Spinal Tap and nine major leaguers interact with Springfield, amongst others. Inverse to what the expectation of introducing reality to a fictional series may be, this actually makes the show feel further from reflective realism than ever, morphing into an odd hybrid of relatable moments and quasi-surrealism. I think the most brilliant of these guest star inclusions is Sting in Radio Bart (S3E13), which lampoons how causes can so often become a fad, as evidenced by the tacky, Do They Know It’s Christmas parody Krusty and co. make for Timmy. Interestingly, this episode seems to place the blame more on consumers for hopping on and off these fashionable trends than celebrities, as Sting is shown to actually care enough to dig to rescue Bart. Then there’s the case of Homer at the Bat (S3E17), in which the public, manly personalities of nine major league stars are stripped down to show how the game is often not what defines them and, yes, it does actually hurt sometimes when they’re goaded by crowds. Even more worth mentioning is what is, perhaps, one of the all time great guest appearances, the semi-cameo of Michael Jackson in the season premiere, Stark Raving Dad (S3E1). This highly reflexive episode shows Homer Simpson meeting a man who is clearly not ‘Michael Jackson’ in an insane asylum, yet hysteria spreads as news of his visit to Springfield is shared across the community. In a very clever way, the community’s response and the events that unfold reflects the anonymous guest appearance of the actual Michael Jackson, who was billed ‘John Jay Smith’ in the original credits, but it serves as another great rumination on celebrity culture against the backdrop of Bart and Lisa’s familial drama.
Outside of these guest stars, the third season also begins to carve out and explore other members of the Springfield community much more clearly, hence the not so clever title of this entry. Characters like Ned Flanders, Edna Krabappel, Fat Tony, Milhouse, Aunt Selma and even Otto Mann finally get their big moments. While each outing still involves the titular family, the shift in focus is palpable as these episodes move away from analyzing the family through their relations with stereotypical community members to examining and deconstructing Springfield residents through their interactions with the Simpsons. Take, for example, Like Father, Like Clown (S3E6), which develops Krusty as more than just a rude entertainer, introducing him as a conflicted man due to a strained relationship with his shamed father. This works on the level of adding further complexity to a recurring figure, but it also doubles as a dissection of the popular figure of the Jewish entertainer. While Bart and Lisa push for his reconnection with Rabbi Krustofski, the emotional hook of the episode is at Krusty being accepted once more into his family and cultural heritage despite following what is viewed as a less than desirable path. Bart the Lover (S3E16) is also the first concrete exploration of Edna; beforehand, she was merely a cranky fourth grade teacher with a penchant for fooling around, but this episode develops some sincere sympathy for her inability to escape a vicious cycle of professional and personal malaise. Talk about the string of episodes still focused on Homer’s fatherhood, as explored through his relationship with each child. Flaming Moe’s (S3E10), the season’s highlight, finally gives the relationship between Moe and Homer a little more weight, rather than just the bartender-alcholic dynamic of the first few seasons. It also functions as a parodic reinterpretation of the sitcom iconography of the popular neighborhood destination where everybody knows your name, popularized by Happy Days/Cheers and proliferated since, especially with the use of Barney Gumbel and a couple of song sequences. The list of these episodes could go on, but in a sense it suffices to say that the third season finally sees The Simpsons stripping down and analyzing stereotypical town residents in a humorous sense, while laying the groundwork for the colorful and immensely populated Springfield we, as viewers, take for granted in later seasons*. This is done in a piecemeal, episodic method, putting the pieces of Springfield together slowly because, as they say, even Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Within the Simpson clan, the idea of fatherhood remains a central focus. Sequential episodes Lisa’s Pony (S3E8) and Saturdays of Thunder (S3E9) both make explicit the struggles Homer has with fatherhood, as they find him struggling to show love and interest in Lisa and Bart, respectively. Later in the season, Lisa the Greek (S3E14) and Homer Alone (S3E15) follow up once more on the relationship difficulties he has with Lisa and Maggie. As always, there’s a sense of a large generational gap that needs remediated, as well as more and more emphasis on Homer’s lack of preparation to assume the role of patriarch, most decidedly shown in I Married Marge (S3E12). It’s not that he doesn’t necessarily care–he takes two jobs to try to give Lisa the pony she wants, he sacrifices jobs he likes, etc.– he just is stuck in a position where he hasn’t matured to the level where he can fully embrace his familial role, which is in turn exacerbated by a lack of common interests. Also of note is the degree to which money is still an object of importance to the family; in my memory, as seasons go on later, it seems like the family has a good deal of cutting edge technology and rarely has to make financial sacrifices, but again in episodes like Dog of Death (S3E19) the struggle to maintain a nuclear family on Homer’s wages are a huge source of tension. I had this moment in that very episode where I was even thinking about the fact that Homer loses the big lottery drawing (and the rich get richer, re: Kent Brockman) and how this differs from the numerous times Homer wins the lottery in the series from here on out.
A quick word before I wrap up, as it’s getting harder and harder to contain these with all of the intricacies of a season, but I’d like to chaotically mention some favorite episodes beyond the one I picked below, as this is the first true golden season of The Simpsons, littered with absolutely amazing episodes and moments. There’s Homer at the Bat and its wonderfully silly handling of the Nuclear Plant Softball team, and the fantastic sequence in the land of chocolate during Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk (S3E11). Homer Defined (S3E5) is another great one that I haven’t been able to mention–but I think it’s probably the best example of Homer’s professional insecurity. There’s also Bart’s Friend Falls in Love (S3E23), which has so many wonderful quotes in it. And, of course, Treehouse of Horror II (S3E7) has some wonderful segments–such as Lisa’s monkey paw nightmare, which includes a meta-rumination on The Simpsons becoming tiresome and overmarketed, and a wonderful nightmare in which Bart discovers his worst fear, that him and Homer will get along. Well, I’m out for now after my list, see you in a couple weeks after the fourth season–59 of 596 down.
Favorite Episode: Flaming Moe’s
Favorite Quote: “How could this happen? We started out like Romeo and Juliet but it ended in tragedy.”- Milhouse (Bart’s Friend Falls in Love)**
Favorite Couch Gag: Santa’s Little Helper is sleeping on the couch. The family runs in and startles him, he viciously growls at them, and they slowly back away. (Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: I will not spin the turtle (The Otto Show)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Leon Kompowsky/Michael Jackson (Stark Raving Dad)
Favorite Early Season Character Introduction: Fat Tony‘s very own introductory episode, Bart the Murderer
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: My Dinner With Itchy (Homer Defined)
*Aside that didn’t fit into the flow: can we talk about Ralph Wiggum? He’s one of my favorite characters on the show, but he has that odd, mature line in Lisa’s Pony where he says that she’s tamed the horse, but what man can tame her, before a quick 180 to his line about the day that he was told he didn’t have worms was the happiest of his life. It’s so funny to see a character that the creators clearly hadn’t developed completely changed within the course of a season when creativity strikes, as he takes on a much more unique role than just another classmate.
** Just missing out the cut, after Homer listens to his vocabulary tapes and sees Bart scheming “Now there’s a Machiavellian countenance. Ooo, a sextet of ale!”