Mr. Plow. Whacking Day. I Love Lisa. Duffless. Marge vs the Monorail. Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie. Homer the Heretic. Let’s take a moment at the beginning of the entry and just marvel at the fact that The Simpsons not only blessed us with such great moments, but they did so all in the course of one season. I mean, that’s a crazy run of quality and a couple of strong contenders for best episode ever. I guess it just goes to show that it never hurts to bring Conan O’Brien on board, unless, of course, you’re NBC or Jay Leno.
Last season I made the remark that it was getting harder and harder to really parse one solid branch of thematic material as the show continued to expand outwards, and that continues to be the case here. In a sense, that comes with the added definition to wider territory; instead of episodes focusing on family dynamic, the show spends even more time centering episodes around singular characters or specific relationships. This gives the sense that the show has explored the American Dream and taken its deconstruction as far as it can–you don’t even get an overt political episode like Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington–but that doesn’t mean that there still isn’t fertile ground in and outside of the family. Less immediate characters around town, like like the drunkard Barney Gumbel or special child Ralph Wiggum, for example, begin to take even more shape, catalyze plots and helm their own episodes. Amongst the members of the Simpson clan, however, Marge benefits the most, finally stepping out of the shadow of Homer and Bart’s antics. In early seasons, it often feels like the central relationship is far too uneven; Marge almost always willingly takes the brunt of Homer’s selfish and bad actions, never worse for wear. While marital struggles certainly surfaced during those three seasons, episodes like A Streetcar Named Marge, Duffless, and Marge in Chains finally explore the exhaustion that loving Homer, or following the societal role that she does, would inflict upon even the strongest character. While many of these moments still play for laughs, like Marge insisting on rehearsing the broken bottle scene with Ned to take out her anger on Homer, they often feel all the more powerful in that they constructively address certain problems. Whether it be Homer’s understanding of Stella’s emotional struggles or an examination of the root of Homer’s drinking problem that leads to his choice of Marge over beer, it finally feels like tension is being built and released in a meaningful way. Not only does this begin to give Marge more personality, and show why she would still be in her marriage, but it also lends a more tragic and sympathetic feel to Homer, one that will continue to grow and become crystallized in the sixth season with And Maggie Makes Three (S6E13).In an odd way, the subtle effects of Homer and Marge’s matrimonial problems begin to show on the children, the most notably example of which is when Bart seeks advice on women from a strong, male figure, only to come up empty with both his father and grandfather. Bart’s woes, though, cannot be lamented too hard as they give us such wonderful quotes as “Women are more like beer. They smell good, they look good. You’d step over your own mother just to get one. But you can’t stop at just one.”
Elsewhere in the fourth season, The Simpsons perfects its standard structure as nearly every episode follows the same trajectory: a non sequitur first act sets in motion the actual plot that is explore in the second act, rounding to a resolution in the third. Meanwhile, a secondary plot is often included, usually for comic relief. Perhaps my favorite example of this structure is Whacking Day, which begins with Bart and the bullies being tricked into a locked utility room to prepare for an inspection by the superintendent. Both stories, one of Bart’s expulsion and home education and the other dealing with Lisa’s attempts to end the horrific holiday, inform each other, ending in a neat resolution whereby Bart can enroll in Springfield elementary once more and Lisa reveals the true meaning of Whacking Day–a front to beat up the Irish. In a sort of meta-commentary on the way these episodes work, however, it circles back to the non sequitur beginning inspection plot line as Principal Skinner, just like the audience, has forgotten about the bullies in the utility closet through the course of these events. While this episode is more seamless than others, more standard examples include the way that the Clockwork Orange type experiment Lisa runs on Bart is used as comic relief to used in a more tough episode like Duffless.
Speaking of which, season four may be the tipping point at which The Simpsons becomes so culturally infused, in the sense that so many more film references are spread through the season–Skinner plays Psycho quite a few times, Milhouse has his Shining moment writing and reciting TRAB PU KCIP when Homer forgets Bart, Burns is given the Citizen Kane treatment for the first time in the series, the trial in New Kid on the Block makes fun of Miracle on 34th Street, etc. At this point, culture is no longer a background to the show, but often takes the foreground, with comedic references all over the place. Perhaps the most interesting part of the season in this regard is the degree to which the show pays homage to the Flintstones, who appear in both a couch gag and get lampooned in the wonderful, parodic opening number in Marge vs. the Monorail.
To circle back, however, to the idea of characters, it is worth noting just how interesting it is to see ancillary characters continue to become more and more a part of the fabric of the show in so many ways. This, however, goes beyond background characters like Selma and Patty or Mr. Burns that are explicitly related to the family, and the show always seems to strike gold with even the most random of characters. Someone like Troy McClure, for example, goes from being what feels like a one-off joke to a recurring character that can always be counted on for the same gag but also delivers such great moments as the one in which he smashes an orange against his head, claiming it to be the best way for juicing prior to finding Dr. Nick’s invention on an infomercial. Dr. Nick also gets his moment, struggling to perform triple bypass surgery on Homer. Much the same, my favorite character Hans Moleman appears several times this season, delivering a great quote (“Drinking has ruined my life, I’m only 31 years old!”), getting run off the highway driving the Edgar Allen Poe house, and getting thrown out of the car at the wrong house by Selma after a lousy date. Even the Sea Captain gets a little bit more definition on screen in New Kid on the Block in a legal battle with Homer.
Despite how long this entry already feels, what I’ve said so far really doesn’t even begin to do justice to the hilarity of the moments in the fourth season. There’s something about Bart pausing the television on the exact moment Lisa breaks Ralph’s heart or the monorail song that is always funny. Seeing Homer lose weight and become at zen over a summer without two of his children, only to immediately gain it back at word of Bart’s misdeeds never ceases to be hilarious and introspective. What about when Burns attempts to take away the plant’s dental care and Homer has that three minute inner battle of hearing “Dental Plan” and “Lisa Needs Braces” before coming to the conclusion that a keg of beer may not be worth his policy? Or later that episode, when Burns tries to negotiate with him but Homer takes it to be a flattering instance of his boss making a move on him, and the resultant epiphany at the end of the episode that Mr. Burns may have overestimated Homer’s prowess at negotiations? How about the sneaky double entendre of Mr. Plow? Or the moment when Homer tells the story of how his father lent him the money to buy the house and the family laughs over his broken promise to allow Abe to stay with them? Another great moment–when Chief Wiggum tells Lisa and Ralph the story of how he got Krusty tickets by busting him unintentionally at a porno, beffudled at Lisa’s accusation that the story isn’t appropriate because “in this version, i keep my pants on.” While much of the charm of The Simpsons is derived from his satirical take on the actuality of what the American middle class looks like compared to the American Dream, a good deal of its staying power is actually rooted in all of these moments that are endlessly quotable. In the case of this entry, it feels like less analysis is almost more–season four is a string of absolutely classic episodes that are done better justice by watching rather than reading.
Favorite Episode: Mr. Plow
Favorite Quote: “He’s had it out for me ever since I kinda ran over his dog….Well, replace the word ‘kinda’ with the word ‘repeatedly’ and the word ‘dog’ with the word ‘son.'” (Marge in Chains)
Favorite Couch Gag: The Simpsons sit down followed by three rows of secondary characters obstructing the family’s view (Marge vs. the Monorail)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: The Principal’s Toupée is not a Frisbee (Brother from the Same Planet)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Lyle Lanley (Marge vs. the Monorail)
Favorite Early Season Character Introduction: Supernintendo Gary Chalmers checks on the school and tortures Principal Skinner for the first time during Whacking Day
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Guest Director: Oliver Stone (Whacking Day)