As any show progresses characters begin to become commonplace, all complexity seems to be hashed out, episodic structure is perfected and it becomes harder and harder to avoid becoming stale. At at a certain point, any long running show is faced with a decision wherein they can take a sharp detour to attempt to evolve into something different or they can take the easy route of comfortably settling into giving the fans what they want until interest slowly wanes. It may not seem it given the fact that we now know The Simpsons have completed twenty-seven seasons, but five seasons is, indeed, an accomplishment worth celebrating, and the fact that the show is still in the midst of a golden age that’s peak will stretch at least a couple more years (depending on where your personal preference dictates it ends) it incredibly impressive upon rewatching the show. A part of this has to do with how well Groening and his team of writers build up Springfield in the early seasons: Apu is a recurring fixture but doesn’t really even get his moment until Season 5, the Quimby family gets their big moment in court and even so there are still plenty of characters and parts of the town that have yet to be explore–consider how someone like Nelson Muntz will grow in the next few years from just being a bully to having a sympathetic backstory.
With that being said, no amount of ancillary characters can completely overrule the importance of still having something left to say with regards to the family the show is all about. The Simpsons writers approach the aforementioned divide in a brilliant way: the family’s backdrop continues to be greatly evolved while smaller steps are taken to explore different dynamics within the Simpsons family. This lends to Season 5 feeling antithetical to what has preceded it; two great rivalries, for instance, are put on hold and turned around as Homer becomes a close friend with his annoying, do good neighbor in Homer Loves Flanders (S5E16) and Bart becomes friends with Skinner after getting him canned in Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song (S5E19). Its odd how organic these character arcs feel; everything in the prior season builds up an atmosphere of tension in these relationships, but each episode finds a way to naturally overcome that–be it Flanders inviting Homer to the big game or Bart feeling the pains of empathy. Of course, these episodes are funny in spite of being a natural outcome of circumstances, relying heavily on the audiences’ awareness of how these characters act coming in; it makes one wonder the degree to which The Simpson’s is settling into both its place in pop cultural hierarchy and relying on longtime spectators, because these episodes wouldn’t be so effective without one or the other of those.
The script is flipped in a couple other episodes as well: $pringfield (S5E10) explores what would happen to the family dynamic should Marge be the self absorbed parent and Homer the caretaker–hint: it’s not good. Lisa has a horrible time with her school project and Homer dishevels the house at word there may be a boogeyman. Likewise, The Last Temptation of Homer (S5E9) is very much the antithesis of Life on the Fast Lane (S1E9) despite its symmetry in episode placement; in this plot Homer is the one tempted by a new, attractive co-worker with many shared interests. It goes without saying that this spawns one of my personal, favorite moments in the series when Homer is thinking unsexy thoughts and envisioning Barney dancing in a bikini. One could suggest that Bart’s Inner Child (S5E7) very much does the same thing on a larger scale, exploring what would happen should the scamp’s attitude be transferred to every member of society. In a sense, there’s something odd about a show so progressive suggesting in every case that when the script is flipped the whole thing would be in shambles; if we take the show to be one big examination of the idealistic, early American Dream in the contemporary era, the concept that everything is socially stodgy, and must remain so, is an incredibly cynical viewpoint on American life. But perhaps that’s what they’re going for, after all, and the fact that all of the faces are so familiar both inside and outside of the specific context of show makes it more relatable.
Another strand that is incredibly important to Season 5, and will certainly continue to be utilized as the years progress, is the idea of surrealism. This is not in the sense of the show abandoning all structure, but The Simpsons certainly does displace some lofty, surrealistic plot lines onto a relatively grounded society. I mean, Homer goes to space at one point (Deep Space Homer, S5E15), and nobody bats an eyelid about it or questions it until Frank Grimes comes around in the eighth season. Meanwhile, Bart also literally acquires an elephant at one point (S5E17) and becomes the subject of action figures and a guest on Conan O’Brien’s talk show after becoming a one-note sensation overnight (S5E12). (A brief tangent on this last episode, what a wonderful meditation on how tiresome one-note characters might become for a show still focusing on the same people in its fifth year!) Another episode that must be mentioned in this vein is Homer’s Barbershop Quartet (S5E1), as the lead off episode might be the most indicative of the season as a whole; here is an episode that takes the traditional structure of a couple prior outings where the Simpsons’ fast is explore, but it does so in a contrasting manner by making Homer famous, which is in turn this sort of surreal bent the series is picking up more and more. Somehow, to this point nobody has mentioned the Be Sharps to the children, nobody cares about the Grammy they were awarded (although, why should they, it is just a grammy after all), and nobody questions that Homer has returned to his day job after being such an important musical figure. At the same point, it also develops certain tensions between Homer and characters he doesn’t get to play off terribly often–Skinner, Police Chief Wiggum, and Apu. An easy out to this discussion would be that the Simpsons are able to achieve a suspension of disbelief by taking advantage of their episodic, reset every week form that means that what has happened before has relatively little impact on what is to come. At the same point, it signals the Simpsons becoming more heavily involved with their status as a part of the genre that is animation. This also seems redundant, but it is especially important to note how cognizant the creators are of what it means to be an animated show, and how aware they try to make the viewers of how they conform to and play with the conventions associated with the genre, especially as they continue to overtly compare themselves to such landmark shows as The Flintstones.
One concept that arises in this season that I’m interested in coming back to more as the years progress is the show’s relationship with pop culture referentiality and reflexivity. I have a half baked thesis at this point as I have yet to rewatch the entire seasons, but these early episodes give me the feeling that the show is concerned with its characters, the American Dream, etc and it finds a way to work pop culture references (Streetcar, 2001, etc.) and celebrity cameos into that structure in a seamless, yet never overbearing, fashion. From what I remember of later seasons, outings begin to revolve around how to create a plot worthy of the pop cultural references the show is peddling–a great example of this is the Lady Gaga episode, which I remember as an effort that felt concocted more to include the star than to actually explore Lisa’s struggles. Given the general consensus that the show’s quality declines as years go on, it would be interesting to see if this shift aligns with the perceived lessening of the show?
And now, as always, we get to the point where I say that at such a high word count, its time to wrap up despite not even having the time to talk about half of the moments in this season that are so great. So let’s go through a list, shall we? Like the fact that Rosebud (S5E4) finally takes small relationships between Mr. Burns and Citizen Kane and easily blows them up to the next level through the search for BoBo, despite having the twist that Burns is the one to (easily) choose wealth over the love of his natural parents. Likewise, Burns’ Heir makes him just a millimeter more sympathetic and contains the greatest dialogue of any episode perhaps to this point, with one-liners quickly dealing with trying and failing and Homer stalking Chef Boyardee. More than anything, this quick fire, near 100% landing rate is what makes these episodes classic. There’s also the wonderful moment in which Jimbo is so let down by Homer that he throws in his doorknob sack and decides to be a lawyer as he doesn’t believe in anything anymore (Homer the Vigilante, S5E11). Homer and Apu contains the classic song “Who Needs the Kwik E Mart”, a high point of the series’ musical endeavors up there with Lyle Lanley’s monorail song in season four. Or what about the wonderful parody of New York, New York?? Lady Bouvier’s Lover (S5E21) has a great, ending twist on The Graduate, while Secrets of a Successful Marriage (S5E22) has the wonderful contrast in which Hans Moleman reinforces Homer’s point by suggesting that “the eating of the orange is like a good marriage.” Finally, of course, there is the Treehouse of Horror–something I will probably focus efforts on an overview at some point as I rarely get to them–which once again suggests that the children are much more dulled to violence and fright than their paranoid parents.
To conclude, The Simpsons are getting good. Really good. And I’m excited to enter Season 6, a peak I remember as equal to Season 4 after returning from Germany. 103 of 596 Episodes Down.
Favorite Episode: Burns’ Heir
Favorite Quote: “Kids, you tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”- Homer Simpson (Burns’ Heir)
Favorite Couch Gag: The more the better! The trio of couch gag’s to start the season in Homer’s Barbershop Quartet: the family crashes into each other and shatters, the family combines into a blob on the couch, the family explodes
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: “I will not celebrate meaningless milestones” (Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song, Episode 100 of the series)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Inanimate Carbon Rod (Deep Space Homer)
Favorite Early Season Character Introduction: The introduction of Maggie’s rival, the unibrowed infant, in back to back episodes
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Burning Down the Mouse (Homer Goes to College)