During the madness that is a viewing of The Simpsons in its entirety, I’ve been playing a little game with myself: if I were to have to pick out a best of DVD that encapsulates the funniest, kindest and most memorable moments Matt Groening and co. have put to the screen, which episodes would I choose? It’s a self defeating task because theres, at the very least, four episodes per season which could easily take the mantle. In The Simpsons‘ seventh year, that task is significantly easier; while its not even my favorite episode of the collection, there is no choice I would put above 22 Short Films About Springfield because it encapsulates the very strengths of the show at the moment of its release. Above all, it speaks to why The Simpsons remained as relevant as they did for so long: while there is still so much fertile ground, both comedically and emotionally, left to explore with regards to the titular family, a show that focuses on other, eccentric members of the community in lieu of the Homer et. all is still stunningly successful because these characters have grown in the background.
It also conforms to one of the main sources of humor through the season: misplacement of norms. Though defining the craft of comedy can be tricky to tackle as so often what makes a viewer laugh is highly personal, this is such an overarching structural choice that’s made many times over the course of the season. In the case of 22 Short Films About Springfield, the entire episode operates on Bart’s premise that there must be so many interesting things going on around the city, before the show proceeds to explore the other “shows,” many of which are complete with title cards and theme songs, that are so often relegated to the background. There’s the sitcom antics of Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers, the E.R. knockoff that follows Dr. Nick, Cletus the Slack Jawed Yokel, Apu’s day off, an interaction between Smithers and Burns that doesn’t relate to the family, a Pulp Fiction parody starring Chief Wiggum, Snake and Hermann, as well as the tale of how Bumblebee Man’s unfortunate television sketches extend to his personal life. In this episode, the writers draw attention to the possible dynamics (and shows) that are so often left unexplored in a series in which the entire town’s events revolve around one family.
A while back, I referred to a season as being antithetical as it posed scenarios and questions that were opposite to those it had formulated earlier (i.e., what if Homer was the one tempted, instead of Marge?). It’s important to note that this transcends merely seeking the opposite, as the writers constantly seek to disrupt the structure of Springfield and the nuclear family unit in so many instances. This misplacement of norms formulates a number of questions that propel whole episodes as well as tiny jokes: what if Lisa was cool and Bart was dorky (Summer of 4 Foot 2)? What if Troy McClure dug his way out of z-star status (A Fish Called Selma)? What if the entire mythos of Springfield was built on a lie (Lisa the Iconoclast)? What if Grandpa Simpson’s insane ramblings were actually true stories (Raging Abe Simpson)? What if the Simpsons children lived with Ned and Maude Flanders (Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily)? What if Milhouse became the more popular, famous part of that duo (Radioactive Man)? What if The Simpsons bettered themselves to become members of high society (Scenes from a Class Struggle in Springfield)?How about a joke in which IRS takes over Krusty Burger, what would happen to fast food then (Bart the Fink)?
Sometimes these questions are sincere, such as in Lisa the Iconoclast when Lisa is forced to accept that historical accuracy, and her central desire to always be right, are actually less valuable than the good that the myth of Jebediah Springfield engenders. Sometimes, they are just the means to episode long jokes in which a well developed character is placed in an antithetical situation, such as Homer the Smithers. This episode is really interesting in that it explores the dynamic between Smithers and Burns in a number of ways: first, it puts Homer in the situation where he must fill in for Wayland and take all of the abuse of his boss, showing both how incompetent he is and how much Smithers deals with due to his feelings for Mr. Burns. Secondly, for the first time in the series it uses the misplacement of norms to show how much the interdependency is two-sided in the segment in which Mr. Burns momentarily outgrows his need for Smithers, who is a wreck without his raison d’etre. There’s no single answer to this comedic thesis, rather many intricate answers that explore just why these norms exist, and how, even when they are changed, positive attributes remain.
Oftentimes, while things revert to normal the characters become closer: one of the most subtly touching moments of the series is the final act of Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish’. Abe Simpson often operates as a punch line due to the way the family treats him, yet in this episode the tragedy of Bart’s embarrassment is viewed from his point-of-view, and his loneliness. When one of his insane stories is proven to be true, it provides a chance to repair the broken relationship he has with his grandson, and in the final moments he chooses to both plea for Bart’s life and take action to save his grandson, and the two end up closer even as he loses the riches immediately. It’s a moment that feels both overdue and sweet, given all of the abuse he takes at the hands of his family, and it’s a family dynamic that is rarely explored. It also works in stark contrast to an episode like Mother Simpson; I’m not sure if this is a controversial statement, but that moment with Homer staring off into the stars as touching music plays just doesn’t exactly feel earned to me. While the episode is, overall, funny, the narrative presence of Homer’s mother feels far too rushed for that moment to land, and her sacrifice lesser than the parental sacrifice of Homer in an episode like ….And Maggie Makes Three. Another type of humor I’d like to very briefly mention is the series’ use of incorrect musical cues: the best example of this is in Two Bad Neighbors when Marge affirms she can always count on Homer to keep gas in the car, followed by his agreement, shifty eyes, and a musical moment that suggests what he is saying is not the truth.
The seventh season also continues to experiment with humor through poking fun at its structure; while often episodic in its early years, the writers continue to experiment with continuity every now and again, suggesting that things don’t always reset like they seem. You can see this in instances like the items the family sells in Two Bad Neighbors or even Selma’s recounting all of her last names from failed marriages as denies adding Apu’s to the already long list. There are also little bits the creators follow through on, such as Lisa’s vegetarianism that was predicted in the sixth season’s future episode and, while they look forward towards hinting at something like Apu’s arranged marriage. As a fan, it’s nice to see these small moments that suggest the series was always heading in the same direction, and the evolution of each character is made with so much forethought to reflect organic change.
The most rewarding instance of continuity, however, it the premiere of the season: Who Shot Mr. Burns, Pt. 2? Together, these two episodes form one of the highlights of the series as a whole, yet the parts are still at odds with each other; Pt 1. is expository, and everything but the final moments is rooted in a sort of realism depicting the struggle between the townspeople and their richest neighbor. The second half diverges from these relations to become incredibly surrealist down to its Twin Peaks reference, Dr. Collosus and an absurdist solution that the show cues may not have actually been a mistake. Just a few episodes later, in the season’s clip show, the writers use Troy McClure to vocally express the ludicrousness of the situation, as he wryly suggests how many solutions there were before they decided to go with the baby. As self deprecatory as it is, this moment also serves as a reminder that the show didn’t just go with Maggie to thwart the contest it was running at the time, as you’d have to ignore all the evidence and Simpson DNA found through the episode. Speaking of reflexivity, this episode also offers us an animated look at the creators: Matt Groening as an aggressive pirate, James L. Brooks as a figure reminiscent of the monopoly man and co-creator Sam Simon as a shut in.
Watching this season as I commenced a project on the Halloween franchise has made my thoughts a bit more scattershot than usual, so I’d like to finish this post by making sure I mention a few other highlights of the season. At certain points, I wish I was doing a write up on individual episodes as searching for overarching themes does so little justice to how great all of the little moments of these seasons are, but with episode 600 looming that task would be a bit Sisyphean. I really enjoy this season’s Treehouse of Horror, which brings Springfield’s struggle against the pervasiveness of ads, a Nightmare on Elm Street parody and, even more notably, Homer’s entrance into the third dimension. The latter is a very odd moment in the series, as Homer is first made 3D before being dropped into the ‘real world.’ Tellingly, people stare at him for a moment, but both his and their fear subside rather quickly, suggesting once more that our two worlds are reflective. King-Size Homer is another classic episode stuffed to the brim with quotables: I’ll never get over how Dr. Hibbert thinks Homer’s plan is monstrous but is willing to send him to Dr. Nick, whose speech on the neglected food groups comes in at a close second in terms of favorite quotes this season. It’s also an episode reflective of the dissonance between Homer’s fantasies and Marge’s reality, with his laziness putting a strain on their marriage he can’t envision. As a child, I remember really enjoying Two Bad Neighbors but rarely watching it; as an adult, it more clearly represents to me a very precise political analysis. It is no surprise that the ultra-Christian Flanders family, representative of the outdated American Dream, align themselves with the Bushes (down to the annoying slang) whilst Homer gets along with the long winded Gerald Ford. Really, this is an episode that is worth revisiting as a single piece for its insight into contemporary politicians and how we relate with them. There is also Team Homer, in which roles are reverse as Monty Burns becomes a team member, before quickly changing back to his old self. Finally, there is the episode that was a very near miss for my favorite of the season: Bart on the Road, in which the relationships between bully and nerds, friends and foes are bridged temporarily. Its a humorous episode, but the moment at the end where we see Homer and Lisa angrily staring at a lying Bart while Marge chooses to believe in the innocence of her child is wonderful. It also contains my favorite pan in the entire series: as Moon River is sung in Branson (a town that’s like Las Vegas if Flanders made it), three children are revealed bored to sleep while a wide-eyed Nelson has his moment of geekiness.
With the episodes of The Simpsons ever growing, I have completed 153 of what now stands at 599. We’ve still got a ways to go, and plenty more classics to digest. One last note, if you’re wondering: yes, season seven marks the first appearance of one of my favorite characters, Disco Stu, a man who doesn’t need to advertise himself.
Favorite Episode: Who Shot Mr. Burns, Pt. 2
Favorite Quote: “I used to be with it, but then they changed what it was. Now what I’m with isn’t it, and what’s it seems weird and scary to me. It’ll happen to you….” –Middle-aged Abe Simpson (Homerpalooza)
Favorite Couch Gag: The family rushes in and sits down on the couch. The camera moves to the right and zooms in on a mouse hole. Inside, a mouse family of five resembling the Simpsons rushes in to sit on a couch of their own.
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: I will not complain about the solution when I hear it (Who Shot Mr. Burns, Pt. 2)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Very Tall Man (22 Short Films About Springfield)
Favorite Musical Number: Dr. Zaius (A Fish Called Selma)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Manhattan Madness (The Day The Violence Died)