Though the show is always episodic in nature, The Simpsons has always had a thematic trend. While the loose structure of every season makes many outings seem tangential, it is this very nature that allows the series’ writers to cleanly reset the town almost every week in order to explore another set of relations amongst its characters. In many ways, the goal is always to use the fresh set of circumstances provided to explore the dynamics within or without of the family. When this isn’t done on a personal level, more often than not the goal of The Simpsons seems to be to discover what place the new nuclear family that the titular family is built to embody has amongst society. This has meant increased forays into the ancillary characters that roam the city. Sometimes they are afforded their own stories, but more often than not it is about the relationship between a Simpson and his or her perfectly constructed cultural unit: Springfield. A necessary side effect of this is that, while eight years have allowed for the development of a set of back stories to explain where many characters have come from, there remains a pointed artificiality about many of the personalities that reside within Springfield. Much like we are supposed to accept the Simpsons as the stereotypical and ultimately relatable family unit, we are also supposed to accept the people they encounter as largely truthful caricatures of the people that make up American society. Sure, everyone’s flaws are magnified to absurdity, but that’s for comedy’s sake.
After 153 episodes, it makes sense that the show needs to look even further outward to continue to evolve. More than any that has preceded it, the eighth season of The Simpsons focuses on bringing the titular family, as well as a few other residents, into contact with single episode characters. What makes their inclusion feel seamless is that they fit into the larger trend of thematic analysis that has always lied beneath the whimsical humor of the series. Many of these appearances continue to probe and satirize the nuclear family’s place within contemporary society, whilst continuing the reflexive questions of where to situate the show in television history and how to maintain relevance that have always characterized The Simpsons.
Tellingly, the first (non-Treehouse of Horror) episode of the season sets the tone for this as it commences with Wayland Smithers happily singing about his dedication to working for Monty Burns. While walking down the street, however, he is accosted by strangers about a job offer before exclaiming “What’s wrong with this country? Can’t a man walk down the street without being offered a job.” This, of course, embodies a sort of absurdity the show has always chased: Smithers is complaining about a luxury that is actually rarely afforded to the larger population. This situation, however, allows for Homer to be recruited for a new job as his status as the second most senior member at the plant allows him to briefly obtain a the seemingly perfect job with a laid back boss. To do so, Homer uproots the family and moves to a new city. Their nostalgia for Springfield is brief, as the Simpsons curse the town after thinking back about actual memories. Of course, there is always a catch: somehow unbeknownst to Homer, new boss Hank Scorpio is a legitimate super villain while the rest of the family quickly discovers that perfection isn’t so perfect. In many ways, by juxtaposing the situation at Globex and in Cypress Creek with with Homer’s equally outlandish dream to own the Dallas Cowboys the show provides a cynical look at how tantalizingly out of reach success, and perfection, will always remain for the contemporary family. By framing Scorpio as a super villain, You Only Move Twice also seems to dissect how outlandish the idea of even finding an executive level job in a nicer city are for the Simpsons. The humor undercuts this message, but the fact that the Simpsons don’t fit amongst a perfectly crafted city and Homer must return to his low level job suggest a sense of doomed placement.
On the other side, Frank Grimes enters the show later in the season to introduce an opposing view on the matter. In this situation, a self made outsider moves to Springfield and is dumbfounded by the amount of success that Homer has in spite of his flaws. It provides a reality check for both the town and the show: Springfield may not be the perfect place, nor Mr. Burns the perfect boss, but Homer is, in his own way, blessed to have the life he does. In fact, Homer isn’t even qualified for the professional path he’s followed: even Carl and Lenny have Master’s Degrees, but Homer just happened to walk into the plant the day it opened. One of the most enlightening moments of Homer’s Enemy, for me, is when Frank Grimes walks into the house and views so many of the absurd luxuries and experiences Homer has had: being on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, meeting Gerald Ford, going to space, having two cars and living in a spacious suburban mansion. In one manner, this draws attention to the sheer luck that the Simpsons family have had; maybe Cypress Creek didn’t work out but they’re sure well off compared to most. On the other hand, it functions as a moment of reflexivity in which the writers call themselves out for continually fleshing out the family as something further and further from the relatable entities as which they began. Perhaps at one point the Simpsons family was a more perfection representation of the contemporary family unit, but the show is drawing attention to how far away from this is has moved. In all but its ending, Homer’s Enemy is a much lighter look at the Simpsons socioeconomic standing than You Only Move Twice: despite Grimey’s (he likes to be called that) repeated attempts to prove otherwise, the townspeople always accept Homer as the lovable fool he is. It may not be paradise, but the Simpsons family works in the city in which it lives.
Or does it? That’s the question asked in Simpsoncalifragillisticexiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious, albeit on a more intimate level. After all these years, it makes sense to continually wonder how Marge keeps the family functioning, and in this episode she finally has her breakdown. That leads to the inclusion of another new character, Sherry Bobbins (yes, she’d like you to know that you heard her name right even though its a clear parody). This is a worthy satire that asks, what exactly would happen if the idealistic character met a family with real problems and real tensions. Doing this crafts a playful satiric, yet ultimately critical, take on Mary Poppins, while reframing the iconic film in a more truthful way down to the songs. In Springfield, it isn’t about making cleaning fun, but about cutting corners in order to get done with it quicker: that’s the true, American way. Tellingly, the family breaks down as soon as she leaves, and her antics aren’t interesting to them for long; they have to let her go because they realize the adverse affect they’re having on her idealism. Again, this message is undercut by absurdity and humor, but there’s something there to the fact that the writers so readily admit that their brand of cynicism doesn’t mesh with the popularized and idyllic depictions of families that have been so pervasive across media. Crushingly, the Simpsons even let Sherry know that they haven’t learned a thing from her during her stay, and they’re happy to let things be the way they are because that way works, however dysfunctional the results may be. It’s another one of those dark moments that may not register at first.
In terms of reflexivity about media, there’s no better place to look than The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show. This episode introduces two one-time characters: the first is Poochie, who only appears in two outings of the animated in-show cartoon. In this case, befuddled by the response of children, television executives decide that the answer to their ratings problems is to create interest with a new character. Poochie is created to ask that always prescient question: how is a show supposed to maintain freshness without resorting to cheap gimmicks? One of the main problems with him is that he reflects a sort of confluence of artistic and commercial bankruptcy: there’s nothing subtle about the way he is written, and the fact that Poochie even exists is based off of the misplaced notions of what should be deemed cool. The end of the gimmick, however, fosters an appreciation for the back-to-the-basics approach of the next episode; at the same time, Roy is introduced into the Simpsons family (and its totally not a desperate attempt to boost low ratings). It’s a prescient moment within a season that is absolutely littered by cameos that begs the question of whether these inclusions can transcend gimmickry and actually continue to analyze the thematic issues, or whether they are merely cheap inclusions. Luckily for audiences, The Simpsons did, in fact, find a way to include new characters that don’t feel cheap.
It feels so odd to spend such a long time on a small sample size, but rest assured that this trend continues throughout the season. There’s an episode where Bart buys the family a new, perfect dog only to discover that the older one was better suited for him (The Canine Mutiny) which is, of course, all too related to previous discussions in this post. There’s the Maison Derriere, its owner, and the reflection that there is, in fact, a less puritanical underbelly to Springfield. Bart After Dark is interesting in that it takes an undermined institution and asserts its cultural importance; no doubt, there’s a bit of reflexivity present in this too, as it suggests that even what seems crass may ultimately be more important, and relevant, than it seems (and the community accepts it with open arms). My favorite episode of the season, Homer’s Phobia, has the always wonderful John Waters playing a gay store owner, and satirizes hyper masculinity through Homer’s response to the news that he’s gay, his fears that Bart may turn gay, and his continual search for masculinity. Calling things ahead of their time may seem cliché, but if there’s any Simpsons episode I would go out on a limb and do that for it would be this one. Fragile masculinity has become a more discussed subject recently, but here is The Simpsons parodying it and seeking tolerance about two decades ago. Worth discussing, also, is the trip sequence in El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer. I mean, how did that a completely surrealistic sequence that featured Johnny Cash as a wise coyote end up on network television in the 90s? It’s a moment that’s also used to also strike up a profound, personal doubt in Homer: what if the woman he married actually isn’t his soul mate? I’ve watched that episode so many times, yet its boldness is still striking to me.
We’ve turned, now, to the moment where the word count is far exceeding what it should be for an informal post, so I’ll end by, as always, rattling off some notes and moments that I think are worth mentioning: first of all, this is the moment in which the van Houten marriage dissolves, but it’s used beautifully to warn Homer that his constant abuse may not be tolerated for long. It also provides yet another reflexive moment in which Homer obtains an actual divorce in order to avoid the hokiness of phony second marriages you see on television, and introduces Kirk’s tape: Can I Borrow A Feeling. I also think there’s something to the fact the Burn’s son, in Burns Baby Burns, is so much more like Homer than his father. This is the first instance of Lisa’s fling with her opposite, Nelson, which results in that comedic moment in which Milhouse’s eyebrows get him in the ambulance for trying to impress the girl by acting desperate. Hurricane Neddy provides a dark undercurrent to the always pleasant Ned by asking what drives a man to such suppression of anger. We also get another Sideshow Bob episode with yet another cameo appearance, his brother, which ultimately reveals society’s cynical unwillingness to accept that a criminal may reform. Homer vs. The 18th Amendment transports the series back to the time of prohibition quickly, questioning law and order and just ending up with some hilarious moments. Grade School Confidential initiates the romance between Skinner and Edna, while having their relationship with Bart deepen (and also looking at the chain of ridiculousness that follows any rumor through the way the children tell the story). And then there’s the Spin off Showcase, yet another reflexive instance which points out a tired trend before basking in it with three hilarious shows: Wiggum, P.I., Love-matic Grandpa, and The Simpsons Family Smile Time Variety Hour. Finally, there’s the raging bull knock off that sees Homer take up boxing as a career, The Homer They Fall.
Which brings us to the conclusion of yet another golden year of classic Simpsons: in many ways, the show is willing to both imbibe in lame trends while calling itself out for doing so. There’s no question that the inclusion of so many cameos may seem the gimmick, but its actually far from the point. Rather, each instance manages to continue to bring to light some question about the nuclear family, or personal relations, analyzing trends that have popped up over the seven prior years, yet doing so with new characters in order to involve.
Favorite Episode: Homer’s Phobia
Favorite Quote: “To alcohol: the cause of, and solution to all of life’s problems” (Homer vs. the Eighteenth Amendment)
Favorite Couch Gag: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover rendition (Bart After Dark)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: A fire drill does not demand a fire (The Canine Mutiny)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Hank Scorpio (You Only Move Twice) or Roy (The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show)
Favorite Musical Number: The Spring in Springfield (Bart After Dark)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Reservoir Cats (Simpsoncalifragillisticexiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious)