We interrupt your workweek for a special announcement. Perhaps you’ve heard that, starting today, FXX is airing all 552 extant episodes of The Simpsons in the largest TV marathon of all time (12 days). Have you tried googling which episodes to watch? You’ll probably get recommendations from the New York Times or Vulture or Slate or even retrojunk.com. And you’ll hear about some outstanding episodes, sure. But their lists are generally missing something. Namely: the first two or three years of the show. That’s why this is a breaking bulletin: if you’re reading this, you’re already a little late. Go away and turn on FXX! When it goes to commercial, I’m here to tell you why this was so important.
Bush 41-era Simpsons glorified the working class. The Simpsons were poor – in the pilot, they couldn’t afford Christmas presents – and deprivation was a constant theme of the first two seasons. Even when the central premise wasn’t related to penury, they would say things that they could never say in the later seasons. For example:
(The family stands atop a cliff that their RV has just plunged over.)
Homer: “There are people who would trade everything they have in the world for an adventure like this!”
Bart: “You mean like we just did?”
In the Clinton era, if Bart asked for $900, Homer would just pull it out of his wallet and hand it over. The best comment on this was the (classic) Frank Grimes episode, where “Grimey” saw the Simpsons house and declared it a palace. Perhaps this scene, from another episode, was a more pithy description of the show’s evolution:
Bart: “Do you even work anymore?”
Homer (indignantly): “I think it’s obvious I don’t.”
In the early 90s, before the (admitted) excellence of season 4 that the upper-middle-class commentariat wants you to start with, The Simpsons were something special, matched only by the then-#1 show, Roseanne, for these reasons, and others. You had a bald, unshavable, working-class mug, who was arguably not white, in the same bad shirt and pants every day, working a dangerous job to support the family he didn’t mean to have, in a small forgotten town in middle America. He would even strangle his kid sometimes. The picture wasn’t always pretty, but it was from this central premise that all The Simpsons’ often-revolutionary humor flowed. You got the feeling that when Matt Groening and James L. Brooks got together to create the show, they didn’t just want to do a cute middle America version of The Cosby Show; they wanted to say something, at least a little something. They were populist, because they were deeply suspicious of government (Quimby, Wiggum) and business (Burns), while deeply sympathetic to ordinary blue-collar people like Homer…before he got a little too extraordinary. This media focus on “best” episodes is fine and understandable, but it obscures the reasons why the show matters so much in the first place.
Now, it’s true that those early episodes were sometimes clunky, and the animation didn’t have the perfectly consistent look that computers would give it during the Clinton administration. But like your favorite band’s first album before they “sold out,” there’s something nice about the organic and unpolished fizzles and fissures. Even the most eclectic episodes still have a few classic lines, e.g., “Tell [my boss] I’m going to the back seat of my car with the woman I love, and I won’t be back for ten minutes!” And besides: the weirdness supported the central themes. This was a little show that could, and the Simpsons were a little family that could…often enough.
(This isn’t the time or place to get into all the dozens of reasons that the show is probably the finest show television ever produced. If and when I do write such a piece, though, I’ll do something that the writers for the New York Times, Slate, and Vulture don’t know how to do, namely quote a book about my subject. Are the entertainment writers working for sites like these – and Salon, and Grantland, and the other big ones – under editorial dictum not to quote writers who actually did the research? Are they supposed to sound folksier by making the audience think it could have written the piece themselves? Because what they sound like is lazy. And worse, they’re implying their own disposability. If they won’t read a real book about The Simpsons, or Breaking Bad, or Marvel, or whatever, then they’ve implied that we need not read to enjoy screen time, and thus we needn’t read them either. Short-term thinking beats long-term in this country, again. Mini-rant over.)
A real Simpsons fan, not to mention a person who has friends without money, doesn’t write the following, from Vulture:
Frankly, season one is not jam-packed with classics. And because the show essentially resets every episode, and because it was still figuring out who these characters were, you won’t really be missing much by skipping most of the first season. You can even skip a bunch of season two.
Another Vulture writer placed the peak from 1993 to 2001 – throwing out just about all the hand-drawn episodes.
What this ignores is that the parts were often as good as the sum. Looking back, sure, it’s nice to have consistent voices and images from Grandpa, Wiggum, and Smithers. Later on, sure, the show was working on all cylinders; few shows in their 4th and 5th seasons ever lived up to their promise quite as much as this one did. But come on. Any ten episodes from any season beat ten episodes of almost any other show, so it’s all relative, and that love for the working-class passed all too quickly.
I suppose a generous appraisal would say that the show’s writers empathized with Homer and Marge, and wanted them to live (instead of deconstruct) the American Dream. Maybe. But if I can carry forth my rock band analogy, it’s like the critics are fans of U2…but only from The Joshua Tree on. They like polish and professionalism, not heart and scruffiness. Basically, the critics like money, and in that regard they’re probably like the show’s writers, who, by 1995 or so, weren’t half as hungry as when they started out. But working-class empathy was lost; as Hunter Thompson said in another context, the great wave crested…and rolled back. I just don’t know that we need the most-tweeted critics to sound so chipper about it.