Category: Gabriel VS.

Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment

Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment

My Recollection

Lisa being really Jesus-y. The whole idea of “cable” which was TV but loads more. Drederick Tatum.

Religions are shaped by the societies that spawn them. Their deities are a reflection of their needs, fears, and cultural worldview. Farmers have gods of the seasons; warriors have gods of battle; city states have aloof politicians. That sort of thing. Even imports get adapted to local customs. This is why the Germanics had a kind of Battle Christ, because and all-loving, pacifist saviour depicted wielding spears and killing monsters makes sense for a society built around using weapons to take things. The gutter Christianity of the outer suburbs undergoes a similar flavouring.

Actual faith is so hard it’s typically managed only by the genuinely mad and madly genuine. Maniacs and monks can manage the mindless focus or intellectual energy to believe without the nagging human need for even a primitive standard of evidence. Most have faith in the social structures, buildings, books, important hats, and other verifiably real components of their religion. This is also why people wildly defend things like this even though they are trivial in the face of omnipotence. Real faith is hard, and it’s the kind of hard the anxieties inherent to a borderline existence make impossible.

Feeling like you are part of a community, even one that nominally wants you, is tricky when you are otherwise choked by a sense of alienation, so it was only the outer suburban fundies that regularly attended church. A more organised protestant approach was thwarted by a literacy level that made any reading a challenge let alone a deep reading of an already convoluted mass of thrice-interpreted nonsense. So the outer-suburbs had a kind of Christ by osmosis whose resemblance to the Christ of the Church was more an accident of proximity rather than any liturgical similarity. A little like when someone’s your childhood friend because they live on your street.

Without the luxuries of regular meals, education, and structure; without the reliable leash of pulpit or book; with only the dehumanising effects of being the dirt the economic ladder stands in, the Christ of the gutter becomes an animal Christ, a near shapeless Alpha tuned to whatever sensation is coursing through the believer at any given time.

Most of the time, Gutter Christ is a stern parent. Not too far from the mainstream interpretation, itself a reflection of the way humans struggle to understand power through any other lens than the one’s they’re born to, this one is a vague threat who exists to maintain a thin strand of social cohesion. There is little compassion to Gutter Christ because there is little compassion in the lives of its faithful. There’s only a cycle of desperate animal grasping for the brief moments of joy brought by objects and prestige, and the want for revenge when those aren’t forthcoming. Gutter Christ is a genie to be begged for wishes, the older brother who’ll bash you up later, the father who’ll be mad when he gets home even if, like in real life, he never does.

I’ve heard this exact quote, “If this car gets towed, God’s own angels will come for you”. A double-parked hick lady summoning the awesome force of THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE to punish anyone for towing her fucking car.

It’s easy to see Gutter Christ as a peasant degeneration, because it is, but I’d always thought it quite a long one from the outwardly respectable Church Christ I saw on TV and elsewhere. Then I went to some local quasi-scout thing.

Before the internet, cutting things, hitting things with other things, and fire were among my top hobbies, so when neighbours said that there was some kind of youth group that did all this, I was fairly up for it. It was the evening on a weekend and we traipsed through the bush land behind the housing commission strip toward the special school at the top of the hill. Walking toward the special school at all was weird for the local kids. Legend had it that going there made you retarded. Or that going there meant the retardeds would get you. Or we’d all just call you retarded for being seen in the vicinity of it because it’s important to single out and abuse people if only to keep from being a target yourself.

This particular evening, the school was haunted by the weirdness of existing at night and the weirdness of the hypersmile friendliness common to Christian youth groups. There’s two types of Christian youth workers: People who look like a Wiggle and people who look like a groundskeeper. These were the groundskeeper types which made me happy as I didn’t want to hear a song about Jesus or acoustic guitar. They organised a game of touch Bullrush and then took us inside to explain their fun group of normal fun.

Say what you will about Gutter Christ, at least its relevant to the problems of its believers. Completely Normal Youth Ministry’s presentation on the benefits of faith started odd and got batshit at a pace remarkable even for religion.

I think there’s something in one of the books about moving mountains with prayer which I always took to be somewhat allegorical. Not Completely Normal Youth Ministry! Nope, spent a whole bit on how you could actually mind-hadoken a continent nipple out of the way with the power of CHRIST as though he were the X-gene. No evidence was presented. The rest of this section presented CHRIST like a Jewish sham-wow, capable of doing all this and more, only without the demonstration. It was the same genie functions of Gutter Christ, just instead of the sad but ultimately feasible wishes of the underclass it was the deranged and impractical wishes of dingbats with food and two cars.

The great thing about CHRIST is that he’ll defend you from all the dangers common to the modern first world, like witch-doctors and their bone curses. A witch doctor could point a bone at me and tell me I’m going to die, but CHRIST will stop that curse. There was no evidence presented for this, not that I was expecting any because I had never, and have still never, personally seen a fucking witch doctor. These people are meant to be Building Christ, the smarter one, and I’m sitting here watching the Jim’s Mowing sign tell me that I should cast my lot in with their nut-club because it guarantees me protection from witch-doctors. Why not spiders? I’ve seen those around, fucking gimmie a Christ that shoos huntsmen out of the corner of the house for me. Nope. He moved on to how CHRIST can use his Aegis Reflector to shield me from Devil Magic.

After the evening turned out to be 30 minutes of Bullrush with the tackles taken out and 40 minutes of yammering about how CHRIST has frame advantage on hobgoblins, I opted to never return. Even the Gutter Christ folk stopped going after a while, as they’d little use for protection against bone curses when Gavin was at the end of the street throwing rocks again.

The Episode

I’ve written about the primary skills of critique more extensively here, but it always helps to harp on about important things when a good example comes up so I’ll do it again now. A critic, to qualify as one and not just a reviewer or entertainer, must be able to separate things they like from things that are good. I fucking hate the religious moralising in this episode. At the very least, it’s built from a lie. Religion is not the source of any human morality and presenting the ten commandments as that is measurable lunacy. Rape’s not in there anywhere. There’s a whole thing about not making images for worship because god’ll get jealous but nothing about rape. The idea that there is any level of relevant moral education one can draw from the scrawlings of primitive desert morons is a joke and yet it’s the seriously taken foundation for this episode.

Foundation points like this are tricky as there’s a proportional relationship between how much a work can get away with overt preaching and how much that preaching is related to demonstrable reality. This relationship has some nominal subjectivity in the form of whether the receiver agrees with it or not. I say nominal because it’s either true or not, in this case not, but that is a separate problem to the one of reception of the work. “We should all get along” is both broadly accepted and based in reality so it tends to pass by unnoticed. “Look out! Niggers!” may be positively received in certain circles but those are circles divorced from reality.

Of note here is the fact that reality asserts itself. Arguments that one thing may or may not have been seen as real at some point in our history are irrelevant. That people thought ear goblins caused toothaches doesn’t matter because it isn’t the case. The real can be misunderstood, covered up, smeared in relativism, even denied, but never changed. If you believe it can be, try leaping from a building and disagreeing with the fall. Report back with the results.

Part of the critical understanding of these foundation elements is to reduce them to their lowest terms. The above mentioned, “Look out! Niggers!” is phrased in a way to cause maximum discomfort to audiences raised in the modern western grasp of race. It’s basic component is simply “Look out! Others!” with the other being whatever a society happens to feel like making an enemy of. This is a good way of understanding the core idea of a work (or element thereof) and being able to correctly contextualise it. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs provide useful contrasting points for this understanding. I.Y. Yunioshi is a joke where “Ha, Japs” is the punchline, and one so grotesque even reviewers of the time regarded it as racist. Conversely, the (to modern eyes) frighteningly racist caricatures of Coal Black were not built with “Ha, Blacks” as the punchline. They were caricature absurdities that fit within their animation style, they were made for a black audience, and even featured black artists as voice talent. Whether you feel the end result trumps the intent is irrelevant to whether or not the intent was there, and deliberate xenophobic othering is wildly different to slights and slurs one must construct from post-fact interpretations. One has a lasting negative intent at its core, the other is of its time.

Religion co-opts and monopolises human kindness as a threat to ensure its own survival and this episode’s basis supports that threat. Lisa hallucinating eternal torment because her father is stealing cable (of all fucking things) is presented as a positive source of moral instruction and not the result of cult brainwashing. But it’s still a good episode because it’s not the lowest term of the narrative, just the structure the term is hung on, and most of the rest of it lives within temporal contexts like the humble ear goblin.

Now this is not to say that the moralising doesn’t cause actual problems, it does and these stem from the weakness of the core immorality. Nobody cares about stealing cable in the same way one would care about burglary, if they care at all, which is by design as this shifts the conflict to a matter of principle. This conflict shift is necessary to drive the narrative toward its strongest, and most sensible for a family sitcom, point: how Homer and Lisa interact. The problem is that this shift to a matter of philosophy and principle is something the Homer character is not specced to deal with, particularly as any combative interaction with Lisa frames him as an unreasonable buffoon or oaf. So what is a story mostly about character winds up with some lazy narrative points needed to drive the philosophically weak Homer toward the narrative’s goal.

This sticking point comes in the form of the cable repair guy, who degenerates from realistic scumbag to ridiculous cartoon villain because STEALING BAD. It’s as based in reality as a school talk on the dangers of marijuana use and is emblematic of the problems inherent in whining about something that isn’t really a problem. Nobody cares if you steal cable any more than someone would disown you for pirating Game of Thrones. One marijuana won’t make you a junkie so the very real, character appropriate conflict between Homer and his daughter gets polluted by the nefarious Cableburglar and his moustache twirling criminality. His amorality can’t stop at something simple and understandable or the moralising will look like what it is, petty whining, so the story makes a ridiculous leap and turns him into a monster. All because of one joint, kids.

Homer is not equipped, at all, to notice or care about the moral implications of stealing cable. He’s a sad animal grabbing at joy. What he is very capable of picking up on, though, and what this episode does extremely well, is the feelings of his children (eventually). He’s not a great man, but he does try as a father, and the episode doesn’t even try to present him as having changed his mind in regards to the morality of what he was doing, he buckles because what he does is threatening his relationship with the daughter he loves.

The Cableburglar, and Homer’s paranoid reaction to him, detract from this both by being divorced from reality and by weakening the reason for Homer’s eventual change. Is he buckling to his daughter because he loves her and believes in her so much that he trusts her moral instincts over his, or is he frightened out of it by criminals and prison dream sequences? These are at cross purposes and sadly detract from what is an otherwise quality Homer/Lisa episode.

The religiosity of the episode annoyed the hell out of me for years. The Simpsons were always a religious family, but more the kind of pragmatic deists whose churchgoing was a combination of habit and community interaction. A characterisation hammered home by its juxtaposition to the Flanderseses’ comic fundamentalism. But this episode was so insistent on making religion the source of moral pressure that it may as well have been written by Ned.

But it has focus. It’s paced well. The narrative is, largely, structured to pit an adult’s knowledge that this theft is okay against a child’s crude but honest view of right and wrong, and it turns this into a wonderful character dive. I don’t like Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment (I mean, the title alone is a mess), but it is good.

Yours in hiding the stuff I borrowed from work, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The opening “10 Commandments” gag features another feature of early Simpsons, non-Springfield characters. Modern episodes wedge side characters in wherever they can and I’m looking forward to finding the tipping point.

“Sneaky Pete” being Flanders’ go to insult is funny.

 

Cable companies ARE big faceless corporations and every Australian has an obligation to damage anything owned by Murdoch.

“This is where Wall St gets arrested” is another decent rule of 3 joke.

Bart excited about hell even though he saw it a few episodes ago.

Our first time meeting Troy McClure!

The natural absurdity of Lisa’s 8th commandment madness is emphasised in the supermarket scene. It needs to be irrational, because the episode is about Homer yielding to his daughter, not realising stealing cable is wrong.

Other churches have the stealing thing as their 7th commandment. The commandment itself has undergone growth over the years, starting with basic interactions between neighbours, presumably to help maintain social cohesion, but it grew into a form of basic consumer rights law under Martin Luther.

Homer knocking Lisa over as he jumps up at the TV is funny.

Lenny and Carl’s dismal way of catching the fight is a similarly good joke in an episode a little short on them

“I can picture it now. The screen door rusting off its filthy hinges, mangy dogs staggering about looking vainly for a place to die” Burns’ line is mean but accurately describes the underclasses.

“I don’t watch him every minute” a lot of the good jokes in this episode are the kinds of little, missable lines that, like salt, are seemingly small and meaningless but you’d notice their absence.

Bart’s porn is barely relevant to the episode but it eats time and produces one excellent joke.

 

Yup, that’s vaginas alright

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two scenes sum up so much activism.

Our first time seeing Tatum! He’s a little more sensible here, but the idea of dedicating the fight to his opponents dead manager is fucking hilarious.

Perspective in animation is tough. A lot of shows will basically never show characters in certain ways because the stylised animation style gives them a physiognomy that looks monstrous from a lot of angles. Lou and Eddie here, both look like weird birds.

Who’s the random skinhead in the bottom right corner?

Itchy and Scratchy and Marge

Itchy and Scratchy and Marge

My Recollection

Maggie bashing Homer in the head. Marge episode. The frightening wide-eyed stare of “nice” Itchy and Scratchy.

My neighbour in Goodna was a kid called Steven. His father was a stunted wookie with an 80 IQ called Devlin and his mother was a garbage bag full of cottage cheese. He was so skinny he could fit behind the gas bottles behind the house and the one time I used the toilet there the paper was a school exercise book. The only time he got a good Christmas present, a working 50cc peewee motorbike, his dad insisted on using it first and his huge ass blew out both tires while Steven watched. His relationship with his father was tense.

Feral families don’t have pets so much as they just cohabitate with animals. I’ve seen two kids sharing a room because one of the rooms was the dog’s and the fact that I was never sure whether that arrangement was the dog’s idea or not pretty much answered the question. Sometimes they are fun animals, like a friendly dog with its own room who only occasionally tries to rape you. Sometimes they are insanely dangerous things hemmed in by 7 foot high chicken wire that turn the back yard and rear door into absolute no-go areas. Sometimes they’re a savage duck that only likes Devlin.

Most animals are just kind of there. They react to things and that’s about it. Any negative experience you have with them — being bitten, chased, or what have you — are side-effects of natural systems that aren’t really about you at all. Then there’s birds. Birds are smart and can fly. This means they aren’t besieged with the kind of minute-to-minute mortal terror that occupies the mind of something like a mouse. They can sit up on a pole, far from any threat, and get fucking bored. Birds are one of the few animals that will look at something that is neither food, foe, or mate, and decide to interfere in its existence purely for the chuckles. This has always given their misbehaviour the tangy aftertaste of thoughtful malice you just don’t get with anything else.

I don’t remember the duck ever being a duckling and with that goes the only explanation I could ever have for why a duck liked Devlin. Nothing liked Devlin. Trees instinctively fell on him. I spite of this reality, he and the duck got along. I subscribe to the theory Steven advanced, that Devlin and the duck were exactly the same type of asshole, because Steven’s relationship with the duck was tense. I’ve had relatives who had birds as pets and it’s left me with a negative to confused view of the idea. In retrospect, having a corner of a room you can no longer access because a sulphur crested cockatoo will go berserk is strange. Can I pet it? No, it will screech and bite you. Can I feed it? No, it will screech, bite you, and eat the food once you’ve run away screaming. Does it fill the house with pleasant music? No, it sounds like Gilbert Gottfried stabbing another Gilbert Gottfried. Even with this as my baseline understanding of bird pets, the duck was a bad pet.

Stealth sections aren’t a fun addition to most games and they’re even less fun when a psychotic bird imposes one on your house. I found this out by taking a normal step for a small male child of about 11 and being told that it was too loud. Too loud for what? It turns out there’s nothing in the human fear instinct pile that corresponds to hateful quacking so I stood there wondering what the fuck that sound was until it had chased me out of the house. Don’t step too loudly. Don’t make eye contact with it. Don’t speak above a whisper. These were the rules a child had to live by because of a duck. Steven had a tense relationship with his father. Steven had a tense relationship with the duck. This was one tension too many.

A critical state is, broadly, a point at which a system can change. Think of sand in an hourglass and the way it doesn’t just pile up forever. Critical states are whole circumstance before collapse, not the individual cause. Because sometimes, particularly in large or baflfingly complicated systems, the catalyst is an impossible variable to know. It might be the very first grain has been on an odd angle this whole time. It might be a particularly fat grain about to tumbled down on top of the pile. I cannot remember what started the fight because it ultimately doesn’t matter. Steven, Devlin, and the duck were a critical state. Then there was a collapse.

A broken human is an amazingly capable thing because when you’ve nothing left to fear you suddenly find yourself without any limits.

When Steven broke, he did the last thing I expected him to do and picked up the duck. Among the list of things the duck didn’t like — Steven, being touched by Steven, and being picked up by Steven —  it was most certainly not prepared for all three to happen at once. It went into an apoplectic fit of beaks and feathers. At the sight of this, Devlin entered a similar state but struggled to get out of the semi-collapsed yard couch he was aggressively gesticulating from.

To throw something is to toss it with the intent of being caught. To peg something is to throw a thing with the intent of it fucking caning whatever you’ve pegged the thing at. Steven pegged a furious duck into his hollering father’s face and the following explosion of feathers, toothless hillbilly, and mindless rage was something to behold.

Animals react to things like being pegged at a face and having something pegged at their face with a near equal level of directionless hostility so it wasn’t too surprising that what started as a fight between Steven and Devlin became a kind of brawl between Devlin’s face and the duck. The duck didn’t fucking care what it was doing, like a slightly vexed Donald, it was just thrashing whatever was nearest. Devlin seemed to want a peaceful resolution to this but couldn’t decide whether he wanted his arms to wobble him up to a standing position or deal with the bitey ducknado assaulting him so neither happened. Devlin’s face was furious at both these problems but could do nothing but endure an horrendous pinching until the duck tired and waddled back to its corner of the yard.

The cottage cheese, disturbed from playing Centipede on an Atari, wandered into the back yard and began a quick assessment of which party she could give away with the least effort. Steven didn’t have to stealth level around his own home anymore and I eventually got to watch Devlin get regularly bitten by his own dog.

The Episode.

There’s a moment in the commentary track for Itchy and Scratchy and Marge where they argue the episode isn’t trying to make a point. This is a variant of the Idiot Defence. Letterman used the Idiot Defence a lot. He’d argue some point, sometimes quite articulately, but because he has to speak to a broad audience that would contain the exact morons he had contempt for, he’d finish his piece by grumbling that he was an idiot and struggled with these ideas. It’s called the Idiot Defence because only an idiot could fall for it. This episode’s makers don’t want you to think they have a point, lest they upset any idiots, but they do and its existence creates a very strong episode.

There’s a tension between comedy and narrative. For a comedy to work, it needs to make you laugh so this prioritises jokes over everything else and is what generally separates it from a drama that’s funny. Shows like The Simpsons (and other animated sitcoms), 30 Rock, and Community will often run multiple plot threads, ones that typically shorten and weaken other dramatic elements, as they need the surface area for more jokes. This is why you see a lot of multi-thread storytelling, something that makes sense in hour long programs, jammed into 22 minute comedies. It mostly works because the comic characters tend to be more archetypal and require less fleshing out to feel appropriate for their worlds, but the current era, and its easy to binge/catch up distribution methods, has spoiled us with serialisation to make up for the shortfall. The Simpsons has always played loose with its serialised elements. They’re definitely there, think of the character growth and life changes for Apu, but it is often hard to tell which bit of what episode is going to be blessed with absorption into the canon. Its unreliable nature, and relative scarcity besides, means the show typically relies on the multi-thread approach as enough good jokes easily drown out the bad ones.

It’s easy to look at a broken lamp surrounded by rotting foodstuffs and forget that it’s also garbage. It’s similarly easy to look at Marge as the suffering angel surrounded by pigs. The glimpses we get of her in most other episodes lean into the archetypal and non-serialised, housewife generally and cop episode for example, and these tend to obfuscate her more than develop her. So we’re left with a woman in the shadow of Homer, a chaotic monstrosity, in which she will only ever look a saint. What flaws that get their own episodes, gambling addiction for instance, are always treated as problems Marge is a victim of. She is seldom overtly treated as bad so you can only catch glimpses of real faults in the corners of focused episodes like this one.

We get to see a lot of Marge here, it’s her story and her quest. The obvious things part of the not-message this episode has, like the hypocrisy of some crusading nitwit demanding an end to only the art she doesn’t like, are depicted as only the overzealous result of a core positive trait. But with time and focus we see more.

Marge is not a good mother. Loving to the point of anxiety, sure, but fretting and parenting are different things. Marge dumps her child in front of the TV and this child immediately imitates what she sees as though there’s no other competition in its developing mind for behavioural role-models. What does Marge do all day that this is Maggie’s reaction to violent imagery? Lisa doesn’t do this sort of thing at all. Even Bart, gob of novelty malice as he’s frequently depicted, doesn’t just bash Homer over the head. Marge spends all her time with Maggie and yet it’s like she’s not there at all.

Marge is present in her children’s lives as a being but not as a parent. She cares a lot, but it is a care mutated by domestic stagnation and garden variety ignorance. She is bored by her children, so rather than spend time with her youngest, she reaches out for the broader recognition she craves and becomes an activist, guaranteeing her less time with her child. We never see her address this problem in her own child at all. The most she interacts with Maggie after this is to say, “Bad baby” before abandoning her to campaign against Itchy and Scratchy. This is like starting a letter writing campaign to change leash laws while the dog is still mauling your child.

And all of this is excellent.

Archetypes are easy but will inevitably skew dull, particularly when they are the actual Nuclear Family. The other characters developed softening and hardening traits that gave cookie-cutter beings depth. Marge has always been a tough one to do this to as narrative balance requires a straight-man and the resulting victim status makes polluting her with genuine awfulness dangerously close to punishing viewer sympathy. There are other instances (I don’t count her getting drunk in season one as being on-character though so I exclude it) of this throughout the good years and I’ll bring them up as we go. They’re often, and by comparison, surprisingly brief but they add depth to a woman whose character is often little more than an archetype draped in baubles. This episode’s focus gives her the time and narrative developments to be whole and it’s a pleasant change. Remember, a bad character isn’t the same as bad characterisation.

Beyond a better look at Marge, the episode’s singular focus makes it a structural feat, albeit one aided by the setting. Crafting a structurally cohesive ensemble comedy, or anything really, is tricky when you’ve broad character variety. Coming up with reasons for all the characters to be together or a story that naturally involves all of them can be hard and many shows struggle with this. Archer particularly resorts to lazy contrivances it then obnoxiously plays of with self-awareness. The core narrative of this episode is a godsend for being naturally imbued with things for everyone to be doing and the story fills these gaps well. The result, like a lot of focused Simpsons episodes, is a story where even the absurd detours feel necessary to the story. The musical interlude where the children return to the idyllic hobbies and manners of a never real yesteryear is silly, but it’s a silliness that narrative impetus casts as a brief detour from the norm with the promise of a return to normality functioning as a stabilising agent.

It would be easy for Itchy and Scratchy and Marge to be a real drag of an episode. Its core plot point is identical to last week’s Bart the Daredevil. It’s a Marge episode. And it’s about something as fundamentally stupid as a crusading ninny whining about cartoon violence. I said at the start that the directors commentary tried to fob off any point and I called them liars but now I’ll meet them halfway. There is a point, but each character’s individual ones are treated as it while they’re on screen. This focus of theme, plot, and character lets side characters operate in ways that are minor but still meaningful, resulting in an episode that stands out as one of season two’s betters.

Yours in going to Janey’s to watch cartoons, Gabriel.

 

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts

Marge is actually a good cook here, with a wide variety of spices and MSG. This is pretty much ditched for a later characterisation of her being a boring cook who doesn’t even know what oregano is.

The whole scene of Homer being bashed is a quite accurate parody of Psycho made easier by it arriving on VHS around when this was written. Homer’s tongue waggling scream and the brief but focal shot of him being bashed in the head are great visual gags.

 

Things like the multi-threading for more joke potential aren’t hard rules, but they are rules. Reducing the number of active points in your work puts more weight on the ones that are there. If that focal story you have winds up weak, then that’s going to basically collapse your whole thing. It’s not impossible, just much harder and often not worth the risk. Later series, like the aforementioned 30 Rock and Community, use serialisation and the ability to target more sophisticated audiences to craft densely layered narratives and meta-narratives which gives them access to the best of both worlds.

The joke of Marge being in an Itchy and Scratchy episode about cartoon violence while herself in a cartoon about cartoon violence is a level of meta made fun by its depth and, for its time, freshness. Homer laughing his ass off at the obvious parallel, to Marge’s frustration, is a great example of a joke that works to use and build character as opposed from taking away from it. Many shows use absurd reality levels of similarly ridiculous premises, South Park and American Dad come to mind, to do both but getting it to work within a dryer, realer setting is real skill.

“Dogs Tricked” on Marge’s list of violent events is amusingly incongruous and I’m a sucker for a basic list gag.

Roger Meyer’s reply is great and I wish more creators would reply to loud morons in similar fashion.

“There’s peas everywhere”

One of the last appearances by Marvin Monroe. He was making fun of the early wave of bullshit TV psychiatrists, pre Dr Phil, and his list of  topics, “women who love to much, fear of winning, and sex-aholism” were the clickbait of checkout aisle rags.

Krusty’s character in these early seasons was refined but quite different from the one that ended up taking over. His naivety and illiteracy were dumped for the more fertile ground of bitter comedy legend that a bunch of comedy nerds would know intimately.

The banality of the Marge-approved Itchy and Scratchy is an exaggerated but not by much prod at the awful “positive” children’s programming you’d see around and still sometimes do. Nickelodeon’s 1991 run of madness, while not the first or only, fucking set a tone for children’s animation actually being deep and interesting. Prior to that it was almost universally awful. Go watch an actual episode of He-Man, it’s on Netflix, I dare you to sit through a whole episode. Now imagine everything was that.

The great fiction of this episode is a moral crusader relenting after being confronted with a basic hypocrisy.

There’s a moment when Marge is dragged back on Smartline to discuss the statue of David and the animators gave her angry eyes by mistake. She’s not mad, she’s smiling and her tone of voice isn’t negative, and it fixes itself after a few seconds but dammit it’s a funny shot.

Maggie is seen here getting the idea of how to shoot from an episode of I&S which I’m taking as a long term setup for her eventually gunning Mr Burns down.

Bart the Daredevil

Bart the Daredevil

My Recollection

The fucking cliff fall. The kids running away when Bart hurt himself trying to ramp the car. Truckasaurus.

Growing up, the neglected kids were a lot more fun than the abused kids. The latter were twitchy and while they could occasionally flip out in an entertaining way, it would usually last well beyond funny and get deeply into disturbing before an adult subdued them. Neglected kids weren’t traumatised by some esoteric combination of Poppers and the theme to Lift Off so they were a lot more fun. Neglected kids just wanted the attention, any attention, they didn’t get at home. I like to laugh at absurd, dangerous behaviour I’ve too much sense to engage in myself and they liked to see a human face smile at them so we got along well.

A ten year old boy is a collision of evolutionary forces demanding it survive while daring it to attempt the mortally dangerous to improve its social standing. This is an amazing balance you could watch play out in the backyard haggling over precisely what constituted a feat of bravery. The higher the better: jumping off a roof is cooler than a fence. More objects, more better: jumping off a roof in a fridge box is cooler than without. Flips were like hundred dollar notes. You’d heard of them, some even claimed to have seen them, but nobody ever brought one out when you were there.

But there exists a tipping point.

A dare can’t be blatantly lethal. “Headbutt that oncoming car” isn’t a dare, it’s what you say to someone you don’t like. Anything deemed absurd will be shunned by the group as it throws the precarious balance out. The dares have to escalate. Overshoot and you hand power back to the victim who’ll always opt for something boring like climbing the big tree.

A common feat, but still a feat, was going down a hill on a skateboard. Skateboards were everywhere in spite of the fact that not a single child in my neighbourhood could actually ride one as intended. So all we did was sit on them and let gravity or siblings we’d bullied into being engines do the rest. Going down the steep hill on an actual skateboard was daring, but those things were like sitting in an SUV. The banana boards, slivers of used soap with wheels attached, were not.

These things were everywhere in spite of nobody ever admitting to buying one, the coat-hangers of child possessions. I had one. I don’t know why. I never asked for one and certainly never indicated an interest in skateboards, but, nonetheless, I had one. They existed about the suburbs like they were manifestations of the town’s desire to see injured children. It got its wish.

Malice driven design philosophy is not something you see often and, in spite of several personal injuries, my natural ability to appreciate all arts forces me to admit that these were marvels at what they did. They were absurdly fast, could never quite accommodate both buttocks, and taunted you with good steering that a low height meant would shred your knuckles if you dared entertain the idea of not careening in a straight line. Like biological weapons, they were deemed unfair and inhumane, then stricken from the list of sane dares.

But then there were the neglected kids. The neglected kids were the cryptocurrencies of the volatile childhood dare marketplace, daft things most never really understood aside from their unusual ability to escalate beyond all of your careful modelling. They had to be carefully managed because even the adults knew they had no wills of their own which meant an event would be traced to the source of the idea, me, before anyone got yelled at. There was a Goldilocks Zone to keep them in, but it was one so beyond what we were used to that it became prized.

Neglected kids ate the banana boards up. At their house, going for a ride down a hill meant being tied to a barrel and hurled at a cousin. A board and wheels? Luxury. This disruptive innovation blew the dare economy wide open. When dreams become realities you race like mad to keep your fantasies ahead of the curve. So we came to an equally omnipresent wheeled menace of trash suburbs: the abandoned trolley.

Trolleys and the ending of Labyrinth were some of the first lessons a kid from my generation could have about how sometimes things don’t work the way they look like they should. Something that moves like an Escher drawing looks didn’t require experimentation to be out of bounds any more than one would wonder what a lion’s fang tastes like. It just was through an innate sense of the screamingly dangerous. Gravity had rules. Wasp’s nests had rules. The hill had optimal routes. But the trolley was alien logic, even thinking about it left you missing time and covered in scratches.

The neglected kids operate on a kind of zen logic that beats the non-euclidean torment fields of rickety wheeled suicide cages by simply not caring. If [attention] then [do], was as deep as the process got. With that, Alan got into one at the top of the steep hill beside Goodna State School.

I refused to even hold the trolley. I wanted my hands clean, by any measure, and I was not certain I wasn’t about to witness a death. Everyone else was simply too excited to care. This was it, the definitive it, we were actually going to see it. A bit like the arcane rules of No Homo that bros use to fuck each other without having to accept unpleasant realities, dares often had weird little caveats that meant nothing but provided the dareee with a sense of control over their doom. “Okay, I’ll jump off a roof but only after 3pm”, that sort of thing. Alan’s was that the trolley had to be released, not pushed. In a way, I kind of understand. He was here to be sacrificed to the judgement of the gods, not to be jester for some base mortals. And so he was released.

If you were to ride a trolley down a hill, what kind of trolley would you choose? The shambolic piece of crap or the shiny new one? Like most dungeon riddles, this is counter-intuitive. A shitty wreck would either seize up and go nowhere or run a near 90 degree turn before stopping in a gutter. This newer one’s functional wheels meant it went straight for quite some time and, in the process, gathered quite some speed. The anticipation was at a level that we were hugging, gouging, and hitting each other just to relieve some of the tension.

I’d like to tell you that he got to the bottom of the hill unharmed, defying both his own sad fate and our cruel need to see someone else suffer. People like the happy lower class stories. I like the happy lower class stories. But they’re the exceptions that, in a way, enforce the rule.

Alan was on his butt in the trolley, riding in the reclined-but-not-quite fashion of an F1 racer, and his vehicle ran true for longer than any of us expected. But the iron law of the underclasses is that the only time something works properly is when it’s setting you up to suffer. Trolley logic asserted itself and Alan’s racer began to turn. 10 degrees. 15 degrees. We could see the demon’s eyes, it was here for Alan, some of the tension broke and the joy chilled. 20 degrees. Near the bottom, though, so maybe he’ll be fine?

30 degrees.

40 degrees.

50.

60.

A pebble hit the front right wheel of the trolley and suddenly 90. The safety cage that is the trolley sides, and that was how one of the better salesmen among us described them to Alan as, mean little when your momentum and your trolley’s momentum differ on a few key points. The trolley rolled. Alan was launched. The launch threw Alan out of the safety cage and the roll brought the other side of it down on his back, slamming him into the bitumen with a kind of meaty wet THACK sound familiar only to wrestlers, butchers, and the bored poor.

It’s okay to abandon your friends to the kinds of injuries that will bring down adult wrath but only if the whole thing was their idea. You get it into your head to show off and all that shit’s on you, chum. But we were part of this. We boosted spirits. We hushed doubts. We looked at each other and waited for him to move. Screaming began.

That he got away with only a sprained arm and some general scratching\bruising is a testament to the durability of your average little shit. There was a good solid minute there, though, where I was already forming a believable story about how I’d happened upon all this after it had already transpired because it legit looked like he’d been totally fucking killed. We did learn an important lesson from all of this: the bar had been raised. Trolleys were possible, but part of a newly established tier of dare most weren’t expected to attempt. Later challengers would come to learn why.

Look, shit was boring before the internet.

 

The Episode.

Homer is a well-meaning buffoon. A malicious, insecure imbecile. A loving father too lazy to manifest that fact in any real parenting. Bart is a mischievous ten year old boy, America’s bad boy. He’s a selfish piece of shit too stupid to ever be a real sociopath. Father and son are a lot alike it’s just the age difference that separates them. Homer is an idiot with responsibilities so he has mentally checked out. Planning for anything better requires a painful amount of hope so he can only cravenly grab at any small positive that wanders into his field of view. Bart’s skilful conniving makes him look cleverer than his father, but the difference exists only because he’s still stupid enough to think his life is a game he has a chance of winning. Typically, their conflicts are an uncaring force meeting an apathetic object but this episode uses all its available tools to explore the connection that keeps their relationship from truly devolving.

Narratives, in all their forms and with all their accompanying component parts, are structures that are as predictable as any mechanism. This is true of most domains. Consider the way an illustrator can look at a reference image, deconstruct it into component shapes, and then turn a few basic lines into a complex new structure. I can’t draw for shit, so to me that process looks like magic. I don’t see animation in the same way an artist does because a lot of the constructive elements are part of that magic. Narrative is the same and, at least until very recently, this has limited what a broadcast sitcom could do.

The finite resource of narrative is time. Whether you’re asking someone to commit a lot of it to experiencing your story or whether network and advertiser conditions limit you to a 22 minute runtime, your character and plot developments are going to be fighting each other for space. The more familiar you are with a subject the less one has to say to explain an element of it. If I say that Mulvey’s treating Freud like a hard science makes her conclusions questionable at best, this will require a lot of explaining to mean anything to anyone who doesn’t already have some opinion on that matter. When a narrative can assume, or is confident enough to demand, a complex existing knowledge in its audience, it can use brief references for large things which frees up time for other stuff.

This episode is about the relationship between Homer and Bart but its emphasis is on their relationship of father and son, and not the more antagonistic one derived from their comic roles of modern Tom and Jerry. This is a more complex game to play, and requires the kinds of time that the nature of the show would otherwise thwart. Signalling a character over comic focus, scenes establishing the more realistic roles of father and son, and building the core conflict are all things that eat precious time. Bart vs Thanksgiving gave the drama its due time and sacrificed all else, creating an episode that’s neither funny nor, due to the limited possible character growth, dramatically satisfying. Bart the Daredevil uses a mix of clever structuring and exploitation of mass popularity to assume higher audience familiarity to be another early example of the kind of layered experience the series came to be known for.

The mirrored opening scenes are an excellent example of how to do several things at once. By separating Homer and Bart in space but making their scenes flow together like they’re one (something Archer does a lot), the episode shows a fundamental connection between the two, that is, one that exists in absence of any other contexts. The only way they’re being the same here is that, on some level, they are the same. There’s a few other scenes with similar outcomes, but few that manage it in so sophisticated and honest a way as they are typically tied to other plot functions. As the conflict between the two is so ripe with plot and humour, it’s the frequently used trope, and the actual connection between father and son is typically only ever seen as the brief moments before their clash or in the resolution. Making it the “happily ever after” or inevitable conflict point of a plot makes it a function or cliche which overshadows its other meanings. This scene can exist comfortably as the conflict point doesn’t come until later in the episode, meaning that it can exist free of these problems and provide a much needed reminder of how much the pair have in common.

Caddyshack is an atrocious mess of independently funny scenes without a lick of coherent point until somewhere around the end of the film when Harold Ramis remembered it wasn’t a sketch show. To fix this, they added a kind of scaffolding narrative drive to give the movie the impression of focal impetus, the fucking gopher. They literally added the gopher after principle photography was finished because there was barely a story without it. There still isn’t a story, the gopher doesn’t relate to anything else, but it’s enough to drape Bill Murray in fine improvisational form on so it’s got that going for it. Normally, adding the point of a piece at the halfway point runs the serious risk of making everything prior to it a bit of a piss-fart about, possibly funny but otherwise useless to structures you need if you want to do anything else (this is something later Simpsons does all the goddamn time). Unlike the bare strand of Gopher in Caddyshack, the mirrored scenes of this episode establish a theme, how Homer and Bart relate as father and son, and a point, their underlying similarity, to create a through-line that later narrative structures actually meaningfully connect to.

In addition to all this, it also has some good jokes. Most at the expense of people who enjoy wrestling, one sly one from Lisa about how the changing attitudes of history resemble the face/heel dynamic of wrestling, and more about how Homer is perhaps a bit too much like his ten year old son. So the scene uses a basic structural trick, mirroring, to build a theme and point while running a general funny Simpsons scene over the top of it. This is one good example of how this episode has its cake and eats it in terms of time spent on drama or comedy without delving into anything too complicated. A recognition that scenes and ideas can play into the plot in indirect fashions and this continues in the next sequence.

The goal of the story appears to have been set, Truckasaurus, and naturally, a potential conflict appears in Lisa’s recital taking place on the same night. Deflecting from this as the narrative conflict, and stalling the presentation of the actual one, can build a tension that’s difficult to deal with. The higher the tension the more stress is applied on the conflict as a structural hinge. It’s real easy for this tension to go too far and be irreconcilable (think of any big mystery show with an underwhelming finale), so the sequence is played more for laughs and character, but character that feeds this episode’s Gopher. Of particular note is how the music from the recital, normally things Homer has absolutely zero interest in, gets stuck in his head as they speed toward Truckasaurus. Lisa notes it herself which serves to emphasise the point to the audience but also as an understandable thing for her to openly appreciate given her own strained relationship with her father. This scene, seemingly vestigial as it looks like a come-and-gone conflict, adds to the episode the idea that Homer cares about his children, and is influenced by them, on levels that even he isn’t aware of.

Fusion of absurd comedy and deep drama is very possible, just tricky. Shows that manage well, like Rick and Morty exploit both a deranged core premise and expectation of genre trope knowledge that would have made it an impossible pitch prior to the current era. Having a giant truck dinosaur try to eat the family car is the kind of thing that can completely blow the real drama of a family sitcom from the early 90s, but this episode’s layout has craftily prevented that. Broadcast TV was big on tone signalling, shows would tell you whether it was a funny one or a “very special episode” very early so the broad audience of viewers wouldn’t get annoyed at anything confusing. Signal absurd or dramatic and you can get up to mischief with the break between episodes functioning as a reset.

In this moment, The Simpsons essentially plays all the cards available to it and manages to have a giant robot truck dinosaur not throw the episode’s realism out of balance. Firstly, the carefully layered earlier sequences have been ambiguous enough to leave the tone undeclared, meaning the audience won’t have any stifling expectations built up yet. Secondly, the primary conflict hasn’t presented itself yet, meaning Truckasaurus exists in the kind of separate narrative preamble later series would come to obnoxiously exploit. Thirdly, by season two the show is hugely popular, and has a track record of both real family drama and cartoon ridiculousness. It exploits this, at the time, rare commodity to expect its audience to accept that this universe has both the real and the absurd at the same time, and not just every other week. A final touch is having the Truckasaurus scene followed by a deliberately mundane one of Marge talking to Truckasaurus’ owner about restitution, immediately eliminating the event as relevant to the narrative, and having the family then sit down for the show as promised.

Now the episode finally gets to its premise: Bart wanting to emulate the daredevil Lance Murdoch and Homer’s attempts at talking him out of it. This is a rare form of conflict between the pair because it’s one of the only times that Homer is objectively right and, in a way, so is Bart. Jumping Springfield Gorge will kill Bart. Homer can’t keep an eye on him 24/7. Homer even tries to genuinely communicate with his son, seeing through the sitcom routine of “phoney-baloney” promises. This isn’t the lazy Homer playing the role of Father, his directly addressing the routine he and Bart have breaks that fourth wall, this is a man trying to leverage a genuine connection with his son for their own good. And he believes he is successful.

But Bart is Bart.

Homer’s jumping Springfield Gorge is fucking ridiculous. The whole sequence is a combination of jarring factors that keep the viewer from finding a reality for it. Homer and Bart have resolved their tension so the jump is not necessary, just the intent was. Midway through, Homer celebrates as he thinks he’ll make it, which would be a funny twist, but then he drops like a stone. The basic concept is Road Runner level absurdity, but its execution is, particularly for the era, realistically graphic. A part of keeping comic violence comic is in avoiding naturalistic scarring, but Homer is shown, several times, severely beaten by the fall. It’s so gratuitous that later episodes edited out his second fall and replaced it with another shot of the kids watching from the cliff. A normal person would be dead, a cartoon character wouldn’t be covered in realistic bruises. It’s touching, absurd, brutal, and funny side by side, The Simpsons has announced its reality.

Later, beloved episodes feature ridiculous bullshit as either major jokes or plot cores. Homer goes to fucking space. He causes a meltdown in a test truck. The list goes on. The kinds of absurd reality The Simpsons uses here and in the Golden Era are fairly tame by today’s standards but they were groundbreaking at the time. Other episodes have had glimpses of the mix but this one makes it the complete point. Absurd as it is, it’s the logical conclusion of the established elements of the episode. Homer cares, he subconsciously absorbs lessons from his children, and Bart is just like his father.  Tonally, the episode has kept both strands running, using structural methods to keep either absurd or serious from dominating. When it brings these threads together, it doesn’t decide that one is now and so always was the dominant or “real” story, it concludes the only logical way: by leaving them together but separate. By making the ridiculous the logical conclusion, the ridiculous becomes a comfortable component of Simpsons logic and the rubber band becomes a little more flexible.

Homer’s final line, “try raising my kids” and the hard cut to the credits has a way of making the whole episode look like a shaggy dog story but it’s the kind of necessary direct statement that, “everything’s okay” 90s TV was fairly bound to. The cliff fall itself is a large part of Simpsons history but that’s the kind of “great person” focus that tends to obscure the more interesting parts of the story. Jumping Springfield Gorge is just the end result of an episode that ran a fascinatingly new kind of game with its audience. A game that has a legacy, not just with The Simpsons but with any modern show that blends comedy and drama.

 

Yours in always spelling “Braun” with a “W”, Gabriel.

 

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

There’s a lot of little jabs at wrestling as the show starts. The line “Live, from the Springfield Centre for the Performing Arts” is a good line with a few interpretations: Springfield is so culturally backward that they hold wrestling in their performing arts centre or that wrestling is a performing art. Naturally, Homer and Bart are dumb for enjoying pro-wrestling, and nobody who doesn’t watch wrestling will ever fail to point out that it’s fake, so Lisa does. That said, her line about historical forces changing The Mad Russian to The Friendly Russian, this episode came a year before the full collapse of the Soviet Union, is fun.

Those Truckasaurus things were around a bit in the 90s, though not to that degree of sophistication. I saw one billed as a Transformer which I needed to see because fucking Transformers. It was less a Transformer and more of a Go-Bot but it was still fun. Homer and Bart’s genuine connection over it, and the fact that the trip there itself isn’t a conflict point, is a real touching moment and one that you don’t actually see much in the series.

I don’t know why 1812 Overture was at the end of Schubert’s Symphony No. 8.

As the show matured and Springfield became a more defined character, the population became more predictable. There were eventually pocket characters to fill nearly every role so one-offs like Leo G. Clark, inventor, owner and operator of Truckasaurus and his weird line about how Truckasaurus himself is sorry for the event, are a thing of the past.

His apology gift of a half bottle of domestic champagne is one of those good escalation jokes. It’s torn open already. People have been drinking it. But it’s sorta breezed by so, a bit like Call of The Simpsons’ joke with Marge organising squirrels, it doesn’t outlast its welcome.

Bart watching Homer getting pulled out of the wrecked car and shouting, “Pull, you dogs!” to the struggling staff is a goodun. It’s one of those jokes that works for the audience but also makes sense to be funny within the show’s universe. A real pet peeve of mine, and a thing now gladly fading, was the sitcom habit of filming all these people doing and saying funny things without having anyone in the world acknowledge that they were funny. Makes the thing feel like a dry Powerpoint about jokes as opposed to a stand-up comedian.

Lance Murdoch is an hilarious glimpse into the past. I’m sure these carny monstrosities still roam some carnivals and fairs but a combination of motocross events and Jackass really fucked the old Daredevil game hard. The absurdity of his pool of death is a very modern Simpsons joke and the image of him being dragged back into the water by a lion is a funny one.

Later Simpsons basically outlawed anyone having hair like Bart and Lisa, but in these early episodes you can still see some abominations. This thing in the audience looks like that photoshop of Mr Burns’ face on Lisa.

The kids scattering after Bart brains himself is a great shot and a funny slice of life. It’s not that we don’t care a friend of ours got hurt, it’s just if he did it doing something he shouldn’t have been, we don’t want to get into trouble. There tends to be a directly proportional relationship between the amount of damage a child has visited upon itself and the amount of trouble the bystanders get in.

Doctor Hibbert makes his first appearance in this episode! I’ve heard he’s getting retired because he’s based on notorious rapist Bill Cosby. An odd choice if true because I doubt many modern viewers would even be aware of that.

Lance being an absolute fuckknuckle and egging Bart on is true to the carny way and a funny twist on old sitcom expectations.

Otto humming a riff on the bus intercom and his remark about it being for “emergencies only” when Bart wants to use it is a solid double up.

Stuntman or bootleg Jackass is one of the few things Bart seems to be actually good at.

The final run of jokes as Homer is brought up out of the gorge is a solid one. His head is bashed on the cliff, the ambulance drives straight into a tree, Homer falls out the back, nobody tries to stop anything, Homer goes over the edge again, and finally, Wendell about to throw up.

Okay, now, the cliff fall. The 90s were an era where your video game characters could gut each other ONLY IF their blood was green. That was the weird, meaningless concession the hordes of conservative mothers gave us and it was the one we took. Showing red blood, even today, is still a big fucking deal for only stupid reasons. Most shows get around this by having their aliens bleed black or blue or whatever. So for The Simpsons to show Homer bleeding actual red blood was a big deal. That they’d spend this coin on this scene is a fucking mystery to me.

FUNNY!

 

NOT FUNNY!

I find the mere existence of this moment so fucking absurd that it transcends itself and becomes fucking hilarious but I’m a mutant.

The episode I have, the episodes that get broadcast in syndication, and (interestingly) The Frinkiac’s archived version all censor the second fall. Since it doubles down on something already ridiculous, it’s very fucking funny, so here it is in GIF form.

american_healthcare.gif

 

Dead Putting Society

Dead Putting Society

My Recollection.

Hey, putt-putt, which is what mini golf was called in Brisbane for some reason. Brisbane’s smaller population means any novelty ideas like putt-putt come and go as they lack the constant numbers to survive. The only one I can think of that still operates in the Brisbane area is a windmill-free one at the local driving range. I actually quite enjoy it. “MY WIFE’S SUNDAY DRESS” was oddly specific to me as I’ve never been to church. A focus on the Flandereses.

There are two main spider archetypes: web and active. The prototypical latter is the Huntsman spider. It’s the one you’ll find in, or often under, Australian houses and makes up for a lack of core bulk with more hairy leg than a body positive book club. They’re otherwise harmless ghastly horrors who can move faster than you blink. The web ones shit a small house in the corner of yours and then just sorta hang out. The indoorsy ones are largely tiny and typically helpful in dealing with mosquitoes and flies, but the outdoorsy ones… Those are something else. Brisbane’s most common of these is the Golden Orb Weaver. I know them from when I used to live in Ashgrove.

The curb of Ashgrove road is lined with leafy trees. The houses that line Ashgrove road have front yards and these yards also feature leafy trees. The result is a footpath that’s little more than a concrete whisper of suburban safety drowned out by screaming green madness. At night, the street lights that were meant to provide a sense of daylight safety just acted as bait to lure you through the deciduous dark. And in that dark lurked the Orb Weavers.

You’d never see them. You’d only ever, were you the fortunate one walking a few steps behind, see the spasmodic panic karate of a human trying to simultaneously get out of a spiderweb while trying to figure out if the spider is still in it. The way you can tell the difference between a cockroach and a spider crawling on you is in the way they step. There’s a slow deliberateness to a web dwelling spider’s that typifies it from the mad scramble of the common roach. You will always tell yourself it was a cockroach, though, as the alternative invites the terrible idea that it could still be on you somewhere. Waiting, some say biding.

The local driving range was open at all hours because apparently golf people are fucking lunatics. I don’t know what sort of problems someone needs to have to see them whacking balls at 4:30 in the morning but by the looks of things I’ll stick to my poor person hassles. One thing I’ve noticed about the properly wealthy is that anything that affects them personally is an injustice they won’t stand for so the driving range, and by extension the putt-putt course, were licensed to serve booze from 5am which was about when we’d be finishing work. Our discovery of this would eventually ruin it for everybody but until then we’d roll up sometimes and get wankered while playing putt-putt. Surrounding the course were leafy trees and equally enthusiastic shrubs.

Sometimes, it was about the game. Other times, it was about the drinking. I was with a beanstalk glassy, and a giant manager who I’d already tapped out with a triangle lock on the 7th hole. Today was about the drinking. Frustration boiled over on the dastardly 15th and my manager whacked his ball off into deepest, darkest buttfuck, a cluster of bushes woven together by crisscrossing succulent protuberances, and he barrelled off after it. Another thing about the Golden Orb Weaver is that they cohabitate. Dozens will share a web that can span several meters and be thick enough not to see through from one angle yet be invisible from another. From my vantage, a hole ahead, I could see the unnervingly cumlike streak of sticky white nightmare. My manager couldn’t.

I first felt the difference between the speed of thought and the speed of consciousness when I saw my brother about to step on a huge dog turd but failed to warn him. The pieces are all there, but you only realise you knew them in retrospect. My manager pushed his way into the bush and the crew of my mind desperately screamed at a deaf captain. My first coherent thought, “fuuuuuuuuck” came when I saw a big dent hit the massive spider web and tear an otherwise patiently aloof coterie of now annoyed Golden Orbs away. To this day, I’ve never seen anyone else do anything like that. It’s nuts, a rule unwritten because it is so innate, like how you don’t expect to have to warn someone not to kiss a shark’s eye socket.

The bushes rustled.

I don’t think a written language exists that could render the sound I heard phonetically, I can only describe it as a terror yodel. A shrieking mound burst onto the green. This mound was a living combination of haphazard bush components and hollering drunkard held together with erstwhile spider palace and furious inhabitants. The screaming manbush hopped about slapping himself and screaming, “ORBS! FUCKING ORBS, CUNT!”

Had this scene occurred a few hundred years ago the event would have marked the birth of a new mythical forest imp or cryptid. Beware Tangled Bevan, children, he upset the Spider house and they cursed him to dance in town squares at night. His hooting draws people but should any touch him they become stuck and he dances them back to the Spider Queen to pay his debts. His sticky hooting can be heard on warm evenings in the towne of Bris’ Bane.

“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooorbs… Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuunnnt”

I witnessed it myself and I’m still not sure.

The Episode

This story is a fantastic journey into the cosmic nightmare that is Homer’s existence. It’s him at his worst, but his worst in a way that lets us see into the motivations of his actions and those of his ilk. It’s the tragic flipside to his comic persona, something that can never truly grow so it manages the only change it’s capable of: inversion.

Homer is a buffoon.

The dramatic parallel of the buffoon is the oaf. An oaf is large, strong, dumb, and, above all, insecure. Their size or positions of power can never be enough because they are just smart enough to know they’re stupid or incapable of advancing and that makes them lash out with what creativity they do have, cruelty.

A buffoon may be as large and stupid, he may even cause the same amount of damage, but his well meaning imbecile stare and lack of basic agency rob any of his actions of cruelty. This is mostly Homer’s role, both because the show is a comedy but also because the utility of a loser to laugh at is thwarted if his alienating degree of stupidity is overcome by empathy for his ultimately miserable position. The audience has to identify with parts of him but the whole needs to remain closed off behind a wall of exaggerated traits. Season one dabbled in Homer as a person and the results were astonishingly bleak. As the series wore on, he nestled deeper into the buffoon role. Anything else will either veer into raw misery or become a character change that the series eternal status quo cannot allow, so his only other alternative is the oaf. This episode is a journey into the grotesque depths of pathetic insecurity of that oaf.

The amazing thing about an idiot as a character is that you can make them inconsistent and it won’t break the story world because the character’s stupid inability to understand their own inconsistencies is perfectly consistent. So Homer can be both a hardworking, caring father who’d do anything for his kids and a lazy thug who bullies them into competitions to fulfil his own selfish need to win something. What makes Homer a tragic character of near epic quality is that he’s just verging on smart enough to realise this. It is the kind of grim existential suffering one would expect as punishment from a particularly angry classical god. It also gives the audience a window into sympathy for the oaf, which is actually pretty rare.

Most narratives construct themselves thematically around punishing socially reviled traits and rewarding positive ones for a few reasons. Structurally, the themes have to parallel the narrative so there needs to be a sense of change with closure and this lends itself to moral conclusions. People look to fiction, its easy solutions and caught criminals, for a sense of justice that doesn’t exist in the real world and this necessitates the punishment of bad behaviour. And, ultimately, because audiences are dense pieces of shit who don’t like to be challenged. Neither of the first two rules are set in stone in any way, but the test audiences will hate anything else because open ended, ambivalent fiction, or anything where the bad guy just wins because it’s a cruel existence and fuck you, is essentially antithetical to the reasons people watch shit in the first place. If we wanted a cruel pile of unrelated events with no purpose we could just live our lives.

Homer is jealous of Flanders. This is a bad thing so he has to be humiliated. In order for his humiliation to be just and not unpleasantly cruel he can’t be sympathetically jealous so he has to be a villainous oaf. Because he’s a main character and needs to be able to shift back, he’s given moments where we can see into the oaf and experience a little sympathy for a bully. Homer’s complex nature, that of a spinning coin in a changeless void, give him the one thing an oaf never really has access to: introspection. Oafs (oaves?) can gain insight, but it is typically a one way character development from oafism to some form of redemption. Homer cannot be redeemed so we are left with his Idiot Zen existing as both Idiot and Zen, interacting but separate.

The line,

“Because sometimes the only way you can feel good about yourself is by making someone else look bad. And I’m tired of making other people feel good about themselves.”

is both a comic treat of wordplay and a level of insight that’s usually toxic to an oaf. When you’re a shit person who makes other people’s lives hard, insight becomes impossible as the thing you see hurts you. The oaf is trapped in a prison of being a loathsome cunt where the key to its freedom is so hot it’s burns to touch. This line is like someone punching you in the face while saying, “sorry, I had a difficult childhood”. It’s a level of insight that should at least begin to confront the behaviour. The, “admitting you have a problem” part of the journey of the self. It’s Zen answering a question Marge asked the Idiot, but they pass each other like strangers.

One time I visited one of my bullies’ homes and their couch was the back seat of a Toyota. It was just there in the lounge room. The back seat of a car. An axle with cardboard was the coffee table. Now that I think of it, I get the feeling the entire place was, in some way, furnished by a wrecked car. When you’re dumb and miserable, happy people are living claws in your soul, and you can’t make yourself happy but you can make them feel bad or, better yet, look worse. The tragedy is the unspoken, and funny, part of the word play. “I’m tired of making feel people feel good about themselves” is a passive plea whereas any form of “I want to feel good” would be an active demand. It’s the Toyota car seat, the note of sadness that explains everything. Homer feels bad all the time and he’s just smart enough to know he’s basically the “there” in everyone else’s “there but for the grace of god go I”. All he wants is to feel what he sees everyone else feel.

Humans can live in unbelievably shitty circumstances without complaint provided they don’t see, or are otherwise distanced from, a possible alternative. Monkeys given asymmetric reward treats are fine until the poor loser getting stiffed is shown he’s missing out and then he goes batshit. This sense of exclusion is strong and ignores reason. FMRI scans show these areas light up with pain whether your exclusion comes from people you like, people you hate, or from people being rewarded for work you didn’t do. Flanders and his family are the perfect knife to twist into Homer. Throughout the series, he can cope with a lot. But Flanders always gets to him.

I got punched in the face for using faggot words by a person whose home was furnished like we were already in Mad Max. In this, you can understand Homer’s outburst at Flanders. He’s still a giant, barely sapient cunt, but far too often the behaviour of people is dismissed as the unfathomable mania of the underclasses. There’s reasons to all of it. Even Homer’s embarrassed by his outburst. Under questioning from his wife, the logical part of his brain can’t find the reasons his feelings had.

His brief glimpse of how shitty he is is just more torture so he becomes desperate for any relief, Bart’s apparent talent for mini-golf is that relief. When you spend most of your time drowning in your own stupidity, any moment when your head is above water is a blessing. Homer’s Idiot Zen is less a coherent worldview and more a messy coping mechanism given form by the boundaries of his universe. His dreams are seconds on dessert because he’s taught himself that anything more is foolish hope. Hope is the most important part of suffering, it’s the reprieve that keeps you from acclimatising, and it’s something so alien to him that when a realistic one appears it intoxicates him.

His fear of losing his one guilty hope is present in his entire approach to the competition. Aggression and hate are the only things it even occurs to Homer to impart to Bart. Hate the picture. Think of the putter as a gun. Win or you’re out of the family. The mania of a cornered animal. The oaf lashing out. And the oaf must be punished.

Wrapping Bart up in this is a good split of the tension. If Bart wins, the oaf is rewarded. If the oaf is punished, then so is the otherwise innocent Bart. This along with the incredibly in character line, “The father of the boy who doesn’t win” sets up for a good finale and lesson on the self. Bart and Todd eschew the shiny rewards of competition for inner peace. Homer demands his punishment, but his shame and rage make him the only one who suffers as Flanders relaxes into the spectacle. The oaf’s socially reviled traits are punished and the vector of that punishment is entirely his inability to let go of hate and fear. This lends it a cosmic justice that a simple loss would have lacked.

On the secondary characters, Lisa and Flanders both get a fair look in with Bart having a few moments in spite of being a pawn and Todd having probably the most actual story he’s ever had.

Flanders’ happy life is the perfect counterpoint, and torture, for Homer but it’s a fundamentally false happiness. There is little to Flanders, even in these early stages, that is his and not the result of his faith. His calm comes from an external structure that he has abdicated his own mind to. Like most of the religious, it’s not even his God that serves as the actual source of his strength but the long-suffering mortal, Reverend Lovejoy, who loses pieces of himself so Flanders can function. We get a glimpse into this parasitic relationship in this episode with the first of Flanders’ annoyingly pointless calls.

That said, we do see some other, actual human behaviours. Homer gets him mad several times and we won’t see that again for a while. Like Todd’s being an actual human boy, I’m so used to the alternative that it’s these earlier examples of actual humanity from him and his father that feel out of character. It’s automatic to assume the later forms to be degradations from their earlier and thus truer selves. Bu while their ultimate fate is deranged parodies of themselves, that is also the fate of the entire show. Characters in early seasons often change as they grow into their definitive selves, like Zoidberg becoming the cast’s psychic toilet in Futurama, and I lean toward that here.

Lisa is in fine form this episode as she becomes Bart’s Master. She far-too-easily takes on responsibilities beyond her age in the face of Homer’s malicious incompetence. This and the line, “It’s times like this that I’m glad dad has little to no interest in almost everything I do” are small apertures that provide a much larger look into the realities of living under substandard parents. The mixed blessing of the grimness of the situation coupled with the strength to survive and even thrive in spite of it. Lisa is strong, but it comes from something very sad.

This is an episode of Bart being a normal boy I’d forgotten as it is far more understated. He has significant focus but it’s only as a function of Homer’s story. As he himself says, he is a pawn. But as a pawn he can exist without the constraints of narrative focus and the character tropes those force. Homer is both villain and main character here so there is nothing left for Bart to do but be a 10 year old boy forced into competition by a zealous father. But his journey into zen is like most of his other personal growth, a temporary thing that ends when the episode does.

Dead Putting Society is a great character episode with a tight internal structure that the series has largely been lacking. There’s no hanging plot threads or baffling holes, the narrative, themes, and characters all interact to create a tight web that leads to a satisfying conclusion. It’s a slow burner of an episode whose memorable moments are the kinds of small and subtle ones you can miss on a single viewing. The story is singular, but it is woven with other characters and moments in natural ways that really show how lazy other story shifts can be.

Homer is a vile oaf who gets his comeuppance but we get an insight into the sad mind of one, even if it has to come via the words of a nerd writer.

Yours in describing this all to a psychiatrist one day, Gabriel

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

There’s an amusing gap between Bart’s “still just a potato”, implying that he’s a poor student, and his use of obscure ditto marks.

Homer is probably right about Elf Grass.

Homer noticing Maude’s butt is the start of a long running thing where he is clearly attracted to her.

“Beggers can’t be choosy”, “Too bad we don’t live on a farm” (in response to a free protractor), and “Jack Nicholson himself couldn’t make it” are great examples of Homer’s general ignorance that used to be threaded throughout his lines. The kinds of little mistakes that suggest only a superficial grasp or misunderstood point that better fill out the kind of dumbass Homer is. He knows of these things but not enough to get them quite right.

Bosom is a hilarious word in general and takes on added humour when used in the archaic form for general chest and not specifically a full titty. Flanders’ sound when he is caught delivering the letter is also pretty funny.

Hey, here’s a journey into the past, Lisa goes to a fucking library to research putting! A fucking library! You had to get up, put on pants, go to a building that had hours, go to a catalogue that was a piece of furniture filled with paper, walk to where the books were supposed to be, hope they were actually there, and then take the books home before you could get an answer to your question. I’ve looked up a vast quantity of putting tutorial videos in YouTube while I was writing this, and I’m still covered in chocolate from shame-eating a sweetened Christ-Rabbit in the middle of the night.

The process of naming the putter is funny. Bart engages in this process with the enthusiasm of a cat being walked on a leash. Mr Putter is delightfully comic zero effort only to be topped by “Mom” when Homer demands a female name. It’s a good one-two but both lefts and the second hits harder for some reason. It hides a second layer of absurd in an even less expected fashion multiplying the effect.

A weird sighting of make-up free Krusty in the pool hall.

Bart whacking the ball, hitting the gorilla, and nearly hitting Homer is a well constructed moment. Shot, shot, shot/sound, sound, sound and then the final shared shot of the pair looking at each other. It’s a small but nifty example of how balancing elements creates good scenes.