Category: Gabriel Morton versus The Simpsons

You won’t enjoy it on as many levels as I do

Retrospecticus: Season Two

Retrospecticus: Season Two

Season two is done! Huzzah, now only 30 more to go! I want to die, but now I have a good reason. Boy, things are on the up-and-up.

Season two is a major change from one, and not only because it’s closer to a full series run. Gone are the haunting Clasky/Csupo interpretations of human physiognomy, we now have the full modern Simpsons look that lasted until the HD era. The change is not entirely complete, though, as there’s still some weird character designs floating about, but these get pruned over season 3. The lines are black, the characters are mostly on model, this is The Simpsons look.

Similarly, a lot of character becomes settled over this season. Grampa, Patti and Selma, and Principal Skinner emerge as strong narrative anchors, and the Burns/Smithers relationship finds its awkward home. Lisa and Bart see the last few gasps of their immaturity this season. Bart’s childhood vulnerabilities are used for great character stories before being lost to archetype. Lisa’s character survives longer, but the version of her that is very much an 8-year-old child and not a teenager in one’s body gets a few last moments.

While there were some standouts, the series wasn’t all that funny. There’re some episodes with good jokes, but nothing of the wall-to-wall quotables and gems that later seasons become known for. This took me a bit by surprise, but, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have as I seldom rewatch anything prior to season 4 for a reason. I chalk this up to growing pains. The patterns settling leaves them in a vulnerable state. One can’t play with something until the paint has dried.

Writing it has been a mixture of challenging and fulfilling. It’s odd to think that my primary income is now writing these (PAY ME), as that technically makes me a professional writer which decades of crippling depression taught me never to expect. Keeping the pattern up was hard, though, through a combination of genuine writer’s block and having to job hunt. With the second part gone, I can sort of focus, and I’m getting better at teasing discussable elements out of the stories.

Each is, by design, very focused and tends to leave a lot unsaid. It hit me early that I can’t do a completely deep dive on each one as A: that would take forever, and B: there are enough episodes that what isn’t said in one can be said in another. So, if you feel some element or another wasn’t covered, that is probably why. I’ve also gotten into the habit of adding images, either to add to a point or, particularly in the case of the cover images, for fun. There booming artistic field of Simpsons remixes, shitposts, has reminded me of how individual animation panels can be fascinating things to look at. The 4 stills of Homer realising Bart has mailed his letter to Burns are harrowing, but the whole moment takes less than a second.

 Christ, I have got to get these things done faster, though. At this rate, I’ll still be doing these when I’m 60. Hopefully, these will be hugely successful by then, like that Harry Potter podcast, and I will be celebrated as the world’s foremost Simpsons knower. This is unlikely, and I will die alone, celebrated by only a small number of passionate loons. That said, if you want these to keep going, or at least want me to be able to eat, the minimum Patreon of one whole dollar a month helps. I pay $5 to it just to comment mean things on Aaron’s posts sometimes, so I don’t think it’s a big ask. I won’t lie, subsistence living when I could be on 80k teaching is wearing thin, and money to live on will help get these things happening on a weekly basis.

I will keep a few free, a selection from each season once it’s done, as taste testers you can share with people. Feel free to argue over which ones are the best/funniest/most interesting. In the meantime, I’m working on formatting the section a little better. Mostly so there isn’t a fucking infinite pit of them to scroll through. It’s just a risky hassle with these digital publishing things, as they can be less than user friendly, and changes can fuck things up.

Until then, season 3 approaches! I’m looking forward to this, as we are getting close to the creamy centre of the series.

Yours in only slightly regretting doing this, Gabriel.

Great Episodes

Brush with Greatness.

This is a fucking classic, probably one of the few that is worth adding to the regular rotation. It’s got a great plot, it’s excellently told, it has a great finale, and there are jokes all over the place.

Treehouse of Horror.

This is mostly off the back of Bad Dream House, as there are just so many great jokes packed into 6 minutes.

Bart the Daredevil.

A bit like Brush with Greatness, this is a complex mix of character, and expression. It falls behind the others through fewer great comic moments. That fucking cliff fall, though.

Bart gets an F.

A great character episode. It’s hard to feel real sympathy for Bart as he’s either a narrative tool, comic foil, archetype, or cunt. This story is about a 10 year old boy, and he is beautiful in his vulnerability.

Shit Episodes

Bart vs Thanksgiving.

Fuck this episode. Bart is a piece of shit and is rewarded for it. His parents are right, and the show punishes them for it. This is a staggering miss from a narrative perspective, a meaningless blip from a character perspective, it isn’t funny, and it’s fucking annoying.

War of the Simpsons.

The show couldn’t manage the tone shift of making one of the main character’s comedic faults into a real, grotesque fault. Few could. General Sherman winking at the camera is hideous. Grampa B story saves it from absolute relegation.

The War of The Simpsons

The War of The Simpsons

My Recollection

QUEEN OF THE HARPIES . General Sherman wink. The ones at the bottom.

Drunks are like Pokemon, there’s a surprising number of different varieties, they all spend their down time curled up in balls, and they seem cute and funny until you look closely. Many of the character traits a sitcom uses for its comic folly are tragic when they exist for more than twenty-one minutes, and drunks are only an exception in that you don’t even need that long. But the road to drunk tragedy is paved with drunk comedy, and drunk comedy is so good that both the drunk and their eventual victims will skip gaily to the inevitable as though it hasn’t been laughing beside them the whole time.

Mine ends in tragedy so depressing it didn’t even have the good taste to be dramatic. Anodyne realisation, a padded rock bottom, but before that there was a lot to laugh at.

It was some time in 99 or 2000, there’s precious little difference in what’s left of my memory from that period. I was a 64-kilo stoner with no capacity for booze, but I’d settled on drinking that Friday evening if only to give a sense of meaning to weekends that had begun their inexorable blend into abandoned work days.

Taste is built from experimentation which is why beginners have none. I, not having any taste, allowed others to select my evening for me. I, not having any taste, was without a knowledge platform from which to assess the selection others selected. I, not having any taste, wound up with a combination of vodka and Pasito. I, following this event, developed some taste.

A word on Pasito for the foreigners: It orange but it tastes like purple electricity. It’s a synthetic knockoff of a fruit that only exists in anime. If you licked everything in Wonka’s factory, your tongue would taste like Pasito and you’d have consumed only half the sugar. It’s what a passionfruit sees when it trips on mushrooms and we feed it to children. Mix it with vodka and you don’t taste the vodka. Naturally, it is the mixer of choice for youths and “fun” aunties.

Alcohol tastes rough for a reason: it’s fucking poison. You are poisoning yourself, idiot, and that burn is a good way of keeping your mind on that fact. Take it away and, well…

About the last thing I remember is thinking that vodka didn’t taste bad. Then there’s a blip and I’m waking up on the floor. The thing about these blips is that they’re gone. I thought, for a while that maybe they were somewhere in there, to be revealed like DVD extras when the last sparks were vanishing from my neurons. Nope. The brain isn’t making memories during a blackout. None of it is stored. Hardware corrupted: please format to continue.

As I slowly come online, my sequentially activating senses each start yelling at me. Each has, what it deems to be, the most vital information that the executive function needs to hear right now. Vision wins, and I realise I’m looking at a ceiling, then a wall, then the eternally dank grey surroundings of my friend’s quasi-subterranean flat/fungiculture. At least I know where I am.

Nothing is making any noise and the only smell is the inescapable mildew stench common to the kinds of shitty flats that aren’t exactly underground but aren’t exactly ground floor.

Everything hurts in a way that I have no frame of reference to understand. It’s not like everything hurts because there are injuries on everything that radiate out enough to create a soft hegemony of pain. It’s like there’s no locality to any of it. Every bit hurts as much as every other bit and this seems to be happening at a cellular level.

What was also happening at a cellular level, was the dawning realization that I was in my underwear.

You see this kind of thing in movies. It’s hacky, cliché, something only still done by 3rd rate Animal House knockoffs. I could do nothing in the silent, grey pain but try to think about why this may be the case.

Thinking too much made me queasy so I think about that for a while. Then the pain distracts me from the queasiness. This goes on for about 20 minutes. I have no idea of the actual time because, while the VCR’s LCD keeps it, it has steadfastly refused to ever adhere to a known numerical system. You could learn the glyphs well enough to mark passages, that was it. It was forty-E past lower-case i capital F and nobody else is around.

Nobody remained around.

After Fd minutes, I decided to chance some form of movement. It felt like what I imagine getting attacked by a telekinetic would feel like, pinned to the ground by gravity that shifted every time I did.

After backwards-L reverse-P minutes, I shifted again, and this time enough to realise something. I wasn’t just on the floor of the lounge, as previous reports had suggested. There was something beneath me: a full-sized rollerblade. At this point, I’ll remind you that it was the very late 90s. I rolled and felt the floor sink like a waterbed. I used the momentum of it sloshing back to wrench the rollerblade from under my lower back and held it up for inspection.

I stared at it, expecting nothing less than it to fill me in on what had happened. It silently rollerbladed back while the VCR LCD laughed at me in primitive emoticons. This went on forever, or as near as such a thing can exist within a timeless, grey flat.

The need to vomit eventually drove me from my floor spot, and the subsequent torrent of spew flooded my sinuses with a singeing combination of bile and Kirks artificial passionfruit that, to this day, makes my nose tickle to think about.

After another forever, my friend woke up and told me I vomited a bit, then a lot, so they put me in the shower and let me sleep it off while they went out. I didn’t drink again for quite some time after that.

The Episode.

What made Jackie Gleeson threatening to punch his wife in the face funny was that it was an empty threat. Sometimes the threat itself was funny, like “Bang, zoom” which is largely absurd, but often it was “POW! Right in the kisser” which is him straight-up threatening to closed-fist strike his small wife in the mouth. But we never see him do it and we never see the results of him having done it. She doesn’t wince, she’s never bruised, it’s a false alarm so it’s funny.

Marital discord is one of the primary sources of plot conflict and comedy in a family sitcom but it’s a source that gets taken for granted. In the formative years of this comic trope, social, religious, economic, and political institutions worked to make the “death do us part” bit of marriage a reality, and these barriers to escape created a stabilising structure. This stabilising structure, combined with the need to escalate humour both within a series and across the broader genre, created a feedback system that let the points of conflict grow incrementally wackier. This process forge-welded a new trope, and so now you can be as bad a husband as Ray Romano and still not bother viewers with the obvious question of “why don’t they get a divorce?”

Running parallel to this is the nature of comedy and power. A situation where a lady threatens me like Ralph threatens Alice is funny for the same reason a man biting a dog is funny. Women are so much smaller and weaker that it’s not unlike wrestling with a kitten, so the power inversion is fundamentally absurd. Making a sitcom couple where the female is physically dominant is tricky (at least until HBO premiers Here Comes Gwendoline), which means for the physically dominant husband to be funny, he must be an oaf. This leaves the female comic power inversion being “smart one” which inevitably becomes the comic “straight man”.

It’s never the straight who’s going out and getting into hijinks, so that just leaves the husband, a fact obviously unquestionable in Homer’s case. Combine this with narrative conflict and you have a situation where it’s one part of the relationship who is clearly the problem. This is a delicate weld, but historical forces keep it together, provided you don’t pick at it. War of The Simpsons doesn’t just pick at it, War of The Simpsons makes bringing an unreconcilable conflict to a head the focus of the story by sending Homer and Marge to marriage counselling.

There are ways to dampen the impact of this decision and the episode deliberately avoids them. Like bashing women, light tones can counteract the severity of the joke’s foundation. This shouldn’t be difficult for The Simpsons, as it was born before the 90s edge wave. It’s a softer format, sweet, the married couple uses the word “snuggle” in a bashful way. Jokes that would fit fine in Duckman, Oblongs, Mission Hill, Family Guy, American Dad, et-fucking-cetera, don’t go in The Simpsons because it, even at its raunchiest, is still a family show.

Homer drunkenly sexually harassing his neighbour is not sweet to begin with, and this narrative choice is compounded by Homer being the not-fun kind of drunk. The episode emphasises the realism of being a drunken asshole, a statement that takes on further emphasis given that it is happening within a sweet, goofy animated world. Even other episodes about Homer’s problematic drinking treat it as a joke. Here, he worries his wife, he annoys everyone he speaks to, and there’s no scene of him flexing imaginary man-tits in the mirror to help the audience laugh it off. It is grotesque, and a grotesqueness that wounds the viewer, as we know that he’ll never change because we’ve been through this already.

Breaking the softer tone of the show exposes Homer and Marge’s relationship as less happy-in-the-face-of-adversity and more a vile knot of fear and desperation. They are only together because Homer knocked Marge up, and even daring to explore the question of why either loves the other would cast a light on their relationship that neither’s eyes could stand. Marge is a moron, and each piece of Homeric cartoon nonsense is a grain of sand in my porridge.

So why quit when you’re behind?

I’ve mentioned before about the way that some formats of expression are defined by their structural quirks, so much so that to critique them would be to complain about a cat’s meow. The kind of quickie resolutions found in family sitcoms are one of these quirks. They are not technically good, but, like the bun of a cheap hotdog, they serve their purpose. There’s a kind of unspoken agreement between show and audience, though, where we can only tolerate so much before the quickie resolution becomes so disproportionately weak compared to the problem it’s resolving that it becomes a slap in the face.

“She says one word and I toss it back” would be a fine enough line to end a variety of minor conflicts, but the story has almost artfully managed to ensure that it lands like a fishbone in the throat. If Marge’s words mattered so much, enough to overcome a 6-hour battle with a fish, they would be enough to overcome any of the other problems Homer brings to the marriage. Of course, they don’t, they aren’t meant to. Structurally, they can’t. And this wouldn’t be a problem had the story not broken the show’s tone to lend uncomfortable realism to a horrible marriage.

Later sitcoms that built upon what The Simpsons created or perfected have found tonal balance with extremes of cartoon comedy and naturalist tragedy, but they have accomplished this by aiming at it from the start and seeding audience expectation. The Simpsons can’t do this because it was a different dish by design. An olive on a pepperoni pizza is a mistake whereas an olive on a supreme isn’t. War of The Simpsons isn’t the first or last episode to focus on trouble in the Simpson marriage, but it crosses its own lines and becomes a mix of unpleasant and insulting as a result.

Yours in having arms like tree trunks, Gabriel.

Jokes, Lines, and Stray Thoughts.

The title is a play on The War of the Roses, a movie about a divorce based on a book about a divorce.

According to the commentary track, there was a weird thing with this episode, where the show had to pay a guy about 3k because he’d submitted a story script that was similar (marriage counselling). They stopped even opening submissions after that.

Here we see what went on to become a solid joke template, Homer talking about something instead of sex. This is also a good example of the show’s natural tone level.

Flanders making an alcoholic beverage would get retconned.

The thing is, Haha Drunk and Sad Drunk are the same thing, it just depends on how many people are  laughing. Simple and slight modifications in authorial voice are enough to shift this. Homer could have easily been more haha drunk here. Marge could have reacted the same way and the plot could have continued on as normal without the jarring tonal abnormality.

The cat under Homer is a classic gag, and I mean it when I say you can pass out on anything. Actual goddamn rollerblade, and I’d gotten so used to it that I didn’t even know it was there for some conscious time.

The idea of a radio station that only plays the Mexican Hat Dance is hilarious. Incidentally, it’s called  Jarabe Tapatío, and is Mexico’s national dance. It’s about flirting with a woman. Lisa’s comment about how the music sends a chill down her spine is a good example of the nature of how humans develop stress responses to any paired stimulus. It’s from this process that we get our odd triggers.

The scene of Homer remembering how funny he was the night before is based on a cartoon by Al Hirschfeld of the Algonquin Round Table, a group of society wits from the early 1900s.

There’s this weird background character design that looks like Hitler. Groening hates it and it gets retired fairly quickly. Here he is attending church.

Homer exists as much as an archetype as he does a character, and this gives him a Lego-like ability to have lore-friendly hobbies for single episodes. Fat husbands like fishing, so Homer does. This is in spite of it never coming up prior or really since.

Omen reference with the babysitter. Not bad but the “Bart is evil” thing gets played out very fast.

“Everyone’s against me” from Grampa is a goodun.

While the episode is a poor work in terms of tone and structure, the B story is a great accompaniment. Pairing the kids with Grampa is a reliable source of comedy as it lets the each lean in to their comic elements, Bart’s maliciousness and Grampa’s befuddlement. Lisa goes along with this abuse quite willingly too, which I don’t consider as out of character. Earlier Lisa was quite immature and would often turn a blind eye to bad behaviour if she could get away with her own minor forms.

The Queen of the Harpies scene is a favourite because of how insanely dramatic it is. The gag where it immediately switches after one of Lovejoy’s banal bits of advice is lame but the scene of Marge and Homer watching these two terrible people play out a horrifying argument is classic. “Queen of the Harpies” became a local meme when we were kids.

Bart smoking a cigar was an impressive feat to get past the censors, though there’s no way a child could have one of those without throwing up.

The counselling scenes were originally going to feature Burns and a mail order bride, and Ken Krabapple. Ken was going to look like Dean Martin but have a Cletus accent. I’m glad they never showed him, as being unseen makes him more interesting, if only because he’s never had a chance to wear out his welcome. Also, it means Edna kept his name.

It’s the first appearance of Snake Jailbird! Though he’s unnamed here.

I always love seeing out-of-hand parties written for TV. Everyone there simply to destroy things as the chaos needs to be compressed into a few shots of malice.

“Any chicks over 8?” Otto Mann would fuck a nine-year-old. CANON!

This weird fucking kid looks like a human Hershey’s Kiss.

Nelson’s first draft Ha-ha, this time Ha-ha-ha. Glad they shortened it.

Grampa crying has a quick shift for the audience because torturing an old man is funny until he cries.

It’s important that Marge points out that the fish represents all of Homer’s faults, otherwise the resolution would be dismal and weak.

Groening hates the fish winking at the camera and is right to do so. Asides like that are fucking awful and should never be done in anything that isn’t built around it.

I actually really love the epilogue. One of Homer’s only honest successes is to become part of a bait shop’s mythos.

Bart’s Dog Gets an F

Bart’s Dog Gets an F

 My Recollection

Dog vision. Lisa mump cheeks. PULL THE BLOODY CHAIN, BOY!

I’ve always been more of a cat person. They are largely independent, I can efficiently rub an entire one with a single hand, and they are technically a fluid. A dog is a brick of clumsy catastrophe that carries a level of responsibility that borders on child. If you don’t know where your dog is, that’s a problem. I don’t know where my cat is right now and there’s a chance she’s in the room with me. But in the feral suburbs, you needed some kind of dog or there’d just be people in your yard sometimes. The dog we got was a good dog because she was neutered. In nearly every other example I had, “being a dog person” translated to “enjoying spending time with a hairy rapist” because nobody could afford neutering when the price of speed just went up.

The first dog rape I saw was a kind of basic Weinstein, not rape-rape but only because the implied threat made further force unnecessary. A neighbour of ours had a giant trampoline, one that could dangerously fit eight to twelve 8-12-year olds, so we all congregated there after school. They had a horse in a dog mask they called Rat. This dog was big enough to hide Greeks in and anime characters tried to ride it. Woofs came from so deep within this colossus that most of the party were dead by the time it reached the mouth, so the only sound it ever made was the kind of flaccid murmur a sleepy dad makes sitting down. This was still the most personality it exhibited as it otherwise spent its time in as much motion as Hanna-Barbera background art.

Except this one time.

The 8-12 eight to twelve-year olds sitting on the trampoline weren’t scared of Rat exactly but we all still maintained a basic human wariness of anything that could swallow us whole, so tensions rose when Rat wandered up to the side of the trampoline. “It’s fine”, said the 8-year-old brother who lived there. It may well have been “fine” but we all still bailed when rat jumped up onto the trampoline, leaving only the brother professing the fineness of things.

There’s something fundamentally wrong about a dog on a trampoline. It’s like seeing a really old person in a bouncy castle. Technically it’s all soft and springy but the subject is so wooden and confused by the situation that you can’t help but expect tragedy. We didn’t get tragedy, exactly. Rat awkwardly walked over to where it was “fine” and half slumped his rear against the 8 year old brother.

Here’s the thing about a dog dick: It looks like someone circumcised a regular dick all the way to and around the balls. There’s a moment of confusion for a bunch of kids when what looks like a condom full of berry smoothie flops over the shoulder of a child. Is it hurt? Are those intestines? How has the Fine Brother not noticed this yet?

Once the puzzle pieces fall into place, that a dog dick just looks like a 5-year-old drew it and Clive Barker coloured it in, giggles started to spread. There’s a dog dick on someone’s shoulder and for a cluster of creatures driven by social instinct to exclude and mock people for any little thing, being caressed by a raw dog boner is like winning the little cunt lottery. You are gay now. Like, gay gay. You are touching a dick. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dog dick, that just makes you dog-gay which is even better. Ha, gay.

There’s an image burned in my head I wish I could have printed out and it’s the Fine Brother looking to his left and having his nose be about a centimetre away from the ruptured beetroot of turgid dog wang. I don’t know what dog dicks smell like and I’m proud of that. The Fine Brother knows and that’s something he will have to take to his grave. Now his pieces are clicking into place. He is touching a dog penis in front of the peer group who have figured this out before him and are mocking him accordingly. Had it just brushed against him, there wouldn’t have been that big a deal made, but it took him so long to realize and there’s just no comeback for being seen luxuriating under a veiny dog cock.

He instinctively turned his head before he screamed as anything else would have invited penis into mouth. This was good, as if you accidentally suck a dog dick in the outer suburbs then you may as well change your name and move. Nobody will ever let you live that down. But as he reacts and starts to move, so does Rat. As much as the Fine Brother wants this to be over, Rat does not want this to be over and he outweighs the shrieking, dog-gay 8-year-old by a bit.

So Rat just sits his hips down on the Fine Brother and smooshes his inside out dick looking dick onto the screaming child’s face. The jeering chorus of feral chimps hears his cries muffled by gay dog penis and goes mental. The Fine Brother kicks about but is in kind of a bind. Struggling to escape from Beneath the Planet of the Dog Penis means moving back and forth a bit to worm his way out. This means rubbing back and forth on the dog penis which means you are wanking a dog with your face. Being molested by a giant dog is one kind of gay but gaying the gay dog back is, like, turbo-gay. You may as well come out that you are gay for dog dicks because we all know you are. So the Fine Brother kicks and thrashes but mostly ineffectively. This goes on for what was probably only a few seconds but, like dog years, dog penis to face years are 7-10 times the length so it felt like forever.

Amidst all this, Rat looks out onto the world like a stroke victim looks out a window. I don’t know what a dog orgasm face looks like but I still assume it’s a face. I’ve seen dogs make faces at things that are tasty or fun, so they must have a face for when they rub their bloated gummi-worm hog on an 8-year-old boy’s smooth face. It’s possible Rat was making a face but it was buried beneath the beast’s immobile crust.

Either way, it’s impassive Moai stare as it didn’t even enjoy face-raping a squirming, screaming 8-year-old is an image that pops into my head whenever someone says they’re a dog person.

The Episode.

Settings are one of the core structural elements of a show and will dictate later plot and character possibilities. A family show means there are characters of different ages and these will occupy both shared and individual locations. Start in the home and the episode can be focused on anyone. Start at the Plant and the scene’s about Homer. Start at the school and it’s about Bart or Lisa (and others later on). Bart and Lisa can’t just be at the Plant any more than Homer can be at the school, so making this happen requires work by the narrative.

This work will both take up space and require some level of logic, which means Homer being at the school can’t just be there untethered, if he’s there he’s being summoned and if he’s being summoned there’s a reason. All of this creates expectations in the audience and takes up time, meaning it will subsequently be part of a large plot element. See Bart’s school trip to the Plant or any episode where Homer and Marge have a school meeting about Bart. As these logical steps and plot elements pile up, you run out of space for your actual story.

A lot of shows get around this problem with tight focus, either character or setting, with these foci tending to be split along the lines of drama for the former and everything else for the latter. Shows like Cheers that are set in a single location have the benefit of the built-in understandings that a known social setting, like a bar, create. Without having to spend any narrative time or energy there’s a premade cast of mains for focal stories, and goofy side-characters ready for whatever comic relief or surprising depth you feel like rolling out. As the settings of shows like this and The Office can focus without excluding, characters can grow without disrupting the show’s core reality.

Archer started with a well utilised audience knowledge of spy tropes to give themselves freedom with settings and events, allowing for quite absurd plots and events to exist comfortably within an otherwise fairly real world. But as the side characters grew into more important parts of an ensemble, the show got kind of stuck. Doing focal episodes means ignoring characters that may have grown into fan favourites. Archer did this for a while but soon fell into the trap of coming up with contrived reasons for all the characters to be in the same setting, even if no real-world logic, or even the show’s looser approximation, supports them all being there. They eventually committed the worst of all sins, making awful jokes about how contrived their own writing is which is insulting to the viewer and actively destructive to the show’s story world.

The Simpsons exists in a floppier version of reality, one more distinctly cartoony than even Archer, so it never needed to hold itself to higher standards. That it did was one of its defining characteristics and part of what made the show’s peak period so good. Because the final way that one can have a bunch of separate plots and characters work together is the hardest and it’s the one Bart’s Dog gets an F chooses. Coming up with a good narrative reason to have all these different characters and spaces meaningfully connect in a logical fashion is hard because there’s just fewer that exist within reality. It even goes one notch cleverer and chooses to focus on the dog.

Had the show focused on Bart, which it easily could have, the show would have been a character focal one that would have had to make choices about what to ignore as Bart’s perspective, behaviour, and feelings require narrative real estate. By focusing on Santa’s Little Helper, the narrative gets the benefit of a perspective that exists primarily through the experiences of the surrounding humans.

The result is an episode that perfectly executes the complex braiding I’ve spoken about, and through that we get several characters at once.

Homer has the lightest elements, but this just reflects his already well-established character. Homer is a sad man, unhappy and only just smart enough to be tortured by that. He desperately grabs at little things to make him happy because he’s too scared to hope for more, so the base marketing of things like sneakers and cookies is beyond his capacity to resist. Happy people own impressive sneakers. Big cookies are a lot of a good thing. It’s typically treated as a moral failing ripe for mockery, and his breaking apart at the loss of a $5 cookie is a good example of that, but when small things can break a person, that person was already close to the edge.

Lisa’s story exists as a kind of adjunct to her mother’s surprisingly stronger one. Her intelligence alienates her from both parents, Homer is a dumb oaf and Marge is a spineless sponge, so her shared episodes with them typically focus on her learning about some deeper level of connection. Though otherwise close to her mother, Lisa sees her and her hobbies as quaintly dumb at best. The quilt, and her mother’s impressive skills relating to it, are that deeper connection. A fact emphasised by Lisa starting a new one at the episode’s close.

Bart has more a functional role in the plot as the primary advocate for his dog and, along with Lisa, the necessary counterpoint to Homer and Marge over the dog’s fate. Bart is a bit like Homer in that his position as source of conflict and wacky events leaves him with a lot of negative personality traits. Occasionally we get a look into the kinds of childhood anxieties and fears that cause these, ones that would be present in a child of a high-stress household, but he’s mostly an unthinking, selfish piece of shit. As such, he’s given only a few basic redeeming core traits. In this case: loyalty.

Loyalty is the participation trophy of positive core characteristics. Thugs, gangsters, and various otherwise irredeemable pieces of shit will, even consciously, cling to loyalty as though it redeems the rest of their miserable personality. Many modern dramas, like The Sopranos will have and take the time to give their pieces of shit more depth, but the loyalty card remains a popular trope. Bart gets it because giving him anything else would force some kind of internal conflict or change.

But it’s Marge who really stands out in this episode, even if it’s mostly because the bar she’s trying to clear is so low. As the straight character, she’s burdened with being the nagging voice of dissent to every shenanigan her husband or children get into and what character moments aren’t that are usually naff mum hobbies we make fun of. Most of her character episodes are simply inversions of that, her snapping and the family having to deal with it. But the quilt offers her something new.

When threading the needle, Marge’s skill in sewing is treated with respect, and her burning her callus makes it cool. Later Marge moments, like the loom, are mocked because it’s a defunct skill. The loom is merely a surpassed technology. The quilt is the expression of 6 generations of Marge’s family. An expression that is manifest only through the actual craft. The quilt can never be surpassed by industrial growth as it is its handmade quality that is the point.

The value of this as an addition to her character depth is demonstrated by her rare shift to the technically villainous anti-dog side. Reflecting from her position as the voice of reason, hers is usually the side the narrative takes, and the audience is expected to. This positions her again as a structural component of the narrative and not a character. But Marge loved that quilt, and even though the story is about a dog and even though loyalty is a positive quality she has enough character to hate the dog for destroying it.

Near naturally the story ends on a fairly trite trope, Santa’s Little Helper just miraculously begins to understand Bart. One shouldn’t lean on this too heavily but it’s an otherwise fine narrative device. A bit like hyperdrive, there’s going to be some level of magical bullshit because without that you’re not a writer but the genius who invented hyperdrive. But this is a minor point, the episode itself is peak Simpsons.

Yours in resisting the beef wellington, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

Santa’s Little Helper’s (gah, possessives) behaviour is inconsistent with how he is in most of the series, but it’s a dog so I’ll let it slide.

Hibbert seen here in full Cosby. The joke where he asks Marge how she got his home number is a goodun. Similar to jokes where one bleeps an otherwise innocent word, comedy by omission taps into that unconscious aspect where an undefined something will create a stronger emotional response than a known quantity. Horror uses the same technique to scare.

Bart getting stuck in a logic loop is another fun little one because it’s so real.

I’m assuming Nev-R-Break also make the tubes on the Springfield Monorail.

Homer on the phone to Mrs Winfield is a good example of how to use build to make a joke work where the audience already knows the punchline. It’s a great performance by Castellaneta. His little exhalation of rage and his slow walk toward where we know the dog isn’t, punctuating each step with yet another nail in his own coffin, shifts the absurdity from the dog not being there to Homer making it worse for himself. These little shifts within a joke or joke construct are great ways to breathe new life into old gags or to nest more jokes within each other.

Ned walks away in this scene so terribly it’s something I noticed even as a child. It feels a bit like how some cartoons will design characters only to realise that the animation style makes certain shots wildly unworkable.

The mouth interior shot with Hibbert is a goodun. One of those little things where the animators remember they don’t have the barriers of live action.

Teen… STEAM? There’s a dumb teenybopper aspect of Lisa that’s always kind of there but clashes a bit with the rest of her nerd/outcast characteristic. It’s not to say the two can’t blend in certain ways, but Lisa’s aren’t the nerd teenybopper crap. Though this is largely because the early 90s didn’t really have the kinds of cultural fusions common to today.

Babysitter bandit cameo is a nice one as it speaks to the greater lore of the show. The channel flipping also gives us a rare look at a non-Hartman Troy McClure with a great line about white eyeballs. Nicely ridiculous but edging on the believable.

There’s another element of classic Simpsons here and that’s a solid guest character. Tracy Ullman is in quality form as Winthrop. Simpsons guest characters tend to alternate between comic, like Winthrop, and dramatic ones, like Mr Bergstrom. Each exists within the general trope functions of their respective narrative dimensions. The wacky characters can pop in and out fairly easily, whereas the dramatic tend to need the support of more narrative time to work. Winthrop is a maniacal presence, a demented Thatcher-like authoritarian, but her absurdity works because she requires no more framing than “dog trainer” which subsequent years of reality programming have proven to be, if anything, an understated performance.

Characters like Winthrop, who border on antagonist, typically get some kind of comeuppance or challenge to their worldview. She doesn’t, she just respects that Santa’s Little Helper passed his tests. It’s a bit of nuance that few bother with.

Homer dancing at the kids when Marge agrees with him is classic.

“People think only mules can pull carts” is a great gag as it suggests a stranger reality behind the line.

PULL THE BLOODY CHAIN, BOY

The frisbee bouncing off of the dog’s vacant eyes is a great visual gag.