The Way We Was

By Gabriel, 12 Sep 18, 5

My Recollection

Flashback episode. Artie Ziff. Mc Bain. Why do birds suddenly appear?

After developing the capacity for insight, the teenager will adorn itself in whatever it can find to blind their third eye to the cosmic horror of their own emptiness. Clothes, causes, slogans when causes prove too hard, all grabbed with the same desperate, greedy ferocity of a meth head snatching that week’s food from the local Nite Owl. None of it will fill the hole and most are doomed to become the kind of immediately forgettable NPCs who go as “70s Guy” to every office party because they have no definable interests.

Drugs are the cage moonsault of personality substitutes. The kind of high-risk, high-reward gambits that can conjure a miraculous imitation of friends, dreams, and opinions provided you don’t get in too deep. They were my choice, weed particularly, not only because it meant I had a reason to be around people but because they really made laying face down in a pillow for 3 hours “doing something”. This was how I spent my senior years at Indooroopilly State High and a few beyond.

I smoked a lot of fucking weed. Like, watched the entirety of the soap Passions, a lot. I was high every day before school, even on Thursdays when I’d be coming down during Economics. Have you ever come down during a high school economics class? It’s like coming down during a high school economics class. There’s literally nothing to compare that to. It’s the bottom of things. My dismal Home Ec department had these 1920s measuring devices, giant metal cones with 1 METRIC CUP embossed on the side. Naturally I filled one with weed, smoked the whole thing in one sitting, then spent the rest of the party laying on the floor having the occasional object thrown at me. I smoked a lot of fucking weed.

Naturally, when graduation rolled round, the special occasion necessitated something a little bit wilder. Showing up baked would have been as special as showing up with a head. So I got high and put some thought into it. My name is Gabriel so I’ll go as an angel. No, that’s weird. I’ll take acid and go as an angel. See, it all fits together. Sometimes a dumb idea is turned into a brilliant one by the simple addition of one small piece. I wish I were joking.

I bought two tabs, one for the formal and one for the after-party. I did this before the assembly where we were specifically told not to be high at the formal lest they refuse to graduate us. This was a big deal as even though were weren’t supposed to be high at all, they never directly addressed it. Because hey, at least we were in class and I did turn in a few A essays. This left me in a predicament. I could follow the unbelievably generous rules and take two tabs at the after-party or I could take one before the formal anyway and white knuckle my way through.

So it’s 7pm, I’ve taken a tab of acid, and I’m dabbing myself with gold paint because all angels ripple with the vibrational frequency of the universe that manifests to our eyes as a warm golden colour. A white robe is practically mandatory. No wings, too ostentatious. This’ll be fine. The vibrations think so. I’ve got this.

A big part of being high is the being high part. You’re meant to go with it, let it take you on journeys to far off lands of marshmallow fascists and talking wall pleasantries. I’m getting into a car and reminding myself to keep my eyes only half open so I don’t look high as fuck, but not to keep them exactly half open because that’s insane. Like, three quarters open. How open is that? I measured it with a ruler in the bathroom but now I’ve forgotten. Just get in the car. Assemble the seatbelt like a normal person.

I get out of the car and face a Gonzo nightmare of grinning flesh, sparkling dresses, and eyes that all shift to look at the what the fuck is that? Keep it together. Eyes at three quarters. Heel to toe. Eyes are swimming toward me. I think some are from different heads but I’ve bunched them into the same face so now a group of Janus faces are moving toward me and asking questions. I’m steering a puppet of myself and shouting commands into a tube. At the end of a tube is a Russian mouse whose English is cobbled together from 90s sitcoms. I’m trying. The mouse is trying. This is largely working. Nobody is yelling at me yet but I have to choose a dinner selection. I choose the chicken but I linger on the “en” far too long like “chickeeeeeeennnnnn…” like a fucking insane person. Or didn’t I? Shit.

My friends laugh at the sight of me for at least 3 very valid reasons. I laugh along with them but it comes out wrong. Eyes at three quarters. There are teachers around and they have probably been informed about the  chickeeeeeeennnnnn incident. Shit. Stop laughing, that was ages ago. Here comes one of the cool teachers. He teaches gay and drama. He once sulked for an entire class because some other teacher ate all his biscuits. I’m fine. Thank you. You are good. This is good. Yes, the chicken. No. Paint. It’ll wash off. I don’t know. I don’t care, really. Okay, goodbye. Verbatim. I still remember that conversation but only my half of it. I wish I were joking.

SPEECHES. Shit. It’s like spit but peaches. I hope they don’t want me to do one. I’ll punish them for even daring. I’ll just lean into it and say chickeeeeeeennnnnn for 5 minutes. I bet I can exhale that long. How hard could that be? Fuck! I’m thinking about my breathing and now I have to keep doing that or I’ll die. I can’t die here. I look like a twink Oscar. Eyes at four quadrants. Wait. I think that’s right. I can see but I can’t see the top so I’m probably okay. My principal cares and I feel guilty for making that meaningless.

PHOTOS. Shit. That’s a fancy camera. Can it read auras? My anime pupils are wondering what the silver thing is on top of the camera when it explodes like a fresh universe and blinds me. Nope. I’m fine. This particular blob in my vision has an easy explanation but I’m worried the other blobs will be a bad influence on it.

More teachers approach. Remember MTV’s The Head? There was a doctor who looked exactly like  Beavis but in a way that was irrelevant to the character. Like Beavoid looking people just get about. One teacher is the Butt-Head equivalent of that. He looks like adult Butt-Head but acts like secular Ned Flanders. He has an amazingly textured forehead. It furrows like a pair of knitted fingers and I feel like the hands might open and grab me. I hold it together in spite of this.

I’m verbal but okay, it’s nearly over. Confident but not overly, bored and slouching a bit, like a normal teen who’s normal. People with reasons for living are doing the things those people do. I’m slouching a bit too much. Steady on. This has been horrifying but it’s over now and I’m going to a party. That’ll be fun. I take my second tab.


The Episode

First off, I owe this episode an apology. I’d mistook it for I Married Marge in terms of the earliest dent to The Simpsons’ timeline. Harping on dents may seem a little petty, especially considering later episodes like That 90s Show would go on to retcon the canon, but Decline Simpsons so openly abandons any standards that one can only hold them to the earlier episodes. When your world is two years old, you have less excuse for screwing up established elements or being so totally out of ideas as to simply ignore them. If you have any established canonical elements that get used as the basis for story and character, selectively abandoning them is the point of contention. If you can keep Lisa vegetarian, you can keep Skinner Skinner. Not doing so stands out as failure.

But there’ll be ample time to moan about that later.

There are two basic kinds of flashback episode: the vignette episode and the lore episode. The vignette type are typically clip shows that reuse old material to save time and money, like many later Simpsonepisodes, but new variations on the theme have parodied the format by flashing back to things the audience has never seen such as in Community and Rick and Morty. The lore episode will, besides standard bookend scenes, be entirely set in another time. This is almost always the past, for obvious reasons, though The Simpsons has used dips into the future to explore the character developments its locked universe couldn’t otherwise and these have typically been worked to add to existing characterisation. A subset of the lore episode is the period piece. These don’t have to be a period from a very long time ago, but the period piece requires an emphasis on the era’s aesthetic for plot and humour so more recognisable ages tend to get used. Bojack has done a few period pieces set in very recent times, early 2000s for example, and they still work fine. The Way we Was is a fine period piece set in the mid 70s but it almost didn’t pan out like that.

In the commentary track, it comes up that Groening was quite against the distinctly 70s setting as he was afraid of it “dating” the show. Dating is a bit of an odd critical trope. In its simplest form, it’s a joke that doesn’t translate because the reference or subject is old enough to be unknown to the audience. Satire runs into this a lot. The broader idea of a show being dated is that it is period but to a point that is abrasive to the audience. If this sounds vague, it is, and that’s a larger problem I have with the idea being treated like an automatic negative.

Spaced and Futurama provide good case studies for this idea. The first episode of Spaced’s season 2, Back, has a Matrix reference that even the commentary track of the time describes as embarrassingly dated. The Matrix was really cool for a few months before over-saturation (and holy fucking shit, it was almost Minion meme over-saturated) soured the public toward it and Back was unlucky enough to be aired after that turn happened (the sequels didn’t help much either). Watching it on DVD back in the early 2000s, while everyone and their aunt were making Matrix references, it was cheesy and lame. Watching it last week, 17 years out, it’s a fun reminder of those days when The Matrix was the coolest fucking thing. This illustrates one of the core issues with dating: it is wholly dependent on your own position in time. Time will pass, your show will age, attempting to make it eternal will limit you more than just accepting that some of it will be perceived differently over the years. In this sense, dating is an irrelevant thing to bring up or consider.

But not always, as Futurama’s Attack of the Killer App gives us a firm illustration of when a temporally specific cultural reference becomes dating. The episode is about social media and Leela’s singing ass boil. This is a reference to the 15 minutes of fame enjoyed by Scottish cryptid and singer, Susan Boyle, which you may remember as “oh yeah, her”. The reason this fails where Spaced doesn’t is that Futurama is set a thousand fucking years into the future. Spaced’s cultural references perfectly fit its period, either in proximity to the referred material or to its characters’ actual cultural experiences, and these help frame the story universe as well as build the characters. They are of a generation built on complex media environments and constant intertextuality, references and seeing their reality through fictional lenses are parts of their lived experiences. The Matrix references only felt awkward because of a temporary cultural shift.

Futurama is a show written now that is set in the future, which admittedly makes writing cultural references a toughie as it’s not like the staff can predict things (and even if they could there’d be little value in a joke about something that happens in 2782). Stuff set in the future generally has two options and Futurama mostly deals in these: allusion or time travel (which is just a period piece, really). Allusion is a kind of soft reference that has such broad application it can fit in a variety of eras or cultural perspectives and sci-fi needs this to maintain its otherness. Start directly ranting about something the writers are living, like a Matrix rant in the episode Near-Death Wish, and you break your narrative universe for what winds up being a cheap point or joke. Susan Boyle was a 5 minute thing stemming from a reality show. It could have been less direct, with broader comments on brief fame or reality TV, but instead it’s a very overt and specific reference. It takes specific cultural knowledge of a thing only relevant for 2009 to make sense and it breaks the universe, this is dating your show.

The 70s frame for The Way we Was dates the show but in the Spaced way, where the references fit within the narrative world and combine to create a level of reality and character the timeless universe needs. What made the show so unique (for its era) was its combination of the real and the absurd. A timeless universe is ridiculous, we can never see the family age, so episodes like this are valuable tools to give the audience the impression of realism and create the tone its famous for. Any attempt at a vague period setting would have furthered the unreality and crippled the necessary straight-man reality that the absurdity needs to bounce off. Homer sings along to The Joker. Marge engages in early feminism. Homer raves about his ruffled prom tux in a way that is genuine to his character but funny for us. It’s all very real.

The reality of the episode runs through its story and humour, too. There’s nothing cartoon daft that happens. Homer moons for rebuttal, but this is character perfect for what we know of the man as an adult. Similarly, we get to see the Marge beneath the mask, the slipping of which structures later character and plot moments, and we get to see yet another event that staples that mask to her face in the first place.

Homer and Marge have a genuine connection, but its nearly thwarted because Homer is stupid and selfish.

The Way we Was is a story episode over comedy. The jokes are there, but they are not the focus, and what is there is in-universe. This show dates the series, but in the positive way, providing background and reality to Homer and Marge, who otherwise exist only as tropes who came out of the box fully formed. The result may be inevitable, but the process of getting there builds an important pillar of The Simpsons’ universe.

Yours in suddenly appearing every time someone you love is near, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

Speaking of references that lose a little over time, the opening reference to Siskel and Ebert, American film reviewers who are now dead. Siskel died first, and Ebert is the old man people inexplicably listened to about the artistic merit of videogames.

Hey look, McBain! A parody of lower tier action movies, an actual McBain movie starring  Christopher Walken came out later in 1991. It’s garbage.


This time, he won’t lose. Unlike in Vietnam, he lost the shit outta that.

Destiny jokes, like Homer talking about how he never gains weight, are good when they are little lines.

Speaking of destiny, this episode was prior to the collapse of The Simpsons’  universe into a perpetual vortex of known side characters. The 70s setting is emphasised and made real by the fact that most of the background characters are one-offs. Making every modern character appear in younger form in every flashback is Muppet Babies level realism, the universe becomes a dumb inevitability and ridiculously artificial as a result. Similarly, the Burns reference without actually seeing him is a level of subtlety long gone from the series and dearly missed.


Who is this? Who knows? She probably moved away and lives her own life.

The interaction between Homer and Abe is a beautiful one and a great example of how you can use flashback to legitimise current character. His advice about going for the dented can is timeless.

“There is a difference between ignorance and stupidity” “Not to me there isn’t…” is great a great example of multi-layering for humour and character. Homer being what Artie isn’t saying Homer is demonstrates the truth of what Artie is superficially saying and what he is somewhat implying.

The framing of Homer’s ass is great. Maximum cheek without having to worry oneself with any anus or dick, quality family-friendly butt presentation.

The idea of presenting an argument for someone to fuck you is so bizarre to me. Persistence in general is just desperation losers hide under window dressing. Someone either wants to fuck you or doesn’t, arguing it like it’s a case is pathetic. Nonetheless, this is within character for Homer. Even Marge actually going and checking his references is too. Again, references? If you don’t want my dick in your mouth, how the fuck is my friend saying you should going to change that? What is wrong with you people? I HATE YOU ALL SO MUCH

“Even wallflowers can look forward to ONE date a year…” the marvellous John Lovitz ad-libbed most of what you find in his episodes. He’s a a great guest star who, like Albert Brooks, adds so much on his own that I consider him a near indispensable part of what made The Simpsons great.

Homer showing up to Marge’s for his date, even after she screamed at him that she never wanted to see him again, is fucking hilarious and both in character for who we know as an adult and for what we’ve seen of him young.

“Ladies pinch; whores use rouge” is one of those lines that became an oral meme, with pinch and rouge swapped for whatever.

“That’s what you get when you don’t put out” is some vicious Patty or Selma.

Simpsons lore is a bit of a clusterfuck but there’s some brilliant parts here that fit insanely well with later episodes. Homer skipping three weeks of school and hoping to graduate in the summer sets up for why he’s taking, and ultimately failing, Remedial Science 1A in The Front. It’s also fucking hilarious, speed of delivery is a good way to cover a bit of ridiculousness, it’s happening and over so fast that people can’t analyse it. Having the doorbell ring and some action take place helps this along too.

Marge’s dad! With red hair for some reason. He’s one of the least explored Simpsons family characters, because who gives a shit about Marge, and he really only shows up again in Fear of Flying.

Speaking of side characters, one of the better side character archetypes that The Simpsons uses is the one that pops up everywhere without being a specific character. Lindsey Naegle started as one of these before coalescing into a whole thing but one who has so-far avoided that is the oddly-named Raphael, making his first appearance here as the limo driver. Homer’s interactions with him are a great way of getting some good jokes in without having to make them non-diegetically. Homer’s situation, going stag in such a way, is within character but also a good source of jokes. Having someone who, like the audience, can see the absurdity of this is able to make overt jokes that would otherwise be impossible. It also adds to Homer’s suffering which fits the story.

All of my lady-friends, women I’ve slept with, and unsolicited women on the street have said that I’m an emotionless robot so I accept there’s some elements of love that just don’t compute for me. Still, so much of The Simpsons’ means of dealing with love treat it like some kind of inevitable magic. This is par for the format, but the utility of it as a quickie wrap-up tool tends to truncate the endings a bit. That Artie is also a creep doesn’t make Homer not one, it’s not like these were the last two men Marge had a shot with. This dents the ending a bit, but largely only because the episode is otherwise more grounded in actual reality.



5 replies to The Way We Was

Alex on 17 Sep 18 said:

Drug stories fascinate me, having never been high and probably too late to start experimenting. Never went to highschool formal either. Very enlightening intro. I generally don't like prequels in media, because it makes foreshadowing and set-ups blatantly easy and obvious, but there are some things that first appear in this episode that are called back upon later (Homer's teacher coming back for his remedial classes, for one) that I can give it a pass. Pretty good stuff.

"Okay, but I'm only paid to drive" is probably my favourite joke of the episode. I've been watching a lot of Blackadder lately and this guy reminds me of Blackadder a bit, in that he has a witty, snarky remark for nearly everything. Although it gets a bit tiring when every character in a given work has the same level of witty snark.

Barney's nude run through prom seems like the sort of thing that he wouldn't have come up with by himself, given how Homer is shown pushing him into delinquency earlier in the episode. Maybe there was a set-up that got cut for time (or I might have missed it)

Marge's dad's voice reminds me of Marvin Monroe, in what I suspect are the same circumstances in Family Guy that led to the doctor and Lois' father having nearly identical voices.

Gabriel on 19 Sep 18 said:

Prequels in media have layered upon themselves so much, and later Simpsons is very guilty of this, that they lean heavily into absurd predestination. It's why I really like the abundance of non-repeating characters in this episode, makes things feel a lot realer which supports the goal of the episode.

It's a matter of showing how things happened without taking the result as the core relevance to your fictional universe. The Power Plant reference is a good example of the lighter touch that's needed. Without being shown Burns or Smithers, they become small parts of a larger world as opposed to large parts of a small world. It's fun as opposed to dominating and this maintains universe integrity.

Muhart on 18 Sep 18 said:

I can't think of a fear more silly and stifling to creativity than dating your work. It especially doesn't jive with the wave of 80s' everything being a wellspring of themes, plots and backdrops for every other show being developed today.

And besides, finding a familiar connective thread in an older work is one of the more satisfying things about exploring the past.

Gabriel on 19 Sep 18 said:

I think it's a fear from an earlier era in human creativity, when there were fewer prior eras (particularly in modern media formats) and a far less codified taxonomy of them. Audiences have more experience with era settings, even recent ones, and this means creators can use them without fear.

Mike on 14 Oct 18 said:

I wonder if part of the fear of "dating" the show was not about having the actual jokes and references lose their luster, but rather the effect on the canon timelines contrasting with the un-aging characters. Perhaps they were pre-emptively concerned about the later retconning they knew they may need to do to vis-a-vis That 90's Show, etc

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