There aren’t many things in pop culture as huge as The Simpsons. In the sense of how dominant the show became as a cultural force, but also just the sheer amount of it that exists. 629 episodes as I write this, quite probably more by the time you read it.
It’s an impossible thing to hold in your head all at once, even if you have seen all of those episodes, but I reckon most people have a very specific idea of what the show is. The types of jokes, the structure of episodes, all the stuff that makes it The Simpsons.
Most people also have an idea of when it stops being, in any meaningful sense, that show. You’ll hear people talking about the Golden Years, and the darkness that has followed. No one quite agrees on the exact boundaries of this golden age, but the rough agreement seems to be seasons three to nine.
I’ve never been exactly clear on my own canon. It’s my favourite TV programme of all time – possibly my favourite thing of all time – but I’ve never watched the episodes in anything even approaching the correct order. I can reel off favourite jokes, episodes and characters, but I couldn’t pin down the era when the show feel most like The Simpsons to me.
Hence, this here project. I’m going to watch through all of the seasons in order, one a month, and report back. Starting here, now, with season one.
“He’s a loser! He’s pathetic! He’s… a Simpson.”
Let’s start with the very first episode, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire. Not because it was designed as such – the first episode to start production was Some Enchanted Evening, which ended up as the season finale – but because it was the first time that most of the world met these characters. (Yes, I know about the Tracey Ullman shorts. No, I’ve never seen them. Yes, that’s exactly the kind of thing I’d write Patreon bonus content on.)
Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire – aka the Christmas episode – aired on 17th December 1989. The day before my first birthday. I wish it had gone out a day later, for the pure mythology of the thing – but these, alas, are the facts.
Watching it again now, this episode is fairly rough around the edges. The density of jokes isn’t there, the iconic opening sequence is missing, and many of the characters don’t look, sound or feel right yet. But it’s unmistakeably The Simpsons.
The episode has the right balance of cynical edge and saccharine warmth. That broad cross-section of joke varieties. A story built around a dysfunctional but loving father-son relationship. A pay-off that gives me that familiar happy buzz in my stomach, as the family accept Santa’s Little Helper into the fold because he’s as broken as they are.
“The sad truth is, all families are like us.”
Comparatively crude as this first season is, it works because there’s an emotional reality to the family. These episodes really steer into the idea that the Simpsons aren’t like other families, and don’t really understand how to be normal. In fact, in their best moments, that’s exactly what brings them together.
An entire episode (“There’s No Disgrace Like Home”) gets dedicated to this outsider status, but it’s much more prominent throughout the season than it would be later on. Look at Lisa, who hasn’t really been slotted into the role of Good Kid yet. In these early episodes her intelligence comes with rebelliousness, and she’s more a partner-in-crime for Bart than a foil.
Overall, though, the family’s personalities are nailed down pretty much immediately: Homer the father with good intentions who makes bad decisions. Marge the wife never able to lose hope in him. Lisa sitting on the precipice of childhood innocence and well-read maturity. Bart… well, Bart.
This is probably a good time to discuss one of the reasons I wanted to do this project. The common line that early Simpsons is The Bart Show, before the writers discover Homer and make him the programme’s centre of gravity. Over the course of these first few seasons, I want to follow that thread and see how true it really is.
Bart is the star of about a quarter of the first season’s episodes. Told primarily from a kid’s eye level, these are also the stories that veer most into the fantastical – a clash with a bully gets blown up into a war movie, a bad babysitter turns villain. They feel like they could be an episode of an especially smart kid’s show.
Homer’s episodes, which make up another quarter, are much more domestic. Their tone is closer to a trad family sitcom – stories of forgotten birthday presents, money troubles, trying to keep the romance in a marriage with kids – but with an edge of social realism.
That very first episode is all about the class divide between the Simpsons and the Flanderses. The latter is a yuppie success story – Ned is the character most off-centre in these early days, the kind of guy who humblebrags about buying an expensive motorhome on credit – while the Simpsons are a family reliant on a small work bonus to make Christmas happen. Two episodes later, we see Homer dealing with unemployment, and deciding his only solution is suicide.
As I understand it, this is a major part of how The Simpsons were originally conceived. Groening wanted to show the kind of money worries which most sitcoms ignored. There’s a fiscal verisimilitude in these episodes which eventually gets ditched in favour of what’s funny.
Even when money troubles aren’t the driving force of an episode, Homer is frequently cast as an aspirant member of the working class trying to fit into society. He wants to get by at work, impress his boss, fit the image of the American nuclear family. Not really the concerns of the Homer Simpson that most of us would consider definitive.
“There’s nothing wrong with a father kissing his son… I think.”
The other broad grouping, which includes the very first episode, is the Bart & Homer two-hander. It’s here that the first signs of that Simpsons magic really start to peek through. These episodes are mostly about father or son wanting the other to be proud – or at least not ashamed – of them.
This relationship is the emotional core of the first season. It goes to great lengths to show just how similar the two are. Called into school to discuss Bart’s vandalism, Homer passes the offending graffiti – a crudely-sketched Skinner with a speech bubble declaring ‘I am a weiner’ – and not only laughs but agrees “he sure is!” Later in the same episode, forced to attend an opera by Marge, the pair sit in their box like Statler and Waldorf, making fun of the whole thing.
Homer can relate to Bart because he essentially hasn’t changed since high school – a bit of characterisation that is fairly consistent through the years. He still pretty much lives by the ‘code of the schoolyard’ he lays out for Bart: “Don’t tattle. Always make fun of those different from you. Never say anything unless you’re sure everyone feels exactly the same way you do.”
Bart and Homer are both people with good intentions who make bad decisions, and who are too lazy to always do the right thing until they’re pushed. This forms the arc of essentially every basic Simpsons plot.
In spite of those similarities, there’s a beautifully-observed discomfort with expressing love for one another. The two try to navigate their relationship through traditional male bonding experiences, like the backyard games of catch which crop up over and over in these early episodes. As someone who occasionally feels awkward hugging his own dad, these moments hit me, oof, right in the feels.
“You know, you play pretty well for someone with no real problems.”
My two favourite episodes of season one don’t fit into any of the above categories, though. They’re spotlights for my favourite and least-favourite members of the family: Marge and Lisa, respectively.
“Moaning Lisa” is notable as the only episode in this season which features a B-plot. (If we’re being nerds about it, “Crepes of Wrath” cuts back and forth between Springfield and France, but as the two storylines branch out of the same situation, I don’t think it counts.)
As Lisa deals with her ennui, we also get a Bart/Homer videogame rivalry – another example of the pair being on the same level. It’s maybe a sign that they don’t trust Lisa to carry an episode on her own, but it’s an early step towards the defining structure of later Simpsons episodes. (The other half of that structure, the disconnected first act, isn’t present anywhere here. Rest assured, I’ll be keeping an Eye out for it.)
The episode also features my single favourite scene in the whole season. Dropping off Lisa at school, Marge encourages a depressed Lisa to ignore her feelings and just smile, so she’ll fit in better.
“It doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know. It’s what shows up on the surface that counts. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them.”
It’s heartbreaking. Later episodes show that Marge was involved in the ‘70s women’s liberation movement, but it’s a side of her that often collapses under all the layers of female expectation that have been handed down through the generations.
Of course, Marge being Marge, she comes through shortly afterwards. She does a literal U-turn, her tyres screeching as she scoops Lisa back into the car, where she apologises and encourages Lisa to express herself, the music swelling. For the purposes of writing this, I just watched a fuzzy clip on YouTube, with Korean subtitles. And I can confirm that, as the music swells, I get unexpectedly teary every time.
“It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of canteloupe at the end.”
It’s a wonderful bit of characterisation for my favourite family member. She’s underserved by this season, something that sadly never changes, but most of the moments where I get choked up at The Simpsons – and, as you’ll learn, that happens a lot – are down to Marge. So it’s probably not a surprise that she’s the focus of my single favourite episode in season one.
“Life on the Fast Lane” (aka the one with Jacques) is another example of the basic arc that I mentioned earlier. If I had to be more specific, the archetypal plot of a Simpsons episode goes like this: one of the five family members is tempted away – this can mean literally leaving the others behind, but also abandoning its values – but eventually decides against it.
In this case: Marge, pushed away by Homer’s thoughtlessness, finds herself attracted to another man. He attempts to seduce her into an affair, and Marge is tempted but ultimately resists. And then Homer and Marge do it in the nuclear power station car park.
This infidelity plotline is one that would be revisited many times over the years, and it’s interesting that Marge gets there first. In many ways, honestly, she’s the most logical character for these storylines, given that Homer is a terrible husband and Marge is a stone-cold fox, but it’s mainly the temptations of Homer that we’ll see going forward.
It’s also worth noting the way that Jacques is portrayed, in comparison to the extramarital love interests of later episodes. We’re encouraged to see him the way Marge does. Exotic and worldly, purring over words in that French accent and laughing gently at her mistakes. But squint a little, and you can also see he’s actually a bit of a loser. The kind of guy who announces the price of a gift and – gently or no – draws attention to a woman’s minor mistakes, drawn with the traditional Simpsons pot-belly curve at the waist. He’s no Mindy Simmons, let’s put it that way.
And “Life on the Fast Lane” isn’t as nuanced as later explorations of the flaws in Marge and Homer’s relationship. Most notably, it struggles with the moment where Marge makes the decision between her husband and this other man. We see her driving past all these reminders of matrimonial devotion – a trope that later episodes will play for laughs – but it’s not clear why Marge makes the choice she does.
None of which changes the fact that my heart swells when she walks into the power plant, or squeezes tight at the mid-episode ad break.
After a scene of Marge agreeing to meet Jacques away from the bowling alley, escalating their relationship, we show her returning home. She climb in bed next to Homer, the meaningful flicker of his eyes in the foreground. “Marge,” he says. She sits up: “What, Homer?” Those eyes dart back and forth, as Homer builds up the courage to talk about his suspicions. A beat of silence, filled with the enormity of his mistakes and fears, and her guilt and temptation. Eventually, Homer manages a quiet “…nothing”, and the scene fades to black.
It’s an incredible, mature bit of storytelling. There’s a confidence there – this scene only works if you’re invested in Marge and Homer’s relationship. Maybe it’s cheating, given that I’ve spent nearly three decades with the two of them, but just nine episodes in, that confidence is well earned.
“Go watch your cartoon show, dear.”
Of all the elements that make The Simpsons a classic TV show, it’s the heart which develops first. The stories don’t quite feel like Simpsons episodes yet. The characters, beyond the core family, are yet to settle into TV’s greatest supporting cast. There are none of the classic jokes I spend half my social life quoting. But it’s already capable of bringing a lump to my throat, with a frequency that rivals any drama I’ve ever watched.
Taken on its own, apart from the rest of The Simpsons, the first season has its merits, but it isn’t truly great yet. In an alternate universe where the show was cancelled after these 13 episodes, it would be a footnote in the history of TV. The kind of show I’d have heard of, but never bothered to investigate.
Of course, in that universe, the entire TV landscape would look very different. We’ll try and establish why in later instalments, as the show develops into a genuine classic.
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