Welcome back to our season-by-season look at the official Greatest TV Show of All Time. Every month, I track The Simpsons‘ development, in an attempt to identify whether each season has its own character, and whether the show really does have a clearly-defined ‘Golden Age’.
This month, change is afoot – so what does that mean for everyone’s favourite Springfieldians, and does it push The Simpsons closer to the kind of jokes and episodes we all remember?
The Simpsons, Season Three
(1991-1992, Al Jean & Mike Reiss)
So here are we are, at the first changing of the guard in Springfield, as the showrunners of the first two seasons – Groening, Brooks, Simon – relinquish their duties. ‘Showrunner’, for anyone who doesn’t speak fluent TV Nerd, is kind of a nebulous term, potentially covering everything from writing, producing, script editing and directing.
Think Joss Whedon on Buffy, Dan Harmon on Community, or Amy Sherman-Palladino on Gilmore Girls. I’ve intentionally picked names there who didn’t actually run every season of the programme in question, because it’s a fluid role that can be passed from one person to another – like Doctor Who moving from Russel T. Davies to Steven Moffat to Chris Chibnall. Showrunners aren’t necessarily the creator of a show, but basically, they’re the person in creative control that season. If cinema’s auteur is the director, then in TV that role goes to the showrunner.
While those original three didn’t necessarily leave The Simpsons behind entirely – they’re all credited as executive producers on the show to this day, in Simon’s case posthumously – this is essentially them handing their baby over to two new daddies, in the form of Al Jean and Mike Reiss. To quote Leopold, two seasons into the future: from now on, things are gonna be very, very different around here.
“You’re a very selfish man” (or, Homer Defined)
And what better way to track the ways the show changed, than with a look at the character who by this point had clearly become, if not exactly its lead, then certainly its star?
People talk about the jerkification of Homer in later episodes, but this season feels like it’s testing the boundaries of what exactly he can get away with. Homer has always been a thoughtless character, but here he occasionally strays into maliciousness. Wishing for – and then actively cheering on – the ruination of the Flanderses in “When Flanders Failed” (3.3), and ignoring his own daughter unless she can help his gambling in “Lisa the Greek” (3.14).
There’s also this weird note of lechery. Homer openly salivating over women simply doesn’t fit with the man who would be incapable of saying the word ‘titmouse’ without giggling like a schoolgirl.
That bashful personality is starting to develop, though – along with a sense of whimsy – and it’s a large part of what redeems his more selfish actions. It’s hard to hate a man who skips through an imagined Land of Chocolate, or loses his mind over a toy of a bird that drinks water. It carries through to his speech, too. There’s a delicate poetry to some of his lines, one of my favourite sources of Simpsons humour – that contrast of brutish stupidity and occasional eloquence.
“That was a well-plotted piece of non-claptrap that never made me want to retch.”
It’s not just Homer’s personality that is shifting at this point – the entire show is in a state of transition. Season 2 was a realisation of that particular vision of The Simpsons: warm, smartly-told stories about a family, with the odd great joke.
Season 3 isn’t quite a bold new vision. Episodes provide different blueprints for what the show could become. Some episodes are narrative-led; others just use the story as a skeleton to hang a series of skits on. There’s some adoption of the disconnected first-act structure, but there are just many episodes which don’t even have a b-plot.
In this primordial soup, though, some recognisably Simpsons traditions are starting to develop. Montages, freezeframe-inviting sign gags and cutaways to a semi-unrelated scene are all increasingly common, as the writers explore ways to squeeze in more jokes.
Right from the first episode, there’s a spike in musical numbers. “Stark Raving Dad” (3.1) has Michael Jackson and Bart teaming up for “Happy Birthday, Lisa”. Sting teams up with a bunch of fictional Springfield celebrities for “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well”, and Lurleen Lumpkin has a whole run of her own songs. There’s the Cheers theme song parody in “Flaming Moe’s” (3.10) and, of course, the immortal “Talkin’ Softball”.
We also start to see sequels to memorable episodes. In some cases, directly – the second Treehouse of Horror, the returns of Sideshow Bob and Homer’s brother Herbert – but in others, revisiting a familiar concept – like flashbacks to the early days of Marge & Homer, or a story where one of them is tempted by infidelity. Most of these, the show would come back to again and again. Others, not so much (sorry, Herb).
The standout is “Black Widower” (3.21), where Sideshow Bob is released from prison and makes the step from armed robbery to attempted murder. It showcases a completely different kind of writing for the show, with a genuinely thought-out mystery – the writers teamed up with Thomas Chastain, crime novelist and president of the Mystery Writers of America at the time – that puts Bart in the role of detective. Mystery stories are a format the show will return to in the future, giving us some of its very best episodes.
“Don’t blame us, our generation watches an appalling amount of TV.”
This season also packs in the references to TV and movies with increasing frequency. You’ve got an extended riff on the opening to 2001: A Space Odyssey, a cameo from Spinal Tap, and the persistent love of nicking Twilight Zone ideas for Hallowe’en episodes, plus a thousand lines and shots borrowed from everything the team ever loved. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that The Simpsons was my cultural education, and this is where that really starts.
TV in particular has always been key to the show from its very beginning – it’s the climax of the entire title sequence, after all – but this season really puts it front and centre. TV becomes a plot point, a way of transitioning between two scenes, or of starting an episode, as much as it does a delivery mechanism for jokes.
Every event in the Simpsons’ lives is processed via TV, whether it’s a news report on whatever situation is taking over Springfield, or an Itchy & Scratchy short that reflects one character’s current state of mind. And vitally, in episodes like “Homer Defined” (3.5) and “Radio Bart” (3.13), they start to affect what’s on the TV, too.
It feels like the show reacting to its own legacy. At this point, episodes were regularly pulling in over 20 million viewers in the US alone, and The Simpsons was a bona fide cultural phenomenon. With that in mind, it’s actually surprising that we don’t get the traditional Itchy & Scratchy-focused episode this season, but perhaps it’s just a case of that commentary being a little more evenly distributed. Like the Treehouse of Horror segment where Bart wishes for the family to become rich and famous, which parodies the tacky merchandise and strained tie-in albums, with an onlooker saying, “if I hear one more thing about the Simpsons, I swear I’ll scream”.
It must be a strange thing to have to reckon with. These characters – and the writers behind them – have lived a life formed by pop culture, but now they’re starting to make it.
“The secret ingredient is… love? Who’s been screwing with this thing?”
I worry I’m painting a picture here of a Simpsons that has strayed from its roots. And it’s true that, as a whole, I don’t think Season 3 is as good as its predecessor. And that is partly because it shifts the focus of the show, introducing new pleasures which haven’t quite matured into their final form yet.
But it never forgets the erratically-beating heart of the show: the characters. It’s here that many of them, the supporting cast in particular, evolve into the familiar versions of themselves. Take Flanders, for example. The burning of his tie, as he quits his job in pharma, is intentionally cheesy – but it also becomes a funeral pyre for the initial yuppie incarnation of the character.
The season also lands on some of Springfield’s greatest pairings. Bart, jumping the fence in “Separate Vocations” (3.18) and teaming up with Principal Skinner. In “Flaming Moe’s”, Moe being established as Homer’s best friend, at least in terms of how often they’re teamed up. Not only do these make for two of the best episodes of the season, they’re the first time The Simpsons has managed to forge classic relationships outside of the core family – and that’s partly because they follow a similar pattern.
Most great Simpsons episodes are about one member of the family disappointing another, and eventually making it up to them. This is basically Moe’s relationship to Homer. A common variant sees two of the Simpsons – often Homer and one of his kids – realising they’ve grown distant, trying to reconnect, over-compensating, and eventually winding back. Squint just right, and that’s how every alliance between Bart and Skinner works.
This is the recurring theme of The Simpsons at this point: letting down someone you love but, through that love, becoming a better person and rectifying your mistake. This runs through every relationship in the show, whether it’s Marge & Homer or Bart & Milhouse, Homer & Lisa or Smithers & Mr Burns.
In most cases, the two partners take it in turns to let the other down, but Homer finds himself in that role more than any other character.
The other half of that equation, though, is the reason we forgive him. Homer always tries to make up for his mistakes – most commonly starting out with a quick fix, but eventually with more effort than it would have cost him in the first place. That’s a redeeming cycle, that brings him back from even his uglier moments in Season 3. Whether that carries through to future stories, well, we’ll just have to see.
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