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 whether the show really does have a clearly-defined ‘Golden Age’. How does the second season hold up to criticisms of racist stereotyping, and how does that sit alongside the show’s burgeoning interest in politics and morality? Plus, what’s with all the fish?

The Simpsons, Season Two

(1990-1991. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, & Sam Simon)

Comparing the first two seasons side by side, the most immediate difference is visual. The animation looks much more polished, the characters are less obviously off-model, and the colours are far cleaner. There’s also a slight shift in episode structure, as b-plots start to develop – used primarily as a way of serving two audiences at once – though there’s still no sign of the disconnected first act that will come to define later incarnations of the show.

The biggest change, though, is that these episodes are just immediately funnier, and in a way that’s more recognisably ‘Simpsons’. There’s a unique rhythm and vocabulary to the humour. The series starts to do those trademark drawn-out long jokes – the classic example being Homer’s fall into and rescue from Springfield Gorge – and land on stranger punchlines, the kind that leave you breathlessly asking ‘what’ or ‘why’ between laughs.

It feels more confident, more obviously the work of a roomful of college boys, especially when it starts to get metatextual. There are gags about dumb cartoons and references to the characters becoming parade balloons and merchandise, and even the first in a long line of self-reflexive Itchy & Scratchy episodes, which we’ll get to properly later.

What really props all that up, though, and provokes laughs rather than just beard-stroking and furious nodding, is the show learning how to use language – the specificity of both voice acting and vocabulary choices – to craft its jokes. The dialogue starts to take on that weird Simpsons edge, throwing in odd turns of phrase whenever it can.

The ugly side of using funny voices to augment jokes, however, is the joy the show takes in foreign accents. It rarely goes for the absolute laziest option, of letting a stereotypical impression stand in for an actual joke, but there’s definitely an assumption that… well, to quote an interview with Dana Gould (who will start writing for the show in its thirteenth season) in Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem with Apu: “There are accents that, by their nature, to white Americans, sound funny. Period.”

Apu himself is only just starting to fade in, which means that he’s an even flatter stereotype but also that there’s less of him to feel uncomfortable about now the problem has been pointed out to me, a well-meaning but ultimately ignorant white man. Instead, what really troubled me in this season was the introduction of the Japanese characters in “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish” (2.11), who run a combination sushi-karaoke bar (and will, in one case, later found a martial arts school).

This segment rattles through the stereotypes, right down to the soundtrack doing a musical cue you can probably roughly approximate in your head right now. The characters are at least played by Japanese-American actors – including George Takei as Akira, although the role would later be recast and played by Hank Azaria.

The overall effect doesn’t seem malicious, but like the work of well-meaning but ultimately ignorant white men of the late ‘80s, who weren’t used to having to think about this kind of stuff. But for a show that excelled precisely by examining the things its peers hadn’t thought to, it’s hard not to be disappointed with this lack of self-reflection.

“And yet, if I were to have them killed, I would be the one to go to jail. That’s democracy for you!”

Elsewhere, though, this is the season where The Simpsons starts to find its satirical voice. I was kind of surprised to discover it wasn’t produced during a presidential election year, because there are two episodes dealing with political campaigns – “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” (2.4), where Mr Burns runs for governor, and the b-plot of “Lisa’s Substitute” (2.19), where Bart runs for class president. Maybe it was just residual energy from 1988, when the Republicans won their third presidential election in a row.

The two plots have something in common: the amoral loudmouth sidestepping the issues and appealing to voters’ basest instincts, in the process becoming much more popular than the honest, experienced candidate. The show presents elections as something that are won and lost on superficial things, where a transparent illusion of everyman status matters more than what’s in the electorate’s own best interest.

Here in 2018, I wish this felt like a broader caricature than it does.

But it’s also optimistic. In the end, neither Bart nor Burns actually win, and “Three Eyes on Every Fish” in particular indulges the fantasy that one person can effect political change, for good – even if they have to do so by playing within the rules of that superficial system.

And here The Simpsons establishes its core moral and political philosophy: that people are inherently good, but easily tricked, or too lazy to always do the right thing. This leads to the mob mentality that’s a hallmark of any Simpsons crowd scene: people alternately cheering and jeering, utterly convinced of the truth in the moment before they utterly change their minds.

“When you love somebody, you have to have faith that in the end they will do the right thing.”

It’s not just party politics where this applies. One of my common lines about The Simpsons, especially the early years, is that it’s a show about morality. Occasionally – as in “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment” (2.13) – it’s almost a Morality Play in the traditional sense: an allegorical drama used to teach Christian values.

In “…8th Commandment” (which, fellow heathens, is the one about not stealing) Lisa is convinced by a Sunday school teacher that pirating cable will doom the Simpsons to hell. She slowly wins over the entire family, even – eventually – Homer. It’s remarkable to see now quite how Christian-centred the show’s morality can be. In some ways, the world hasn’t changed much over the intervening three decades, but it’s hard to imagine such directly religious messages in a primetime sitcom today.

I remember, in childhood arguments about whether I should be watching as much Simpsons as I did, my dad pointing to the show’s strong moral core as one of its redeeming qualities. But I’d like to point out to you now the same thing that my patronising nine-year-old self told him then: it’s never quite that simple, though.

To be wanky about it, The Simpsons is always dialectic rather than didactic. Case in point: “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” (2.9), the aforementioned self-reflexive episode about cartoons and TV. It presents a viewpoint that, presumably, the audience is going to disagree with – that violent cartoons, like the one you’re currently watching, are morally wrong. But, vitally, puts it in the mouth of a sympathetic character, and the show’s most morally unwavering: Marge Goddamn Simpson.

Let’s take a moment to take about Marge, as I am wont to do given any excuse. In this season, the Simpson parents’ personalities are solidified as follows: Homer is compliant, ready to fold at the slightest provocation. This makes sense of the conformist bourgeois characteristics I identified in season 1, a personality which Homer begins to move away from here – it represented the path of least resistance, the easiest way through life, which Homer still very much sticks to.

Marge, however, always has a spark of resistance in her. I said last time that Bart and Homer are very alike, but this spark is the key difference between them – both his and Lisa’s rebellious sides are inherited from their mother. While Homer’s characterisation shifts over the season, this aspect of Marge remains fairly steady, and it’s what makes her such a brilliant character. The contrast between her rebelliousness and the easily-pleased blandness which makes her so funny.

So, to put Marge in the Mary Whitehouse role is an interesting choice. Although it’s written by people who work on a cartoon which provoked its fair share of controversy, the episode is careful to show that she’s not wrong. Marge does actually create a better world by censoring these cartoons, and it’s only when it’s put in terms of moral absolutes – all censorship or none – that her position collapses. It’s a deft solution, one that doesn’t dismiss the show’s own critics nor give in to ‘yeah, we do suck’ self-deprecation, but is genuinely thoughtful.

“You may remember me from such movies as `Cry, Yuma’ and `Here Comes the Coast Guard’! But today I’d like
to tell you about a pleasant-tasting candy that actually cleans
and straightens your teeth!”

One necessary development this season that makes this kind of two-sided discussion possible – as well as the longevity of the show – is the broadening out of the cast.

One of the most important contributions that this season makes to the longevity of the show is growing out Springfield’s supporting cast. Season 2 features the first appearances, among others, of Maude Flanders, Hans Moleman, Drs Hibbert and Nick, Comic Book Guy, Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure. That’s quite a list, with the last couple in particular basically running away with the entire show the second they walk onto screen. God bless Phil Hartman, we shall never see his like again.

This broadening also allows the show to create a worldview. Introducing Troy McClure and Itchy & Scratchy studio head Roger Meyers, and making more use of Kent Brockman and Krusty the Clown, is enough to outline an entire pop culture, adjacent but not identical to our own. From this point, the show starts to become a snapshot – and satire – of what TV was like, from chat shows to infomercials, in the year it was being made.

For the most part, though, the supporting characters are still very much bit players, handy mostly for a quick gag. There are only two episodes this season focused on a cast member outside of the core Simpsons family.

The first example – the very first, in the entirety of The Simpsons to this point – is “Principal Charming” (2.14). The episode centres around a love triangle between Selma, Principal Skinner and Patty (or, more accurately, a quandrangle where the fourth point is Patty’s celibacy).

That’s an interesting choice. All three of these characters do appear in the pilot episode, so it makes sense from that standpoint. But, while Skinner goes on to plenty more starring roles, Patty & Selma aren’t exactly the first names you’d land on if asked to list major Simpsons characters.

Maybe it’s just a case of trying to keep it in the – extended – family. That’s certainly supported by the second episode to fit this bill: “Old Money” (2.17), where we see Grampa Simpson fall in love with a woman who dies shortly afterwards, leaving him the kind of inheritance most Simpsons can only dream of.

Outside the family, though, there’s one other supporting character I can’t go without mentioning here: Charles Montgomery Burns. He gets substantial parts in five episodes (2.2, 2.4, 2.10, 2.18, 2.22), basically making him the de facto sixth Simpson, and the show’s go-to antagonist.

Burns cropped up a lot in season 1, but here the writers really discover his potential as the perfect foil for basically any member of the Simpsons family. Not just Homer, against whom Burns plays the role of Archetypal Boss, but also Marge, as an amoral man who tests her otherwise unwavering faith in humanity. Even the kids, in various ways, though these pairings are yet to be really developed.

“Maybe there is no moral, Mom.”
“Exactly! It’s just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

With season 2, the show shapes up into something that’s inarguably The Simpsons. The structure of episodes isn’t there yet, nor the density of jokes, but the show has found its voice. It even begins to establish long-running traditions, including one I’m not so fond of – the annual Hallowe’en episode.

As with the ones that would follow it, the first “Treehouse of Horror” (2.3) gives the show a chance to really exercise two of its favourite muscles – homage, and experimenting with different visual styles – but the joke remains essentially the same across the three segments. The supernatural comes to the Simpsons, and they are nonplussed. The family approach the uncanny the same way they do something perfectly mundane – at face value, snarking at it or worrying about money, without taking a moment to give into awe. That, in the immortal words of Rainier Wolfcastle, is the joke.

I think those episodes really fail to excite me because the three-story structure, and decoupling from continuity, don’t leave room for much of the show’s emotional warmth. I don’t know if it’s getting old but, rewatching this season, every third episode had me furtively glancing across the sofa at Imi before darting for the tissues.

There were outbursts of emotion that I was prepared for, like “The Way We Was” (2.12). Telling the story of how Marge & Homer met, and nearly didn’t fall in love, it’s my favourite episode to date – and one I quoted at my own wedding.

But these moments often come in unexpected places too. Karl’s unwavering faith in Homer in “Simpson & Delilah” (2.2). Marge telling Lisa to always give her mother the benefit of the doubt in “Three Eyes on Every Fish”. Homer believing his death is imminent after eating the badly-prepared blowfish and Marge’s relief when – in a foregone conclusion for the fifteenth episode of a show that has since topped six hundred – she discovers he’s still alive.

(Sidenote: This season really has a weird preoccupation with fish, huh? Two long convoluted episode titles with ‘fish’ in the title, plus General Sherman the marriage-threatening catfish… Was there some kind of early-‘90s seafood famine in the US that I’m not aware of?)

There are three factors behind The Simpsons’ remarkable ability to cut straight to the feeling, I reckon. Alf Clausen’s wonderful score, which lends scenes a lot of their warmth. The relatable universality of these big-eyed cartoon characters – Marge & Homer in particular I find it very easy to imprint my own romantic experiences onto. And, of course, the way that sentiment is rarely allowed to sit and grow stale, without being undercut with a sharp joke.

With the next season headed up by a new showrunner team, leading to a marked change in the pace of jokes, it’ll be interesting to see whether this carefully balance between tears and laughs starts to shift. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

My Top Five Episodes from Season 2

  1. “The Way We Was” (2.12)
    Homer & Marge tell the story of how they met – and how they nearly didn’t happen. Alex cries.
  2. “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish” (2.11)
    Told he has 24 hours to live, Homer tries to have a perfect last day on Earth.
  3. “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” (2.9)
    After Maggie attacks Homer, imitating Itchy & Scratchy, Marge leads a protest against cartoon violence.
  4. “Simpson and Delilah” (2.2)
    A hair-restoring medicine nets Homer a promotion – and a devoted assistant, Karl.
  5. “War of the Simpsons” (2.20)
    After a drunk Homer embarrasses Marge at a party, they attend marriage counselling.

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