Welcome back to our season-by-season look at the official Greatest TV Show of All Time. It’s an odd-numbered season, which in Simpsons tradition means all change. But what happens when fans are the ones running the show?
The Simpsons, Season Seven
(1995-1996, Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein)
Right from the outset, the stated aim of this project has been to investigate the idea of a ‘Golden Era’ of The Simpsons. It’s a narrative – sharp peak, rapid decline – I’ve always been suspicious of because it’s just so damn tidy, and I’ve never managed to establish my own personal boundaries of this mythical period. But I’m all too aware that, according to the public consensus, we’re now teetering right on the precipice.
From where I’m currently standing, though: this is absolutely my favourite season of The Simpsons yet.
Season 7 marks the third handover of showrunner duties – from the original team of Groening, Brooks & Simon to Al Jean & Mike Reiss to David Mirkin and, pertinently, to Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein.
Oakley & Weinstein, a writing duo since their school days, first joined the show at the tail end of the third season. They were the first generation of writers hired who were already fans of the show – “Simpsons nerds of the first order,” as Oakley has put it – and with the pair in charge, that really shines through in Season 7.
“Tonight we’re here to honour America’s favourite non-prehistoric cartoon family.”
The entirety of “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular” (7.10) is basically a televisual museum to the show’s history at this point. It includes some of the original Tracey Ullman Show shorts; deleted scenes, at a time before DVDs made them commonplace; and jokes about how The Simpsons is made and viewed. My personal favourite is Troy McClure reading fan letters with banal comments like “I think Homer gets stupider every year” – each of them sent in by a professor, doctor or ambassador. It’s a perfect skewering of the pseuds, like me, who had started to apply their academic toolsets to the show.
There are also plenty of callbacks to earlier seasons. Ogdenville, previously a throwaway joke in “Marge vs. the Monorail” (4.12), reappears as the home of an outlet mall, while Mr Burns’ much-loved bear Bobo pops up in “Homer the Smithers” (7.17). We pick up with Sideshow Bob in the same minimum-security prison we left him in, and get the latest instalment in the continuing Skinner family struggle over the inflatable bath pillow.
I’ve said before that, for me, every episode of The Simpsons basically exists in its own pocket universe. But all these little touches help develop a sense of larger continuity between stories.
So when “Mother Simpson” (7.08) introduces Homer’s mom, Mona, and explains why she’s been absent – essentially retconning every previous episode – it feels like an addition that’s going to stick. And even though Mona is gone by the end of the episode, she does return multiple times over the seasons – and, as far as I’m aware, future episodes stay true to the way characters’ histories are reshaped here, from Homer’s sense of abandonment to Lisa’s potentially inherited intelligence.
Is that the reason I well up watching Homer sit and contemplate the stars, having lost his mother for the second time, at the end of the episode? Of course not – The Simpsons has never needed the promise of long-term consequences for poignant storytelling (cf.: my tissue consumption during “The Way We Was” (2.12)). But it does change the way I think about it afterwards.
“As the weeks went on, so did the cartoons.”
Oakley & Weinstein have admitted they consciously patterned this season after the version of the show they considered perfect as fans: Season 3. For the record, I don’t agree with this opinion – I think the second season is sweeter, and the fourth funnier – but their reasoning is good. They saw Season 3 as the perfect balance between emotional sincerity and joke-first weirdness.
This wasn’t some nebulous idea. Oakley & Weinstein actually attempted to backwards-engineer the magic of their favourite season into an episode-by-episode formula, which they then followed to the letter.
Two thirds of the episodes would be dedicated to more grounded family stories, plus one Sideshow Bob story and one Itchy & Scratchy episode for self-reflexive commentary on the nature of cartoons. The remainder was left free for experimentation, whether in bending the normal format – as in “22 Short Films About Springfield” (7.21) or “138th Episode Spectacular” – or exploring side characters like Apu (7.23) or Selma and Troy McClure (7.19).
This sounds like an absolutely terrible way to make art, right? But I’ll say it again: this is my favourite season of The Simpsons to this point. Which is not the same as saying the formula works – they might have succeeded in spite rather than because of it – but I do think it’s indicative of what the fan perspective brought to their approach: an understanding of what made the show work.
By bringing the focus – at least, in the majority of episodes – back to family-focused stories, Oakley & Weinstein dipped into the foundational themes that had been increasingly abandoned since Season 2. Which, yup, includes family, but also religion and class. All of which feed into what I’ve previously identified as the core of the entire show, at least in its early years: morality.
Combining those three elements, in various configurations, gives you questions like: Where do your moral values come from? What happens to them when you’re separated from those sources? And what are the challenges to applying those values in the real world?
(Remember I mentioned those doctorate-wielding Simpsons fans earlier? Yeah, there’s a reason that jokes resonates with me.)
“Have you thought about one of the other major religions? They’re all pretty much the same.”
Let’s take that first question, about the roots of morality. In The Simpsons’ early seasons, that tends to be Christianity. Which is pretty reasonable, given that in this universe God is provably real, directly interventionist and, at least, directly endorses Christian values. (cf. His relationship with Ned Flanders.)
The Simpsons have never been good Christians, exactly, but they’re certainly churchgoers. When they have strayed from that path – by breaking the Eighth Commandment (2.13) or forming a heretical religion (4.3) – they’re inevitably guided back to the teachings of the Bible by the end of the episode. That remains true here, more or less.
“Bart Sells His Soul” (7.4) positions Bart as an unbeliever, someone confident enough in their atheism that he’ll trade his soul for five dollars, but this decision is punished by the world of the show. The phenomena Bart faces – family pets bristling at his presence, automatic doors refusing to open for him, his breath failing to frost up on cold glass – all seem like solid proof that the soul does exist. And sure enough, by the end, Bart gets his back and feels whole again.
Where the episode differs from the early seasons is that, while the concept of a soul is introduced in church, its role in the episode is more metaphysical than specifically Christian. When Lisa warns Bart about the existential dangers of what he’s done, he offers her his conscience and sense of decency in a two-for-one deal – moral rather than religious concepts. When Lisa returns it to him, she points to “philosophers [who] believe that nobody is born with a soul – that you have to earn one through suffering and thought and prayer”.
(You can probably draw a line from this episode, written by Greg Daniels, through his collaborations with Mike Schur, who would go on to create The Good Place, to that show’s non-religion-specific afterlife and love of moral philosophy.)
“The rich are different from you and me.”
“Yes! They’re better!”
The Simpsons might have been starting to grow away from their religious roots, but their holier-than-thou neighbours absolutely doubled down on it. Originally, the two families had a much more secular ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ rivalry, but Season 7 Flanders is so religious that he faints upon discovering the Simpsons children haven’t been baptised (7.3), while Homer audibly sizzles when his skin comes into contact with holy water.
Ned’s shift in personality is so pronounced there’s actually a trope named for it: ‘Flanderisation’. But it also leaves a vital hole in the show – apart from Mr Burns, who exists in an entirely different financial universe, there aren’t really any characters the Simpsons can be contrasted with in terms of their social class.
Season 7’s solution is to simply introduce more privileged characters on a one-off basis. They’re rarely happier or nicer than the characters we know, but that doesn’t stop the Simpsons envying their position. Like Gavin, the awful rich kid who bullies his mom into buying him two copies of Bonestorm (he’s not sharing with Katelyn) while Bart watches on enviously and coos “that must be the happiest kid in the world” (7.11). Or with Lisa willing to look past her politics when former President George Bush moves in across the street, because “it’s nice to
have a celebrity in the neighbourhood” (7.13).
“Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” (7.14) dedicates an entire episode to this dynamic, as it introduces Evelyn and her country club set. They’re commonly awful to Marge, but she’s desperate to ingratiate herself and family with their social betters.
The plot of “Class Struggle” echoes one of the very earliest Simpsons episodes, “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” (1.4), where Homer is ashamed of his family’s behaviour at a work picnic, putting Marge – by this point a much more logical choice – into that role instead.
The episode takes the show back to those early themes of an outsider family trying to fit into ‘normal’ society, and to more trad stakes. Homer, prepping for his big golf game against Mr Burns, literally says the words “I’m sure to get that big raise I’ve been gunning for”. It’s hard to say for sure whether this is a studied return to the first couple of seasons, but it’s hard not to see it as part of Oakley & Weinstein’s magic formula.
“For once maybe someone will call me ‘sir’ without adding, ‘you’re making a scene’.”
In the first instalment of this series, I outlined what I saw as the archetypal structure of a Simpsons plot: “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.” That’s exactly what happens in “Class Struggle”: Marge, so used to putting her family first, finds something outside of that world, pursues it, but eventually returns to her status quo.
With this specific story, that pattern comes with some ugly overtones. The message seems to be ‘stay in your place’, both in terms of social mobility and the housewife seeking a life outside of her family. We rarely see Marge as ugly as she is here, rejecting what makes her family different: “No vulgarity, no mischief, no politics!”
I think this, ultimately, is why the episode actually works – it gives Marge an emotional reality she’s rarely afforded.
(It’s worth noting at this point that “Class Struggle”, seven years into the show’s run, is the first episode of The Simpsons both written and directed by women: Jennifer Crittenden and Susie Dietter respectively. If that sounds ridiculous, consider that in the 23 years since that episode aired, this has happened, by my count, precisely five more times. (8.19, 11.20, 15.14, 16.18, 17.6))
In asking her family to hide their personalities for the sake of fitting in, Marge is doing exactly what (as she explains in the sixth-ever episode) her mother taught her to do. Again, it’s unclear how conscious this is on the part of the writers, but it gives a sense of emotional continuity to the show that’s rarely been present before.
We’ve lingered on this episode for a long time now, and that’s partly because the stuff it raises is genuinely complex – I’ve rarely spent so long writing, deleting, rewriting paragraphs on any single topic. But also, that complexity is a perfect encapsulation of what Season 7 achieves: taking old plot structures, ideas and themes and reworking them with the canonically ‘correct’ versions of these characters, fresh perspectives and the most reliable joke machine in the history of television to create episodes that are worth rewatching and thinking about until you become a parody of yourself, an academic writing letters to Troy McClure.
So, yeah, Oakley & Weinstein’s plan worked. They managed to create a season that is essentially the Platonic ideal of The Simpsons, restating the original concept of the show and blending that with everything it had been up to that point. Three of the season’s episodes are in my personal top five. One of them consistently makes me cry.
So where the hell does that leave The Simpsons to go next?
My Top Five Episodes from Season 7:
- “Mother Simpson” (7.8)
Homer discovers his mother is still alive – and is a wanted fugitive. Alex cries. AGAIN.
- “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” (7.14)
After finding a discounted Chanel dress on sale, Marge attempts to fit in with a clique of upper-class women.
- “Bart on the Road” (7.20)
Bart, Milhouse, Nelson & Martin go on a road trip, while Lisa goes to work with Homer.
- “22 Short Films About Springfield” (7.21)
An anthology of tales from around Springfield, including the now-infamous ‘Steamed Hams’ sketch.
- “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily” (7.3)
Social services put the Simpsons kids into foster care – at the Flanderses’.
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