Watching It All Again (& A Little Season 1 Context)

80s Sitcoms

“Okay now look, my boss is gonna be at this picnic so I want you to show your father some love and or respect.” – Homer Simpson
“Tough choice.” – Lisa Simpson
“I’m picking respect.” – Bart Simpson

Over at her new blog, commenter Kokairu has gone back to the beginning, all the way.  She’s watching everything Simpsons, starting with the shorts and going from there.  Part 1 is about the Tracey Ullman shorts; Part 2 deals with the question of which was really the “first” episode.  While I’ve never gone back and watched all the shorts, I think this is a fantastic idea.  (And, since it’s not trying to be an episode by episode guide, it, unlike the A.V. Club’s version, will finish sometime before the next Ice Age.)  The syndication runs are such a jumble that it’s uncommon for someone to watch the show develop, perfect itself, and then fall into utter ruin, in that order.  But that’s how it really happened, and that’s also the easiest way to see it happen.

In line with that, I’d like to add a little context to the first season of The Simpsons.  Season 1 is usually thought of, not entirely incorrectly, as a kind of proto-Simpsons.  Usually this means a discussion of how the animation and the voices were not yet fully formed.  That’s true as far as it goes, but something else has been lost from Season 1, and that’s the media environment it was mocking and directly challenging.  This is especially easy to miss if you weren’t watching American television in the 1980s.

In Part 2 of her series, Kokairu (who’s British) inadvertently shows just how much this kind of context has faded.  In discussing how “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” became the first episode, she wrote this:

Christmas specials, however, are usually a means to give a warm and festive twist on a familiar TV show (though this would be the case if you count the shorts).

That’s true but, on American television at the time, holiday specials were also the only animation that was ever meant for adults as well as children.  The Chuck Jones/Boris Karloff version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was an annual event.  Similarly, every single year CBS would broadcast the holy trinity of Peanuts specials at Halloween, Thanksgiving and ChristmasRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was another yearly deviation from the live-action norm.  In 1989 FOX didn’t really know what it had on its hands with this cartoon, and introducing it as a holiday special made a lot of sense in the context of television at the time.  

(Yes, I know “Some Enchanted Evening” was supposed to be the first episode and had to be redone.  The point stands.  It was not a coincidence that they started with a holiday special, it was about the only way adults ever watched animation in America.) 

In Part 3, Kokairu talks about Season 1, and I agree with quite a lot of it, especially this:

I feel that I approached this series from the right angle this time. By comparison to the shorts, the animation in series 1 is positively gorgeous.

The animation in Season 1 wasn’t going to make anyone in 1989 forget about Akira.  But compared to the static background, low-motion drawings that made up all the cheap animation on Saturday morning cartoons it was amazing.  It looked light years better than what American audiences at the time were used to thinking of as animation. 

Where Kokairu loses the trail is in her descriptions of “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” and “The Telltale Head” and, like the holiday special thing, I think it’s a case of her just not being very familiar with late-80s American teevee: 

That’s not to mention that the family acts very much out of character at times (at least, by comparison to the more ‘established’ Simpsons). In “There’s No Disgrace Like Home,” Homer is extremely concerned about his family’s reputation, to the extent that he willingly pawns the TV in order to acquire money for therapy. The rest of the family try to stop him… Including Marge, who suggests that they pawn her engagement ring as an alternative.

Again, this is true.  The characters aren’t quite what we’ve come to know.  But in the context of the time this episode was a direct and open challenge to orthodox teevee.  “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” portrayed the family as dysfunctional, poor, and obsessed with television.  Those were three things that American television families pretty much never were.  Married with Children had come out two years before, Roseanne just one, other than that, teevee families were all well off and happy.  “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” was a statement from The Simpsons that they were joining the movement of comedies that weren’t going to masquerade as fairy tales. 

Their love of the television, even over Marge’s engagement ring (which wasn’t worth as much anyway), was another satirical strike at one of those open hypocrisies.  This was a time when teevee was being heavily criticized for its poisonous influence on America’s youth, and yet television families almost never watched it, or even mentioned it.  Partly that’s because watching people watch television would be boring, but what it was really about was the disconnect between America as people lived it, and America as teevee portrayed it.  A big theme of Season 1 is rejecting the idealized America that was the norm for conventional television. 

You can see that as well in “The Telltale Head”.  Here’s Kokairu:

I would say “The Telltale Head” was one of the standouts. The family didn’t just go to Church at the beginning of the episode to kill time, as would be the case in later episodes (for the plot to then unwind in the most chaotic and moronic way) – it sewed the seeds of the moral dilemma Bart faces in the story, demonstrated how readily Bart mimics Homer’s bad examples, and simply contains many classic moments.

Once more, this is all true, but the real genius of “The Telltale Head” is that Homer was setting a bad example in the first place.  Teevee Dads (and even shows that didn’t have a biological father had a Teevee Dad) almost never set bad examples.  The standard formula was that the Teevee Dad gave advice to another character, that character ignored the advice, and at the end the Teevee Dad made everything better.  That formula got tweaked and played with in a lot of ways, but it was remarkably durable.  Which is why this exchange always stands out:

Bart: Dad, can I talk to you about something?
Homer: Sure, boy, what’s on your mind?
Bart: Well, I was wondering, how important is it to be popular?
Homer: I’m glad you asked, son.  Being popular is the most important thing in the world!

This is a classic setup: the son asking the father for advice and hopping up on the old man’s knee to receive the Official Wisdom.  Every teacher, counselor, adult, and Teevee Dad in pop culture history knows the answer to the popularity question is to say that popularity isn’t everything and that you should be yourself.  But every kid, popular and not, knows that’s bullshit.  The brutal social environments of the cafeteria, playground and other haunts of middle class childhood make that clear each and every day.  Here, at long last, was a show refusing to toe the official line, a show willing to admit the horrible truth instead of deny it, and, most importantly, a show that responded with humor instead of schmaltz. 

That scene ends with Homer telling Bart that it’s okay to do something he thinks is wrong as long as it isn’t murder.  It’s still funny today, Homer doesn’t quite trust Bart not to kill anyone, but the shock value no longer resonates.  The After School Special mentality they were attacking hasn’t disappeared, but it’s no longer the only thing allowed on television. 

Murphy Brown With Baby

This innocuous scene was massively controversial

I realize that there are literally tens of millions of Simpsons fans who are either not from America (or possibly Canada) or too young to remember all this, but when considering Season 1 it has to be taken into account.  Scripted shows were more or less the exclusive domain of the three networks, and they operated within a very narrow set of constraints which The Simpsons (and a couple other shows) deliberately attacked.  Television is bad now, but it used to be so much worse. 

Anyway, I’m looking forward to Kokairu’s further posts, though I’ll adviser her to stop once she gets into true Zombie Simpsons.  Life’s too short to torment yourself with other people’s mistakes. 

7 Responses to “Watching It All Again (& A Little Season 1 Context)”

  1. 8 October 2010 at 7:38 am

    Hey, thanks Charlie! :) It seems I was pretty ignorant on the context and it’s something I ought to have taken into account.

    Damn, that means I’ll actually have to work harder on the season 2 review doesn’t it?

    • 2 Anonymous
      8 October 2010 at 1:10 pm

      There’s no reason for you to have known that stuff (I certainly don’t know anything about British television). And it’s not just those two episodes. “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is wall-to-wall with satire of all those copy-cat holiday specials which are now mostly forgotten. Both “Life on the Fast Lane” and “Homer’s Night Out” have parts that seem slow by the standards of later episodes, but by the standards of the day they were extremely glib in the way they dealt with marital trouble. The same is true of “Homer’s Odyssey” and suicide, those little throw away jokes (Homer checking to make sure there wasn’t enough money for a beer, the oil can, the old people snickering at him, the boulder already being at the bridge) would never have flown during something that serious on a normal program.

      Simon, Brooks, Groening, and everyone else deserve enormous credit for that, because even those little deviances from television convention were pretty serious risks. At the time Season 1 was being produced there was a fairly serious boycott of “Married With Children” going on (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry_Rakolta) and no one was really sure that FOX was even going to last as a network. In hindsight it’s a very minor incident, but it was a big deal back then. That image in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” with all the mail trucks lined up wasn’t that far from the truth.

  2. 4 abra cadaver
    23 October 2012 at 4:37 pm

    I will not hide the teacher’s prozac….

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