Compare & Contrast: Making Flashback Episodes Worthwhile

Lisa's First Word14

“Can you say David Hasselhoff?” – Bart Simpson
“David Hassahof.” – Lisa Simpson
“Can you say Daddy?” – Homer Simpson
“Homer.” – Lisa Simpson

The Simpsons did its first flashback episode way (way) back in Season 2.  “The Way We Was” introduced us to Homer and Marge as high school kids who had never even met; and along the way answered one of the fundamental questions of the show: why, exactly, is Marge with Homer?  Over the next four seasons they flashed back three more times, each time showing the birth of one of the Simpson kids.  “I Married Marge” showed us Bart’s accidental conception inside a mini-golf decoration.  “Lisa’s First Word” put the family in now their iconic house and showed the beginning of Bart and Lisa’s never ending rivalry.  “And Maggie Makes Three” completed the set and showed us that there was no sacrifice too painful for Homer to make for his kids (well, not the boy, but you know what I mean).

And Maggie Makes Three16

Genuine character development, a concept unknown to Zombie Simpsons.

These episodes do not, strictly speaking, fit chronologically.  If Bart was conceived after his parents saw The Empire Strikes Back in a theater, there’s no way he can be two years older than Lisa, who was born in the summer of 1984.  Similarly, if Homer and Marge were leaving high school in 1976, Homer wouldn’t be twenty-four-years-old in 1980.  But it doesn’t matter because background numbers that only the dedicated will ever put together aren’t the point.

By spacing events a little further apart, they gave themselves more defined cultural targets than just borderline meaningless shorthand like “The 70s” or “The 80s”.  So not only do these four episodes form a coherent whole while filling in the background of our favorite family, they do so while making pointed fun of distinct slices of American culture.

Homer and Marge are in high school in the mid 1970s, then Bart’s birth is the early 1980s, Lisa’s the mid-1980s, and Maggie’s the early 1990s.  Poking fun at Ms. and “makeout music” becomes Yoda and John Anderson, which becomes the 1984 Olympics preceding an hour long episode of Mama’s Family, which finishes up with the “clear beverage craze” and “information superhighway”.

I Married Marge15

Homer Simpson, early pioneer of the sarcastic t-shirt.

That level of specificity is missing from “The Kids Are All Fight”, as is any meaningful background on the family and/or general cultural coherence.  They tell us Lisa and Bart are two and four, but neither of them acts anything like a two-year-old or a four-year-old.  They use film development as a justification for looking back, but it’s not like many people were still using film in 2009.  The flashback idea that used to be so carefully handled has become just another excuse for a weird, semi-magical adventure in a “past” Springfield that is indistinguishable from the one they usually use.

They do make a stab at showing us a little family development, but it’s pretty halfhearted.  You see, Bart and Lisa used to fight a lot (and they will make sure you understand by stating so explicitly many times), and now they don’t.  The eventual story reason they offer for this is that Lisa “gives in”.  There are large scope problems with that (we’ve seen them fight countless times, and Lisa clearly hasn’t given in), and there are small scope problems with that (the wacky adventure they go on is more about Bart bolting than Bart and Lisa fighting).  But what really makes the kids’ story ring hollow is the way that conclusion glosses over Lisa’s surrender.

A show with characters who are faintly recognizable as human beings, or even one with just a little heart, could do a lot with a younger sibling resigning herself to years of dangerously crazy behavior from her brother.  There’s a plenty of material there for emotion, comedy, and fun generally, but Zombie Simpsons brushes any of that off for action scenes of Bart riding a big wheel through traffic and cutesy title cards announcing each new wacky scene.

Storytime Title Card

How whimsical.

For proof of this, look no further than Ralph Wiggum’s brief cameo.  Since this is Zombie Simpsons, he appears out of nowhere, then gets into the wheel of a semi-truck, then is shipped off on a boat.  They put him next to Lisa, but he hadn’t been there the last time we saw her and the two of them don’t interact at all.  He just pops in and then starts talking.

Oh, Hai, Ralph

Hi, Ralph!  Uh, how did you get here?

Here’s the entirety of his dialogue:

Your brother is stupid.  Bye bye.  The wheel I’m inside goes round and round, round and round, round and round.  The boat I’m aboard goes up and down, up and down, up and down.

It isn’t even a good Ralph-ism.  He just tells us what we’re seeing, and it goes on so long that he uses more than twice as many words as “Super Nintendo Chalmers”, “I bent my wookie”, and “Me fail English?  That’s unpossible” all put together.  Even if you don’t care about him materializing and not having anything to do with what was happening, that’s just awful.

The final evidence that story coherence and relatable characters don’t even enter into the thinking at Zombie Simpsons comes one scene later, when we see Chief Wiggum for the first and only time.  The whole second half of the episode is about Lisa and Bart getting into trouble unsupervised and Homer and Marge’s panicked search to find them.  Ralph Wiggum is doing the exact same thing as Bart and Lisa, but all we see Chief Wiggum do is interview Gil (for some reason).

Wiggum doesn’t know that his kid is roaming the streets, and the episode seems to have forgotten it completely as well.  There isn’t even a blithe, expository explanation because, as far as Zombie Simpsons is concerned, the Chief and Ralph are just one scene props.

There isn’t even any connection to the fact that this is a flashback.  Like most of the people, places and events we see in “The Kids Are All Fight”, both of them could just as easily be doing and saying the exact same things in the show’s regular timeframe.  When The Simpsons went to the past, it went with a purpose and made fun of everything it saw.  When Zombie Simpsons goes to the past, it trips backwards, stares blankly for a bit, and then continues stumbling around like always.

17 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Making Flashback Episodes Worthwhile”

  1. 1 Tom S. Fox
    30 April 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Are the title cards supposed to be a reference to Family Circus?

    • 2 Dick Steele
      30 April 2015 at 4:20 pm

      Nah I don’t think so. I think it’s just for some “homey” effect

      • 3 Anonymous
        30 April 2015 at 5:35 pm

        I think Tom might be onto something there, though. The dashed-lines seem to be a dead giveaway.

        Whatever they were trying to go for, though, I have to say it looks waaaaaaaaay better than the current “default” animation style right now, just compare that to the other one below. Almost as if the animators want to be working on any different show instead of the Simpsons…

  2. 4 Anonymous
    30 April 2015 at 7:48 pm

    Where do Homer’s Barbershop Quartet and Lisa’s Sax fit in terms of those three flashbacks? Can it safely be assumed that HBQ came between I Married Marge and Lisa’s First Word and Lisa’s Sax is somewhere between Lisa’s First Word and Maggie Makes Three, or are those two non-canon? I understand not including the later flashback episodes due to them being Zombie Simpsons episodes, but HBQ and LS are part of the good seasons — HBQ is anyway; LS is a gray area since it aired in season nine, but had a unique production code and wasn’t that bad of an episode.

    • 5 Bleeding Gums Murphy
      2 May 2015 at 6:17 pm

      You made me check both Homer’s Barbeshop Quartet and Lisa’s First Word

      Both younger Bart and Lisa appears in the flashback scenes of HBQ. Their first scene is in the church, then younger Bart’s next appearance is in the auditions part where he has the same clothes he wore in the flashbacks of LFW. After Barney joins the band, younger Bart is seen with the same red t-shirt and blue pants regular Bart wears 99% of the time. Then he is seen in the basement of the Simpsons house with the LFW clothes. Meanwhile, Lisa switches between being naked, only wearing diapers and using baby clothes around the entire episode, but in her last scene she is seen along with Bart in the kitchen (that scene where Homer makes a dummy of himself and the kids are scared), so it’s quite possible the ending of LFW has already happened, either before Barney joins the Be Sharps or they went in separate ways.

      So it would go like this:

      (some, if not all of) Lisa’s First Word -> (some, if not all of) Homer’s Barbeshop Quartet -> (maybe the end of LFW) -> (maybe the end of HBQ) -> Lisa’s Sax

      • 6 Bleeding Gums Murphy
        2 May 2015 at 6:32 pm

        So unless I’m mistaken, all the flashback/flashforward episodes and scenes would go as this:

        The Way We Was (Marge meets Homer)
        I Married Marge (they marry and Bart is born)
        Lisa’s First Word (Lisa is born and says her first word)
        Homer’s Barbeshop Quartet
        Lisa’s Sax (Bart is five and joins Springfield Elementary School while Lisa gets her saxophone)
        And Maggie Makes Three (Maggie is born)
        regular Simpsons episodes
        Lisa’s Wedding (leaving the wedding aside, Bart’s wanting to join law school is mentioned)
        The flashforward scene at the end of Itchy & Scratchy the Movie (Bart is Chief Justice of the Supreme Court)

  3. 7 Stan
    30 April 2015 at 8:59 pm

    Thanks for the post, as always.

  4. 1 May 2015 at 12:32 am

    If there are any unaired Simpsons episodes from seasons 1-9 I hope FOX airs them and I hope Groening pays Tracy Ulman royalties for making his big ass famous. Bring back the old writer’s I say.

  5. 11 Stan
    1 May 2015 at 7:06 am

    Okay, I didn’t want to mention it yesterday for its obviousness, but the Ralph Wiggum getting on board of a boat joke is very similar to the one where Bart packs himself up in a schoolbag mid-episode, and then starts hopping backwards until he somehow enters a bus that heads somewhere. There was also this other time when Homer climbed a ladder, saw something, and then started hopping backwards with the ladder, taking a sidewalk to off-screen.
    I think we should crucify the writers, and for every ‘joke’ like this drive a nail through their palms.

    • 12 Anonymous
      1 May 2015 at 9:12 am

      Way back in “Homer the Heretic,” Homer escapes from Flanders by driving onto a boat as it pulls away from shore.

      • 1 May 2015 at 9:57 am

        And that worked, because it was a pitch perfect spoof of 1970s cop show car chases, applied to a character desperate to escape his annoying next door neighbor’s religious dogma. The examples Stan cited are just weird for the sake of being weird.

  6. 14 Cal
    3 May 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Unless they’ve retconned it, I’m positive Homer and Marge graduated high school in 1974, the year my mom graduated. I remember laughing at the idea they’re the same age.

    • 15 Stan
      3 May 2015 at 3:38 pm

      And you’re correct because the 50-year reunion Homer came to with a plunger on his head occurs in 2024.

      • 16 Anonymous
        4 May 2015 at 12:39 pm

        Oh God, if the show continues until then, they’re not going to mention it. Let’s hope the contract thing falls through and all that’s left of season 27 is a bunch of season 26 leftovers and a handful of new episodes they half-assed before FOX cut their order, like what happened with King of the Hill.

  7. 4 May 2015 at 1:21 pm

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