Classic Simpsons Reviews: “When Flanders Failed” is some delightful schadenfreude.

3.3 When Flanders Failed

Homer’s wish for Flanders’ new store for left-handed people to fail comes true, and when he hears people lamenting over the lack of goods for left-handed people, he has to choose whether to tell his arch nemesis.

This episode explores schadenfreude, and how inaction has consequences every bit as much as actions do. For Homer, his inaction causes Flanders to have his home seized by the bank. For Bart, his inaction causes him to get beaten up by bullies when Lisa says he knows karate.

7f23a

The knowing look is the best part.

The schadenfreude makes up all of the episode’s funny bits. Flanders is so comically earnest, and his attempts at positivity in the face of absurdly bad luck is very funny. If the Book of Job was a Simpsons episode, this would be it. I’d think Flanders was based on Job, but the character didn’t start off as being particularly religious.

Homer’s struggle with avoiding telling his left-handed friends about the Leftorium is played more for laughs than sentiment, which is a good choice. If the episode took itself more seriously, Homer’s inaction would have been more uncomfortable than anything. As is, it’s all sickly sweet, with a very funny It’s a Wonderful Life ending. Like the previous episode, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” it’s really more more farce than satire. While satire lives in a more heady, rational place, farce uses situations that are more highly exaggerated. I’m not as high on this episode as others are, but I’m aware that this is because I’m more of a satire guy.

vlcsnap-00003

Oh that is some funny shit.

This episode was directed by Jim Reardon, who also directed “22 Short Films About Springfield” and “Homer’s Enemy,” two episodes I think are noteworthy in particular for their direction.

The scene that sets up the B story of Bart taking karate involves Marge commenting on how Bart needs to be exercising more, as he watches six hours of TV a day. Just as Marge says “parents [who let their kids do this] should be ashamed of themselves,” the camera cuts to a shot behind Bart and Homer’s heads with a clear view of the TV as it shows the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. Reardon is producing what Bertolt Brecht calls “the alienation effect,” where the director draws attention to the medium in order to pull the viewer’s focus away from the narrative and into a more analytical state. (Doing this for its own sake with no intellectual reason is called “being meta.”)

Theatre that employs the A-effect often does so in a more explicit way, as in Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, which has titles, songs, and interruptions that force the average viewer to analyze the play rather than experience it passively. Reardon is obviously more subtle in “When Flanders Failed”

o015k8

The Simpsons‘ criticism of the acquisitive society is always so on point.

Also I learned from this episode that “sinister” is the Latin word for “left handed.” Ouch.

Best Moment: Rod and Todd Flanders singing “Put on a Happy Face” in the car as the Flanders are moving out of their home.

Best Quote: “Bart, don’t use the touch of death on your sister.” -Marge

“Street harassment is a biological instinct:” Area Gym Teacher

Screen Shot 2015-12-11 at 1.04.17 PM

Area man, Jay Wiltshire carries groceries he paid for to a car he parked legally.

TORONTO, ON — “Street harassment is just a natural instinct,” says a local gym teacher who resists throttling his son’s bully.

“Whenever I see an attractive woman who’s staring at her phone or just standing there kinda frowning, I have to say something. It’s called biology,” Jay Wiltshire, 37 told us after turning down a pecan fudge sample near the supermarket exit.

“I mean, I’m a man, right? Dudes have urges, it’s the way it is,” said the father of four obnoxious children he hasn’t spanked.

“Look, we evolved as a violent species. It’s in our nature,” he said, exchanging nods with a driver who almost hadn’t seen him when pulling out of their parking spot.

“Expecting me to just stop something I’m wired to enjoy doing is simply unreasonable,” he continued, making sure the gear from his weekend fishing trip was still secure before going home to grade English papers for the class where he’s substituting for the next two weeks.

“Street harassment? That’s just nature playing itself out. It’s a jungle out there,” Jay finished, using a language with roughly a million words in it to describe his thoughts.

Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” is more farce than satire, which doesn’t lessen any of its impact.

3.2 Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington

Lisa wins an essay contest for writing about what makes America great, but changes her tune when she witnesses a corrupt congressman accepting a bribe.

This episode uses the innocence of childhood as a framing device to explore the public’s naiveté about politics.

It could be interpreted as a cynical episode, but Lisa’s revisions to her essay do cause a corrupt congressman to be arrested. I appreciate the message that while corruption is inevitable in a system that privileges power, our speaking up and fighting it is still far from pointless.

Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 10.16.07 PM

In one transition you can clearly make out “Springfield, NT.” Given that “NT” isn’t an actual state, I’ve always been puzzled by the guesses as to which state Springfield is in. It’s every state and every town.

Lisa’s exclamation of “The system works” upon the congressman’s arrest is something a mixed message, but one that works very well. Lisa’s line is pointedly not earnest. There’s a quick sequence leading up to it where the congressman is arrested by a cartoonishly patriotic FBI agent. The House of Representative then votes to expel the congressmen and (in perfect unison) not give themselves a pay rise, and President Bush signs the document expelling the congressman while saying it’ll make his 250 million bosses happy. All this happens before the essay contest is over, which is a nice little dig at congress’ timeless inefficiency.

It’s really more farce than satire, as farce uses far more exaggerated situations to make its point. A corrupt congressman getting sent to jail at all, let alone becoming a born again Christian, is obviously too outlandish for reality.

mrlisagoestowashington21

The Simpsons walk in on a bathing Barbara Bush, who tells the family the history of the White House.

And yet, for all that’s fucked up about politics, the system does work, but only does because someone actually put their freedom to scrutinize it into practice. A previous scene with citizens asking the statue of Abraham Lincoln meaningless questions illustrates this point.

My favourite example of the kind of reverse psychology employed in this episode is in the “Human CentiPad” episode of South Park, where Kyle seems to be the only person in town who doesn’t read the iTunes terms of service, much to the astonishment of everyone else. Butters reads one of the ToS lines, which says, “By clicking agree you are acknowledging that Apple may sew your butthole to the mouth of another iTunes user.” He clicks “decline,” and it’s obvious to everyone that he’d do his due diligence.

That’s basically what Lisa’s “The system works” moment is going for. As one of Lisa’s fellow essayists says, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

df75fc9fdf77df1ce912e58de632c3e9

The Simpsons couldn’t care less about specific politicians; it never fails to make us the primary target of its political satire/farce.

The biggest laugh for me was the same essayist saying “Where else but America…or possibly Canada could our family find such opportunity?” Lisa’s essay being rated on Jingoism is another great one, as is Marge whispering a penis joke to Homer at the National Mall.

Best Moment: Marge giggling at the Washington Monument.

Best Quote: “Bart! Get out of the Spirit of the St. Louis!” -Homer

Classic Simpsons Episodes: “Stark Raving Dad” is a slice of nostalgia, but suffers from increased awareness of mental health stigma.

3.1 Stark Raving Dad

Homer is wrongfully institutionalized, and ends up bringing home a man who claims to be Michael Jackson. The townspeople are furious with Bart, who has told them the King of Pop was coming to Springfield.

(Cue the greatest birthday song ever made)

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 2.37.33 PM.png

Like who doesn’t know this song?

This is one of those episodes I remember all the kids at school talking about. It was 1991; Grade Two, and my fellow primary schoolers were positively agog about Michael Jackson having appeared on The Simpsons. We were split on whether it really was Michael Jackson (he was credited as Jon Jay Smith), and had no IMDB to settle the argument. We jokingly sang “Lisa It’s Your Birthday” when someone had a birthday. “Stark Raving Dad” was a significant cultural moment for us.

So if you’re looking for impartiality, it’ll be hard to find here. In reality, the plot is kinda thin and contains a whole pile of mental illness stigma.

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 2.30.47 PM

I love when the chalkboard gag fits the episode’s theme.

Crucial to a re-watch of this episode is remembering that everyone knew Michael Jackson was going be in the season 3 premiere, and that most of the fun came from anticipating how the show would use him. Seeing Homer moonwalk with MJ was a moment where you were like, “Wow, The Simpsons has truly arrived.”

The bits in the mental institution are problematic, let’s be very clear. The Simpsons is guilty of under-representing people with disabilities, so when they reduce an “idiot savant” character to a multiplication gag, it’s super uncomfortable. The joke about institutions where “rich women lose weight” in particular has not aged well.

I do appreciate the episode’s satire of pop psychology, as Homer is forcibly incarcerated based on a 20-question personality test. The moment with the Chief character from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest finally speaking because someone actually talked to him is great, too. Had the writers made more of the humour this sophisticated it’d be a better episode. As is, they rely too heavily on flimsy stereotypes, and there isn’t enough acknowledgment of how mental illness often amounts to a lack of adjustment to a profoundly sick society.

Screen Shot 2015-12-09 at 2.26.54 PM.png

The satire starts off strongly with Homer’s sadly correct assertion that a pink shirt will make him a pariah.

The birthday song and all the MJ stuff leading up to it is delightful. This episode marked the end of an era for The Simpsons, as the producers decided that future celebrities appearing on the show would have their own name credited. They’d still make excellent use of celebrities, mind you; I just like the pseudonyms myself. (Incidentally my favourite Simpsons in-joke is in “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie,” when Lisa says the movie had celebrities who lent their voice under an assumed name but “you knew it was them.”)

splitphone

The news of Michael Jackson coming to Springfield spreads like wildfire. These are recycled shots from nine previous episodes. Also I think this is a Bye-Bye Birdie reference.

24 years of social progress have certainly exposed this episode’s problem with ableism. Lisa saying “You’re a credit to dementia” to the faux Michael Jackson at the end is, for me, the single most cringe-worthy moment up to this point in the series, and that’s including the many problems in “Homer’s Night Out” and “The War of the Simpsons”

Best Moment: “Lisa It’s Your Birthday,” obviously.

Best Quote: “I can’t wear a pink shirt to work. Everyone wears white shirts. I’m not popular enough to be different.” -Homer

Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Blood Feud” is a postmodern existential crisis.

2.22 Blood Feud

Bart’s rare blood type makes him a perfect donor for the dying Mr. Burns. When Burns only sends the Simpsons a thank you card, Homer is furious, and writes Burns an angry letter, which he later regrets.

We’ll start with the end of the episode, with Burns having placated Homer’s frustration by giving the family an enormous Olmec head. The family sits around it, trying to derive meaning from the gift, and the events that led up to them getting it. Homer concludes that there isn’t a moral; the only conclusion to draw from the episode is that it was a bunch of stuff that just happened. It’s a great send up of heavy handed, moral-at-the-end sitcoms, though I do think there’s plenty of deep analysis to be found.

That there isn’t a meaning to something is, in effect, a meaning. Sometimes things happen through a combination of the deck being stacked against you and sheer absurdity.

That theme of meaningless absurdity is established in the first few shots, with Mayor Quimby unveiling a sign that reports the nuclear power plant’s conditions, with alerts ranging from “roll up windows” to “core explosion, repent sins.” It’s reminiscent of the “machine that goes bing” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, which exists only to let you know the baby is dead. Human beings love to think they have control in an existence where they ultimately have none.

7f22_000

In an increasingly secular society, we look to certain placeholders for existential comfort.

The townspeople stop clapping at the “repent sins” alert and Homer quips, “Joke’s on them. If the core explodes, there won’t be any power to light that sign.”

We always think the joke is on someone else, don’t we?

Early Simpsons comparisons between Mr. Burns and Charles Foster Kane are so good, and so subtly layered in. By the time we get to Who Shot Mr. Burns at the end of season six the writers focus on this less, and in late-era Simpsons I wonder if the writers have even seen anything as sophisticated as Citizen Kane, a film I’m bullish on as the greatest in the history of the American cinema.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 9.51.54 PM

The Simpsons

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 9.56.06 PM

Citizen Kane

As the powerful Kane was out of touch with those close to them (as well as those with far less power, despite seeing himself as a common man), Burns is completely removed from Bart’s sacrifice, and from how small his gesture will look to a family trying to make ends meet. Men like Burns have immense power over people they’ve no connection to. It’s an absurd state for a communal species like humanity, and one we’re not evolved for.

s5igex

Every beat of the episode carries something of the impersonal. We’re all catching up to an increasing disconnect, where nothing can be deleted or adequately explained.

As much as Smithers’ not having the same blood type as Burns amplifies the disconnect between Burns and those closest to him, Bart’s being an exact match illustrates the absurdity of that disconnect. Bart’s blood giving life to the dying billionaire provides the inverse image given by Hamlet when he meditates on how “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.” Shakespeare knew a thing or two about class division, and how ridiculous it is for our species.

Screen Shot 2015-11-16 at 10.26.25 PM

As flies to wanton boys…

It’s attractive to think of this episode as pointedly just being a bunch of things that happen, but the action of Homer pressuring Bart to give Burns blood in the hopes that the Simpsons will get rich doesn’t happen without capitalism or class conflict. Orson Welles has called Citizen Kane an attack on “the acquisitive society.” I think this is one, too.

simpsons_02_22

It’s a macro version of the out of touch Mrs. Glick presenting two quarters to Bart in “Three Men and a Comic Book.” There are so many layers of obliviousness in this shot it hurts.

Just to be clear, “Blood Feud” is funny as fuck, too (but then so are Citizen Kane and Shakespeare). Burns bounding out of bed in his hospital gown bare assed, Burns’ book being titled Will There Ever Be a Rainbow, and the final scene with the family gathered around the giant head are all classic moments.

This episode also has my favourite prank call, with Bart asking Moe for a “Mike Roch.” It’s my favourite because I’m related to one. I shit thee not. Roch sounds like gauche, though.

It says everything about The Simpsons’ writers that you have episodes like “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish” and “Blood Feud,” which are two quintessential slice of life episodes that hit completely different and equally important notes. “One Fish, Two Fish” is pure heart; “Blood Feud” is the higher brain, scrambling to sort out the absurdity and impersonality of our present existence.

Best Moment: Homer trying to intercept his letter to Mr. Burns at the post office. 24 years later that still slays. Let it be noted that “What’s your first name” and “I don’t know” is a hilarious gag weaved perfectly into the episode’s theme.

Best Quote: “Ok, here’s the plan. You can move in with your sisters, and raise the kids, and I’ll die in a gutter. It’s practical and within our means.” -Homer

Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Three Men and a Comic Book” is a much smarter episode than it gets credit for.

2.21 Three Men and a Comic Book

Bart, Millhouse, and Martin combine their savings to buy the original Radioactive Man, but then lose it because of their greed.

This might be just outside the top five episodes for season two, but it has some truly classic stuff. The second act with Bart working to save money for his comic book is hilarious; from his begrudgingly opening a lemonade stand and getting laughed at by Nelson; to his selling Homer’s beer to cops for a nickel apiece; to his working for Mrs. Glick, a random old lady and Marge’s hair salon friend. (I like the salon bit, and wish we saw more of Marge’s community the way we get to see Homer’s.)

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 5.23.21 PM.png

Adorable subjugation is adorable.

Mrs. Glick is voiced by the great Cloris Leachman, and every moment with her is just dynamite, my favourite being her insisting that boys love candy in spite of Bart’s protestations. That was my Nana Mary.

Besides being funny, the Mrs. Glick bit is important to the episode’s theme, which looks at how the problems children face are every bit as human as the problems adults face. The paranoia, mistrust, and suspicion the kids have for each other once they purchase the comic book is recognizable in so many adult situations.

Martin’s line, “This is the stuff dreams are made of” is a great Treasure of the Sierra Madre reference. If you haven’t seen the movie, it’s basically the third act of this episode.

three_men_and_a_comic_book_64

I like the writers’ use of a reference none of these kids would get to contextualize a struggle to which the adults in the episode are oblivious.

Evidently, I like this episode a lot more than some critics do.

Critics, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood have commented that some of the jokes will go over your head if you don’t have an understanding of comic book culture. To which I say, “So fucking what?” I want the shows I watch to challenge me to be a bit more worldly by putting a few jokes in there that I might not get. Bart is a ten year old kid; what sort of youth-dominated subculture is he supposed to be interested in? Is your ego so big that you can’t handle having to do a Google search sometimes?

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 5.21.27 PM.png

Fan theories throughout history.

Critic, Doug Pratt says the Wonder Years parody “seems pointless.”

*Clears throat*

Our culture puts childhood in a perfect, innocent bubble, while teaching us to perceive childhood and adulthood as a binary. In doing so we other children, and fail to take the problems they experience (and, more importantly, their view of those problems) seriously. The kids in The Simpsons are every bit as susceptible to human failings as adults, and their critiques of those failings are often better than adults’ critiques, because the social conditioning they’ve been subjected to hasn’t yet had a chance to ossify. The Wonder Years is a retelling of childhood as remembered by an adult who is framing his early years through an adulthood/childhood binary perspective, so the presence of this parody in “Three Men and a Comic Book” isn’t just appropriate, but important, because it underscores the satire of the way we view childhood.

5e57d501812314512b001cd6fe5d4532

This episode is so smart in how it weaves adult problems seamlessly through the problems of children, while having the adults (with the exception of Marge, who recognizes her child self in Bart) be oblivious to how real this all is for the kids. The final scene is a good example: Homer drains the water from his car post-storm before the camera pans to the kids looking over the remains of the destroyed comic book. The storm certainly created a real life adult conundrum for Homer; for the kids, it was monumental. The kids and adults’ problems may not have equal ramifications, but they’re every bit as human, and if you asked each group to understand the magnitude of the others’ problem, it wouldn’t be fully appreciated.

Screen Shot 2015-12-07 at 5.27.50 PM.png

“They’re fine.”

That gap in understanding is easy to laugh off, but remember Bart was only paid two quarters by Mrs. Glick for all his hours of hard, painful labour. Baby Boomers routinely talk to Millennials about entry-level jobs as though they grow on trees and pay the mortgage like they did a couple generations ago. The Bart/Mrs. Glick scenes should be viewed in light of that.

7f21_011

Adorable subjugation is adorable.

I like the choice to have Bart blow off the lesson the kids could have learned about greed. I’m reminded of Homer surviving the poisonous fugu and pledging to live life to the fullest, only to be sitting on the couch eating pork rinds as the credits roll.

In the Book of Genesis, Lot is given every chance to leave Sodom before God destroys it, but doesn’t because he is resigned to the idea that he can’t do any better (that’s where we get the phrase, “lot in life.”) Lot’s lesson is generously laid right out right in front of him, and yet he spends the rest of his days in a cave.

It’s not always enough to simply present an instructive story; pointedly having a character not learn the available lesson can make a parable all the more meaningful.

Best Moment: Mrs. Glick insisting that boys love candy.

Best Quote: “All right now off you go, to spend it on penny whistles and moon pies.” -Mrs. Glick

Classic Simpsons Reviews: “The War of the Simpsons” paints Marge into a corner…again.

2.20 The War of the Simpsons

Homer and Marge sign up for a marriage counselling retreat after Homer humiliates Marge at a party. Homer goes fishing during the retreat, and has to choose between his wife and catching the big one, a catfish called General Sherman.

Okay gather round, kids. I’m about to give the subliminal plot of a hundred or so sitcoms that centre a family:

Dad character is given buffoonish, Archie Bunker-esque qualities in order to soften the pro-patriarchy message and reframe casual misogyny as cute and non-threatening. Emotionally bankrupt and unsupportive dad character pulls some colossal boner that forms the plot of the episode. Dad apologizes for colossal boner, male writers pull a forgiveness ex machina out of the nagging wife.

simpsons-season-2-20-the-war-of-the-simpsons-drunk-homer-marge

And repeat cycle next week.

I love The Simpsons ninety percent of the time because it does more than just this. It has children speaking truth to power. It pulls off complex, pointed, and yet unbiased religious and political satire. It conveys meaningful parables while tossing out a laugh a second.

But deep down in its bowels, it’s every other sitcom with an aging turd of a patriarch who we elevate as a hero because, well, a lot of writers are aging, turd-like, and benefit from patriarchy (I fit at least two of those descriptions, myself). I often overlook it because there are so many great things about The Simpsons, but sometimes that septic mess of unexamined male privilege bubbles up and we get episodes like this one.

7f20_004

patriarchy.jpg

Marge nagging Homer about party preparation, Marge nagging Homer about drinking, Marge nagging Homer about staring at Maude, Marge nagging Homer about fishing, Marge nagging Homer about his gross friends, Marge nagging Homer about forgetting birthdays, Marge nagging Homer about his selfishness; all this is framed as stuff that’s happening to Homer, rather than stuff Homer Does To Other People.

7f20-big

*Gasp* poor, poor Homer. #ShameCulture

Even Homer’s showdown with General Sherman is framed as accidental. Homer isn’t an abuser, he’s a nice guy; a victim of circumstance.

Homer’s sacrifice of throwing the fish back in a lake is enough for Marge to stay in their marriage, which should astonish me, but it really doesn’t, considering the barrage of messaging we get that says men are entitled to a woman’s approval.

Imagine my shock when I realized some women actually leave you when you act like the men you’ve modelled yourself after.

I honestly believe the reason we’re so aghast by women who refuse to accept apologies for abhorrent behaviour is because of the subliminal messaging in much of western storytelling, which tells us that the words, “I’m sorry” somehow trump sustained and meaningful growth. We live in a culture filled to the brim with messaging that frames any marginalized person’s refusal to accept apologies (or any steadfast adherence to their own boundaries) as a far greater vice than the behaviour that caused it. We value protection for those with power and compliance from those without it. Homer throwing General Sherman back in the lake isn’t just the tip of the iceberg, it is the iceberg.

250px-homer_leers_-_the_war_of_the_simpsons

He put his tongue back in his mouth, though, so it’s all good.

Best Moment: Abe Simpson’s reveal that he was messing with the kids’ emotions just to get them to clean the house.

Best Quote: “If you want him to live through the night, I suggest you roll him onto his stomach. Remember, I said if.” -Dr. Hibbert