Classic Simpsons Reviews: The “board with a nail in it” is some of the best satire I’ve ever seen.

3.7 Treehouse of Horror II (Lisa’s Nightmare, Bart’s Nightmare, Homer’s Nightmare)

In my epic review of all 26 “Treehouse of Horror” episodes, I placed The Simpsons’ second entry all the way up at number two, just behind the fourth.

It opens as the first “Treehouse” did, with Marge imploring parents not to let their children watch the show. She says, “Before last year’s Halloween show, I warned you not to let your children watch. But you did anyway.” That first time she did this happens to be my earliest memory of the series. It was some brilliant reverse psychology, and had five year old me forever hooked.

In “Lisa’s Nightmare,” Homer purchases a monkey’s paw in Morocco, which, of course, gets way out of hand (har har). Bart’s wish for the Simpsons to be rich and famous plays out perfectly, as all of Springfield quickly gets bored of the Simpsons and their merchandise being everywhere. It’s wonderfully self-referential and unfortunately prophetic, considering the Keith Richards of TV shows is somehow still on the air.

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“At first they were cute and funny, but now they’re just annoying.”

I happen to think this is the best segment in “Treehouse” history, and it’s because of how Lisa’s wish for world peace plays out. Her wish causes everyone on Earth to melt all their weapons, leaving the planet ripe for an invasion by Kodos and Kang. It seems like it’s going to be a straightforward, cynical message, but, as with so many Simpson parables, it skillfully wraps around itself at the end of the bit, with Ned getting the paw and wishing the aliens away, before Moe chases them off with a board with a nail in it. Kodos then prophesies that humanity will now build bigger boards with even bigger nails in them, eventually destroying themselves; Kodos and Kang won’t need to lift a finger. My God that’s a whole lot of nuance packed into one fast-paced bit.

I love how the writers make it so Lisa’s intelligence is every bit as able to be a source of hubris and naivety as it is to be a source of good. She wishes for world peace, and then you have Britain apologizing for the Falklands, with Argentina’s great reply, “Oh forget it we kind of knew they were yours.” The writers respect Lisa’s intellect but aren’t afraid to criticize her for being self-important. South Park tries to walk this line with Kyle, and with some success, but by comparison they and Family Guy sort of just shit on you for caring about anything.

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“I can do that but I don’t wanna” is an all-time great line, and one I say IRL all the time.

“Bart’s Nightmare” turns Springfield into a Twilight Zone-esque dystopia where Bart reads everyone’s thoughts and punishes those who don’t think positively. Extreme hilarity ensues. Marge’s “Oh good! The curtains are on fire!” = gut-buster. Krabapple’s “America was now discovered in 1942 by Some Guy and is now called Bonerland” = outstanding. 346 consecutive hours of Krusty = hysterical.

I love the way this segment captures how I feel around positivity police. Love. It.

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Laughed so hard as a kid it gave me an asthma attack. I remember that asthma attack.

“Homer’s Nightmare” is a Frankenstein parody with Homer as the monster and Mr. Burns as the Doctor. It’s funny enough with some nice Burns and Smithers banter, though nowhere near as sophisticated as the first two segments.

Best Segment: “Lisa’s Nightmare”

Best Moment: Moe fights off an alien invasion with a board with a nail in it.

Best Quote: “That board with a nail in it may have defeated us, but the humans won’t stop there. They’ll make bigger boards and bigger nails. Soon they will make a board with a nail in it so big, it will destroy them all.” -Kang

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Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Like Father, Like Clown” is of a time when we made fun of religion without being assholes about it.

3.6 Like Father, Like Clown

Bart and Lisa try to get Krusty the Clown and his father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofski, to reconcile after a 25-year estrangement.

The Simpsons brought in two rabbis as consultants for this episode, and it’s here that the series separates itself from the likes of Family Guy and South Park. The Simpsons brings in Jewish consultants when doing a storyline that concerns Judaism. They bring in Japanese actors for an episode that involves a Japanese restaurant (“One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”). I’m by noooo means saying The Simpsons is perfect or never not appropriative, but by comparison Family Guy and South Park’s cultural research amounts to a room full of white guys getting high and seeing who can do the most offensive accent.

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The animators’ use of shadow sets us up emotionally for Krusty’s story of his estrangement.

One of the Jewish consultants was Harold M. Schulweis, a longtime author and spiritual leader who died of heart disease in 2014. Upon reading the script for “Like Father, Like Clown,” he said, “It was profound…I was impressed with the underlying moral seriousness.” He wasn’t even a fan of the show. Can you name a single religious-themed Family Guy episode that a spiritual leader would have praised in the same way?

If you want to illustrate just how much Family Guy and South Park can’t carry The Simpsons’ intellectual jock strap, play this episode back to back with When You Wish Upon a Weinstein and Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo.

(For what it’s worth, When You Wish Upon a Weinstein is 100% garbage, but I do think Mr. Hankey is redeemable insofar as you can fuck off if you don’t think a talking Christmas poo is funny.)

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WHY did I Google “Simpsons Mr. Hankey.”

The smell test for good v. bad satire is whether a bigot could find comfort in the humour, and no anti-Semite could possibly find comfort in the The Simpsons’ pointed yet humane satire of religious excess.

Jackie Mason is fantastic as Hyman Krustofski. He plays a man whose spiritual devotion has warped his capacity to love his child unconditionally. It’s a tale as old as…well, spiritual devotion. My favourite Hyman moment is when he says to young Krusty, “If you were a jazz singer this I could forgive.” It’s one of many references to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927), which this episode parodies. He has so many little lines that are just great, like “Seltzer is for drinking, not for spraying.” Mason won an Emmy for his performance in this episode.

It’s funny and delightful that Springfield now has a Lower East Side where Krusty grew up. A couple episodes ago Springfield was a town big enough for a sizeable mafia; in “Marge vs. The Monorail” it’s a much smaller town with a centralized population. The Everytown, U.S.A. that is Springfield is so malleable in size and scope, which is a dynamic you can only really pull off in animation.

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I don’t think you see Yiddle’s Jokes again after this episode. (Correct me if I’m wrong)

Like with “One Fish, Two Fish, Blue Fish, Blowfish,” the sound design really makes this episode. Alf Clausen has been the sole music composer for The Simpsons since 1990. Chris Ledesma has edited music for every single episode of The Simpsons, from the glory years to the ‘hey maybe Downton Abbey is on’ years. Together they make the music fit the emotion, narrative, and theme of every episode, while also staying faithful to the Danny Elfman-composed main theme. Just like they evoke mob movie themes in “Bart the Murderer,” they evoke Jewish themes in “Like Father, Like Clown.”

A couple moments I love are the father/son themed Itchy & Scratchy bit (I love it when they make the Itchy & Scratchy bits fit the episode) and the radio show that takes the piss out of Atheists with the annoying caller who asks, “With all the suffering and injustice in the world, do you ever wonder if God really exists.” I consider myself a lower case ‘a’ atheist and think there are many good arguments for Atheism, and that this is not one of them. I mean come on, let’s suppose there is some intelligent designer we might choose to call God; I doubt she’d be too concerned about what’s going on in this particular speck of a 91 billion light year-wide (observable) universe.

My one criticism of this episode would be that the Moneypenny-esque character who serves as Krusty’s secretary doesn’t really hit. I can’t say for sure what the writers were going for here; perhaps by making Krusty oblivious to her unconditional love, they want us to see the extent of the damage done to Krusty by his estrangement from his father. It might have worked if they hadn’t tried to have their cake and eat it too, as they did with Princess Kashmir in “Homer’s Night Out.” Like with Kashmir, they put “Ms. Pennycandy” there to make some point but then flippantly toss that aside by making her a totally uninteresting caricature. It’s a very minor part of the episode so I would still rank “Like Father, Like Clown” very highly in Season Three. They also could have made more of the fact that Lisa does all the heavy lifting and Bart gets credit for the reconciliation. Like, have Lisa and Pennycandy share a moment? An eyeroll? I dunno, something?

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That moment when your attempt at a pro-feminist character has all the depth of a creepy Playboy Bunny interview.

I appreciate how the episode resolves itself through Bart and Lisa learning Jewish scripture and using it to convince Rabbi Krustofski to accept his son (yes, I know they get to him with a Sammy Davis Jr. quote, but bear with me). Rather than the simplistic, conservative option of convincing Krustofski that his religion is wrong (an approach that -hi!- never fails to be problematic in real life), the episode takes the more sophisticated route of convincing Krustofski that the values he is bringing to his religion are wrong.

I seem to be in the minority here, but I think family reconciliation is, in general, overrated. Abuse is abuse, neglect is neglect, and the relationship escalators we view as linear and sacrosanct should not have to include forgiveness if you’re not ready for it and the other party hasn’t demonstrated growth. So the fact that I’m still so high on this episode is a testament to how good it is. Krusty is long past anger, but the episode doesn’t treat him like he has to be; it instead focuses that energy on his father, who was in this case the aggressor.

This episode is part of why Krusty is in my top five favourite characters (along with Millhouse, Jasper, Lisa, and Kodos/Kang).

Best Moment: Bart in a steambath with a group of Jewish scholars debating the Torah.

Best Quote: “Let me just check my non-Christian rolodex.” -Reverend Lovejoy

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Poking fun at religion for sure, but also it’s like…nice that he’d have one?

Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Homer Defined” exposes how we teach kids to value authority over empathy.

3.5 Homer Defined

Homer becomes a hero after saving the nuclear power plant from a meltdown by chance, and is eventually exposed as a fraud. Millhouse’s mom decides Bart is a bad influence and forbids her son from playing with him.

The episode starts with some awesome satire on American print media. Homer is reading a knock-off of USA Today, and says the paper is “not afraid to tell the truth; that everything is just fine.”

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I used to read BC’s The Province every day when my parents were done with it. I’d say it and most Canadian newspapers deserve the same ‘praise.’

The scene on the bus with Bart finding out that Millhouse had a birthday party without him is really good. It’s sobering to see Bart genuinely hurt by something, particularly when he stays on the bus after it drops the kids off at school and he just sits there, depressed. This stuff is nuclear for a kid. The contrast between adulthood and childhood drama is similar in tone to “Three Men and a Comic Book,” if a bit more serious.

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GOOD THING WE’RE NEVER GONNA PUT A HOMER SIMPSON IN CHARGE OF THE NUCLEAR CODES AM I RIGHT??

The whole B story of Millhouse’s mom forbidding the kids from being friends has so much tragedy, if on an adolescent level. Bart’s terrible wrapping job on Millhouse’s birthday present is so adorable and sad (sexist birthday card notwithstanding). The way Millhouse slouches awkwardly on the bus indicates that his mom has enforced a harsh rule and left it at that instead of talking with him about how to deal with broaching the subject. It’s tragic that Millhouse is totally unable to stand up to his mom, and that it’s this dynamic, and not anything to do with Bart, that is the root Millhouse’s problems. Perhaps you’re reading this and are one of many parents who has failed to see this pattern, which, thanks for coming out.

Marge sticking up for Bart and talking to Luanne about their kids is a really touching moment, though it’s also tragic that no one (Marge included) has a conversation with Bart about why Luanne might have felt a need to set that boundary.

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Can we talk about how Luanne is every middle class parent in completely over their head?

When I was ten, I was at my best friend’s house and we were playing hide and seek. I hid in a closet so well that he and his mom got really worried, thinking I had run away. His mom called my mom, who showed up and shouted my name until I came out, in deep trouble. I was barred from my best friend’s house for a few months.

Which, yeah, probably a reasonable punishment. I needed to learn how much it messed up my best friend’s mom that she thought she’d lost me…and also when to stop something I think is hilarious that others aren’t exactly amused by. But no one ever mentioned that to me. They just made the rule and that was that, and so the net lesson became more about respecting authority than anything to do with seeing the effect my actions have on others. The message was “If you do wrong, you won’t get what you want.”

The fact I’m able to empathize with all parties now is purely coincidental/a result of better parenting moments (the way my mom handled my first breakup was A+ making empathy for the other person the whole point).

The A story is very much farce and pop culture references, with Homer managing to succeed despite his incompetence. The phrase, “pulling a Homer” becoming popular among the Simpsons characters is a nice sendup of how so much of the show has entered our cultural lexicon.

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Really nice touch on the back of the TV during the broadcast of the nuclear scare. I mean god damn that is some A+ storyboarding & animation.

The B story is better than the A story, though, which for me puts “Homer Defined” on the outside of season three’s best, even if the A story does get some laughs (In defence of this sacrilege, I’ve stated an opinion, not a fact). Magic Johnson’s cameo is hilarious, particularly when he “pulls a Homer” at the end of the episode. It’s also nice to see Homer visiting the Shelbyville plant, as it’s absurd that a neighbouring small town would also have a nuclear power facility, and it’s fun to have a parallel universe for the universe parallel to ours that is Springfield. “Lemon of Troy” has an even better exploration of that in season six.

Best Moment: Magic Johnson’s cameo.

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Simpsons celebrity cameos are at their best when they’re almost perfunctory; when there’s this air of “What the hell even is a celebrity cameo oh well let’s do something out of left field.” Later-season cameos fall flat because they take themselves a bit too seriously, which untethers the show from its own absurd reality (I’m thinking of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger in season ten’s bore fest, When You Dish Upon a Star). Mark Hamill singing “Luke be a Jedi tonight” is fucking funny. Lucy Lawless electing not to undo her Xena breastplate in front of gross nerds even though it’d get her out of a trap is fucking funny. Mel Gibson just being…kinda there being Mel Gibson isn’t.

Best Quote: “Aw, that’s sweet. I used to follow my Dad to a lot of bars, too.” -Barney Gumble

Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Bart the Murderer” admits that yeah, crime kinda does pay.

3.4 Bart the Murderer

Bart is hired as an errand boy by the local mafia. When Principal Skinner goes missing after punishing Bart, Bart is put on trial for murder.

This episode is heavily inspired by the movie, Goodfellas, which had come out a year earlier. There are so many hilarious moments that make this the strongest season three episode up to this point. Standout moments include Homer thinking Bart has taken up smoking when hundreds of stolen cigarette cartons are in his room, one of the mobsters saying he only knows how to make wine spritzers when Bart is late for work, and Reverend Lovejoy halfheartedly comforting Bart in his nightmare.

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“There there. There there.”

It’s more farce than satire in the first act, with Bart having an absurdly terrible morning that leads him to the basement of the Legitimate Businessman’s Social Club. His dog actually eating his homework, the sky suddenly pouring rain when he goes outside, the clock going backwards as he licks envelopes for Principal Skinner; it all lives in a more exaggerated place than The Simpsons’ narratives often have up to this point, and it’s a trend that will continue in following seasons.

The satire comes in the second act when Marge expresses concern about Bart’s job, saying he doesn’t want her son turning out to be a criminal. Homer responds with probably the smartest thing he’s said throughout the entire series, saying, “If my job poisons the water and pollutes the town, by your logic that would make me a criminal.” He’s absolutely correct, and it’s here that “Bart the Murderer” points out the hypocrisy of looking down on organized crime and not the business & environmental crimes carried out under the pretence of legal legitimacy.

I’m also a fan of the psychic hired by the police to find Skinner, who only seems to be able to predict which celebrities will split up. Besides me never having enough fun seeing ridicule pointed at new age woo-woo, I enjoy the subtle hint of “Hey so why do we overlook incompetence and/or abuse in socially accepted hierarchies (e.g. law enforcement) that we wouldn’t overlook in hierarchies that aren’t socially accepted (e.g. organized crime).”

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“Prostitution, loan sharking, numbers; the kid liked to wet his beak in everything.” Besides being hilarious, it reminds us of how bureaucratic networks (legal or otherwise) function to blur cause and deflect blame.

The great thing about Springfield-as-Everytown, U.S.A. is that it’s so malleable in size and scope. In “Marge vs. the Monorail” the town is said to be small with a centralized population; in later seasons that population is revealed to be around 30,000. That’s hardly the kind of town that should have a sizeable Italian mafia, or Itchy & Scratchy’s headquarters, or visits from Michelangelo’s David, but it doesn’t matter. Springfield is like a black hole, in that time around it moves differently, and it’s so dense that its contents are theoretically infinite. Whether you need to explore elements of small-town or big-city America, Springfield is a place you can do it.

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The bit with Bart saying “I’ve learned crime doesn’t pay” as Fat Tony leaves with his entourage of limos is right on the button good.

The episode ends in the Simpson house, with the family watching a made for TV movie about Bart’s story, with the names and events changed just enough to avoid having to pay any of the real people involved. How on point is that?

Best Moment: Skinner’s MacGyver-esque story of escaping from under a pile of newspapers.

Best Quote: “You ate my homework?! … I didn’t know dogs really did that.” -Bart