A look at the Simpsons

A look at "The Simpsons" from the 1990s and the first half of the 2000s.
November 19, 2007
Okay, y'all, time for me to do another article. Here is one for one of the most influential series from the 20th century, if not ever. When offered the chance to do some animated cartoons for the 1980s series "The Tracey Ullman Show", series creator Matt Groening originally intended to animate his characters from his strip "Life in Hell" before some issues led him to create a new skit.

Based on his own family, these new characters proved themselves to be popular and strong enough to suggest that they star as a full-half show. And so, in Christmas of 1989, 20th Century Fox gave our favorite family a holiday classic episode that was the beginning of an American cultural icon. It was called...

A fine example of social commentary and witty satire of politics, the entertainment industry and almost everything else, "The Simpsons" entertained people in the U.S.A. and abroad through clever writing, identifiable characters and momentary warmth that was either lacking or in overkill in other sitcom series from the era.

Let's meet the family:

Homer Simpson, named after Matt's own dad, is a typical American working man: a married man with three kids, he is slow-witted, gluttonous, clumsy, crude, self-centered and disaster-prone. He is also a very funny guy. He is shown to have a envious streak towards his God-fearing neighbor Ned Flanders and often has bouts with the law. He is a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, but in many episodes, goes to get a different job. While maybe he does the wrong things, wheter it is due to poor choice making, laziness, irresponsibility, etc., he still does many things to establish that he cares very much about his family.

His famous catchphrase, "D'oh!" (uttered whenever he realizes he'd done something stupid and spelled out as "Annoyed Grunt" in scripts) was incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary.

Marge Simpson, named after his mom, is the forever-patient, well-meaning wife of Homer. She is depicted as a typical mom you see in sitcoms; caring, compassionate and moralistic, but also naive, gullible and unworldly. She has the most static personality in the sense she cares more about the family's upkeep and special occassions, but is willing to abandon it in favor of some wacky antics (she would probably need to, otherwise she'd never do anything memorable). Generally the straight character to her oaf of a husband, like Alice Kramden was to her husband Ralph, Marge does have her moments, but there's not too much else one can say about her because she's a rather bland character.

Bart Simpson, whose name is an anagram for "brat", was Matt Groening's answer to the not-so-bad kids from his generation--ie. a brat who was actually a brat. The firstborn child of the main family, Bart is a troublemaking, rebellious juvenile deliquent who helped form the show's tone. He's had two music videos called "Do the Bartman" and "Deep, Deep Trouble". An underachiever and proud of it, Bart is a more 'in-your-face' funny character than Homer and they tend to be the series' most compelling characters. Despite being a troublemaker, he is charismatic and holds a code of honor--he will defend the underdog and he often pranks those who he feels deserve it and are capable of fighting back. I always thought he was cool.

Lisa Simpson, named after his little sister, is the overachieving middle child who acts as a mouthpiece for the writers. She is a Buddhist vegetarian who constantly speaks her mind and acts as another straight character who I tend to see as being there to help make the funny character funny. While I said Marge is the least engaging articulate Simpson family member, Lisa is my least favorite. I understand her purpose in the show, but I don't tend to like the episodes about her very much mainly because she's not a character that makes for fun stories. She has her moments--namely when she is paired with another character like Bart or Homer--but she's just not that interesting when she's by herself.

Finally, there is Maggie Simpson, named after his youngest sister. Maggie is the baby of the family and ultimately has no significant value. From time to time she plays a role, but there were some episodes where she appears in only a few scenes and even a few where she does not even appear. I tend to see her as a character that the writers use for a quick joke, or when it's 'getting too serious'. Beyond that, she's little more than a blinking ornament on Marge's arm.

The show also has a large cast list of memorable secondary and recurring characters. My favorites include the Indian Kwik-E-Mart store manager Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, clueless police Chief Wiggum, the never-trusting bartender Moe Szyslak, the media cutthroat Krusty the Clown, Bart's gawky pal Milhouse Van Houten, school bully Nelson Muntz, school dufus Ralph Wiggum, Homer's megalomaniac boss Mr. Burns and criminal mastermind Sideshow Bob. There are other characters as well, some are strong enough to be used for a full episode (Grandpa Simpson, Principal Skinner, Edna Krabappel, Ned Flanders, Patty and Selma Bouvier) while others are more one-note and used only for quick jokes (Disco Stu, Bumblebee Guy, Dr. Colossus, Uter, Otto).

The show's best feature is it's writing; there is undoubtably something, anything, in this show that people of all walks of life will find funny. The show's worst feature is the continuity; basically nothing stays nailed down. It has the worst episode continuity this side of The Flintstones.

Now, for a look at the series through the years:

Season 1 (Christmas 1989-Spring 1990) officially introduced the Simpson family as regular network stars. Say what you want about this season--Homer's voice sounds different, the animation is wierd, half the characters still have to evolve--but I like this season a lot as it is fun to see the series making a conscious attempt at standing on its own legs. It's a regular Simpsons time capsule, reminding us that the show needed to start somewhere. Memorable episodes include the aforementioned Christmas episode, Bart getting put in a genius school after he cheats on his intelligence test, Bart organizing a water balloon raid against Nelson, Bart sawing off the head of town founder Jebediah Springfield, Homer getting caught dancing with an erotic dancer courtesy of Bart, Bart trying to prove Krusty's innocence from armed robbery and Bart and Lisa going up against the Babysitter Bandit.

Season 2 (Fall 1990-Spring 1991) had the series a little more solidified, but it still hadn't finalized itself yet. Around this point in time, we got introduced to more characters to flesh out the world of the Simpsons, most notably Phil Hartman's characters like the down-and-out movie star Troy McClure and the con man lawyer Lionel Hutz. Memorable episodes included Mr. Burns' failed run for governor, Bart destroying Lisa's Thanksgiving centerpiece, Marge's crusade against Itchy and Scratchy, the series' Tom and Jerry on dope, Homer fearing he only has one more day to live after supposedly eating blowfish poison, Principal Skinner's fling with Marge's sister Patty, Marge rediscovering her painting talent, Bart, Milhouse and Martin all quarreling over a comic book, and our first look at a holiday tradition, the Simpsons' Halloween-themed Treehouse of Horror.

By Season 3 (Fall 1991-Spring 1992), the show had been finalized. It was the start of a phenomenon as its creativity was on the rise. During this time, "The Simpsons" was as good as gold from this time all the way through Season 7 (Fall 1995-Spring 1996). The memorable episodes in this era are too numerous to list, but they include (and are not limited to): Homer meeting the fake Michael Jackson, Bart and Homer building a soap box derby racer, Moe stealing Homer's idea for a flaming alcoholic beverage, Bart foiling Sideshow Bob's plot to kill his Aunt Selma, Milhouse's first crush, the hellish Kamp Krusty, Lisa becoming Little Miss Springfield, Homer buying his snowplow, Homer trying to go a month without beer, Bart and Lisa helping Krusty against media sensation Gabbo, the family moving onto a houseboat to evade Sideshow Bob, Mr. Burns's longing for his old stuffed bear Bobo, Homer joining Bart on a Boy Scout trip, Homer's near affair with Mindy Simmons, Apu serving the family after getting fired from the Kwik-E-Mart, Bart becoming Mr. Burns's heir, the 100th episode involving Principal Skinner losing his job and re-enlisting in the army, Lisa having a younger, intelligent rival named Allison Taylor, the family's trip to Itchy and Scratchy Land, Homer getting accused of pinching a babysitter's butt, Homer getting blackmailed by Patty and Selma, everyone left wondering "Who Shot Mr. Burns?", Bart, Lisa and Maggie moving into a foster home with the Flanders family, Homer purposely gaining weight to get on disability, Bart failing to steal a copy of Bonestorm from the Try-N-Save, Bart's rivalry with former President Bush, Lisa learning Jebediah Springfield was in truth a bloodthirsty pirate, and Lisa trying to lose her 'nerd' image to make friends on summer vacation. All the Treehouse of Horror segments were incredible.

Season 8 (Fall 1996-Spring 1997), aka the Season that started to emphasize the secondary characters, was almost a perfect year. There were many classics and near-classics, in this season almost everything was totally good. Lots of good stuff here: Homer going to work for Mr. Nice Guy-but-in-truth-terrorist Hank Scorpio, Lisa's puppy love romance with Nelson Muntz, Ned Flanders being revealed to be an emotional time bomb, Homer thinking he's seen an alien, the family hiring nanny Sherri Bobbins (the 166th episode, tying "The Flintstones"), Homer getting hired to do the voice of Poochie the Dog (the 167th episode, which surpassed the record set by "The Flintstones" since 1966), Homer fearing Bart might turn gay, Bart raising hell while Lisa babysits, and Homer getting a new, but within the episode deceased, enemy in the form of Frank Grimes. The Season's Treehouse of Horror skit, unfortunately, aged very poorly due to the "Citizen Kang" segment, which was only funny as long as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were duking it out to become president (which was more than 10 years ago).

Season 9 (Fall 1997-Spring 1998), though, was the first "hit-or-miss" season. The show was still funny and there were still a lot of nice episodes, however, the ocassional weak link began to rear itself. The good episodes are plentiful though: the family visits a pre-9/11 New York, the story of Bart's first day of school and Lisa's saxophone is revealed, Homer buys a handgun, Apu gets married, Krusty brushing up his comedy routine, Bart becomes friends with Ralph Wiggum, Bart and Lisa become kids' newscasters, and Homer and Marge wind up forced to run naked across town. At this time, the show saw its 200th episode, "Trash of the Titans", where Homer wanted to become the city's sanitation commissioner, but it's nothing to write home about.

It wasn't perfect, unfortunately. An example of a weak episode in the series was "The Principal and the Pauper", a pointless, cheap, laugh-free episode where Principal Skinner, a character we got accustomed to over eight earlier seasons, is completely dismantled for just one more episode. And then there is "All Singing, All Dancing", proving clip shows suck, and the very flawed "Lisa the Simpson" (I thought Bart does poorly because of what happened in "Lisa's Sax", and gee, I guess Homer forgot to invite Herb Powell). It may have started in Season 6, but another factor that started to become obvious is the episodes with an unsatisfying/abrupt ending. Yet another issue is the characters' depictions; Homer started to become an even more self-centered jerk, Lisa became intolerant of basically anything beyond her lifestyle, and Marge seemed like she just quit caring. Only Bart seemed to be okay. We were also introduced to Gil, who as we saw, started to become more and more overused (and it needs to be said--he ain't all that funny). The season's Treehouse of Horror skit was still good, but in the episode "Realty Bites", where Marge became a real estate agent and was Gil's official introduction, it would be the final vocal turn for Lionel Hutz, because in May of 1998, Phil Hartman was murdered by his wife. With his death, Troy McClure and Lionel Hutz were officially retired from the show.

Season 10 (Fall 1998-Spring 1999), was different from the earlier seasons, in that the earlier episodes where classics, but this season was made of episodes that have classic moments. Guest stars started to pop up more and more now. We got some good bookends like "Lard of the Dance" involving Lisa's new rival in the form of Alex Whitney and "Thirty Minutes Over Tokyo", the family's vacation to Japan, but while we can't expect a show to have nothing but classics, by now it seemed like the show's glory days were over and many times, the episodes' subplots prove more entertaining than the main plot (as an example, "Lisa Gets an "A"" had a story involving Lisa struggling with choosing to stay quiet or confess on her cheating on an English test, but I tend to care more about the subplot involving Homer wanting to keep his lobster Pinchy as a pet). The show started to put too much emphasis on just Homer; he is funny but they start using him too much and less attention is paid to the rest of the family. He's funnier together with them.

It acted like a season of compromises; in "Make Room for Lisa", Homer is shown as a caring person who does whatever he must to make Lisa happy, while "Homer Simpson in: Kidney Trouble" has him acting as a jerk who wonders why he should bother donating a kidney to save his dad's life.

Guest voices, such as Jasper Johns and Isabella Rosselini fit right into "Mom and Pop Art", but "When You Dish Upon a Star" seemed to exist just to shoehorn Kim Basinger, Alec Baldwin and Ron Howard into an episode.

For holiday episodes, we got a nice, sweet and funny Valentine's Day episode like "I'm With Cupid" (and with Elton John, to boot), but we also got a weak, too-much-for-only-seven-minutes trilogy-themed Easter episode like "Simpsons Bible Stories".

For "Homer gets a new job" episodes, his humorous turn in his new job as Mayor Diamond Joe Quimby's bodyguard in "Mayored to the Mob" is a good one, but it's countered by the weak foundation of his new trucker job in the overly lame "Maximum Homerdrive".

Some of the episodes, like the aforementioned "Lisa Gets an "A"" are down to earth and identifiable, but others like "Monty Can't Buy Me Love" started to act as if they would willingly abandon reality in favor of wackiness. It was not the show's worst season, just not consistent and moves in sort of a negative way.

It was a worthwhile season though, and Troy McClure's final appearance came in "Bart the Mother".

Season 11 (Fall 1999-Spring 2000) is basically the season of potential shark-jumpers. We got some good episodes here, which included Homer meeting Mel Gibson, Bart taking miracle drugs, Moe becoming a soap opera star, Lisa starting tap dancing, and the series' spoof of "Behind the Music". However, there was a bunch of potential ideas in this season that would lead people to think the show is past its prime and ought to be cancelled: Homer making the "Tomacco" plant, Maggie saving Homer from drowning, Apu and his wife Manjula having the octuplets, the constant self-referencing, theme recycling, odd characterization and plot twists such as leprechaun jockeys in the episode "Saddlesore Galactica" alone, the death of Ned Flanders' wife Maude, Homer becoming a missionary to, in the vein of Family Guy, escape a butt load of PBS icons, Homer's drunkard pal Barney quitting drinking, the family's vacation to Florida on Spring Break, and Entertainment Weekly's pic for the series worst episode, "Bart to the Future", which simply reflected on the series' past glory. The series was still funny, but I think that was probably saving it from these potential threats.

Season 12 (Fall 2000-Spring 2001) was kind of a rebound. We got another solid Treehouse of Horror, Bart, Homer and the Grandpa became con artists, Homer learning he has crayon lodged in his brain, Bart and Milhouse running cult favorite character Comic Book Guy's Android's Dungeon while he's in the hospital, Bart, Milhouse, Nelson and Ralph become a Navy-sponsored boy band called the Party Posse, the "Homer's Day", "Lisa's Day" and "Bart's Day" aspects of "Trilogy of Error", and a hobo tells stories involving Homer becoming Paul Bunyan, Lisa becomes Connie Appleseed and Bart and Nelson become Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Some episodes felt a little pointless and add little to the show, such as Krusty learning he has a Drew Barrymore-voiced daughter, Homer becoming an Internet icon named "Mr. X", Marge trying to reform an artistic convict, and Ned Flanders fulfilling his late wife's dream of building a Christian-themed amusement park. At this time, it was obvious the show took a sudden interest in Homer's co-workers Lenny and Carl. Yeah, I guess they're a little funny, but they are getting more attention than they probably deserve.

And then we got some weak episodes, like "Lisa the Tree Hugger", which showcases Lisa as the tree hugging brat she is, "Homer vs. Dignity", aka the episode where Homer got raped by a panda (ugh, that's just not funny), "Bye Bye Nerdie", where Lisa is getting bullied by a new girl named Francine (good idea, but the ending...I mean, "Nerd Sweat"? C'mon...), and the fact-contradicting "Simpson Safari". Little of this, little of that.

Season 13 (Fall 2001-Spring 2002) was mostly a bust. The unlucky season, I remember it being delayed in the wake of 9/11/2001 and we got it in November. The best episodes of the season were likely the Treehouse of Horror episode, Bart and Homer getting shackled together, Homer's mouth getting braced shut, Bart making an Internet cartoon called "Angry Dad", Lisa fooling a bunch of college students into thinking she's one of them...and that's about it. The rest are pretty forgettable, but my least favorites included Homer recounting a childhood trauma, Lisa going Buddhist, Grandpa wanting to start driving again, the 'is or isn't it canon' episode "Gump Roast", and the completely humorless episode involving Homer learning Apu is cheating on his wife. Not the series' best season, that's for sure.

My newspaper editor wrote a review on Season 13 saying it's self-aware reference that it's declined in quality through Bart's blackboard punishment, "Nobody reads these anymore" is more sad than funny. This picture was used with the following phrase:

The Simpsons: Maggie, Marge, Homer, Bart and Lisa appear to be running out of new things to do.

Season 14 (Fall 2002-Spring 2003) was kind of an improvement. Some of the better episodes included Homer attending Mick Jagger's Fantasy Rock n' Roll Band Camp, Marge getting a boob job, the family living in a 1895-esque house for a reality show, Homer hiring a private investigator to learn more about Lisa, the 300th episode involving Marge doing steroids (the 300th episode was joked about in "Barting Over", were Lisa hits a counter to go from 299 to 300...Marge swears it was 302), the family's vacation on a dude ranch, and Bart and Milhouse's alligences are strained as they join the opposing "Pre-Teen Braves" and "Cavalry Kids". The rest is a little...eh.

Eh, I'm sure this can go on for a long time. If I can come up with something new, I'll do a part two. At the same time, there are still some newer episodes that I would need to watch as well. While I thought our favorite family was ultimately stronger in the 1990s than they were in the 2000s, I'll just say "The Simpsons" is a very influential show, with lots of good stuff to keep you going forever. And with the success of the 2007 movie, who knows how long it'll go on. Thank you and good night. TreyVore, out.
More Articles From TreyVore
An unhandled error has occurred. Reload Dismiss