Simpsons: The Golden Age

The tricky legacy of the era-spanning mainstay
March 30, 2016

October of 1996. I leaned against my junior high school locker -- probably wearing a Cris Carter jersey and cargo pants -- and discussed, with what seemed like certainty, the downfall of The Simpsons. My friends and I were already convinced that, eight seasons in, our favorite show had reached a creative peak with its downturn in quality certain to end in cancellation.

Twenty years later, it’s inconceivably still one of FOX’s anchor programs.

Discussing “legacy” when it comes to The Simpsons is remarkably difficult. For one, it’s still on the air. It’s not easy to examine the totality of a program before it’s given you all it’s got. Also, however, any creative enterprise that has spanned a timeline of nearly thirty years -- particularly a period as disparate and evolving as the last thirty years of television has been -- is nearly impossible to pinpoint. No show in history is as challenging to examine as The Simpsons; any discussion will inevitably (and reasonably) end with the question, “Well, are we talking about season three or season twenty-four?”

During the late 1990s, at what appeared to be a show lacking the bite and humor of its recent predecessors, I was angry. My adolescent brain didn’t appreciate the fact that its most beloved animated institution was seemingly losing its grip on comedic cultural dominance. But with the benefit of hindsight and recalibration, I can’t imagine how The Simpsons could possibly have remained the same show.

With changing eras comes changing art. This is true in the relatively small sample size of eight to ten years; it’s unquestionably true in the 27-year history spanning from 1989-2016. How could anybody expect The Simpsons, cutting its teeth during the family-friendly 1990s -- of which it was, somehow, simultaneously a satirical commentator on and active participant in -- to have the same aesthetic in the post-9/11, reality-crazed climate of today? The world is a different place; therefore, the show itself had no choice but to reflect this difference.

Perhaps more pragmatically, creators and writers moved on and gave way to new perspectives that failed -- through no fault of their own -- to capture the voice so familiar to diehard viewers. And let’s not forget the onslaught of competition its very success spawned: in 1989, it was perhaps the only adult-themed animated show. Even by the late 1990s, it was one among an ever-growing field of cartoons ranging from mature to raunchy such as South Park and Family Guy. Today, it’s nearly forgotten in a sea of hundreds of on-demand options.

That said, I think my friends and I may have indeed exhibited a perception uncommon to the average 13-year-old. While I can defend the necessary and inevitable progression of the show’s content and character, I will equally vehemently defend that seasons two through seven comprise an unmatched Golden Age of television programming.

Sure, there are episodes in later seasons that I really enjoy -- among them, season eight’s “You Only Move Twice,” where Homer accepts a job offer in the corporate town of Cypress Creek, working for super-villain Hank Scorpio (voiced brilliantly, as always, by Albert Brooks). And Bart’s line about being in the remedial class always makes me cackle: “I’m surrounded by arsonists and kids with mittens pinned to their jackets all year round!”

But beginning in that season, the clunker episodes start to appear more frequently. The hit-to-miss ratio in previous years, however, is nearly flawless with almost every episode a gem of comedic genius.

Let’s look at some of my favorites:

“Oh Brother, Where Are Thou?” -- [The one where Homer meets his half-brother Herb, the automotive tycoon, for the first time.]

This is a good early-season culmination of the “every-man” characterization so prominently ascribed to Homer Simpson. All he wants is pork chops and apple sauce at two in the morning and, hey, don’t worry about holding a baby, “dive right in!” he says as he throws Maggie to Herb (another top-notch vocal cameo, Danny DeVito). This quality is precisely what earns him the job of designing a car: the bubble-top, La Cucaracha-playing, $82,000 behemoth that bankrupts the company.

My favorite gag? When Herb talks to his employee -- who has nothing but terrible things to report about Homer -- and tells him to call back and say, on speaker-phone, the exact opposite of everything he just said: “Homer Simpson is a brilliant man with lots of well thought-out, practical ideas. He’s ensuring the financial security of this company. Oh, yes, and his personal hygiene is above reproach!”

“When Flanders Failed” -- [The one where Flanders opens the Leftorium.]

Admittedly, this episode may not have as many roaringly laughable moments as some of its contemporaries. But it’s a classic. It’s also a good example of the formula so perfectly fostered by The Simpsons: Homer, the brutish and self-centered oaf, takes advantage of another’s misfortunes for his own personal gain for 21 minutes, only to be redeemed in the final 60 seconds, exhibiting the lovable humanity that completely excuses his preceding behavior.

And the fact that Homer is willing to miss Flanders’ barbecue to watch coverage of the 1991 Canadian Football League draft? Brilliant. “And now the Rough Riders, who scored only four rouges all last season…”

“Last Exit to Springfield” -- [The one where Homer becomes the leader of the power plant union.]

Firstly, this episode opens with an iconic McBain scene. He breaks out of the ice sculpture during the villain-party and points his machine gun with the deliciously Schwarzenegger line, “Ice to see you!”

Note: I am a fan of any and all things McBain, most notably the scene when his partner is shot just days before retirement, holding a photograph of his boat the “Live-4-Ever,” spawning the legendary scream, “Mendoooooooooooooooza!”

It also encompasses the beauty of The Simpsons in that it has the ability to center social commentary around a character as comment-less as Homer. This episode is all about class struggle and worker rights; yet, Homer’s entire motivation is to keep from paying Lisa’s dental bills, a goal he ultimately achieves despite his own cluelessness.

And this episode also contains one of my top-five scenes of all-time: Grandpa Simpson and the strike-breakers. “We can’t break heads like we used to. But we have our ways. The trick is to tell them stories that don’t go anywhere. Like the time I caught the ferry to Shelbyville. I needed a new heel for my shoe. So I decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days. So I tied an onion to my belt. Which was the style at the time. Now, to take the ferry cost a nickel. Back in those days, nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them! Give me five bees for a quarter, you’d say. Now where was I? The important thing was, I had an onion on my belt.”

I still say “Give me five bees for a quarter” if ever in the rare situation I need nickels.

“Burns’ Heir” -- [The one where Burns molds Bart as his heir.]

Perhaps my favorite episode ever. Wall to wall genius. It gave us such classics as:

-Mr. Burns nearly drowning under the weight of a “cornered” sponge.
-Smithers learning his prize when Mr. Burns dies: “You shall be buried alive with me.” (“Oh. Goody.”)
-Bart auditioning to be Burns’ heir, reading a script prepared by Homer: “Hello, Mr. Kurns. I bad want money now. Me sick.”
-Homer’s response to his kids’ failure: “You tried your best. And you failed miserably. The lesson is, never try.”
-After Bart signs the contract to become Burns’ heir, Marge asks Homer, after seeing how lonely Mr. Burns is: “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” to which he responds, “Yeah. Let’s push him down the steps.”
-The hilarious ensemble of actors Burns hires to pretend to be the Simpsons. “Buh-oh!”
-Burns’ high-priced lawyers once again out-smarting Lionel Hutz and “proving” that he is, indeed, Bart’s biological father. “I’ve argued in front of every judge in this state. Often as a lawyer!”
-Homer wanting to keep a misidentified Hans Moleman. “Give it a try. It’s like kissing a peanut!”

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

“Lemon of Troy” -- [The one where Shelbyville steals the lemon tree from Springfield.]

“What ever happened to good old fashioned town pride?”
“It’s been going downhill since the lake caught fire.”

I love how this episode can simultaneously highlight the absurdity and community-building of hyper nationalism. Us versus them. It makes the “them” unnecessarily villainous, but it also brings the “us” closer together. Shelbyville was always that “other” town, but this episode really played-up on the rivalry between Springfield and the geographic cousin that “beats them in football nearly half the time.” And now we know the principle on which Shelbyville was founded: the ability to marry one’s attractive cousin.

By the way, Sylvester Stallone: the seventh installment of Rocky was supposed to be called “Adrian’s Revenge.”

“A Fish Called Selma” -- [The one where Troy McClure marries Selma to help bolster his failing acting career.]

I whole-heartedly endorse any episode that gives Phil Hartman a chance to showcase his formidable chops. Lionel Hutz and Troy McClure are comedy gold, baby! And I’d really like to find writer Jack Barth and give him a giant hug for the side-splitting laughter he provided me with the Planet of the Apes musical scores: “I hate every chimp I see, from Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee.”

[Note: When composing this article, I found Mr. Barth’s email address and sent him these sentiments. He kindly responded: “I am figuratively blushing at your praise. I was lucky to be part of the goldenest sub-era of the Golden Age, which to my mind peaked during the stewardship of Weinstein-Oakley. George Meyer was also certainly central to that halcyon era. But hey, there are still several great gags per show in the recent ones. (Except for the Ricky Gervais episodes. [shudder])”]

This article would be 50,000 words if I were to include every memorable and hilarious episode from these formative years. As I’ve always said to my eye-rolling friends: if I could personify the Golden Age of The Simpsons, it would be, like, the seventh most influential person I’ve ever met in my life. I’m a different human being than I would be without its existence.

Thanks, Simpsons.
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