Today’s classic episode of The Simpsons was so small scale and relatively unambitious it could almost pass for a super-sized version of the Simpsons shorts that ran on Tracey Ullman Show. It was rooted less in wacky shenanigans than in rich characterization, wonderful little moments and keen insight into the absurdity of everyday life and the inane clatter of the media.
My favorite bit in the show, for example, might just have been the moment when one of a pair of quip-happy, mindlessly enthusiastic announcers for a parade makes a quip about a giant float (it’s Rocky J. Squirrel or Bullwinkle J. Moose or possibly Boris “The Situation” Badenov) getting a “taste of his own medicine”, then realizes that his comment doesn’t make any sense. At all. The character is a Harry Shearer specialty: the announcer or shock jock or sportscaster so impressed with their own facility for glib gab that they border on incoherent.
Sometimes the professional gabbers are less manic to the point of incomprehensibility than condescending and self-righteous, like Kent Brockman when he shows up at a soup kitchen late in the episode to deliver a pandering speech about how appreciate audiences should be that they aren’t smelly and unloved like the patrons of the shelter. When one of the bums takes exception to his characterization of the soup kitchen patrons as the worst kind of human garbage he defensively retorts that he’s building up to something.
Holidays tend to bring out the best and worst in people. That was certainly true of Thanksgiving and the Simpsons. Of course it doesn’t take much to bring out the worst in Patty and Selma or their mother, who is so frail and feeble that she only speaks when she has something hurtful or hateful to say. Nor does it take much to bring out the beast in Bart, who, to coin a phrase, often fails to realize his potential yet seems incongruously boastful of that fact.
Lisa builds a display paying reverent homage to the kind of fearless feminist pioneers who sometimes appear on incredibly unpopular dollar coins. She pours her heart into creating an exhibit that captures the essence of her soul only to have Bart cavalierly destroy it, then expect only the meekest of punishments. This is Thanksgiving, after all, and if we noble palefaces can forgive the so-called “Native” Americans for living on land white Europeans desired centuries before we realized we wanted to control it, then why shouldn’t Bart be forgiven as well?
Bart is sent to his room without supper for ruining Thanksgiving while Lisa is moved to create an elaborate homage to “Howl”, the classic stream-of-consciousness poem written by James Franco. In another context, the use of a countercultural classic like “Howl” as a gag might come off as hopelessly pretentious and show-offy but the words felt natural coming out of the mouth of television’s most adorably pretentious and intellectually show-offy Jr. Intellectual.
No home or grounding can contain Bart, so he heads out on his own and he heads out to the wrong side of the tracks and finds a magical place that will give him twelve dollars for blood. His response was similar to my own when I learned that I could get as much as twenty dollars for a mere several hours of having my plasma sucked out of my veins while I watched some of the worst movies in the world. It seemed like a godsend. As a nineteen-year-old college student I very much envisioned making weekly visits to the plasma bank a fixture of my life forever.
After being drained of his plasma, Bart passes out in a woozy daze and is rescued by a pair of hobos with hearts of gold. As with the Simpsons Christmas special, the show injects an unmistakable note of sentimentality into the mix (this is a Thanksgiving show after all) without becoming maudlin or sappy. The hobos are dignified and kind enough to worry about a little boy passed out in the street, but they aren’t above happily accepting money from a pre-pubescent.
The Simpsons spot Bart on the news professing to be a hardened homeless moppet and everyone is joyously reunited as Homer makes a sweet, pragmatic prayer for small moments of togetherness and second chances. It’s an elegant way to end an episode whose modest scope and sincerity represents a big part of its charm.