"Dog Of Death"(Season 3, Episode 19, originally aired March 12, 1992)
Kris Kristofferson wrote, and Janis Joplin sang, that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. That may be true, but there are limits to the freedom inherent in having nothing left to lose. Lots of them. The rich can always slum. Millionaires can eat at McDonalds and chill at the Holiday Inn. The impoverished however do not have the option of crashing at Donald Trump’s home or switching things up a little by eating at a five star eatery.
For the Simpsons and all of Springfield in “Dog Of Death”, money equals power. More specifically, money equals the power to say goodbye to the gloomy rules and strictures and power structures of their old lives and blast off into a new existence bound only by the limits of their imagination, and to a lesser extent, the dictates of morality, legality, etc.
The source of this free-floating money lust is a lottery windfall that has reached that strange tipping point where the fact that someone might win an insane amount of money stops being a regular, uncommented-upon element of everyday life and becomes a news story full of B-roll footage of long lines outside liquor stores and man-on-the-street interviews with common folk kibitzing about what they’d do if they won.
Why is this? Why does a 79 million dollar lotto prize inspire bored yawns and a 140 million dollar prize incite mass hysteria? Obviously 140 million dollars is substantially more money but you’d have more money than you’d know what to do with if you won 79 or 140 million. For some reason, however, there are certain magical numbers that transform the sad fleecing of the poor that is the lottery into something worth talking about.
In “Dog of Death”, money lust isn’t limited to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder; everyone dreams about winning the big payday, even the very wealthy. A running joke has the wealthy likes of Mr. Burns and Krusty the Klown angling for a payday but it’s Kent Brockman who ends up winning big. The rich are never quite rich enough.
In my favorite joke in the episode, Homer fantasizes that winning the lottery will allow him to become a giant, fourteen-karat gold Man-God who towers over his flesh-colored subjects like a colossus. There’s no real rhyme or reason to Homer’s desires; there are no practical benefits to having gold skin as there would be to possessing say, laser-beam eyes, it’s just the crassest conceivable form of consumerism, greed rendered surreal. On the commentary, the writers and producer herald it as the ultimate John Swartzwelder gag, an insane non sequitur that takes an ugly human impulse and exaggerates it to grotesque extremes. All hail King Homer indeed.
For teachers, the lottery is a double lie. It offers the illusion of instant, unimaginable wealth but it also promises to pump money into public school coffers and frequently comes up short. Principal Skinner is cruelly and unconscionably denied the funds to build his dream school-prison where children are held to place in magnets, a betrayal every bit as profound and dispiriting as what happened to ol’ Skinny Boy when he came back from 'Nam.
The lottery subplot turns out to be something of a dead end, for as the title suggests, the real subject of “The Dog of Death” is the furry, adorable little sentient plot point that is Santa’s Little Helper. The episode begins with Santa’s Little Helper on the precipice of death. Santa’s Little Helper needs an operation that costs seven hundred and fifty dollars. At first the family does the only reasonable thing, which is to consign the dog to death so that the family can maintain their current quality of life.
Softer hearts prevail however and it isn’t long until the whole family bitterly resents Santa’s Little Helper for costing them their creature comforts. Santa’s Little Helper has it rough. He’s only trotted out when it suits the plot and more often than not he’s in some sort of terrible scrape.
That’s the case here after Santa’s Little Helper escapes and ends up in Mr. Burns’ coterie of attack hounds. Simpsons reruns tend to blur together, especially since the show has been on the air so long it’s seemingly attacked every subject multiple times so I can be forgiven for spending the entire episode waiting for Mr. Burns to break into “Be My Vest” before realizing that that was another episode entirely. A fucking great episode, but another episode entirely.
When I think about my favorite Mr. Burns moments, a lot of them boil down to the inflection of a single word, for example, the mocking manner Harry Shearer pronounces “groovy” when he says, “I’ll never forget the day (a beloved attack dog) bagged his first hippie. That young man didn’t think it was too groovy!”
There’s something more than a little sadistic about “Dog Eat Dog”. First the episode nearly kills Santa’s Little Helper. Then the family hates and resents him for costing them their middle-class livelihood before Mr. Burns brainwashes Santa’s Little Helper in a very funny parody of A Clockwork Orange. Like the Simpsons, the show only pays attention to Santa's Little Helper when it becomes absolutely necessary to do so.
Perhaps because he’s a fucking dog, Santa’s Little Helper is never developed as fully as the other characters, so the requisite episode-ending orgy of sentimentality when Santa's Little Help is joyously reunited with Bart feels a little cheap and unearned. “Dog of Death” is still hilarious but its meanness and manipulation leave bit of a sour aftertaste.
—"If that were a real Girl Scout I’d be bothered by now."
—"It’s times like this I’m glad I flunked out of dental school."
—Who else is down there in Dog Hell other than the mean Lassie, Hitler's Dog and Checkers?
—"Basically, we become a family of traveling acrobats."
—"I spend my life saving them and they can’t thank me. Well, the parrots can…"
—Dr. Kildare doesn't mean anything to you young whipper-snappers, does it?
—that bit about Shirley Jackson is genius. I always think about it whenever I think about Jackson or lotteries