By the time “Old Money” aired, The Simpsons had evolved to the point where it could toss off in a second a joke that would qualify as the single smartest, most insightful, funniest line in most shows’ entire run. The blink-and-you-missed-it, freeze-frame sight gag in question is a sign heralding Springfield Retirement Castle as a place “Where the elderly can hide from the inevitable."
It’s funny because it’s true and because it’s brutal. Among its myriad accomplishments, The Simpsons has the distinction of featuring arguably the least sentimental depiction of aging in television history. In an early episode, Grandpa Simpson famously fired off an angry letter to marketers spreading the poisonous propaganda that old people are fun, sexy vital people in the prime of their lives to complain that in actuality old people are bitter, angry, resentful of things that are new and strange, and deeply nostalgic for the good old days.
That moment indelibly and succinctly defined Abe’s character. The show has been unstinting in depicting nursing homes as, to borrow a phrase from The Invention of Lying, somewhere sad, old people go to die: They're essentially prisons without bars, populated overwhelmingly by tragic, lonely souls, pining desperately for trips from sons and daughters and aunts and nieces and grandchildren that will never come.
In The Simpsons, old people are a burden to their family, themselves, and society as a whole. Their children barely tolerate them, and, unless they’re unusually wealthy, society is generally eager to toss them in the grave. “Old Money” epitomizes The Simpsons’ harsh, unblinking, unsparing but not unkind treatment of the elderly, particularly Abe Simpson.
“Old Money” packs an awful lot of twists and turns and emotion into 22 dense minutes. The tragicomic antics kick off when Abe falls instantly in love with Beatrice, a charming fellow prisoner of the Springfield Retirement Castle when they experience the senior citizen equivalent of meeting cute: accidentally taking each other’s medication.
It’s love at first sight, as the long-in-the-tooth love birds seduce each other by taking their medication in the sexiest/most cringe-inducing manner imaginable in a bit that doubles as a rather dated parody of the famous cherry stem-tying scene from Twin Peaks. Most episodes would devote an entire episode to Abe falling in love. In its first season, The Simpsons probably would have been content to settle for an Abe-in-love plot, but this episode had a whole lot more on its mind.
For Abe, falling in love in the December of his life is merely the beginning of his troubles and travails, not the end. Abe wants desperately to attend his new girlfriend’s birthday party (at that age, every one could be the last), but Homer condescendingly assumes Abe’s girlfriend is imaginary and takes him against his will to the Discount Lion Safari in a scene with a real sense of pathos and tragedy.
Abe returns to discover that his girlfriend has died in his absence and left him her entire fortune of a little over one hundred thousand dollars. Suddenly, a man with no power whatsoever, within his family and without, is in the cat bird’s seat. “Old Money” is an unusually emotional episode and an unusually complex depiction of Homer and Abe’s love-hate relationship. It almost invariably tilts towards the “hate,” or at least "mutual exasperation," side of that equation, but today, Homer genuinely misses his father and feels justifiably terrible that he selfishly kept Abe from experiencing something profound and important.
The perpetually apoplectic patriarch of the Simpson clan ultimately decides to give the money away to a deserving cause. All of Springfield lines up in a mad dash for the loot, and the writers get to have a lot of fun with minor supporting characters like Professor Frink, who wants to build a ray gun with the money, and Otto, who wants to transform one of “Big Daddy” Ed Roth’s crazy cartoon hot rod fantasies into reality.
After defying sentiment for much of its duration, “Old Money” ends on a semi-sappy note, with Grandpa using the money to fix up the old folks home. Ushering his fellow lost, abandoned souls to a dining room in honor of his late love, Abe, in a rare moment of grace, admonishes, “C’mon in. Dignity’s on me, friends.” It’s a little treacly to be sure, but god damned if I wasn’t touched all the same. By that point, “Old Money” richly deserved a happy ending, not unlike nursing home residents with a little spare cash to throw around to the folks giving them rubdowns.