“What we have here are thirteen crudely animated episodes, first aired in 1989 and 1990, all spiffed up, cleaned off, and augmented with bells and whistles, bonus materials and self-pitying audio commentaries. If Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie look weirdly off-model, if their voices sound spooky and different and if the animation seems particularly glitch-filled, just remember this: we didn’t know what the hell we were doing back then,” reads the most self-deprecating paragraph of Matt Groening introduction to The Simpsons’ first season DVDs.
Groening is, of course, exaggerating slightly for comic effect but he’s also kidding on the square. The Simpsons spent its first season working out the kinks and finding its voice but it also came roaring out the gate with thirteen pretty brilliant episodes that captured the public’s imagination like no animated television show before or since.
The personalities, quirks and predilections of The Simpsons are burned so indelibly in the public consciousness that it can be jarring watching them behave out of character. When Groening waxed self-deprecatingly about the first season being “off model” he could be talking about the writing as well. At this point, we know Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and to a lesser extent, Maggie better than we know our friends, our families and ourselves but in the first season the writers didn’t seem to have them all quite figured out.
Today’s episode offers the curious spectacle of characters behaving wildly out of character. To cite but a few jaw-droppers in this episode:
1. Marge is the one who gets drunk and embarrasses the family
2. Homer is the one worried about what the community thinks of them
3. Homer dismisses the idea of his kids going to college, even as Lisa mutters worryingly about not being able to afford Vassar
4. Homer, of all people, volunteers to sell the television while Marge tries to talk him out of it.
5. Mr. Burns pretends to care about the feelings of his employees
But if plenty of this episode feels off-model there’s plenty about it that feels refreshingly familiar as well. The episode begins with Homer fretting about the company picnic at Mr. Burns’ palatial estate. At the picnic, Marge, feeling self-conscious about her family, begins imbibing, leading to a brief but glorious musical sequence where Marge croons an ode to the liberating powers of wine.
But as Homer can attest, binge drinking can only numb the pain of living for so long and Homer leaves the picnic convinced that he has the worst family in town. The first season of The Simpsons wasn’t as funny or fast as the show’s Golden Years (Season 3 through 8 maybe? What do you guys think?) but it was arguably more emotionally satisfying and real. The Simpsons eventually came to act like, well, cartoon characters but it’s easy to relate to the emotions of the show’s first four episodes, whether that emotion is Homer’s shame about not being able to provide for his family on Christmas, his never-ending quest to win Bart’s respect and, in this episode, his not unsupportable conviction that his family are pariahs shunned by decent society.
In my favorite scene, a despondent and self-loathing Homer looks at his family and sees a motley aggregations of fanged, horned demons on the road straight to hell, then looks at a rival family and sees a quorum of angels ascending to heaven.
Homer is so desperate to win the approval of his friends and neighbors that he pays the ultimate sacrifice: he pawns his television to afford therapy with Dr. Marvin Monroe, a sketchy touchy-feely headshrinker who offers a highly dubious double-your-money-back-if-you’re-not-cured guarantee. Of course, anyone who has ever been in therapy knows that no one ever gets cured, in fact the very idea of being cured is fuzzy and untenable.
The good Doctor has the Simpsons work through their hostility first by hitting each other with foam bats (Bart soon discovers that the bats are more effective once the foam is removed). When that proves useless he turns to the harder stuff: having the family shock each other. Not surprisingly, that proves problematic: the Simpsons shock each other so frequently they cause a power outage throughout Springfield.
After the darkness comes the light: after establishing that The Simpsons don’t flinch at causing each other horrible physical pain (even little Maggie gets shocked and does some shocking) Homer redeems himself when a fed-up Dr. Marvin Monroe gives him five hundred dollars to go away. Victory! By being beyond far beyond professional help, he’s able to secure the funds to buy them the spiffy new 21-inch television of their dreams. Victory! The episode ends on a satisfyingly emotional note that flirts with, without quite veering into, blatant sentimentality. Then again, when you feature several minutes of a family abusing each other you’re entitled a cornball moment of redemption and catharsis. Shame, humiliation, black comedy and finally a heartwarming moment of connection and redemption: such is the genius of The Simpsons, even when crudely animated and ever so slightly off-model.