Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s goal as Simpsons showrunners involved hitting the sweet spot between the series’ heart and its funny bone, but there’s another balance in their episodes that the show would struggle to strike in ensuing years. To my eyes, season seven does a commendable job of emphasizing its animated nature without sacrificing the logic or reality that governs Springfield. But when a television show runs for a quarter of a century (and counting), certain compromises must be made in the name of comedy and story. Some viewers—including those on The A.V. Club staff—prefer the show’s first three seasons because there are greater limitations placed on what The Simpsons can and can’t be. When debating our favorite seasons of the show in the second edition of The A.V. Club Live, film editor A.A. Dowd cited Homer’s seemingly infinite supply of cash in “The Day The Violence Died” as a sign that the show’s sense of reality was already slipping in season seven. It’s certainly an odd sight: A father who previously worked two jobs in order to keep his daughter’s pony suddenly has a bottomless wallet? I mean, what are we to believe, that this is some sort of magic billfold?
If I wasn’t too preoccupied with theatrically interrupting my colleague’s praise of season three (seriously, y’all should come out to A.V. Club Live next time—it’s a real hoot), I would’ve offered this as a defense: Of course Homer appears independently wealthy in “The Day The Violence Died,” because that episode goes to great lengths to poke fun at fantastical animated adventures to which money is no object. Here’s the thing about arguing for The Simpsons’ ever-slipping, ever-changing sense of internal logic: The Simpsons never pretended it wasn’t a cartoon. The early seasons are grounded in a faithfulness to working-class living, but there’s enough wiggle room within that faithfulness to fit a horse in the backseat of Homer’s car. That facet might be more pronounced in season seven, but the show keeps one foot on the ground while it yells at clouds. And that quality makes an episode like “Raging Abe Simpson And His Grumbling Grandson In ‘The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish’” possible.
“The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish” isn’t the funniest episode of the seventh season. It’s not the show’s most compellingly constructed story. It is, however, a visual feast assembled from scraps of pulpy adventure serials and vintage military comics. Director Jeffrey Lynch goes for flash early and often in this episode, lowering the vantage point of the camera and playing up the leading lines, taking great care in conveying the action in Jonathan Collier’s script. It’s a genre exercise, but one that never strays far from the truth of its main character. Abe stories frequently hinge on the character’s anxieties about obsolescence and death, and he’s given a tangible reason to assert his liveliness here. After all, if he doesn’t rekindle that part of himself, Montgomery Burns is going to get away with the treasure of the Flying/Fighting Hellfish.
Grampa and Mr. Burns make for natural enemies, for reasons beyond the fact that Monty is the show’s most openly antagonist senior. The characters are also potent symbols of separate ways of aging: Abe has allowed the advancing years to grind him down, shaping the man we know as Grampa Simpson into a withered husk of his former, Sgt. Rock-like self. Burns, meanwhile, is a world-beater despite his feebleness, a man who remains mentally (if not physical) acute because he’s only ever looked out for one person: himself. As seen in “The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish”’s flashbacks to “the second World War II,” Abe was responsible for the lives of others well before Homer was born. He didn’t do too well with a son of his own, but as Sgt. Simpson, he was an example to a full unit of Springfield ancestors bearing physical and/or vocal resemblance to series regulars. The European theater was the one place Abe would ever out-rank Burns, but despite the occasional irritation and/or mortar shell, Sgt. Simpson was too much of a valiant leader to lord his authority over the richest man in town.
That’s plenty of reason to make Bart proud of the cranky coot Sgt. Simpson transformed into across the decades—and the heroic streak remains, ready to be called upon when Burns does his Burnsian best to sidestep the rules of the Hellfish tontine. (Say, Ox, what’s a tontine? “Duh, essentially, we all enter into a contract whereby the last surviving participant becomes the sole possessor of all them purty pictures.”) “The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish”’s heightened stakes really pay off here, because they grant a plausibility to the action-hero sequences. Grampa may have suffered from bonus eruptus last week, but he gets to exhibit grace under pressure this week. It takes a while for him to regain that poise, but when he needs it the most—when Bart is drowning or when Burns is about to get away with the paintings—he’s able to tap its remaining reserves. Lynch weaves this possibility throughout the episode: The way he poses all of the characters is so purposeful, but just look at how Grampa grandstands and lounges at Mrs. Krabappel’s desk and tell me that’s not a man who could save his grandson from drowning in a safe.
But plausibility has nothing to do with it. “Curse Of The Flying Hellfish” is The Simpsons as action-adventure, and Lynch and the storyboard team pack most of its frames with the potential for excitement. Burns is especially a boon in this regard: He’s all sharp joints and gangly limbs anyway, so his physicality is ripe for villainous exaggeration. His spotlight scenes have a cinematic grandiosity to them, best exemplified by the sequence in which Smithers draws the curtains and Mr. Burns dials up his favorite assassin. Lynch—who’s absent for the first portion of the DVD commentary, before Weinstein notes that the assembled commentators paused the tape in order to track down the director and pull him into the conversation—notes that he had more time than usual to devote to “Curse Of The Flying Hellfish” details like lighting and the wavy effects in the underwater sections. The former has a tremendous effect on the episode’s sense of intrigue; lights of all shades—the blue of the Hellfish lamp; the red of the flare that reveals a stowaway Burns—give the enterprise an old Hollywood feel. (On that count, Alf Clausen’s score really leans in to classically mysterious and spooky tones, which to these modern ears might recall the works of John Williams and Danny Elfman—but it works.)
And to bring it back to the small stuff that was The Simpsons’ signature, there’s still this tale of Grampa redeeming himself in the eyes of his grandson. The only reason he tells stories like the ones that embarrass Bart in the cold open is because he wants to impress the boy. And he has to make stuff up because he’s sworn to secrecy when it comes to the truly exciting, truly juicy details of his life. Once it’s all out in the open, Bart is, in turn, less reticent to display his affection for his grandfather. After their whizz-bang exploits together, grandfather and grandson underline the show’s heart (a hug and a declaration that Bart isn’t embarrassed by Grampa) and its humor (Hank Azaria, as the paintings’ true owner, an heir who’s a bigger asshole than even Mr. Burns: “Hey fun boys: Get a room!”). In that moment, Lynch’s direction gets in one final joke—Bart’s eyes widening in confusion and/or humiliation—an exaggerated take that could only work in a cartoon.
- This week in Simpsons signage:
- “The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish” earns its place in the pantheon of Simpsons quotes thanks to this gem of a tall tale from Abe: “Now, my story begins in 19-dickety-two. We had to say ‘dickety’ ’cause the Kaiser had stolen our word ‘20’. I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles.”
- Next week: We’re off for the Fourth of July holiday; we’ll return on July 13, when Les Chappell will be shocked to find that “Much Apu About Nothing” has increased his tax bill by $5.