Before the zombie years, before all that glitzy commercialism, and before Mike Scully, there was the first season. Back in 1990, The Simpsons was an unconventional animated show that stared America right in the face and challenged American culture in a time when nobody would.
For me, season 1 has among the most intelligent episodes of the entire season, written by people who actually had the passion and the vision, before the show got taken over by the producers. In this post, I aim to look at all thirteen episodes in order to show exactly what The Simpsons had lost in the quest for eternal fame.
Let’s start with the Christmas episode, which also happens to be the season premiere. As far as I’m concerned, it’s also the beginning of the Simpsons timeline. Released in 1989, Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire was not an average Christmas special, but it continues from the Simpsons shorts that used to air on the Tracy Ullman show. In it, Homer tries to find money for the family to buy Christmas presents after he loses his Christmas bonus. For me, the central message of the episode is that in America, Christmas is basically about how much money you can spend for your family, which turns out for the worst because Homer isn’t the best provider.
It’s in this episode that we get introduced to the main cast of characters, and their personalities are beginning to develop. Even though it’s a Christmas episode, it serves as a solid foundation for a show that strived to be an alternative to the other shows out there. Afterwards, when the 1980s’ came to a close, the show came out with one of its best episodes: Bart the Genius.
For me, this episode is rife with commentary on the education system. In the first season’s incarnation of Springfield, Bart is basically a victim of an education system that just wants to keep kids in line. Tired of Martin’s arrogance, he swaps his intelligence test with Martin’s, causing Bart to be mistakenly identified as a genius. He is later ostracised by his new classmates, but when he tries to get in touch with his former classmates, they all reject him because of his supposed smarts.
For me, this episode demonstrates two things:
- Back when this episode was written, society believed that you are either smart or dumb (I think they still do today).
- American kids were brought up to discriminate against anyone smarter than them (again, this may still be true today).
For me, Bart in this season is just a regular kid who’s neither smart nor dumb. He might simply be a little slow, but because everyone has to learn at the same restrictive pace, Bart usually gets low grades.
The next episode, Homer’s Odyssey, is actually quite dark if you look at it properly. Homer gets fired from his job at the nuclear power plant, and after failing to find a new job, tries to commit suicide, feeling that the family would be better off without him. While whether or not this may actually be true will never be made clear, this may be inconsequential, as Marge and the kids immediately rush to stop him, but they are almost run over by a speeding truck, Homer vows to be a crusader for public safety. When he goes far enough to protest his own plant, Mr. Burns tries to quash the movement, by offering Homer a new position as the plant’s safety inspector.
This episode introduces us to Homer’s workplace, and the people who run the power plant. What’s weird about Homer’s new job is how incompetent he would be in later episodes of the show. While he was a safety crusader, he was overly competent, leading to signs being plastered everywhere. After he was rehired by the plant, he’d wind up being just as incompetent as he was before. What the hell happened?
Anyway, let’s turn our attention to the fourth episode: There’s No Disgrace Like Home.
In this episode, after the family embarrasses themselves at the company picnic, Homer begins to feel that the Simpsons are the worst family in Springfield. This sentiment was inspired by seeing another family treat each other with respect, and later confirmed when the family sees two other families leaving happily together.
Desperate for a solution, Homer pawns the TV to pay for a family therapy session, but it turns out that the whole family views Homer as a particularly stern authority figure. After Dr. Marvin Monroe’s attempts at therapy fail, Homer gets $500 back, using it to buy a new TV, thus restoring the status quo and confirming that the Simpsons are basically slaves to TV. I think the ending to this episode is basically a metaphor for how back in 1990, American society had become glued to TV, raising their young on TV and complaining when TV rebels against their shallow moral code.
In the next episode, Bart the General, Bart fears for his life after angering Nelson, the school bully. In actually, Bart just winds up being Nelson’s bitch day after day. Marge tries to teach Bart to be passive, Homer tries teaching Bart to fight dirty, all while the school principal does nothing about it, even when he can it going on from space. Eventually, Bart gets help from Grampa Simpson, who enlists Herman, the deranged proprietor of an army surplus store. With their help, Bart rallies a bunch of kids, and together, they defeat Nelson. For me, it’s an awesome episode, but the only thing that ruins it is Bart concluding the episode with some speech about how war is always bad.
Afterwards, we had Moaning Lisa, which introduces us to the sad world of Lisa Simpson, a gifted young girl whose musical dreams are always suppressed by a soulless music teacher, and is generally unpopular. When she meets Bleeding Gums Murphy, however, she learns to express her feelings through her saxophone, until Marge whisks her away. Meanwhile, Homer tries to beat Bart at video boxing, and has a surreal nightmare about beating beaten to death by his own son.
Marge tries passing on her mother’s advice, telling Lisa to constantly smile. What Marge didn’t realize is that the world Lisa lives in is not the same as the world Marge grew up in. As soon as Lisa starts hiding her true feelings, she is taken advantage of by some of the boys, causing Marge to get enraged, and whisk Lisa away, before telling her to be herself. What amazes me is that this incarnation of Marge is actually quite reasonable. Later incarnations of Marge would never encourage anyone to be themselves, ever. What the fuck happened?
The first half of the season ended with The Call of the Simpsons, in which Homer tries to outdo Ned Flanders’ RV by attempting to buy a better one, but due to Homer’s lousy credit rating, he can only afford a dilapidated RV that barely works, and is quickly destroyed when the Simpsons go on a camping trip that nobody wanted to go in.
Eventually, the camping trip goes horribly wrong, and Homer gets mistaken for the legendary Bigfoot, causing a swarm of Bigfoot enthusiasts, tabloid reporters, and reward seekers to descend upon the Springfield forest. When Homer finally does get captured, it is determined that Homer is “either a below-average human being or a brilliant beast”, much to Homer’s dismay. For me, the episode is about family bonding. Marge and Lisa bond after making themselves comfortable in front of a campfire, and Homer and Bart bond as they try and survive in the woods.
The next six episodes of season 1 begin exploring the nature of American society even further, starting off with one of the show’s most iconic episodes, The Telltale Head.
In The Telltale Head, Bart commits his most famous act of vandalism, cutting off the head of the town’s statue of Jebediah Springfield, who it turns out is the town founder, beloved by all. This incident basically acts as a way of enabling commentary on both hero worship and peer pressure.
Let’s face it, Bart only cut of the head of the statue because he thought it would impress a bunch of hooligans (who turned out to really be a bad influence on him). When they reveal that it was just “cloud talk”, it makes Bart feel even worse. In this incarnation of the show, Bart doesn’t vandalize for the sake of it. He’s basically a classic victim of peer pressure. The town’s reaction doesn’t exactly help. By this point, they had taken their heritage for granted, with even Krusty the Clown inadvertently calling for Bart’s death.
The Telltale Head was genuinely entertaining, and it was very clever in its handling of such delicate themes, especially when you throw in Homer’s classically inept advice, which may as well have caused the problem.
With the next episode, Life in the Fast Lane, the show begins to focus on Homer and Marge’s loveless marriage. At the beginning of the episode, Homer thoughtlessly gives Marge a bowling ball named “Homer” for her birthday. When she actually starts bowling, she gets seduced by a middle-aged gigolo named Jacques Cousteau. The signs of Marge’s seduction become clearer as the kids begin to notice that their parents’ marriage is failing. Eventually, Marge is left with an extremely difficult choice. Either stay true to her husband after realizing that he doesn’t mean to be thoughtless all the time, or give in to temptation at the Fiesta Terraces apartment complex.
In the end, Marge chooses to resist temptation and see Homer at the plant, after which we never seem to hear from Jacques again. This is a very emotional episode, no doubt due to the tension between Homer and Marge’s marriage, which somehow causes Marge to miss the fact that she was being seduced until it was getting close to the end. Of course, this is a stark contrast to the next episode, Homer’s Night Out.
In this episodes, Bart gets a spy camera, and finds Homer dancing with Princess Kashmir, an exotic belly dancer who provides some raunchy entertainment at Eugene Fisk’s admittedly dismal bachelor party. When Bart’s photo is spread, it gets seen by all the kids, and then all the adults until Marge sees it. When that happens, Homer may as well have been thrown straight to Hell, because Marge throws him out without even giving him a chance to explain what happened properly.
Call me crazy, but there seems to be a double standard against Homer. When Marge got seduced by Jacques, Homer suffers, and is unable to express his feelings much. When Homer simply dances with Princess Kashmir, with no real feelings for her, suddenly Marge throws him to the curb without a care, and when Homer asks for forgiveness, she makes him work for it. Meanwhile, Homer gets a reputation for being a swinger, and later becomes a party god at the Sapphire Lounge by complete accident, all before giving a tripe speech about how women aren’t objects. But wait, women weren’t objects back in 1990. By then, feminism had won, so what does Marge want?
For me, it’s the worst episode in season 1, but it’s still good because I can see that the episode was not about adultery. It’s about how people would react to seeing a photo of Homer dancing with a belly dancer, and the reactions are quite realistic.
In the next episode, The Crepes of Wrath, Bart gets sent to France as punishment for putting a cherry bomb in the restroom. In the process, The Simpsons welcome Adil Hoxha, an exchange student from Albania. While all seems well in America, Bart’s actually being treated like a slave by his hosts in France, while Adil is secretly infiltrating the Springfield nuclear plant, sending the reactor plans to his home country’s government.
For me, the story works so well, mainly because we get to see the different events unfolding so naturally. The episode also tries to show how America viewed other countries at the time. The French in this episode are composed largely of American stereotypes, and Albania’s depiction seems to be inspired by the last remnants of Cold War paranoia. At the welcoming assembly in Springfield Elementary, Skinner indirectly refers to Albania as one of America’s “backward neighbours throughout the world”.
We’re also treated some commentary about American capitalism, in the form of Adil and Lisa arguing over what kind of country America is. Adil questions how Lisa can defend a country where the elite 5% control 95% of the country’s wealth, while the bafflingly patriotic Lisa defends America solely on the principle that its a land where people can think, act, and worship any way they want (she’s only half-right). In trying to break up the argument, Homer says the smartest thing he’s ever said in the show’s history.
“Maybe Lisa’s right about America being a land of opportunity, and maybe Adil has a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers.”
Moving on from that, let’s look at the final two episodes in season 1, starting with one of my favourites, Krusty Gets Busted.
In this episode, beloved entertainer Krusty the Clown gets arrested for armed robbery, and the townspeople burn all of Krusty’s merchandise, having given in to mob mentality. Since Krusty is Bart’s idol, Bart is crushed by the news, but remains adamant in his belief that Krusty didn’t do it. Convinced that none of the pieces fit together, Bart asks Lisa to help him find out who framed Krusty.
After Krusty’s arrest, Sideshow Bob takes over the show and turns it into something more educational. In that time, Bart and Lisa conclude that Krusty could not have been near the Kwik-E-Mart microwave due to his pacemaker, and because he was illiterate, couldn’t have read anything from the magazine rack. After Bob mentioned his big shoes, Bart manages to fit all the pieces together and expose Sideshow Bob’s plot to frame Krusty.
For me, it’s not about metaphors or social commentary. The bottom line is that it was a great episode. One thing I should note is that before he gets sent to jail, Bob tries to tell everyone not to underestimate children, so long as Bart and Lisa were smart enough to catch him, which brings us to the last episode (which, ironically, was the first episode to be produced).
In Some Enchanted Evening, Marge tells Dr. Marvin Monroe via telephone that she feels unloved and taken for granted by Homer. After Homer hears of the entire conversation, he goes above and beyond to try and prove his love for her. When Homer and Marge then go out for dinner and a night at a motel, they hire a babysitter (under the alias of “The Samsons”). The babysitter, Lucille Botz, turns out to be the infamous Babysitter Bandit, who proceeds to tie up Bart and Lisa, who discovered her true identity watching America’s Most Armed and Dangerous.
After being inexplicably untied by Maggie, the kids manage to lure Ms. Botz to a room where Bart knocks her out with a baseball bat. When Homer and Marge go back home, under the suspicion that something is wrong, they find Ms. Botz hog-tied in front of the TV. Homer frees her and pays her handsomely for her troubles, unaware that she was the Babysitter Bandit. When the news reporters hear of this, it becomes clear to the whole world that Homer Simpson is the local boob of Springfield.
That’s probably the best part about the episode. It was a genuinely clever episode that managed to play with all the elements in just the right way, as opposed to the numerous other episodes that tried to emulate this one.
In conclusion, I feel that the first season was great because the writers had outlined their vision, to create an alternative to what Matt Groening called “the mainstream trash” that America was hooked on. This original vision is what makes the future of The Simpsons so sad.
25 years later, the show’s producers had betrayed Groening’s original vision, causing The Simpsons to become the same mainstream trash that Groening didn’t want to make, and that’s where The Simpsons had gone wrong. Unfortunately, by the time Mike Scully’s reign of terror ended, the damage had already been done. Perhaps the fate of the show is sealed because the writers have forgotten Matt Groening’s original vision. Maybe they should have quit well they were ahead.