BurgundySuit: The Simpsons is obviously a show that means a lot to all of us, and there’s going to be a lot to talk about, so let’s start with a question that’s both personal and pretty simple: How were you watching The Simpsons in 1997? I only discovered these episodes in college, mainly after seeing what a huge touchstone it was for the writers and commenters on our late, lamented parent site, The Dissolve. But when I got in, I got in big – I even had the Tapped Out app!
wallflower: I still had access to a television in 1997, so I saw most of these episodes at first broadcast. ‘97 was still peak-era Simpsons; it was still the most reliably funny, inventive, and quotable show on TV–and for that reason, I had to go back and check to see which episodes belonged to this particular year. Two of the best/most quotable were “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (“Rastafy him by 20% or so”) and “Homer vs. the 18th Amendment” (“as if to say ‘Look at me, Rex Banner, I have a new hat!’”); “best” and “most quotable” are often interchangeable terms of praise for The Simpsons. Recently I swiped Orwell’s line about how it’s hard to go a day without quoting Shakespeare, because there’s just so damn much about which he has something to say; the same is true for The Simpsons and how we live now. This was the period of the show when it was still well-constructed, well-animated, well-dialogued, and provided a running commentary on the world like no other series since; it was also, with Poochie and later that year with Frank Grimes, getting even better at commenting on itself.
Ruck Cohlchez: This was still high school for me, so I was still watching The Simpsons Sunday nights on the FOX network. Reruns were pretty rare in our town (I suppose this was the era where The Simpsons were still Not A Show Of Family Values), and it wasn’t until college where I got a steady stream of reruns. However, I was also a (relatively) early adopter of the Internet, and I remember one of the first big pop culture discussions I got involved in being the question on everyone’s mind in the summer of ‘95: Who shot Mr. Burns? Homer’s line (also from 1995) rang true: “The information superhighway showed the average person what some nerd thinks about Star Trek,” except it was also true about The Simpsons. (I never was an alt.tv.simpsons poster myself, but I got into plenty of other conversations about the show.)
Anyway, in hindsight, 1997 was sort of the beginning of the end of the Golden Age. I was fortunate enough to go to college in 1999, which meant that right at the time The Simpsons became truly dire, I had access to twice-daily reruns during the weekday dinner hours, and I had other things to do on Sunday night, like “drinking” and “pretending to study.”
Seasons 8 and 9 are a mixed bag for me, but some of the show’s true gems are found therein. ”Homer vs. the 18th Amendment” is one of the most simply fun episodes the show ever made. “Mountain of Madness” has a whole lot of fun with its mixed-up pairings, especially Burns and Homer (Smithers and the kids deserve mention, too). The world of the show expanded and took on modern social issues with “Homer’s Phobia.” “Grade School Confidential” gave us the Edna-Skinner relationship. “Realty Bites” isn’t well-regarded, but I love any episode that gives Lionel Hutz such a prominent role. And I really enjoy “The Canine Mutiny”; even if it’s in many ways a bit of a rehash of “Bart Sells His Soul,” it also gives us the immortal “Rats. I almost had him eating dog food.”
And as wallflower mentioned, the show got into more meta/self-commentary; I’ll also include “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” in that list, and one could make a case for “The Principal and the Pauper” if such a rumored episode actually existed.
By the way, “Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie” has really stood up the test of time, in a way I was suspicious it might not given the degree to which there was a tone of chiding the fans for being critical. Of course, in the era of Szechuan sauce and shippers harassing showrunners of their favorite children’s cartoons, “nerds being pedantic on the Internet” seems like a positively quaint thing to complain about, but it also seems like a harbinger of what was to come.
The good thing about seasons 8 and 9 is that even when you can tell the episodes are not as strong as they used to be, they almost always have classic lines or sequences. I’m mixed on “Bart Star,” but every time Homer cuts players from the team (especially over the closing credits) I get a good laugh. I’m not as high on “Homer’s Enemy” as a lot of people are, since I don’t think the commentary it was making was all that necessary or relevant, but it’s still got some good comedy, and “Okay, Grimey” is forever in my lexicon. The Episode Which Must Not Be Named has “Up yours, children!”
At this point in time, Seinfeld was dominating the national conversation more than The Simpsons, but The Simpsons was still playing at a high enough level to generate classic lines and produce episodes worthy of the show’s banner. In conclusion, Principal Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel were in the closet making babies and I saw one of the babies and the baby looked at me.
BurgundySuit: Man, I wish I could have such a positive outlook on beloved classics like “Spin-Off Showcase” or “Homer’s Enemy,” but oh lordy, do I not. Rewatching them didn’t do much to change my first impression: that the only real gag in “Showcase” was that all the gas were terrible, and that “Homer’s Enemy” took apart everything that made the show work without showing what made it tick or putting it back together again. The problem with “Showcase,” of course, is that it’s incredibly difficult to parody something that’s already supposed to be funny (but not insurmountable for The Simpsons – Krusty’s excruciatingly drawn out “Big Ear Family” sketch on SNL comes to mind, and of course “It’s true! It’s true! We’re so lame!”). So it’s no coincidence that the best part was “Wiggum, P.I.,” taking off of cop shows that at least nominally took themselves seriously, leading to quotable lines like “He’s gradually getting away, chief,” and “There’s an old saying on the Bayou that – BLAH!” (it works better in context) and great gags about warning gators and one about Skinner’s lawless past that looks like a dry run for a certain other episode…
As for “Homer’s Enemy,” that, more than said certain other episode, shows how much interest The Simpsons’ creators were losing in their creation. One of the biggest frustrations of a Simpsons fan is that over the course of these countless hours of TV, the characters come to seem real to you, and you can become attached to them much like you would real people, especially after the humanity of seasons one to three. And as much fun as the show’s dives into meta comedy can be, they’re always a frustrating reminder that the people most intimately involved with the citizens of Springfield believe in them far less than you do. And “Homer’s Enemy” didn’t have a whole lot of fun to ruin for me. While it violates certain rules specific to this series, the biggest violation is to the fundamental rules of storytelling in the wa it jerks around your viewpoint. Before the first commercial break, our sympathies are supposed to be squarely with Grimey and his frustrations with Homer – and in order to do that, the script has to break his character. Frank is upset that a lazy idiot like Homer can fail upward, but not trusting their usual characterization to make that point, the writers turn him into a pencil-stealing asshole. This could still work, though – Homer isn’t Hamlet, after all, and his personality isn’t sacred. But after the break, the episode tries to yank our sympathies back to him and get us invested in his need to make friends with Grimes, and it just doesn’t work. The self-criticism here seems to me to do far more harm to the show’s core than “The Principal and the Pauper’s” did – after we’ve seen Homer in this light, and especially after we’ve seen his callous obliviousness at Grimes’ funeral, it’s hard to watch his antics the same way ever again. At least it had the mini-subplot of Bart’s factory, which tapped into the series’ extraordinary insights to children’s fantasies of adventure in the adult world and the realities of how they act. That, and the immortal line, “I saw the whole thing. First, it started falling over. And then it fell over.”
So, about that episode we don’t talk about. Let’s talk about it. Because while other beloved meta episodes don’t do much for me, I have a lot of love for this most behated of episodes. What makes it difference? I think the main difference is it plays fair by the universe of the show. Unlike Homer in “Homer’s Enemy,” Skinner remains believable as a real human being even when we find out he’s not the real Skinner. For whatever reason, the line, “It was your life. I was just keeping it warm for you” is incredibly moving to me. While the rest of the cast could have been manipulated and bent out of shape to suit the needs of the plot, every step they take feels true, and the newly established relationship between Skinner and Mrs. Krabappel does a lot of the heavy lifting. Of course, just because their desire to have their own Skinner back is relatable doesn’t make it reasonable, and the cruelty of the ending is that much more hilarious because of the tenderness of what came before it. It’s a meta rug pulling out from under a sincere story, and it hits harder for all that, without undercutting the sincerity of what came before. And it makes a difference, too, that while “Homer’s Enemy” breaks down the reality of The Simpsons, “The Principal and the Pauper” takes a wider gaze on the unreality of a whole medium that needs its problems resolved in thirty minutes and everything back to where it started in time for the next slot. It’s a lot easier to prove you’re smarter than your competitors than to outsmart your own self.
RC: My real problem with “The Principal and the Pauper” is that it turned every Golden Years moment of Skinner re-telling a Vietnam story or showing off his combat skills (cue GIF of him kicking the Disney lawyers’ asses) into a lie. At least it gave us the premise for Mad Men.
BurgundySuit: I just have it as my headcanon that those were all to his adventures as Pvt. Tamzarian. No, I don’t know why all the other soldiers call him “Skinner.”
Clytie: I agree with Ruck that it was the beginning of the end. Still, I remember at the time thinking it would stay “peak” forever. I remember a big TV Guide cover story (which had the contest to win a replica of The Simpson’s family home in it), they argued that the show could stay great forever because the characters didn’t age.
Miller: I’m with Ruck regarding “Principal” vs. “Enemy.” I think the latter breaks down the show’s reality, as BurgundySuit says, but does so via the weird character Frank Grimes — he, a normal person, comes into contact with the show’s (un)reality and is destroyed in 22 minutes. The show is the same, what has changed is our perspective on it. But “Principal” alters the show’s reality for the sake of a gag and then uses its larger construction of a sitcom that always resets to handwave that alteration away. While that had happened on a situational basis for years (Homer’s various occupations, etc.), this was the first time it was done on the basis of character and it still feels like a betrayal to me.
But it’s important to look at this in the context of 1997, where the writers do seem to be hitting a wall, as BurgundySuit notes. “Enemy” aired in Season 8, which was produced by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, while “Principal” — whatever your feelings of its quality, undisputedly one of the show’s most controversial episodes — aired in Season 9, the start of Mike Scully’s production era. Scully is widely believed to be a key player in the show’s decline and the quality of episodes over his run through Season 12 certainly bears this theory out, but “Principal” is actually a holdover from the Oakley/Weinstein run. I wonder how it would have been viewed had it aired during Season 8, which had a string of meta-episodes toward the end that examined the show and its relationship to reality, to its fans, to television in general — “Homer’s Enemy,” “Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie,” “Spin-off Showcase.” Instead, it was the second episode of the ninth season, after the excellent but wackier-leaning “City Of New York Vs. Homer Simpson,” and it feels like the writers just throwing up their hands and deciding to view the show as an occasion for gags over character. And Clytie raises a great point in their favor here — if your characters are functionally ageless and immortal, can they continue to develop? Maybe this was inevitable given the show’s dynamic.
Wallflower talks about the flip side of this, how the simplicity and flexibility of the characters allowed them to enter any situation and generate expressions that reflect and shape how we deal with similar situations, or just the random nonsense of everyday life (I will use the phrase “boaking accident” from “The Twisted World Of Marge Simpson” way more than one would think is applicable). This is a cumulative effect, the more situations they are in and the more the viewer sees them the more these lines and scenes lodge in the brain. A good week for me in 1997 would have between 10 and 13 Simpsons episodes in it due to twice-daily reruns, with additional breakdowns every day with fellow fans at the high school cafeteria. If the show was starting to slip (and it was definitely behind Seinfeld in the cultural conversation, as Ruck notes), it was still maintaining the quality that kept us fanatics worshipping it at every opportunity.
RC: Excellent points, Miller. The show’s decline may have been inevitable regardless, but it’s also well in the annals of Simpsons legend at this point how in the Golden Years, the show’s writing staff would work long hours relentlessly writing and re-writing jokes until they got them right, and when Mike Scully took over as showrunner, that practice basically ended. And you can see that in the jokes more and more starting in season 9, though the show didn’t become truly dire, in my opinion, until season 11. (Alarming how fast it fell off.) Another name often bandied about as part of the reason for the show’s decline was writer Ian Maxtone-Graham, who infamously mentioned in an interview that he’d barely seen the show before working on it. Hard to know how responsible he was, but it is pretty bizarre to me that someone could get a job writing for a TV show without really knowing the TV show.
I’d also suggest that the show overly relying on guest celebrities, where the appearance of the celebrity as themself is the plot, was a harbinger of the decline. (Compare, even, Joe Namath’s appearance in season 9’s “Bart Star” with the season 10 episode where Homer becomes a personal assistant to Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger.)
I’d like to think the decline of The Simpsons wasn’t inevitable, as long as you could keep getting young and hungry writers who loved the show and were willing to do the work before they burned out, but that might have been a tall order. We had this discussion a few weeks prior in the comments of an article, where we discussed Friend of The Solute Todddddddddddd-ddd VanDerWerff’s recent mention of the show’s decline and how he pretty much got it wrong.
Also, “Boaking Accident” is one of my top two choices if I ever need a Simpsons-themed username, along with “Antoine Bugleboy.”
BurgundySuit: I’d argue that what makes “The Principal and the Pauper” work is it’s not disrupting the show for a gag – everything up to that acid ending plays the ridiculous premise surprisingly straight, which makes it land that much harder.
Miller: Well, if nothing else Maxtone-Graham served as the inspiration (in appearance and demeanor) for the Very Tall Man in “22 Short Films About Springfield,” so he has at least one enduring contribution. But I think this — “as long as you could keep getting young and hungry writers who loved the show and were willing to do the work before they burned out” — and the increased focus on celebrities are very salient points. “Homer vs. the 18th Amendment “has come up already and it’s a top five episode for me, an absolute classic. At its base it is very simple, it’s the umpteenth “Homer gets a new job” episode, only the job is Beer Baron. And both the job and Homer’s success at it are rooted in his character. Mix that with a gag-heavy first act that sets up the main plot, which is also pretty basic Simpsons DNA, and a guest (Dave Thomas) who is involved because they are funny as opposed to their celebrity status, and you’ve got a great episode using well-worn machinery.
It’s not like this goes away in Season 9 — “The Cartridge Family” and “Bart Carny” are similarly structured and are very funny B+ episodes — and I think these episodes mostly seem weaker when stacked against the show’s prior history. But that dropoff over the next few seasons is indeed steep, where the show starts to look bad compared to other TV. Of course, there were plenty of people — hello, snpp.com! — who had claimed the show was a puddle of puke over the past few years. This was around the time I began to lurk on that site, if not the actual alt.tv.simpsons group, and it was fascinating to see so much anger and (foolish) criticism of an amazing show. Surely I’d never be like these (unhired) goons!
The first episode of 1997, “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer,” had wildly ambitious and weird animation, a superb guest voice in Johnny Cash and plenty of great gags, I’m particularly fond of Bart’s “Time for chili” hat and Lisa’s disinterest in said hat. But it also uses one of the show’s more hackneyed plots — Homer and Marge in relationship trouble — and has a few groaners as well, I’m thinking of the Mars/Venus line. And if you want to be really curmudgeonly, you can argue it ends in one of those random ways that would plague the Scully years (I won’t be that curmudgeonly, I like and wear short shorts). So there was frequently some chaff in the wheat, even in strong years and great episodes. But the greatness was something you couldn’t get anywhere else.
I’m a big “Spin-off Showcase” fan and while I could recognize from personal experience the lame cop shows and lame sitcoms the first two segments were parodying, I only had the vaguest notion of what The Simpsons Smile-time Variety Show was about — this is one of those times where snpp served a valuable purpose as catalogue and explainer of references, informing me that yes, The Brady Bunch Hour was a thing that existed. There has always been a massive amount crap out there and there still is, whatever Peak TV enthusiasts say. The Simpsons took so much delight in that crap’s existence, turning yesterday’s trash into an omni-net that dragged the depths of pop culture to create a marvelous slurry of humor. I can chart the path that led the show to the garbage pile itself, but can’t write off all the missteps on the way down.
BurgundySuit: Hey, the Very Tall Man was back this year!
Ironically, you can see the roots of The Simpsons’ downfall in one of the best moments of one of the best episodes: Homer’s putdown to the Itchy and Scratchy fanboy’s iconic nitpick about magic xylophones and termination-worthy blunders. Faced with someone who cares so deeply about his work, his response isn’t gratitude, but apathy. “Why does a man whose shirt says ‘Genius at Work’ spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?” As I said, these writers created a work of art that inspires deep investment, but after working on it for most of a decade, you can see their own investment fading away. A lot of fans saw the show’s decline as a betrayal, and I think this is why.
The self-deprecation of comparing The Simpsons to the pandering, mechanical formula of Itchy and Scratchy certainly does the real show an injustice. These characters often feel like real people with inner lives that go far beyond “fight and fight and fight (and bark)” – I came to The Simpsons for the comedy, but I stayed for the drama. That’s why my favorite episode of the year was “The Private War of Lisa Simpson.” The scene of Lisa listening to her mother singing “You Are My Sunshine” alone in her bunk is still the closest the show has ever brought me to tears, even after watching it a second time. And it’s not short on laughs either: the scenes of Skinner standing by the smoking crater of his car, Lisa resignedly shielding herself from the incoming foodfight with her tray, her deadpan “this wasn’t in the brochure” at the sight of the hilariously impossible “Eliminator” test, and, of course, Bart’s destruction of the town by police loudspeaker. But it’s those moments of earnest drama I keep coming back to – coming back to these episodes reminded me of how much tenderness Nancy Cartwright and Julie Kavner invest in Bart calling Santa’s Little Helper “boy” or Marge calling him “my special little guy.” And for reasons I can’t even begin to explain, the police searchlights filtering through the colander in “Grade School Confidential” is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Are there any other moments of sincerity amid the silliness that stuck with you?
RC: Man, you really said a lot of what I was thinking about “Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie.” It rubbed me the wrong way at the time, and even as time has shown that nerds on the internet with opinions are even more insufferable than we realized, what you wrote about the writers not valuing the show or the fanbase anymore was true. The episode, outside of the clear shots Simpsons writers are taking at their own fans, still holds up, because it’s jam-packed with gags, many of which– in a far sharper observation toward the real world– come about as a product of trying to bring this shitty, focus-tested character to life. From the focus group itself (“The one kid seems to love the Speedo man:” Ralph crying and turning the dial when Roger Meyers berates them) to the conception of the character (the Matt Groening look-alike getting fired, and also, the process of choosing the name “Poochie” is still one of the most insightful jokes about how this sort of thing gets done) to the screening of the first episode (“You, uh, got a beautiful home here”).
To answer your other question… I don’t have much of an answer, unfortunately. Nearly all my favorite sincere moments have come in the early seasons (many of which came before the show started to decline in, according to alt.tv.simpsons, Season 3), although “The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” provides some nice ones, mostly when Bart starts cheering Lisa on through the Eliminator. (It’s still no “Summer of 4 ft. 2”, though.)
BurgundySuit: I mean, I have some sympathy for their contempt for the fans — like you said, they can be even more insufferable than we knew at the time, and while I can be jealous of an artist for creating something that inspires that level of devotion, I have to imagine it’d be pretty frightening and bewildering in reality. Especially since the episode is focused on a paradoxical but weirdly common type of fandom that defines its love for a work by hating the pieces that don’t live up to their own expectations. The thing is, I can kind of get why the alt.tv crew would turn on the show after Season 3 — there’s a realness to those early years that’s extremely powerful. Their mistake was they couldn’t distinguish literal realism from emotional realism — and by 1997, both were beginning to fall off.
In conclusion, 1997 was a year of contrasts.