“Sometimes I think we’re the worst family in town.”
“Maybe we should move to a bigger community.”
“Dad, the sad truth is all families are like this.”
This short conversation among Homer, Marge, and Lisa Simpson is, in so much as the longest-running comedy series in television history has one, The Simpsons’ thesis statement. In fact, the episode from which it comes, “There’s No Disgrace Like Home,” is really the ideological start of the series: The Simpsons do everything possible in 22 minutes to distance themselves from television’s traditional family, exemplified by the Cleavers, Waltons, Bradys, and Cosbys—and represented in this episode by the family of an unnamed coworker.
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In “There’s No Disgrace Like Home,” the Simpson family resorts to juvenile rebellion, parental inebriation, sycophantism, and mutual beatings with wooden two-by-fours. The episode concludes with the family bonding; it’s just that they form that bond via all the above and their consequent ability to overwhelm even Dr. Marvin Monroe’s psychoanalysis (“earning” double their money back in the process).
It’s early in that episode when Homer tells his children, “As far as anyone knows, we’re a nice normal family. Be normal. Be normal!” Throughout the first season, Bart, Lisa, and the entire Simpsons family go about redefining what normal is—or at least revising television’s conception of it. Normal isn’t getting together at the dining room table for a civilized and enlivened debate.* Normal isn’t a life lesson passed on from parent to child on the living room couch in the closing moments of the episode.
*Which, I must acknowledge, does happen once in the first season, in “The Crepes of Wrath,” when Bart is exchanged for an Albanian student named Adil. This scene results in one of Homer’s most uncharacteristic (and in retrospect, funniest) lines: “Please, please, kids, stop fighting. Maybe Lisa’s right about America being the land of opportunity, and maybe Adil’s got a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers.”**
**I say this is funny more in retrospect because, at this point in the show’s evolution, Homer himself has yet to be properly defined. Remember, he is not dubbed a “Local Boob” until the season finale.
Normal is the juvenile bickering between Bart and Lisa and the quotidian banality of both Homer’s job at the nuclear plant and Marge’s homemaking. Normal is flat-out bad parenting at times, and not just from Homer:
Other episodes avoid the tidy ending altogether, particularly “Bart the Genius,” which sets everything up for a closing embrace between Homer and Bart, only to have father chase after son for lying to him. But conclusions like this are foiled by episodes that are as standard sitcom fare as any episode of Family Matters: The blatant cop-out ending of “The Telltale Head” comes quickest to mind, along with Bart’s jarringly unironic public service announcement at the end of “Bart the General” that is straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon.*
*To be fair, much of that episode seems straight out of a Saturday morning cartoon. I’m pretty sure Recess recycled that storyline a decade later.
It’s not just in the endings that The Simpsons falls back into the mode of an everyday late-80s, early-90s sitcom. Perhaps the best example of this is “Homer’s Night Out,” in which Bart, with his miniature spy camera, takes a picture of Homer with an exotic dancer at a bachelor party. Not only is this whole set-up uninspired, but the entire episode reeks of an overt pedagogy that The Simpsons usually (and proudly) abstains from. At its best—and even at its mediocre—The Simpsons refuses Aesopian fables with clear-cut morals. “Homer’s Night Out” is essentially another 22-minute PSA that boils down to “Respect women.”*
*Throw in the fact that Marge is absurdly present at Homer’s whole speech at the end, and you have possibly the worst conclusion to any single episode of the series.
All of this is to say that The Simpsons does a lot of foundational work in its first season. In his review of The Sopranos’ first season, John S mentioned his one-time belief that dramas peaked in their first season, because “the first season always represents the purest vision of the creator’s hopes for the show.” It’s a very different process for comedies, which rely less on plot than on characterization and set-ups. And The Simpsons’ characterization in Season One is a little off.
Let’s start with the very open of the series (and for, I think, self-evident reasons, we’re disregarding the clips run on The Tracey Ullman Show and considering The Simpsons as an entity as beginning on December 17, 1989 with “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”). The opening scene of the opening episode has Homer and Marge arriving late to Springfield Elementary’s Christmas Show. This is consistent with our conception of the family: The Simpsons showing up late happens all the time, even in the movie. What isn’t consistent is Homer’s small talk with fellow parents as he sits down. A very important part of Homer’s character—as it evolves, obvs—is that he wouldn’t make small talk in this kind of setting. He wouldn’t laugh about being dragged there because he’d feel actual enmity about it. And he doesn’t have small talk relationships with virtually anyone, unless you count what I consider his few “friendships” with people like Moe, Barney, Lenny, and Carl.
Furthermore, here’s our first glimpse of Lisa:
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First, what public school lets a second-grader dress up in a bikini for its Christmas Show? (And what public school has a Christmas Show?) Second, the whole dance routine doesn’t strike me as very Lisa: Inquisitive and didactic herself, Lisa would be more about conveying actual information about “the Santa of the South Sea” than about putting on some ridiculous performance.
And so, The Simpsons hits the wrong note in establishing some of its characters—and not just side characters, who it also struggles mightily to provide depth for*—but absolutely critical characters in Homer and Lisa.** Contrast this with a show such as Arrested Development, in which almost every character’s first scene is representative of their role through the entire series.
*The only two well-drawn secondary characters in Season One are Jacques and Sideshow Bob. The former appears in subsequent episodes only in the background; the latter is the show’s best secondary character. No character gets funnier as you get smarter than Sideshow Bob.
**The first impressions of Marge and Bart—the latter being seen in the second half of the above video—are more appropriate.
All this discussion of characterization leads us to what is really the biggest issue with the first season of The Simpsons: Homer. For as much as America (and England, for that matter) dived into Bartmania at the turn of the decade, Homer is the main character of The Simpsons. He has to be; the series defines itself as a foil to other sitcoms in which fathers were the focus (that list from above). If you want to argue this point further, simply go back and look at how many episodes focus on Homer as opposed to the other characters: He pretty much doubles the output of anyone else.
But in Season One, Homer is the toughest Simpson to pin down. Most of the time, he’s the local boob that gives Marge a bowling ball for her birthday and celebrates Bart’s absence in France. Other times, though, he melodramatically considers suicide (and not only considers; I mean, he writes the note, grabs a rock, and trudges to the nearest bridge), he becomes a crusader for safety,* and he cares far too much about the image his family presents. And sure, Homer’s impulsiveness is a large part of who he is, but a lot of his character in Season One just doesn’t make sense.
*The episode in which these first two events—the suicide and the safety crusading—take place, “Homer’s Odyssey,” is the worst of the series. End of discussion.
The problems surrounding Homer’s characterization are a big reason why The Simpsons’ first season isn’t that funny. As Ralph Wiggum once quipped, “It’s funny, but not haha funny.” There’s not that many standout lines,* and most of the humor derives from things that are more amusing than hilarious. It’s also why the show gets funnier toward the end of the season, when Homer starts becoming the Homer we know and love. “Life on the Fast Lane” is the first great episode of The Simpsons and the only one from this season that contends for a spot in the series’ pantheon. But other late-season episodes, like “Krusty Gets Busted” and “Some Enchanted Evening,” hint at the promise of what’s to come later; The Simpsons did indeed hit the ground running in the second season (with pantheon contender “Bart Gets an F”) before commencing its peak run sometime in the third.
*Exceptions include pretty much anything Jacques says in “Life on the Fast Lane” and this brilliant report on Jebediah Springfield:
TV REPORTER: Along the way he met a ferocious bear and killed him with his bare hands—that’s “B-A-R-E” hands—although modern historians recently uncovered evidence that the bear, in fact, probably killed him.
Overall, this seems like a pretty condemnatory review of the first season of The Simpsons. And yet I still liked it; I still derived plenty of enjoyment out of these 13 episodes. I’m inclined to think it’s nostalgically driven: that the enjoyment comes from the now, from knowing how these characters and this show evolved into parts of my personal maturation and everyday existence. In that way, it’s a bit like going back to watch something like the 3-13 rookie year of Peyton Manning: It’s weird to see something that we’ve come to conceive as so reliable struggle. I doubt very much that, had I been the discriminating twentysomething I am now in the winter of 1989 when The Simpsons made its debut, I would have stuck with it long enough to see it through to its success. Of course, I am the discriminating twentysomething I am now because I saw The Simpsons at its best.
And from the perch of the present, it’s tempting to look at The Simpsons’ thesis on family dysfunction as the modern American equivalent of Tolstoy’s from Anna Karenina, that “[a]ll happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The universe of The Simpsons, much like that of Anna Karenina, is virtually absent of happy families; it is, in fact, dysfunction that unites us all. For the sad truth is that all families are like this.