The Simpsons: Season 1
I’ve been meaning to do this for a while. A complete re-watch of the Simpsons. Right back to the first episode. The idea being that I would eventually catch up to myself and watch the later seasons, which I’d been putting off for quality reasons.
The Simpsons had previously been a comedy short running on the Tracey Ullman show prior to expanding into a regular 23-ish minute weekly animated show. The first season is shown out of order, due to the Christmas episode needing to be shown at Christmas and ending up being episode one. The original choice for #1 was “Some Enchanted Evening”, which ended up as the season finale. Due to a re-shuffling of the episodic deck, there are continuity errors. Hey, shit happens.
SIMPSONS ROASTING ON AN OPEN FIRE
The animation is so bad. I knew it was bad, but nothing can really prepare you for Lisa debuting by dancing in a South Island seas bikini. Some interesting bits for episode one. Snowball I is already dead. Lisa wants a pony. Patty & Selma hate Homer from the start. Homer is dumb and impatient. Bart misbehaves from his first scene. Flanders is irritating and outdoes Homer with a better display of Christmas lights.
The plot sees Homer lose his Christmas bonus and Bart getting a tattoo (“ow, quit it”), which costs the Christmas fund to remove. Homer ends up working overtime as a mall Santa to pay for Christmas. This includes the Santa training program where Homer names “Nixon” and “Donna Dixon” as reindeer. The mall fucks Homer over, paying him only $13, and he ends up going to the dog track with Barney to try and rescue Christmas but ends up losing it and the Simpsons adopt a dog instead. Santa’s Little Helper would remain as Bart’s dog from this point on.
It’s an ok episode with a few comic asides. “TV has betrayed me” says Bart towards the end as the Simpsons attempt to subvert pop culture. At its heart the episode is all about how useless Homer is and how poor the family is. It’s a solid start. **½
BART THE GENIUS
This is the first episode with full credits sequence and therefore the first ever couch gag with Bart being launched into the air. It was supposed to follow “Some Enchanted Evening” where they just sit down so that feels weird coming later. The graffiti fade-out to introduce Principal Skinner was also ruined by the episode order switch as he’s already been introduced.
In episode two Bart switches papers with school genius, nerd and grass, Martin Prince. This gets him sent to a special school where he’s bullied by the actual geniuses for being stupid. There’s a bit where he meets Millhouse outside school and Millhouse tells him to “get lost Poindexter”. In later series’ Millhouse would certainly have tagged along on Bart’s coattails. Marge’s efforts at nurturing Bart’s talents include taking him to see Carmen, which goes over badly.
For the first season this is solid and introduces characters like Skinner and Martin Prince without delving in too deep. Bart is the focal point here and his frailties come to the forefront. He’s not just a dick, he has strong feelings about his place in the universe and can admit when he’s wrong. ***
There’s a lot of shaky animation here. Bart leaves little whoosh effects after he runs and his arms are blurry when he’s waving. This marks the debut of Waylon Smithers at the power plant and Otto the bus driver. Otto is pretty good, complaining of a hangover, but Smithers is heavily tanned.
Homer gets fired from his job at the power plant for causing, yet another, accident. This gets dark in a hurry with Homer going to throw himself off the bridge with a boulder tied around his waist. Suicide in episode three? Yikes. Homer ends up becoming a safety campaigner and is re-hired by the nuclear plant in his safety inspector position, which would remain his job for the rest of the show’s history.
Homer ends up getting conflicted between doing the right thing and having to work for Mr Burns. It’s amazing how quickly Homer went from being a guardian for the people to being a complete numbskull again. This is a real rollercoaster of an episode, with exceptionally poor handling of Homer’s suicidal thoughts and I’m not overly keen on it. **¼
THERE’S NO DISGRACE LIKE HOME
Waylon Smithers is back here and is a healthier yellow colour. Mr Burns can’t remember Homer despite their encounter in the last episode, something that would continue as a running gag throughout the series. The family disgraces themselves with Marge getting drunk and Bart enraging Mr Burns in a fixed sack race. Even Lisa manages to misbehave by playing in the fountain and the kids brawl getting into the car. Homer, horrified by the family’s demonic performance, signs them up for counselling.
The show hadn’t quite understood the roles of the characters and Homer’s role here was clearly Marge’s position in later episodes. “I think we’re the worst family in town” – Homer. “Maybe we should move to a larger community” – Marge.
Burns is great here and shows why he’d become a series favourite. “Please get off my property and don’t dawdle, the hounds will be released in 10 minutes”. The sequence with the therapy session with Dr Marvin Monroe is a nice capper to the episode and it’s the first one that really hits for me. ***¼
BART THE GENERAL
“You made me bleed my own blood” – Nelson Muntz. And this is how Bart gets into trouble with the school’s bully. Muntz is introduced here as a somewhat dim-witted villain. After Bart gets beaten up and gets terrible advice from Homer, he goes to Grandpa for support. Nelson is a decent addition to the show but Grandpa is a home run from the opening scene. He’s typing a letter to “television” complaining that all old people are portrayed as “vibrant sex addicts”.
In order to battle Nelson, Bart gets help from Herman, the one-armed, conspiracy nut-job, army surplus store owner. As a chain-smoking amputee it’s a surprise he wasn’t used more. The story borrows heavily, dialogue and training scenes wise, from Patton and Full Metal Jacket. Confident in the knowledge that most of the kids watching wouldn’t have known what was going on. Much like many of the early episodes steal from Citizen Kane wholesale.
The film references work and Bart the General is one of the better-rounded episodes from S1 although I’m not sure about Bart’s funeral. Those X’s for eyes and ‘cupcake on the forehead’ bit were just comical enough for it to not get ‘too real’. ***½
A morose Lisa Simpson becomes the focal point of this episode. Lisa has been second fiddle all series and her character changing from one episode to the next to suit the circumstances and whatever Bart and Homer were up to. We see here how Lisa is crushed emotionally and creatively and her only outlet is jazz saxophone, which the school’s band teacher hates.
Lisa finds happiness in mutual depression with jazz-man Bleeding Gums Murphy and the episode ends with the family going to watch Murphy play at a jazz club while Lisa smiles from the audience. I honestly had blanked this one out because the Lisa/Murphy relationship is far better explored, and in more tragic fashion, later in the series.
Moaning Lisa is supposed to be the episode to introduce Lisa’s long term issues to the audience but ends up showcasing the rivalry between Bart and Homer instead with a subplot involving video game boxing. **½
CALL OF THE SIMPSONS
Nothing says S1 one of the Simpsons like this episode where the family get lost in the woods and Homer tries to teach Bart survival tactics. It all comes about when Homer is left emasculated by Flanders getting a large RV and buys an absolute crapheap to try and keep up. Out into nature the Simpsons go and at the first opportunity Homer tries to off-road and crashes the RV off a cliff.
The rest of the episode is a mixture of the girls being oddly organised in nature while Homer and Bart make increasingly bad decisions. Astonishing considering Homer is “an experienced woodsman”. As with all of season one, there’s some good stuff in there but the overall execution of the episode is lacking a real arc. Marge and Lisa are just along for the ride, Maggie gets raised by bears and Homer is mistaken for bigfoot. The best part of the episode is at the RV place where sirens go off when Homer’s credit check is run. “Is that a good siren?” asks Homer. ***¼
THE TELLTALE HEAD
This episode is the one where Bart decapitates the statue of town founder Jebediah Springfield. It also starts with the conclusion of the episode with Bart begging for a chance to explain how he and Homer ended up with the head. “How long will it take?” “About 23 minutes and 5 seconds” says Bart, making fun of the show’s run-time. Grandpa can be heard yelling “23.05!” in the background, one of my favourite gags from S1. There’s also a fantastic bit in the church where Homer is listening to a football game, and it matches the sermon. “IT’S GOOD, IT’S GOOD!”
Bart is a borderline bad kid but he’s pushed over the line by Jimbo Jones (“the worst kid in school”) when they break into the movies to watch Space Mutants 4 and steal from the Kwik-E-Mart. Jimbo’s little gang provoke Bart into cutting the head off the Jebediah Springfield statue but when he does they turn on him. “He iced a bear with his bare hands”. On a TV report it says, “the bear probably killed him”.
The Telltale Head is a good episode with the church bit and the stuff with Jimbo Jones all clicking. Some of the characters don’t really behave as they should but it’s a solid episode for the first season. ***½
LIFE ON THE FAST LANE
In this episode Homer displays incredible selfishness by buying Marge a bowling ball with his name engraved on it for her birthday. To spite him Marge goes bowling and is befriended by “Jacques”, a bowling hall Lothario. It’s weird to have a Marge episode, because there are so few of them, and it’s quickly apparent why there aren’t more. None of the writers seem interested in writing for Marge and she’s basically a killjoy of a character, which is a shame.
This is the Simpsons first dalliance with infidelity and Marge comes alarmingly close here before coming back from the brink. It’s appropriate that Homer’s selfishness and stupidity drove her away. Jacques is a terrible person and in the end we’re happy as viewers that the marriage comes back together. Aside from the resolution, and a great baseball bit that regularly makes the Simpsons clip shows, this isn’t particularly good sadly. **
HOMER’S NIGHT OUT
Creatively the show is out mining the same territory in back-to-back episodes with Homer once again being the cause of marital problems. In this one Bart gets a spy camera and photographs Homer dancing with Princess Kashmir at Eugene Fisk’s bachelor party. The photo becomes a meme before that was a thing. Marge overreacts a bit here, kicking Homer out of the house without even asking any questions.
A theme of the early episodes was to try and replicate real life problems such as marital issues. As someone who’s had to deal with the odd silent treatment Marge’s approach here seems somewhat aggressive. Especially when she has Homer drag Bart around strip clubs looking for Princess Kashmir when she clearly doesn’t give a fuck and Bart ends up getting an eyeful of titty for the experience. Considering how it doesn’t come up in other episodes there are surprising amount of sleazy dives in Springfield. **¼
CREPES OF WRATH
This is the most ambitious episode of the first season, removing Bart from Springfield entirely and depositing him in France during a student exchange program. Meanwhile the Simpsons gain Albanian student Adil Hoxha in exchange, who takes an interest in the nuclear power plant. Bart’s French journey allows the writers to take shots at an entire country.
The writing is a notch higher for this than the rest of the season. The anti-French sentiment, Homer’s stupidity and Lisa’s righteousness are firing on all cylinders. The characters are better rounded, and everything is making sense here. The animation is creative and slightly better and it feels like a S2 episode looking back. It’s a shame Bart being fluent in French never comes up after this and Adil (Sparrow) only makes this one appearance (to my knowledge). ***½
KRUSTY GETS BUSTED
This is an important episode. Most of S1 has no real effect on future storylines. Adil and Jacques don’t reappear to cause problems for people but Sideshow Bob? He’d become a seminal villain for the series. This is the first look at Krusty the Clown as a character although he’d appeared in clips before and the inclusion of Itchy & Scratchy, which allows Lisa to say this; “if cartoons were meant to appeal to adults, they’d be on at prime time”. It’s the first nudge at the fourth wall, after the 23.05 line.
Krusty Gets Busted sees Krusty framed by Bob for robbing the Kwik-E-Mart. It’s a terrific episode with little glimpses into Krusty’s life. All the supporting cast are characters that survived. Chief Wiggum’s “send in the clowns” line for the line-up and Patty & Selma’s Mexican holiday slideshow are both fantastic bits. Krusty’s talking doll is also great. “Buy my cereal” is one of the catchphrases and it’s repeated for added laughs.
Bart’s faith in his hero Krusty is the core of almost every Krusty based episode and this is no different. The town’s short fuse and mob mentality is in full force too with Reverend Lovejoy instigating a ‘merchandise burning’. Sideshow Bob reading the “Man in the Iron Mask” and crooning while the kids look up to him is amazing stuff. Also, Apu’s overreactions to being robbed making him jittery. He threatens to blow Lisa’s head off for reading a magazine! Kelsey Grammer’s Sideshow Bob is sensational from day one. His “shot me out of a cannon” grimace is perfect.
The show is hitting its groove at this point and Krusty Gets Busted is the peak of Season 1. It’s loaded with good background, great voice acting and superb gags. It’s clear from this episode which bit part characters worked the best. Home run. ****
SOME ENCHANTED EVENING
This was supposed to be the lead-off episode for S1 but got shunted to the back of the line thanks to scheduling around Christmas. In Some Enchanted Evening, Marge has had enough of Homer taking her for granted and complains on the air to KBBL celebrity Dr Marvin Monroe. Homer apologetically takes Marge out to dinner and dancing, leaving the kids in the care of Miss Botts.
It turns out Miss Botts is the “Babysitter Bandit” who robs houses while kid’s parents are out. Bart and Lisa are left to battle Miss Botts. This sound a bit Home Alone? It pre-dates the holiday classic by six months. Home Alone was in production at the time so no one ripped anyone off here. Some Enchanted Evening is a solid episode for S1 but the animation is shaky and there’s no way Miss Botts would have made it into the Simpsons with that character design after the first year. ***
Season 1 gets maligned by Simpsons fans due to the sub-par animation and that’s true for a lot of the S1 episodes. The Simpsons are shown face forward a lot, which looks completely weird and there are a lot of bit part characters that never caught on or were never re-used. Mr & Mrs Winfield (the elderly neighbours on the other side) moved. The Femail Man was never really the regular the writers were probably expecting. A lot of the schoolkids got shunted off to the sides. Anyone remember Bart’s friend Richard? He was part of the original Gang of Four with Bart, Millhouse and Lewis. While Lewis remained as a background character Richard was jettisoned in favour of more memorable S1 characters like nerd Martin Prince and bully Nelson Muntz. Wendell was another school kid who disappeared thanks to a dodgy character design. Others like Barney (who originally had yellow hair), Moe, Chief Wiggum and especially suntanned Waylon Smithers got character re-tweaks.
It’s interesting to note how many series favourites just hovered around in the background here. There’s some Monty Burns but nowhere near the volume of later seasons. Wiggum only talks in two episodes. Moe is the butt of jokes via prank call but his character isn’t there. The TV personalities haven’t quite developed yet. Krusty gets introduced properly in Krusty Gets Busted but there’s no Kent Brockman or Bumblebee Man or Rainier Wolfcastle yet. Principal Skinner, bizarrely dubbed “Spanky” by his mother, isn’t well developed either and Agnes has the wrong voice. S1 is a curio for fans of the later episodes to see how the show developed and how sluggish the development was. If this show launched in 2021 it would probably be cancelled after one season.
It’s also interesting to note, in retrospect, how Bart-heavy the season is. Bart Simpson was positioned as the star of the show and that feels weird given how much funnier Homer has been over the years. S1 has a split, from 13 episodes, of 6 Bart-centric episodes, 5 Homer-centric episodes and one each for Marge and Lisa. And that’s including Call of the Simpsons as a Homer episode when Bart is with him throughout.
Does S1 have that gag output attained by a team of writers that future seasons have? No, but it does have the heart that you associate with the better earlier Simpsons episodes. The animation is bad, at times, but you can see them tweaking and improving it as the season goes on and by S3 they’d got everything down pat. I’ll be interested to see if S2 has aged slightly better, given how much S1 improved during the year.
Best Episode: Krusty Gets Busted
Worst Episode: Life on the Fast Lane