Zach Binges… The Simpsons — Season Two
In the second season, the show evolves into its groove, still a hit-or-miss endeavor but leagues ahead of its predecessor in quality.
When I was thinking about putting the second season review together, a music comparison came into my head: season two of The Simpsons is Pink Floyd’s Meddle in television form.
I hold Meddle in high esteem as my favorite Pink Floyd album, something I cannot say about season two, but there’s one critical parallel that helps them relate: like Meddle, which came out in 1971, two years before Dark Side of the Moon, season two of The Simpsons is the perfect document of entertainment figuring itself out and expanding the blueprint for its respective “big break.”
My season two viewing of The Simpsons was very enjoyable, and unlike season one, got me excited to keep trucking along with this project.
It’s immediately evident that FOX gave the creators, animators and producers of The Simpsons a much more significant budget, as the artwork is less crude and more familiar to the show’s lasting aesthetic. The introduction sequence also had some fat trimmed and generally looked a lot cleaner.
Season two is still Bart heavy, and it becomes a little overbearing. To their credit, the writers realized and acknowledged this, notably when the family was watching the Thanksgiving parade on TV and there was a giant Bart balloon nonchalantly floating in the background. And the Bart episodes are still quite good, but they seem to promote him a little too much.
With the success of “Krusty Gets Busted” in season one, the show dives more into side characters here, like Principal Skinner (“Principal Charming”), Mr. Burns (“Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish”) and Ned Flanders (“Dead Putting Society”). This helps establish the depths in which the writers were clearly hoping to explore in its secondary roles, some more successfully (Mr. Burns) than others (Flanders).
And speaking of depth, the Simpson family was explored into greater detail, notably Homer and Marge’s relationship in “The Way We Was” which, to this day, remains an all-time favorite love story. Bart and Lisa spend a lot more time together, and they’re a lovable pair. It’s not the kind of warmth we’ll come to see as soon as next season, but it’s a step in the right direction.
On the subject of depth, Homer “matured” (if that’s the word) a lot from season one to season two. Dan Castelanetta’s vocal approach is still a deeper than what we became used to, but it’s still way more familiar than his bizarre approach in the season prior. He still has moments where he’s a bear, mainly in “Dead Putting Society” when he pressures Bart to beat Todd Flanders in mini golf, but he really makes strides in becoming an endearing force.
Season two is when the show begins to find its stride, and there are a couple of classics that can very easily be considered all-time great episodes. It’s still not as consistent as the seasons to come, but the hits are really good, while misses aren’t nearly as egregious as season one.
“The Way We Was” (S2, E12)
Original Air Date: January 31, 1991
If you ask me, this is one of the greatest love stories of American television, largely because of its general sweetness and honesty.
The TV breaks, and the shock and horror of Bart and Lisa when it goes out is such an honest take on just how tragic such a moment was for kids back then. Marge flashes back to 1974 to share the story of how she and Homer met, and when they began dating, always a topic of interest to kids that age.
The twists and turns throughout the story — meeting in detention, Homer lying about being a French student to get Marge’s attention and angering her, the introduction of Jon Lovitz’s Artie Ziff — are all critical to the fabric of Simpsons lore and give their marriage a very human, believable background.
But this episode wins completely when Homer walks home heartbroken after seeing Marge and Artie as prom king an queen, and Marge picks him up from the side of the road after Artie got aggressively romantic with her. Marge’s realization that Homer was the man for her the whole time is the kind of ending you can only script, but made for a warm, satisfying finish.
Additional note: “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band is my most hated song of all-time, by an awful lot, but Homer singing it off-key and off-rhythm never fails to give me a laugh.
Overall Score: 93% (A)
Highlight: Homer sadly walking home from the dance in the mud and Marge picking him up after Artie Ziff was too handsy is legendary in Simpsons lore, and Homer’s “never going to let you go” line tugs at the heart, every time.
“Simpson and Delilah” (S2, E2)
Original Air Date: October 18, 1990
It’s a predictable premise: Homer finds a cure-all for baldness called Demoxinil, and when he can’t afford it, he pays for it with his company’s insurance. The next morning, Homer wakes up with a full head of hair, happily running around Springfield with childish glee over his new gift.
It’s what happens after Homer uses Demoxinil where the episode shines. Mr. Burns gives Homer a promotion because he looks like a young go-getter. Homer refuses to hire an attractive, female assistant — contrary to where any other plot would have gone in its time — workplace accidents go down, and Smithers gets jealous as Homer becomes Burns’ new favorite. Smithers goes on a crusade to bring down Homer, and noticed the Demoxinil expense.
But it’s Harvey Fierstein’s performance as Karl, Homer’s assistant following the performance, that wins the episode and serves one of the great Simpsons cameos of all-time. His constant massaging of Homer’s ego while taking the fall for him on the Demoxinil scam made him both hilarious and endearing.
When Bart spills all of the Demoxinil trying to grow a beard (lol), Homer loses his hair on the day he has to give an important speech and fears he won’t have respect without hair. Karl, now fired, writes his speech (which is really good) and gives Homer a pep talk, kissing him in the end, the perfect cherry on top. The speech fails, but Marge singing “You Are So Beautiful” to him at the end to cheer him up gives the episode a compelling and sweet conclusion.
Overall Score: 92% (A-)
Highlight: Harvey Fierstein was the absolute perfect guest cameo for the character of Karl, and all of his scenes were tremendous, but kissing Homer as a confidence boost before his speech will never not be funny and endearing.
“Lisa’s Substitute” (S2, E19)
Original Air Date: April 25, 1991
Like the episode ranked ahead of it, “Lisa’s Substitute” benefits greatly from a truly magnificent guest cameo, this time from Dustin Hoffman as the episode namesake, Mr. Bergstrom.
It’s really a deep plot. Lisa, as she becomes more mature, realizes she doesn’t connect with Homer and Bart as the men in her life, and thus develops a very deep emotional connection to her substitute teacher. Unlike Homer and Bart, Mr. Bergstrom is a deep thinker with profound views of the world, someone Lisa is far more likely to connect with.
Lisa’s excitement to invite Mr. Bergstrom to a family dinner is contagious, and your heart breaks with hers when she sees Ms. Hoover has returned to the class, replacing her beloved substitute. Homer, a touch more boorish than usual at the dinner table, sets Lisa off, resulting in her calling him a “baboon” and Marge telling him he didn’t deserve to have hurt feelings over it.
But the episode hits its crescendo when Homer goes upstairs to Lisa’s room after the dinner scene to talk to her. Putting on the music box and telling her how important everyone in the family was to him is just begging for the water works, and his apology to Lisa is both sincere and remarkably endearing. It’s one of the great Homer moments of all-time.
Like many Lisa episodes early in the series, the episodes border on being a little too sappy, but “Lisa’s Substitute” gives us the amazing B-story of Bart running against Martin for class president and riling everyone to his side solely because of his energy and popularity. The resolution of every student failing to actually vote is wonderfully absurd and sets Homer up for another big, endearing moment as a father in the end.
Overall Score: 90% (A-)
Highlight: The easy answer would be when Mr. Bergstrom leaves on the train, but what sets an otherwise syrupy episode apart is Homer’s beautiful talk with Lisa to end the episode after she calls him a “baboon.” I cried for a good ten minutes after that scene. It’s Homer’s most important moment in seasons one and two, and he delivers.
“Bart the Daredevil” (S2, E8)
Original Air Date: December 6, 1990
Is there a more classic visual gag in the first two seasons than Homer excitedly jumping the gorge before hilariously falling short?
This may be the perfect Bart episode of the first two seasons, largely because a ten-year-old troublemaker wanting to become a daredevil is an amazingly realistic premise. So he looks up to Evel Knievel wannabe Lance Murdock as his hero — who gives Bart terrible advice encouraging him to be a daredevil — which creates the ultimate conflict between Bart and his parents.
Bart tells everyone he’s going to jump Springfield Gorge, drawing the interest of all of his peers before Homer and Marge find out. He eventually promises he won’t make the jump, but it turns out to be a lie and he leaves anyway.
As he did in “Lisa’s Substitute” later in the season, Homer learns he hasn’t been as effective as he could in convincing Bart not to jump the gorge. In a boneheaded display, Homer chooses to jump the gorge himself and refuses to take no for an answer, for a moment feeling liberated, and painfully falling short. It was yet another early example of Homer trying desperately to do better, and having the wrong idea how to.
Oh, the sight gag of Bart promising not to jump the gorge and immediately skating past the kitchen window is a treasure worth noting.
“Bart the Daredevil” remains a classic in Simpsons lore, but the fact that it ranks with the score that it ended up with among a good amount of other Bart-driven episodes in the season goes to show that his time was running short as the show’s most marketable character.
Overall Score: 89% (B+)
Highlight: I don’t know if a visual gag has been played out more than Homer’s failed jump of the gorge, and rightfully so. His chat with Bart tugs at the heart strings, but the failed jump is so well drawn and written and gives some quick laughs in an otherwise emotional scene.
- Once again, the writers and animators nail Bart’s imagination and view of the world during his struggles in “Bart Gets An F.”
- The resolution in “Bart Gets An F” with Mrs. Krabappel passing Bart on a technicality after seeing his devastation was a beautiful moment.
- Mr. Burns is only 81 in “Simpson and Delilah?”
- The first “Treehouse of Horror” was clearly a breakthrough for the writers; while it’s more conservative here, it’s the first episode of the show that truly broke convention and embraced complete and total absurdity.
- Having covered politics and campaigns, Mr. Burns repeating the phrase of taking on the “bureaucrats at the state capital” on the trail was such honest pandering that we still see all the time in 2016.
- Marge playing psychological politics at the staged dinner by feeding Mr. Burns “Blinky” gave Marge an edge that was welcome to see.
- The baseball stereotypes in “Dancin’ Homer” made this baseball fan very happy, notably Bleedin’ Gums Murphy’s long national anthem.
- I love the artists’ work on the Capital City baseball dome. It looks like Olympic Stadium and is so aesthetically pleasant.
- Didn’t care for Flanders or Homer in “Dead Putting Society,” but the Zen Buddhist in me loved Lisa teaching Bart inner-focus.
- It was neat to see the Simpson and Bouvier families share a table for the first time during “Bart vs. Thanksgiving.”
- Love that we get Smartline in “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge,” notably Kent Brockman’s opening quip, “Are cartoons too violent? Most people would say no, what kind of stupid question is that?”
- Maggie’s “Stop Before I Kill My Father Again” sign gets me every time.
- Introducing Lionel Hutz and Dr. Nick, and having them share a scene, stole the show during “Bart Gets Hit by a Car.”
- Hutz saying, “The only person in this room that’s even close to being a doctor is this man,” followed by a smitten Dr. Nick saying “Stop, you’re embarrassing me” is one of the show’s greatest exchanges.
- Bart and Lisa singing “Theme from Shaft” in karaoke during “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish” was new to me, and fantastic.
- Homer angrily deciding to cut the cable, choosing Lisa’s feelings over his, was terrific growth in “Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment.”
- “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” is memorable if for nothing else Homer’s awful car design and the introduction of Danny DeVito’s “Herb.”
- The sensual pill swapping between Abe and Bea is so funny.
- Ringo Starr’s cameo in “Brush With Greatness” is funny at times, if not painfully read, but Marge’s ambition is a nice touch.
- Bart giving Abe a list of things they can do while babysitting (“You’re allowed to smoke cigars?”) is the perfect B-story in “War of the Simpsons.”
- Homer choking Bart and stopping/crying when Marge tells him he should be choking himself in “Blood Feud” is a small but significant maturation in Homer’s character.
- I didn’t mention it as “notable,” but “Blood Feud” is a favorite of mine.
Season two is a vast improvement over its predecessor, even if it doesn’t reach the heights of the seasons that may follow. While the first season had its moments, season two concocts the perfect Simpsons formula of humor, heart and absurdity, the latter ingredient being implemented significantly more often the second time around to the show’s benefit. The Simpsons have hit their stride, and like Pink Floyd in the intro, are ready to totally break out.
Overall Season Score: 83% (B)