Anton Chekov, 19th Century playwright and author, is widely considered the father of modernist writing. I bring him up in this look at Season 3 of The Simpsons because his work as a critic informs why The Simpsons’ plots are some of the most effective in modernist sitcoms, animated or otherwise—the buildup and release of tension.
Despite his numerous short stories and plays of esteemed quality, Chekov is best remembered for his nominal literary principle: Chekov’s Gun. Simply stated, the principle states every element introduced in a story must have some ultimate reason for its existence, of narrative set up and payoff. There are dozens of videos with countless examples online, but a simple example comes from “Bart’s Friend Falls in Love,” which features an early scene of Bart and Milhouse fighting over the results of a Magic 8 Ball and ends with Bart smashing the Ball over Milhouse’s head.
However, the Chekhovian plot model of planting and payoff isn’t the only one, nor even necessarily the dominant one in current American understandings of storytelling (we’re not covering the literature or film dynamics of other countries, which are too far outside this writer’s purview). No, sadly, many are still tied to understanding stories as needing a certain stripe of hero, thanks to anthropologist Joseph Campbell. The issues with his theory of a universal story are many, including his limited economic, gender-biased, and colonial worldview (documented here), but most important to our discussion of The Simpsons Season 3 is that the writing staff just doesn’t seem to be operating with the same base assumptions about their characters and the lives they live. Matt Groening (creator of the show and a writer whose episode we’ll touch further on momentarily) even had this to say in a 2007 interview with Playboy:
“One of the great things about the character Homer… is that he is ruled by impulse. We are self-effacing and guilt-ridden and try to do the right thing and fail. Homer, though, doesn’t bother. He wants whatever he wants at the moment, with all his heart.”
Homer, in Groening’s estimation, isn’t exactly an antihero, but he isn’t exactly a hero either. None of the Simpsons are. They’re just regular people, trying to do the best they can, in a world that doesn’t always have their backs. Campbell’s model is too reliant on heroes and villains, but The Simpsons dares to go deeper, to ask if stories about these other kinds of people can be rapturous, funny, and make you feel something. And this season, Groening (in his only solo-authored episode in the show’s 30+ year run) reaffirmed it was possible.
“Colonel Homer” (S3E20) follows a surprisingly simple premise—a fight between Homer and Marge at the movies which leads Homer to seek comfort with another woman, until he realizes the impact of his actions on his wife and family—and spins an episode which genuinely made me feel more than any network drama I’ve seen. The basic pieces (Marge’s guilt at driving Homer away, Homer’s internal fears about spending time with the in-universe country music singer Lurleen, Bart and Lisa’s worry if their family is breaking apart), are each the kind of fare that pushes your heart as a viewer through the story, waiting with baited breath to see how everyone reacts, but never demonizes or glamorizes their decisions. It always just feels like that’s the situation the Simpsons find themselves in, and you find yourself just hoping everyone makes it out o.k. By the end, Homer does come home to Marge after realizing Lurleen’s attraction toward him, blissfully obvious as it had been to all other characters and the viewer. The episode’s set ups and payoffs are mostly this internal affair, but there are a few metaphorical guns to be fired as well (the “Beer ‘N’ Brawl” bar Homer visits, the cowboy suit, Lurleen’s song “Bagged Me a Homer”).
While the episode’s gags at country music’s expense can sometimes verge on stereotyping, it’s episodes like “Colonel Homer” that show the show of something greater than chalkboard and couch gags (despite some stellar ones this season). Season 3 shows us that Groening and Co. were always interested in the show for the long haul, in telling stories about real, complex people and treating them with both humor and empathy. This season really does knock it out of the park.
Ben Shahon is a writer whose work has appeared in various literary journals both online and in print, including Taco Bell Quarterly, Neuro Logical, and here at The Daily Drunk. He is a graduate of ASU in English and Philosophy, and holds an MFA from Emerson College. Ben currently lives and works in the Boston area. He drinks the coffee, looking for a donut to savor alongside it.