The Simpsons is a very smart show. Perhaps, one of the smartest in the pantheon of ’90s TV.
I wouldn’t have agreed with the statement with prior to watching the series. Generally the pop culture impression of The Simpsons was—from my perspective—boorish, sophomoric, and generally built to the lowest common denominator. There had always been rumors of prior greatness (and by now in Season 4, we’re chiefly in “Golden Age Simpsons” territory), but my personal impression of the show was poor to say the least.
So, dear reader, you may be wondering why a writer who had previously discounted the show would want to write a column on it, and why in these first few installments I’ve been so positive about the show and its writing particularly. I’ll admit that I’d seen Groening and Co.’s other work (strongly preferring Futurama to Disenchanted, but finding plenty to laugh at in both), but I thought the strength of the other show’s respective writing staffs were probably not present in the group’s first outing. After all, most showrunners who hit it big have some flops under their belt, or their older work just feels like a beta version of what’s to come (looking at you, Michael Schur and Larry David). But I was wrong. Why?
Because the show’s funny, dammit.
But beyond being funny, The Simpsons is a show built heavily on references. References to classic literature and film. References to popular culture. References to the news. References to mythology, to art, to sports, to public life in America. The Simpsons uses the ready clay of anything in the real world the show can get its hands on, and molds it into top-tier comedy. Part of the way it works is based upon the strength of its leads as personalities to filter the story through, but part of the strength of the show lies in the strength of the material it references as well. And having plenty of cameos to bridge the gap never hurt either.
Season 4, Episode 2 of The Simpsons is one of the finest examples thus far of the show firing on all cylinders. Originally a holdover from Season 3, the show focuses on Marge and Flanders playing opposing leads in a local production of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. And while it’s not the most famous Marge episode this season (which to most is likely “Marge vs. the Monorail”), ASNM wins my vote as the best of the season. And the reason, as usual, comes back to character work and building out extensive comedy. Throughout the rehearsals, Homer shows great disinterest in the play, despite how much it means to Marge, and the show explicitly draws the connection between Homer and Stanley Kowalski (here played by a surprisingly buff Ned Flanders) both in Marge’s view and the audience’s. It expertly delves into the themes of the play, highlighting the way that ignorance by Homer/Stanley leads to Marge/Blanche’s feelings of inadequacy and mental health crises. And that’s just the A plot. The B-plot focuses on Maggie making a Mission Impossible-esque attempt (a film that wouldn’t come out for another four years, mind you) to steal binkies for the other toddlers under the totalitarian regime of the Ayn Rand School For Tots, at once both skewering spy movies and objectivist literature like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. The show manages to balance all of romantic drama, action satire, political humor, and a musical element (with ASND being recast in Springfield as a musical, giving some of the season’s best songs as well) in a neat 22 minutes.
It’s often said that good artists borrow and great artists steal. What Season 4 of The Simpsons shows us is that to be the best, you gotta steal from the best, and often.
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. Ben drives to work at the nuclear power plant, waiting to get away from his crummy kids.