Thursday, November 02, 2017

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Twenty-Six - “Ken Griffey's grotesquely swollen jaw...”

Season 3, Episode 17
“Homer At The Bat”
First Broadcast: February 20, 1992
Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.

The power plant enters a team in the local softball league, and racks up a series of wins thanks to Homer and his “Wonderbat”, carved from a tree that was struck by lightning.  When rival businessman Aristotle Amadopoulos makes a million-dollar wager with Mr Burns, the latter decides to stuff the team with ringers from Major League Baseball by temporarily employing its top stars at the plant.
On the eve of battle, Mr Burns opines that it would take nine separate misfortunes to fell his team of ringers, seven of which actually do occur in the following ways:
  • Wade Boggs - punched by Barney after a disagreement on the relatively legacies of Lord Palmerston and Pitt the Elder;
  • Ken Griffey, Jr. - gigantism, including a grotesquely swollen jaw, brought on by an overdose of nerve tonic;
  • Jose Canseco - put to work emptying a burning house of seemingly every item within;
  • Ozzie Smith - consumed by Springfield's uncanny Mystery Spot;
  • Roger Clemens - believed he was a chicken due to faulty hypnotism;
  • Steve Sax - arrested for multiple murders due to Springfield police laziness and incompetence;
  • Mike Scioscia - develops radiation poisoning after really taking to his fake job at the power plant.
Burns then sacks Don Mattingly for good measure, citing possession of an unacceptable pair of sideburns, which seemingly only Burns himself can see.  That puts most of the original team back in the starting line-up – but unfortunately for Homer, the ringer that plays his position, one Darryl Strawberry, is unscathed, handing Homer a long afternoon on the bench.
Luckily Mr Burns shows his lack of technical nous by subbing him in for Strawberry for the final pitch of the game, which Homer promptly wins by being struck in the head and knocked out, thus missing his own victory party.
“Daaaaaa-rryl!  Daaaaaa-rryl!”
Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Giphy.
Homer’s lightning survival plan, which involves clinging to a sheet of metal under a tall tree.
The team's dismissal of the always-irksome phrase "giving 110%", despite the employment of hypnotism.
Terry Cashman retools his 1981 release "Talkin' Baseball" for the episode as “Talkin’ Softball”:

It remains one of the best pieces of music used in the show, period.
Before "Homer At The Bat", The Simpsons had used celebrities sparingly, and usually as in-universe characters, notably Dustin Hoffmann as Mr Bergstrom in "Lisa's Substitute" and Ringo Starr in "Brush With Greatness".  Since, however...  Well that's another story.
Celebrity involvement quickly ramped up to a ridiculous extent, with just about everyone getting shoehorned in there at the drop of a hat.  This writer's low point came when Blink-182 and Tony Hawk were featured in "Barting Over" to, respectively, no narrative effect and to have an automated skateboard duel with Homer, which is just as stupid as it sounds.
From here on The Simpsons would also serve up a veritable smorgasbord of sporting episodes, though the general consensus is that they never bested this one.  Everything from soccer to golf, professional wrestling to curling has had its own feature episode.  High points included "Team Homer", an affectionate portrait of ten-pin bowling, whilst the lows number amongst them the execrable "Tennis The Menace", existing only to cram four more celebrities into the show.
This is the earliest episode in my top 30 – apologies to fans of those episodes that preceded it, though note that “Bart The Murderer” and “Homer the Heretic” were incredibly close to scraping in – from a time where The Simpsons was just starting to look, sound and feel like the product that would be consistently delivered in seeming perpetuity from season 4, at least until the HD-necessitated redesign.
It’s certainly not the first good episode, but it is the first star-studded one (albeit stars that a British boy had no chance of recognising, playing a game that was entirely unfamiliar), and set the bar for the show’s effective use of celebrities as themselves going forward – although much like “The Simpsons Are Going To…”, this has become an albatross in more recent seasons, as appearing on The Simpsons has become a part of any flavour of the month’s journey through fame.
But the episode doesn’t rely on its expanded cast for thrills; the script and pacing are next-level, and the sequence where Mr Burns’ seven deserved comeuppances are meted out is just hilarious.  So it’s not just the template for successful deployment of guest stars that is established here, but arguably also that for a high-quality episode.
Join us next time for more from the blog that works hard and plays hard.

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