Thursday, January 25, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Fourteen - “My son is also called Bort.”

Season 6, Episode 4
“Itchy And Scratchy Land”
First Broadcast: October 2, 1994


Bart and Lisa become aware of a magical place where their violent desires come to life: Itchy and Scratchy Land!  This leads to an unrelenting campaign of botherment on a scale not seen since they wanted to go to Mt Splashmore.  Marge and Homer eventually relent, won over by Parents’ Island, although Marge is sore at having to cancel their vacation to a bird sanctuary, and pessimistic as to their chances of an incident-free break, mindful that their previous holidays as a family have been absolute disasters.

And disastrous it appears to be, as Homer converts the family’s money to worthless “Itchy and Scratchy Land Fun Bucks”, Bort license plates are running desperately low and both Bart and Homer are arrested by park security for attacking actors.   But in the meantime, despite reassurances that nothing could possibli go wrong, the robots that provide the park’s entertainment have rebelled, which is also Homer’s fault for befuddling them with flash photography.

What follows is a carnival of peril, destruction and petty vandalism, as the family band together to repel the robo-threat with disposable cameras.  The experience brings them closer together, leading them to declare the vacation their greatest family holiday ever!  But with peace restored, and the five of them rewarded with two tickets for a return visit, thoughts turn to the fate of Euro Itchy and Scratchy Land…


The riffing on Bort licence plates, using a clever inversion of audience expectations (yes, I *did* do GCSE Media Studies, thank you very much for noticing) to create a running gag out of the childhood disappointment that any person with an unusually-spelled moniker could expect at a display of personalised doo-dads.

A peek at the ancillary characters from the short-lived “Itchy and Scratchy and Friends Hour” featuring Uncle Ant, Ku Klux Klam and Disgruntled Goat, who – lest we forget – had his moments.

The few seconds we spend in Euro Itchy and Scratchy Land, a reference to the then-failing (but now more stable) Disneyland Paris:


I did worry that we'd have to go for "Auld Lang Syne", but luckily there's an allusion to "Fantasia", which brings us...

Brrr.  Sorry - ever since that twisted, Poison Mickey Mouse started street entertaining in the town centre, I can't look at the original without feeling like my soul has been scratched with an icicle.


The Simpsons love a theme park - to name but a few, we had the aforementioned water park Mt Splashmore in "Brush With Greatness", Legoland's legally-distinct cousin Blockoland in "Hungry, Hungry Homer", and Maude Flanders' legacy Praiseland in, erm, "I'm Goin' To Praiseland".  Hm, makes sense.  On top of all that, Itchy and Scratchy Land itself actually appears in a later episode where Carl and Lenny give Homer bad news in a fun place - I think it's "Mommie Beerest", which as later episodes go isn't too bad.

As an aside, so far-ranging was the cultural influence of the "Bort" sequence that items personalised to Bort, such as the license plate pictured in the episode, are  available in both Simpsons-themed venues and unaffiliated ones.  But did YOU know that bort is a term used in the diamond industry to refer to shards of non-gem-quality diamonds?

The More You Know, huh?  Or at least, The More You Copy Verbatim From Wikipedia Without More Varied Research That Might Come Back To Haunt You Later...


Another insane episode, this time very much a tribute to "Westworld" (the original film, not the series.  Obviously, since the series only just came out.  Why did you think it was the series?  What kind of an idiot are you, huh?  HUH???  That's right, run away!  Run back to mummy, you little idiot!  IDIOT!!!)

...Sorry, where was I?

Oh yes, I remember *clears throat*: but much like "Homer The Vigilante", it's grounded by its series of relatable experiences - the sensory overload of a theme park visit, the complex moving parts of a family vacation resulting in near-inevitable disappointment for some or all parties, the inability to find your perfectly reasonable name in a collection of personalised items - all damn near universal experiences for a child or family in the West.

The careering off the rails into a robot massacre is therefore earned, given the time that has been spent hooking the audience in, and the sheer amount of quotable lines - "we've also arrested your older, balder, fatter son", "please kill me", "my son is also called Bort", to name but a few - really push this one through the roof and into the upper tiers.

Join us next time when we’ll be discussing attractive cousins.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Fifteen - “Can you swing a sack of doorknobs?”

Season 5, Episode 11
“Homer The Vigilante”
First Broadcast: January 6, 1994


Springfield is in the grip of a one-man crimewave, as the Springfield Cat Burglar’s reign of terror leaves its residents fear-stricken and without valuables, such as Lisa’s treasured saxophone.  With the police “powerless” - read: incompetent - a Neighbourhood Watch group is formed, immediately gets drunk on power (and beer) and begins its own reign of terror.

The Cat Burglar contacts Channel 6’s Smartline current affairs show, whilst Homer is appearing as a guest, to announce that he will be attempting to steal the world’s largest cubic zirconia from Springfield Museum.  Whilst guarding the museum Homer is goaded into a drinking competition with some teen ne’er-do-wells and the zirconia is snatched.

Grampa saves the day by noting that a fellow resident of Springfield Retirement Castle, a charming senior named Molloy, has been seen walking much more vertically than usual and wearing sneakers – for sneaking!  Indeed, he is the Cat Burglar; and having returned the town’s possessions, he sends them on a wild goose chase reminiscent of “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”, whilst he makes good his escape.


Homer giving the gang codenames: "I'll be Cue-Ball, Skinner can be Eight-Ball, Barney will be Twelve-Ball, and Moe, you can be Cue-Ball".

The Rapmaster 2000:

Springfield’s choice of home defence systems, including Professor Frink’s automated house that gets up and runs away.  And falls over.  And catches fire.  Nice try, though!


..Or in this case, not much singing or dancing.  So here's the theme from "Dragnet", which occurs during a scene where Homer and Skinner nod at each other.  It's the Art of Noise version from the eighties film because the others are, like, five seconds long.


As alluded to above, Molloy seems never to have appeared again – although he was guest voiced (by Sam Neill), which explains that adequately but also rather puts the kibosh on me talking about him.  So, here comes (option) two!… Abraham “Grampa” Simpson first appeared in the Tracy UIlman short “Grampa And The Kids”, and is the show’s main elderly character.

Originally used wherever a senior citizen was needed for a joke, he’s largely been bumped from that role by Jasper and Old Jewish Man as time has gone on, becoming a main character in great episodes like “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in 'The Curse of the Flying Hellfish'" and “Grampa vs. Sexual Inadequacy”, and not so great ones, like that one where he was a fucking matador for some reason.

With his rambling stories, like the one about the time he caught the ferry over to Shelbyville.  He needed a new heel for his shoe, so, he decided to go to Morganville, which is what they called Shelbyville in those days...  I'm certainly not doing the whole bit but you get the idea - a great supporting character with his own memorable bit, albeit yet another suffering diminishing returns as time goes on.


This is a roller-coster ride of an episode, with plenty of crazy happenings that is still remarkably grounded by the raw feelings of loss, paranoia and anger being channelled by Springfield's residents, especially Lisa, whose saxophone becomes a symbol of the ill will caused by theft and home invasion, over and above the cubic zirconia.

Homer's band of hotshots, and their immediate descent into the worst excesses of the power that authority and violence brings, is made palatable by the episode's dishing out of their comeuppance and showing them to be as dim as they are ornery, with the burglar easily tricking them (and the rest of the town) into his trap.

And when that roller-coaster finally hangs for a second and plummets into the pitch-perfect reference in the show's closing moments, there's nothing to do but settle in for the ride, before reflecting on this perfectly paced gem of a half hour.  They don't come much better...  But apparently, fourteen did!

Join us next time for the blog where nothing can possibli go wrong.  I mean, *possibly* go wrong.  That's the first time anything's gone wrong…

Thursday, January 11, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Sixteen - “The Simpsons are going to Delaware!"

Season 11, Episode 22
“Behind The Laughter”
First Broadcast: May 21, 2000

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.

In a parody of the format of VH1’s “Behind The Music”, The Simpsons discuss their careers in showbusiness, “The Simpsons” of course being a live-action comedy that Homer developed from his pilot “My Funny Family” that shot to fame due to the public’s insatiable desire for horrible acts of child abuse.

Fame, fortune and MC Hammer’s house would follow, before the pressure starts to break the family; Homer is horribly injured performing the Springfield Gorge jump stunt in “Bart The Daredevil” and becomes addicted to painkillers, the plotlines get ever wackier – even revealing that Principal Skinner is an imposter, would you believe!  Like that would ever happen – and when Bart is replaced by Richie Rich during a spot of trouble with the law, the writing is on the wall.

Reuniting only for an acrimonious Thanksgiving dinner, the family go their separate ways.  Lisa spills the beans in a tell-all biography, Homer returns to legitimate theatre, Bart stars in “Renegade” and Marge fronts a variety revue.   All is forgiven when Willie Nelson tricks the family into appearing together on a phony awards ceremony, and The Simpsons go on to make at least one more season of merchandisable content to ever-diminishing creative returns.


Homer's return to the stage, as landlord Mr Stingely in "Rent":

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.
Carl and Lenny being paid to kiss but forgetting to ask for the money.

I've already mentioned it, and will probably mention it again, but the recontextualisation of the Springfield Gorge stunt, with Homer watching the footage on television: "right about here I notice something's wrong...  Yup, there I go."


“Simpsons Boogie”, “Lovely To Love Your Lovin’” and “Simpsons Christmas Boogie” are identified as hits the family had during their glory days, and they certainly recall the cash-in-tastic "The Simpsons Sing The Blues", though without the killer hooks of "Do The Bartman" and "Deep, Deep Trouble".  However there's no embeddable videos of those, so...

Marge also sings "I Shot The Sherriff", but I fucking hate that boring, meandering, tuneless piece of garbage.  Hm.  What to do, what to do...  Ah, why fucking not:


The format is borrowed from "Behind The Music", VH1's music documentary programme which tended to focus on the more juicy break-ups, reformations, deaths and addiction journeys of musicians of a certain age.

The show debuted in 1997 and is still going today, having featured such acts as Metallica, Dr Dre, Milli Vanilli and...  JULIAN LENNON???  Are you honestly telling me they were that desperate for a subject they went for Julian freaking Lennon?  Clowns.  Amusingly, guest star Willie Nelson was also given his own show - and that is the traditional announcer, Jim Forbes, reprising his role here.


This is an extremely clever episode.  Dropping right at the height of “The Simpsons has lost it”-mania, with die-hard fans already having decided that the show was on the outs - partially due to a mid-season slump featuring faith healing, missionary work, the death of Maude Flanders and perhaps most damningly, "Saddlesore Galactica" - it also couldn't have been better timed.

It obviously shouldn’t be considered canon, but contained a smart repurposing of both the show’s greatest moments (Homer’s gorge plunge) and its deepening problems with outlandish plots (Armin Tamzarian), via massive sudden fame and Krusty The Clown-esque shoddy merchandising, that played as a knowing wink to the fans as much as a stark presentation of the problems with producing enthralling episodic television for over a decade.

Some fans rail against the more meta episodes, and I get it - I really do.  But this was an excellent (albeit largely accidental) example of cometh the hour, cometh the episode, and I think this went a long way to defusing some of the ire that was being thrown the show's way, paving the way for the next 476 seasons of largely acceptable television.

Oh, and by the way - I've been reminded of the genius that is this:

Join us next time at the blog that never, EVER stops in the middle of a hoedown!

Thursday, January 04, 2018

22 Short Pieces About Springfield: Number Seventeen - “I’m going to party like it’s on sale for $19.99!”

Happy 2018, Simpsons-wads!

Season 7, Episode 21
“22 Short Films About Springfield”
First Broadcast: April 14, 1996

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.

Bart and Milhouse are spending a lazy day spitting on passing cars from a bridge.  This leads Bart to have a thought about how many people there must be in the city’s larger community, and wonder what all those people might be up to.

This gives us our framing device, and from there we jump all over the city, viewing a number of divergent episodes in the lives of Springfield’s finest.  Skinner attempts to curry favour with Chalmers with a home-cooked clam dinner; Bumblebee Man’s life imitates art; Cletus Spuckler commits a fashion faux pas; Springfield Police Department debate the differences between McDonalds and Krusty Burger, before Snake and Chief Wiggum are kidnapped by Herman…  The list goes on.

If there is a running thread, it centres on Lisa’s battle with a piece of bubblegum stuck in her hair.  Seemingly the whole population of the city – up to and including the Capital City Goofball – are on hand to dispense their folk remedies.  Nelson haw-haws the result, but gets a taste of his medicine at the hands of a very tall gentleman, which eventually leads him back to the bridge where Bart and Milhouse are still making mischief, bringing the episode full circle.

And that’s before we even get to Professor Frink, who…  Oh.  We’ve run out of space.


Skinner and Chalmers.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.
Skinner and Chalmers in the morning…

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.
Skinner and Chalmers in the evening…

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.
Skinner and Chalmers ‘til the sun goes down.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox, via Frinkiac.
Dr Nick passing a bee-stung Smithers: “Oh my God!  You need booze!”

Comic Book Guy’s short interjection in Milhouse’s story, selling him a Hamburglar comic in which a child had solved the jumble using crayons.  The answer was “fries”.


Many of the segments have their own miniature opening theme, which is a lovely little touch.   Here’s "Skinner And The Superintendent":

And here’s Cletus’.  I couldn’t get a cigarette paper between the two in my affections, so let’s have a rare twofer:


Speaking of which, this was Cletus Spuckler’s first featured appearance, having literally been called “a slack-jawed yokel” in “Bart Gets An Elephant”, then favoured with a name in “Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily”.  He would then be rolled out with his ever-growing clan of young-uns and his wife, and possibly many other relations, every time the series needed a shorthand for the south of America.

For a series that deals reasonably well with non-American cultures and all sexualities, and at least equally badly with all featured religions and countries, this is arguably the most offensive stereotype that is regularly portrayed, and is also a rare example of a side character getting too much screen time; with all due respect, Cletus seems more of a one-note joke like a Disco Stu or a Captain McAllister than a living, breathing character like Barney, Moe or Flanders.

Smithers’ fatal bee sting allergy would later be referenced in Season 16's "Midnight Rx", although the whole idea is frankly absurd – in “Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk”, he was stung by several bees and did not die!  Boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder!


This is an absolute masterclass in telling a flowing, many-layered story.  So, so many writers were involved in this episode, and with the narrative then stitched together from the smaller pieces, one would expect at least some lulls in the action.  However, and perhaps as a result of so many different creatives struggling to get their vision noticed in the chaotic whole, it’s a breathless, action-packed affair.

Expansion of side characters, and a look at the less featured faces of Springfield?  This one’s got ‘em in spades!  And as seasoned readers will be only too aware, development of the diverse background players of the Simpsons universe is one of this writer’s favourite Simpsons tropes.  Jokes?  Forget about it.  The punchline count is through the roof, and if you don’t like this one, the next one’s coming right up.  Parodies?  How about “Pulp Fiction” for starters?

This is a snapshot of the very best of The Simpsons, albeit one that's best enjoyed with a rich understanding of the show’s world to begin with, but definitely a half hour that puts a lot of meat on the bones of the series' continuity, which greatly elevates what could easily have been a throwaway gimmick episode.

Bathtubs of money, wheelbarrows of awards, fire hoses of respect - The Simpsons had it all.  But behind the streamers and confetti, storm clouds were gathering.  Figurative storm clouds.  So, er...  Yeah.  Join us for that next time.