TV Review – The Best of The Simpsons Part 4

22 Short Films About Springfield (Season 7, Episode 21)
Original airdate: April 14, 1996
Written by Richard Appel, David S. Cohen, Jonathan Collier, Jennifer Crittenden, Greg Daniels, Brent Forrester, Rachel Pulido, Steve Tompkins, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, & Matt Groening
Directed by Jim Reardon

In season four, the staff realized they were short a couple of minutes for the runtime of “The Front.” They tacked a very short “bonus” Ned Flanders cartoon complete with a theme song and title card, a la Looney Tunes, or Hanna-Barbera. The staff loved the silliness of the short they tried to find places for them over the ensuing years but just could never fit them in. 

Over time a pile of mini-stories was accrued, and it was decided for season seven that they would make them and devote an episode to the shorts. Additionally, Pulp Fiction and its fragmented narrative were extremely popular at the time, so the showrunners blended in elements of that film throughout this episode. However, there were so many short stories the first draft of the script clocked in at 65 pages. Each page typically equals one minute of screen time, so there was no way to incorporate all the stories. Many characters had their bits cut but were incorporated into the Lisa/bubblegum short, so they at least got a couple of seconds on screen.

There really is no plot for this episode, which is what has always made it stand out and what felt so exciting about it when it first aired. I remember being completely thrown off on Sunday evening when the show started but quickly becoming enamored with the complete silliness of everything. The episode has managed to resonate into popular meme culture with the now hyper-memed Steamed Hams scene. 

Writer Bill Oakley was responsible for that Principal Skinner/Superintendent Chalmers bit, where the school admin keeps creating problems for himself while merely trying to serve his boss lunch. Oakley has spoken about Skinner being his favorite character to write because he thought the character “seemed to operate in the normal human universe”. Skinner’s straightlaced nature juxtaposed with ridiculous situations always seemed to lead to great comedy moments.

The episode would lead to staff members speculating about a spin-off series titled Springfield Stories or just Springfield. The idea was that it would be an anthology series that could be where writers got more playful with the format. One week could be three short cartoons about different residents of the town. Another week could be a flashback about teenage Homer. They even speculated about using the show to introduce new characters who didn’t interact with The Simpsons at all. Eventually, they realized the production staff needed to make an entirely different show was beyond their capacity. As recently as 2007, though, people working on The Simspons have talked about being interested in pulling it off one day.

Summer of 4ft. 2 (Season 7, Episode 25)
Original airdate: May 19, 1996
Written by Dan Greaney
Directed by Mark Kirkland

As season seven wrapped up, The Simpsons staff decided they wanted to do an episode about summer as with the television season format, it was a time of year that often got skipped over. They agreed on focusing the narrative around summer vacations and the Fourth of July, leading to an entry in the series that evokes that feeling of potential adventure & exploration summer brings. This leads to a genuinely classic Simpsons episode that gets back to the show’s heart from the early seasons.

Lisa comes to realize how unpopular she is among her classmates when she can’t get anyone to sign her yearbook on the last day of school. At the same time, Ned Flanders offers his beach house in Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport to The Simpsons for a summer vacation, which they take him up on. Marge suggests Bart and Lisa invite friends, which leads to Milhouse tagging along while Lisa has no one. Lisa believes by remaking her identity and hiding her “nerdy” tendencies, she can make friends with the local kids, which does work. However, Bart, who is used to getting attention while Lisa is ignored, decides to play mean and works to humiliate his little sister.

The Lisa plot is truly endearing & sweet, a complete arc of growth for her character and Bart. Dan Greaney understands the nature of sibling rivalry, how we can get carried away with emotion as we compete with our brothers & sisters, and the sweetness that can emerge. There are some thoughtful comments on Bart’s style still being stuck in the late 1980s/early 1990s. I always love it when the writers acknowledge the series’ longevity through funny critiques of outdated or weird design choices.

On the flip side, you have some hilarious b-plot moments with Homer as he damages Flanders’s beach house and accidentally keeps making fun of Milhouse. One of my all-time favorite scenes is the Mystery Date moment where Homer, Marge, Bart, and Milhouse are sitting on the deck playing the classic board game. The “dud” date reveal, and Homer’s laughing remarks about it looking just like Milhouse are still so funny. Milhouse, as the butt of jokes, was one of the best directions for his character to go.

You Only Move Twice (Season 8, Episode 2)
Original airdate: November 3, 1996
Written by John Swartzwelder
Directed by Mike B. Anderson

Like many Simpsons episodes, this high concept entry came from the combination of three different plot hooks. First, the writers thought a story about The Simpsons seemingly permanently moving to another town could be interesting and even wanted to play it so that the audience thought this was for real. The next idea was Homer getting a new job with a boss who was the exact opposite of Mr. Burns and see how Homer played off someone like that. The third idea was putting Homer in a situation where he worked for a James Bond-style supervillain. The result is one of the best latter season Simpsons episodes of all-time.

Homer gets a job offer for the Globex Corporation, which will pay better but require the family to move to Cypress Creek. After seeing a video about the planned community, the family is on board, pack up, and leave Springfield. Their home is beyond state of the art, so futuristic everything is taken care of for them. Homer’s boss, Hank Scorpio (voiced by Albert Brooks), is the most laidback, fun-loving employer Homer has ever had. 

While Homer is experiencing the type of employment he’s always dreamed of, Marge starts drinking a whole bottle of wine a day as the house takes care of everything without her, Lisa finds she is allergic to almost everything in the surrounding forests, and Bart gets put in a remedial class where they write on circles of paper. All the while, Homer doesn’t seem to notice the giant death ray Hank has made and his video conferences with the United Nations demanding billions in wealth.

The element that makes this show something special is Albert Brooks. I am a massive fan of his film work, and he is such a great improviser. The writer knew this, so they spent very little time on Hank Scorpio’s lines knowing Brooks would take the material and run with it. There’s a sequence where Hank is describing the choices Homer has for buying hammocks to put up in the workplace, and the entire bit was made up by Brooks on the spot. Brooks ended up recording two hours of voice-over content, much more than the average guest star, but the Simpsons crew loved working with him. A few weeks before The Simpsons Movie went into production, Brooks was set to reprise the role of Hank Scorpio in the film, but the writers decided a new character would work better for the direction of the story and rewrote his part. 

El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer/The Mysterious Voyage of Homer (Season 8, Episode 9)
Original airdate: January 5, 1997
Written by Ken Keeler
Directed by Jim Reardon

As a teenager watching this episode, I felt like I was missing a cultural reference. I didn’t know what it was, but it certainly felt like this episode gave the nod to something else. Later, I would learn it came from the books of Carlos Castaneda. There was a discussion about sending Homer on a mystical psychedelic journey in season three, but of course, it could not be drug-induced. The active agent was going to be a chili pepper so they could get away it. However, Matt Groening thought the whole thing was too odd for a Simpsons episode. Groening being wrong about episode concepts is an ongoing thread through the history of the show. As writers went back on shelved ideas and scripts, they found this one and decided to move it in production for season eight.

Marge is desperate to keep Homer from realizing the annual chili cook-off is happening today, so she starts chainsmoking cigarettes throughout the house. Homer realizes something is up, and when he steps outside, his nose immediately leads him to the truth. Marge reluctantly goes along, worried Homer will embarrass himself by drinking excessively as he does every year. Homer promises he won’t drink, and everything seems to be going fine until he encounters Police Chief Wiggum’s “Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango … grown deep in the jungle primeval by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.”

The peppers prove to be too much, and Homer runs through the cook off grounds drinking everything in sight. He discovers wax protects his tongue and returns to rechallenge Wiggum. After consuming way too many insanity peppers, Homer begins to hallucinate and wanders off into a strange, colorful landscape. A spirit guide appears to him in the form of a coyote (voiced by Johnny Cash) who implores Homer to find his soulmate. Homer assumes its Marge, but the more challenges and illusions he encounters, the more he doubts this fact. When Homer finally wakes up on a golf course, he begins a search to know who is his soulmate for sure.

The animation in this episode was some of the most ambitious and beautiful to date. A typical Simpsons episode has storyboard animatics sent off to South Korea, where an animation team can complete the work within a strict time frame. Simpsons director David Silverman was so particular that Homer’s dream sequence look just as he imagined that he personally animated it. The result is that you can see the level of craft and time taking, the animation moving more fluidly than what you might be used to on the series. It stands as one of the most beautiful moments in the entire Simpsons run.

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