The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show (Season 8, Episode 14)
Original airdate: February 9, 1997
Written by David S. Cohen
Directed by Steven Dean Moore
The Simpsons has always been focused on lampooning and critiquing the medium of television. The method of doing this frequently comes from episodes centered on Itchy and Scratchy, the in-universe children’s cartoon series featuring a hyper-violent cat and mouse. In 1990, the series did its first episode with Marge against Roger Meyers Jr. and the animation studio that makes Itchy & Scratchy. In 1997, with The Simpsons looking like it would last forever (and arguably has), the writers decided to comment on what happens when a show has been around for so long that it appears it might be going stale.
Krusty the Klown wants to ditch Itchy & Scratchy because it is dragging down his ratings. A focus group is held where the producers learn from Springfield’s kids that the magic has faded because there have been so many episodes. It feels like Itchy & Scratchy are running in narrative circles. Instead of punching up the scripts and hiring new writers, the producers decide to drop a new character into the show. Using a ton of 1990s media cliches, they end up with Poochie the Dog, a surfing, rapping, dog who surfs and has lots of “attitude.” Casting for the voice is held, and who should end up Poochie’s voice but Homer Simpson. Poochie debuts with a thud, and Homer desperately tries to keep his character alive and on the air.
One of the big questions about The Simpsons, as it was approaching a decade on the air, was if it could remain relevant. The early episodes’ shock value was gone and seemed downright quaint compared to other shows and what was to come. Before the eighth season’s premiere, Fox executives had suggested adding a new member of the family to freshen up the series. This is referenced when Roy, a boarder at the Simpson house, shows up for breakfast with no commentary about his appearance by the characters. By the end of the episode, Roy is moving out to share an apartment with “two sexy laaaadies” lampooning dumb spin-off shows.
The episode also manages to touch on viewer backlash, particularly in the signing scene at The Android’s Dungeon & Baseball Card Shop. “Fans” of Itchy & Scratchy spend their chance to ask the voice actor’s questions on complaining about background minutiae that these performers would have no idea about. As someone who met Nancy Cartwright (Bart’s voice) at a book signing in the early 2000s, I just can’t conceive of what a waste that is. My brief moment shaking her hand and saying “Hello” was only followed by me thanking her for work and how great she was.
Brother From Another Series (Season 8, Episode 16)
Original airdate: February 23, 1997
Written by Ken Keeler
Directed by Pete Michels
Sideshow Bob showing to try and kill Bart became an annual occurrence on the show, but the challenge was figuring out a new interesting & funny angle for him to return. Ken Keeler has been watching a lot of Frasier, which starred Bob’s voice, Kelsey Grammar. When Keeler was assigned to write the Bob episode for season eight, he immediately thought they should introduce a brother voiced by David Hyde Pierce, who played Frasier’s brother.
Sideshow Bob gets out of prison on a work-release program getting ringing endorsements from the clergy. Bart isn’t convinced, so he and Lisa begin following the ex-con. Bob gets a job with his estranged brother Cecil who is Springfield’s chief hydrological engineer. Cecil is currently constructing a new hydroelectric dam and wants Bob to be the foreman. There is some intense sibling rivalry between the two that devolves into immaturity by the end of the episode. Bart and Lisa become convinced Bob is planning on stealing a briefcase full of cash and leaving the country, leaving the dam unfinished. Through a series of twists & turns, the Simpson kids and Bob end up in dire circumstances and are forced to work together.
The episode is riddled with references to the sitcom Frasier which makes sense. Title cards are reflecting the same technique used to label act breaks on the NBC sitcom. Bob and Cecil’s interplay is aided by the chemistry Grammar & Hyde Pierce seemed to have from day one of Fraiser. Additionally, the decision to staff the construction crew with Cletus and his family makes for one of the episode’s best comedic moments. “You know Cousin Merle ain’t quite right, Bob” became a sentence quoted in my household in the late 1990s.
Sideshow Bob would eventually no longer appear annually but still pops every few years. His most recent appearance was in 2017 in an episode titled “Gone Boy,” which turned out not to be a parody of David Fincher’s Gone Girl. It was an episode that showed how thin the Sideshow Bob premise had become, very lackluster compared to this period of the television series.
Homer’s Enemy (Season 8, Episode 23)
Original airdate: May 4, 1997
Written by John Swartzwelder
Directed by Jim Reardon
This is the unofficial series finale of The Simpsons, in my opinion, and it will be the last episode I review as part of this look at the Best of the show. The lives of the Simpson family, especially Homer, had become utterly absurd at this point, and the writers of the series knew it. So they developed a character from the ‘real world”, a person who lived a life opposite Homer, where he struggled for everything. When this man meets Homer, he snaps, aghast at how successful a stupid oaf could be.
Frank Grimes is hired to work in Sector 7G at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. He as scrimped and saved, working through college, with his degree in nuclear engineering. After observing Homer for a few days, Grimes becomes wholly disgusted with the man. Homer is about to drink a vial of sulfuric acid, Grimes knocks it away in time, causing the wall to melt. Mr. Burns is passing and docks Grimes’s pay. Homer invites Grimes over to try and smooth things over, but it just makes things worse. Grimes sees Homer’s family, a decent home, photographs of Homer’s exploits, and the lobster for dinner and assumes his co-worker is rubbing his success in Grimes’s face.
What makes this perfect endnote is that the entire episode sums up how absurd The Simpsons had become. Frank Grimes acts as an excellent final summary of how idiotic the world of Springfield was, how someone like Homer could be an astronaut and friends with presidents. However, by speaking the truth, Grimes can’t continue to exist in the world of The Simpsons. The writers send him off in a brutally final fashion but expressed a little regret after the face. Series writer Josh Weinstein said Grimes was “such an amazing character” and believed he could have lived as a Springfield resident in the show.
By the year 2000, I was finished with The Simpsons. I remember sitting in my dorm room and coming across an episode about Homer becoming involved in horse racing and discovering the jockeys’ magical subterranean world. It was another high concept episode, but it just felt like the writers were reaching for anything at that point. That was season 10. The Simpsons is preparing to enter its 32nd season, and it feels like it’s been time to hang things up for a while.
In Season 13, Al Jean came on board as the showrunner, and critics, including myself, see him at the center of the decline in quality. Episodes are overly formulaic, and there seems to be a celebrity guest voice in almost every episode now. Additionally, the Simpsons have been to every continent on Earth, many times over, and are no longer relatable in any fashion. The show feels like a machine rather than something unique. I would like to revisit the show in the future and possibly review episodes from the last twenty years that people believe are better in quality than others, always open to having my mind changed. The Simpsons will go down as one of the all-time great television shows, even if it did overstay its welcome. That run of episodes from season three to eight is some of the best comedy ever produced.