Saturday, July 19, 2014
Seasons of Love: "The Simpsons," Season Five (1993-94)
I'm not sure which is more staggering: that "The Simpsons" was in its creative peak 20 years ago, or that the show is still chugging along, breaking one TV record after another as it survives into its 26th season. Sometimes I imagine an alternate universe where "The Simpsons" ended its run around 2002 or so, made two theatrical movies inbetween, and a revival series is now available for streaming on Netflix. We can spend days dwelling upon the show's current state of mediocrity and how it became a victim of its own longevity, but you can find plenty of articles and discussion board rants elsewhere on the internet. (Given its age, it's amazing that they've kept the original cast intact, and they're still crackerjack.) This is "Seasons of Love," and I want to accentuate the positive.
On paper, Season Five should not have been the The Simpsons' greatest year. The writing staff was in transition, with the remaining charter members of the scribes' room heading for greener pastures either after 1992-93 or during 1993-94. At least one episode (the Sideshow Bob vehicle "Cape Feare") was a holdover from Season Four, and it was the last season in which most of the episodes aired out of production order. One staff writer, Conan O'Brien, learned he was chosen to host a late night talk show and abruptly walked out on his contract midway through the production year. The number of guest stars increased, and one episode featured a principal character going into outer space (more on that later). It was the last season the show aired on Thursday nights, before a short-lived attempt to make the show more family-friendly without overhauling the show's general concept. If you were wondering why some of the 1994-95 episodes seem a little blander than the surrounding seasons, now you know why.
With that said, Seasons Four and Five are two of my desert island DVD sets, and all 22 episodes rank from very good to outstanding. Whittling down my list to five was tricky, so I broke a self-imposed rule and included a "best of the rest" list below. I look forward to your thoughts, if not necessarily the inevitable whining about the current state of the show.
"Homer's Barbershop Quartet" (episode 1, 82nd overall). The mythology surrounding The Beatles is skewed mercilessly in this charming season premiere. Writer Jeff Martin is a die-hard Beatles fan and it shows, and George Harrison has a brief but crucial cameo. Arguably the first TV show to do an '80s flashback (or three), Homer's small-time singing group hits the big time with a fluke hit song, but success takes its toll on his young family.
"Cape Feare" (episode 2, 83rd overall). Not only the best Sideshow Bob episode, but a showcase for recurring guest star Kelsey Grammar. Arguably Springfield's most erudite sociopath, Bob's parole forces the Simpsons --who had foiled his plots twice before-- to join the Witness Protection Program. The rake gag, originally written as time filler, is so stupid it's brilliant.
"Rosebud" (episode 4, 85th overall). "Citizen Kane" is the basis, if not necessarily the backbone, of an episode that focuses largely on Mr. Burns. After four years of one-dimensional villainry, we finally learn his backstory: his long-lost teddy bear Bobo represents his youthful innocence, and after the stuffed animal somehow lands in Maggie's arms, Burns schemes to get his beloved toy back.
"Deep Space Homer" (episode 15, 96th overall). This could have been a "jump the shark" moment, but despite the out-there premise the core of the story is Homer's dignity and the family dynamic. A series of coincidences turns Homer into NASA's first "everyman" astronaut, and his gross incompetence threatens to turn his first life achievement into chaos. The scene with the ants is a riot.
"Sweet Seymour Skinner's Baadasssss Song" (episode 19, 100th overall). This milestone episode could have been an extravaganza, but instead the writers chose to focus on the then-underutilized Principal Skinner. When Bart's irresponsibility gets Skinner fired, our guilt-ridden fourth-grader follows up with his nemesis, and an unlikely friendship develops. This is a profound, relationship-based episode, but not without its laugh out loud moments (Groundskeeper Willie in the vents, the Kwik-E-Mart gas station).
Best of the Rest: "Homer Goes to College" (episode 3), "Treehouse of Horror IV" (episode 5), "Homer and Apu" (episode 13).