#05 - Itchy & Scratchy & Marge
S02/E09 - This is still one of the best interpretations I've seen of facing up to cartoon violence. I actually find it a very well-written episode, altogether, because it shows both sides of the argument fairly well.
I dunno how much of a thing it is these days, but back in the early 90's, I remember a lot of cartoons being called out for their violence, and kids taking after it. Some of the more famous targets were the Looney Tunes and Tom & Jerry. If you watch the 'Tom & Jerry' movie, you can see what this standing up can do to something - sure, it's more family friendly, but what do we have here to laugh at if Tom isn't getting annihilated by a tiny mouse?
The episode pens with the kids watching 'Itchy & Scratchy' as they've done for quite some time on a regular basis now. However, this time around, we see it affect Maggie when she attacks Homer with a mallet. An enraged Marge fights the studio in a back and forth, and actually does manage to eventually change things.
It all works out great at first. The kids find the cartoon boring now, so they go outside and play, even develop manners that we never really saw before. That is until it's announced that Michelangelo's David is coming to be put on display at the Springfield Museum.
The people who fought with Marge to get Itchy and Scratchy cleaned up, approach Marge to join in the cause to keep David away from Springfield, but Marge sees it as a piece of historical art. So the argument becomes how Marge can attack one form of expression and be perfectly fine and dandy with another. It's a fair point to be made, but with a Renaissance piece of art vs. a cartoon show, the argument is a huge stretch. Nevertheless, it all ends on a pretty funny note where it ended up being all for nothing.
I think what I really like about this episode is that it doesn't go overboard with anything, and shows you some probable facts. The best thing they do here, in my opinion, is not have 'Itchy & Scratchy' affect Bart and/or Lisa. It's just part of their daily routine. Whereas Maggie is a very impressionable baby, and is the only one to really take anything from a cartoon. So is risk there? Kinda, but not as much as one might imagine.
Along with that, I like how this episode depicts both sides of the argument against cartoon violence. Maybe it has an effect, maybe not. But at the end of the day, if you tamper with something people love, something with a gigantic mass of fans, you might end up making it super lame. On the other hand, the lameness might force your kids to go outside and enjoy the day. It was good at showing the winning and losing sides of each, and all in all, it has aged pretty well.
#04 - Bart Gets an F
S02/E01 - Unlike some people out there, this is not my #1 'Simpsons' episode of all time - but that doesn't mean it's not still an important one to me.
Much like with 'Moaning Lisa', this one manages to have a sort of direct link with the way my mind works. One of the first big problems I had was getting stuck in math. I got lucky, though. I was offered help, accepted help, and even ended up winning my one and only class award for "Most Improved Student" in grade 7.
This is an episode that depicts, extremely well, how it feels to realize that you're not good at something. For Bart, it's school overall, and he's got an upcoming test on colonial history. He procrastinates, and soon finds himself woken up, having not studied. He fails his test, and his parents are brought in to discuss what to do with him. But he decides to straighten up and fly right when he's told he'd be held back if he didn't pass the next test.
We watch as Bart does what he can to actually try, largely including bringing Martin on board to help him study. The trade off is Bart making him cooler to the other kids, but it gets out of hand, and Bart finds himself on his own. He even resorts to prayer, and skips procrastinating when his prayer for extra time is answered (based on Lisa's direction, though).
In the end, we have one of the saddest moments in prime time television when Bart breaks down based on his "stupidity". He tried so hard, still failed, and that speaks so directly to anyone who has struggled in school at some point. Bear in mind that he's just 10 years old here. I was 12 when I was struggling, so it's totally relatable. You just feel useless at that point, 'cause you know you have so much further to go. But don't worry, it does end on a happy note, and Bart fully realizes that because he tried, he did better.
In closing, however, let me just say that if you do find yourself struggling with something in school, there is no shame in asking for help. Teachers are there for that, and happy to do so. I went from having a failing grade to receiving an award when I asked for help, so that's something to bear in mind. That's the importance of this episode - we can all improve if we are willing to accept that we need some help sometimes.
03 - Lisa's Substitute
S02/E19 - This was kind of a weird choice for me, but I ended up landing on it largely due to it actually managing to cover a lot of ground in its 20-someodd minute time-frame.
To begin with, we have the core story. Ms. Hoover is off sick due to Lyme Disease, and is replaced with a substitute named Mr. Bergstrom (voiced by an uncredited Dustin Hoffman). He proves to be a real treat for the kids; entertaining as well as educating, and Lisa develops an instant crush on him.
The side story has Bart running against Martin for class president, while all the while Homer eggs him on, considering nothing in school to be more important than popularity. All the while, his focus on Bart takes away from his focus on Lisa, and one of the main underlying themes here is the relationship between Homer and Lisa, though it's not so in our face. It's there that I find the clever writing of this episode - it's not so much about Lisa's crush or Bart's popularity as it is about Homer's parenting skills.
However, just to bring the focus back around to Bergstrom, the episode ends on a very encouraging note. As he's leaving town, Lisa finds him at the train station just in time. She's upset, but he ends up writing her a note, telling her that when she's feeling alone or scared, to keep the note in mind. The note simply reads "You are Lisa Simpson".
I consider the note sort of open to interpretation, but the way I see it is that he's telling her that it's within her to face these problems head on like a champion. Adding to the character development Lisa receives in 'Moaning Lisa', this adds to everything that she becomes, because she really does face most of her problems head on, fighting for whatever it is she believes in.
Lisa's an interesting character that way. She's one of the most interestingly developed, but her straight person role doesn't deliver the same laughs we get from Homer, Bart, or countless secondary or tertiary characters. We therefore kinda sweep her under the rug, especially when she eventually gets to be a bit too much. But in her beginnings, she's actually not that lame of a character to me.
If nothing else, it's the tail end of this that really makes it. Bergstrom's letter to Lisa is nice and heartwarming, and for all intents and purposes, the episode probably could have just ended there. However, it goes on to see Lisa and Homer fight, but then Homer patching things up with her, further consoling Bart when he ends up losing (spoiler alert?) and even comforts an upset Maggie, showing one of few times that Homer, despite choking his son every now and then, can be a very good father. He's just a bit of a dope, is all.
02 - The Way We Was
S02/E12 - One of the more interesting routes this show takes is the flashback route. These stories harken back to the days of yesteryear, and pretty well cover either how the family forms, or some sort of forgotten music career for Homer.
It kinda starts getting out of hand when it starts contradicting itself, but the mainstays for me are the four episodes that tell how the family comes to be. This is one of them, covering how Homer and Marge met. The other three cover the births of Bart ('I Married Marge'), Lisa ('Lisa's First Word') and Maggie ('And Maggie Makes Three'), respectively.
This is the first of them, and the one that makes the most sense in terms of continuity. It takes a look back at the high school days of Homer and Marge. While Marge is well-learned, sweet, and starting to stand up for women's rights, Homer is kind of just a bumbling meathead who thinks he won't need English class because he's "never going to England".
When Marge gets a little out of hand with her protesting, and Homer is busted (along with Barney) smoking in the boys room, they're all sent to detention. This is where Homer and Marge meet, and from there, Homer actively pursues her by taking an interest in one of Marge's after school activities - the debate team.
It's here we meet Homer's all around rival for Marge, Arty Ziff (Jon Lovitz), who would become a recurring character in the series, but spread further apart than Sideshow Bob. I won't go into too much detail on how it all plays out, but it's obvious that Homer and Marge end up together in the end.
So here was one I picked as another "first", as in the first flashback episode. This would prompt a trend that would go on once per season, at least for a while. It pretty well ends with Season 7 offering nothing quite as "flashbacky", but manages to give us even deeper backstory on characters like Grampa and even Homer's mother, who we don't meet until then.
Mostly, though, this is just kind of a sweet episode that just about anyone can relate to on some level. Be it a crush or a high school romance, we've all been in some kind of situation where we're either trying to impress someone we like, or being careful about who we choose. But there's no deep message here, really. It's just a pleasant slice-of-life episode. It ends with Homer singing Steve Miller's 'The Joker' through the credits as well, so that kinda puts the cherry on top of it.
01 - Three Men and a Comic Book
S02/E21 - We're not gonna get deep here. For once, this is on the list simply based on personal taste. It has always been a favourite of mine, and one that speaks to the geeks.
When the Simpsons attend the 12th Annual "Close Encounter of the Comic Book Kind" Convention, Bart is introduced to a copy of 'Radioactive Man' #1, which further introduces us to Comic Book Guy. Bart doesn't have enough money to buy it, but makes it his mission to get his hands on it.
In a great tribute to 'The Wonder Years', featuring Daniel Stern in a voice over, Bart decides to start working in order to save to buy the comic book. He brings in empty bottles, exchanges coins, sells lemonade and beer, but none of it is really working out. This eventually leads him to working for Mrs. Glick (Cloris Leachman). He busts his hump and is offered a measly 50 cents for all his hard work.
When Bart heads over to Android's Dungeon to look at the comic book in the window, he runs into Martin and Milhouse. They realize that if they pool their money, they can afford the copy of 'Radioactive Man' #1. It is then brought to Bart's tree house where the three boys find themselves greedily fighting over who gets to keep it for the night.
This is one of those episodes that just offers so many laughs, partially due to relatability, but largely, it's just the writing. This one's got a few memorable lines and moments that stick out for me, in the long run. Homer "checking on the boys" still makes me laugh, and just about anything from Mrs. Glick's mouth is a laugh. I even love any moment Bart says something about her under his breath. Some of it is kinda harsh and unexpected, but in a good way.
Again, there's nothing particularly deep or meaningful about this one. Even the end message ends up being a joke in and of itself. Basically, the lesson is supposed to be about sharing, but in the dialogue, it's kinda just left in the air as if to say "we're just gonna do that again at some point".
When all said and done, it's really just one of those episodes I've always thoroughly enjoyed. With great one-liners and great visual gags, it's a high recommendation of mine.