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May 20, 2008 |

By John Williams | Guides | May 20, 2008 |

For a rabid fan of “The Simpsons” such as myself, writing about the show’s fourth season is a bit like a baseball historian considering the ‘27 Yankees, or a European scholar trying to sum up the Renaissance, or a toothless hillbilly struggling to express the soul-rattling edification he feels sitting in the glow of “Blue Collar TV.” In short, it’s overwhelming.

This is the best I can do at summation: “The Simpsons” is the best show in television history, and the fourth season was its peak.

In its prime, the show would have stood out on any year’s TV schedule, but in the early ’90s, it was truly an oasis for those of us with frontal lobes. “Full House” and “Family Matters” were still anchoring ABC’s “TGIF” programming. The show that Fox slotted after “The Simpsons” during its second season was called “Babes.” According to Wikipedia: “The show’s premise revolved around the Gilbert sisters, a trio of plump siblings who had other things on their mind other than their weight — like work, relationships, popularity, and starting a family. The ladies also shared a small apartment in New York City together, which added to the comic friction.”

Sweet God, fat people in small apartments are funny.

This is to say that Matt Groening’s baby was born at a time when television was its vastest and wastiest. Through its first three seasons, “The Simpsons” had been great enough to make the dawn of its fourth an event. I was a freshman in college, and on September 24, 1992, with less than a month to have bonded, a dozen residents of my dorm crowded in to a corner room to watch “Kamp Krusty,” the season premiere. (Bart and Lisa attend a summer camp supposedly hosted by the bitter clown, who leaves his corporate goons to run the show. Lisa’s letter home, which she narrates over a montage of atrocities, begins: “Dear Mom and Dad, I no longer fear Hell, because I’ve been to Kamp Krusty. Our nature hikes have become grim death marches. Our arts and crafts center is, in actuality, a Dickensian workhouse….” Her letter contained 19 more syllables than the entire 11-season run of “Married With Children.”)

We left the room thinking the show had outdone itself, but the rest of the season was an almost entirely successful attempt to keep up the pace. In some ways, the fourth season is an arbitrary choice — Seasons Two through Eight are sprinkled with Classic episodes, Great episodes, and Very Good episodes, with hardly a dud in sight. But it’s the parade of Classics that makes Season Four stand out. During one especially ridiculous five-episode stretch in the middle of the season, four episodes aired that are among the show;s very best ever (and there have been more than 400 now): “New Kid on the Block,” in which Bart falls in love with his baby-sitter; “Mr. Plow,” documenting Homer’s attempts to start a snow-removal business; “Homer’s Triple Bypass” … self-explanatory; and “Marge vs. the Monorail,: a lively parody of The Music Man that was written by Conan O’Brien. (He’s also the credited writer for “New Kid on the Block.”)

In those episodes and the 18 others, the fourth season featured the show’s trademark mixture of potent satire, complex characterization, smart movie references (The Shining, The Birds, and The Godfather are three of a very long list), and funny signage (“Parent/Teacher Night: ‘Let’s Share the Blame’”). By the end of the season, the show had lapsed into a bit of the outlandishness that’s plagued its later years (Whacking Day, anyone?), but not enough to lessen its accomplishment.

The show has always been packed with brilliant commentary on family, romance, childhood, education, religion, TV, government; the list could stretch to thousands, and it could have the headline “Late 20th Century American Life,” despite the fact that the show has now existed for almost as long in the 21st. But it is a comedy, so the commentary is less crucial than the jokes, which are relentless, as in this exchange between Homer and Marge:

Marge: Homer, do you want your son to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court or a sleazy male stripper?
Homer: Can’t he be both, like the late Earl Warren?
Marge: Earl Warren wasn’t a stripper!
Homer: Now who’s being na├»ve?

Or this scene with Homer and the hysterically incompetent lawyer Lionel Hutz:

Homer: All you can eat — ha!
Hutz: Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film The Neverending Story.

Or the fade-in to a Sunday school teacher, addressing a room full of kids: “… and that’s why God causes train wrecks.”

Or the narrator of an ad for Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie sneaking in “53% new footage” at the end.

Or a co-worker telling a hospitalized Homer that they had “a hell of a time” replacing him at the nuclear plant, then a quick cut to a swaying brick tied to a lever at Homer’s command station.

Such moments are countless, and relating them on paper is paltry, of course. It’s like writing about Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes. You should really see it for yourself (which I’m sure many of you have).

Like all great creations, “The Simpsons” left a different environment in its wake. Some of its influence was positive, opening up bigger doors for the work of animators like Mike Judge. Some was less positive, like opening doors for the work of Seth MacFarlane — “Family Guy” can be funny, but it’s a bit like “The Simpsons” stuck on the Allusion switch. Homer’s family has even been around long enough to influence itself negatively — using up almost every conceivable plot, for one; merchandizing itself into the ground, for another.

Worst of all, it’s tried to keep up with the less subtle, manic comedy of shows like “Family Guy.” I watch certain moments from the fourth season and think, I remember it moving quicker than this. I remember it biting harder than this. Context counts for a lot in satire. The fourth season of “The Simpsons” occurred in a world that, given the pace of change (read: deterioration) in pop culture, looks increasingly quaint. It came before. Before tweens took over the culture. Before text messages and comments sections made crude, repetitive nonsense our official national tongue. Before satire was made irrelevant by brain-dead entertainment whose very existence is satire. (Try satirizing “Rock of Love.” No, really. Try.) I know it wasn’t that long ago, but this was when sharp irreverence still seemed like it might be constructive, not the first step toward an echo chamber of illiterate snark.

So much of that season holds up, and in order to fall back under its spell, at its speed — considered wacky at the time, leisurely now — you only need to watch an episode or two. It’s like reading Shakespeare in that way, as long as I’m comparing it to heavyweights.

John Williams lives in Brooklyn. He’s a freelance writer. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid.

Guides | May 20, 2008 |

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