Sunday, October 19, 2008

"It's true, it's true, all the pieces fit!"

Narrative Authority in "Bart the Murderer"
Episode 39 (8F03), Season 3. Written by John Swartzwelder; Directed by Rich Moore.

Point of entry: It is indeed the function of the critic to, as T.S. Eliot argued, separate the man who suffers from the mind which creates, or in the words of D.H. Lawrence, to rescue the story from its narrator. "Never trust the teller," Lawrence wrote, "trust the tale". Below, a discussion of the importance of the maxim as we untangle tales from tellers in an episode dubbed no. 8 all-time by no less an... uh... authority... than Vanity Fair.


One seemingly perfect morning in televisionland - Springfield, USA in particular - Bart Simpson awakens to a ray of sunshine and his hero's laugh immortalized in his alarm clock, with his homework done, his "mojo working", and an afternoon field trip to the chocolate factory to look forward to. Today is not to be Bart's day, however: the "official" Police Badge in his Chocolate Frosted Krusty Flakes is snatched away by Homer, and when Bart returns to his room to get dressed, the lovable family dog Santa's Little Helper greets him with the growling destruction of that very same homework.

Though nine times nine does not equal 100, as the shreds of Bart's homework reveal he has written, a much more important truth is called into question in this opening scene when Bart says "You ate my homework? I didn't know dogs really did that," referring to the "oldest excuse in the book" - one never believed by any teacher - and observing a situation in which he will have to face the power of narrative authority: it could very well be true that your dog has eaten your homework, but the validity of this rendition of events is dismissed out of hand. The reliability of the narrator, and thus the narrative, are immediately scrubbed.

The episode's title gives us one example of an authoritative information source which right away can't be trusted: though the writer has dubbed this episode "Bart the Murderer", we are going to find out in the end that Bart has not in fact murdered anyone. And it is these two facts which ought to put us on our guard, as we have just been told that not only will the authority of a usual target (e.g. the police) be undermined (e.g. by an "official" badge coming in a cereal box before they demonstrate wide-ranging incompetence throughout the episode), but so too will that of the narrators.

Written or oral narration comes in the first-person ("I went to the store") or the third-person ("he went to the store") varieties, and while a voice-over can usually communicate first person narration in film or television (e.g. David Fincher's Fight Club, one of many in which the protagonist narrates his own life), there is an inherent flaw: we can see this person, on screen and not saying the words we are hearing. Instead of reported speech and activities via the protagonist's narration, we are given direct speech, watching the character have conversations and take various actions. The narrating character, therefore, has stepped outside of the frame to tell his/her story, narrating from a point in time and space that is not what is being depicted on screen.

In this story, though it is clearly about Bart (as he drives all of the action, and is the object of the title), we do not have first-person narration. Bart does not tell us about his day, meaning that the show's writers will be doing so, and in addition to his earlier troubles, Bart misses the bus and has to skateboard in a timely rainstorm.

The inclusion of weather befitting a character's (sombre) mood is termed pathetic fallacy, and while it is standard in many films for sad moments to occur with a rainy backdrop, the notion is precisely this: weather arbitrarily added by the writer for the purpose of complementing the action. The writers not only toss in some rain to Bart's bad day, they make it clear that it is only there for the character when they surpass the cliche and make it stop when he gets inside the school. Here the writers are essentially saying that if they can turn on rain on a whim, now that the character is inside, they might just as well turn it off.

Though this sequence exists to create comic frustration, it calls attention to the constructedness of narrative, and the theme will run through the whole episode in an attack on the creators of narrative, and the sources which one should or should not trust. Very little of this episode - the trip to the chocolate factory and the crime families' meeting being about the only parts - takes place without depicting Bart, and in these scenes, his perspective is absent, and only so because of a run-in with an authority figure's narration. Without permission, Bart can't go on the field trip - the lack of a permission slip means that no narrative can be imagined in which the parent has given the child permission to do so - and later in the episode, though he is only supervising the spray-painting of stink-lined Principal Skinner saying "I am a weiner" on the school walls, Skinner's construction of a narrative places the blame on Bart, who, as the one doing the bribing, must be the ringleader.

Bart's attempt to bribe Skinner is at the heart of both the action of the episode - it causes him to be late for work which results in the chain of events leading to Skinner's disappearance - and the deconstruction of narrative: a bribe to "see nothing" is collusion to change the relation of reality, that is to say, to create a new narrative whose authority is ensured by the participation of both parties.

Though it is presumable that Bart has learned this approach to dealing with authority figures from his mobster cronies, it is arguable that he has learned the behaviour from Principal Skinner: made to stuff envelopes all afternoon while his classmates gorge themselves at the chocolate factory, Bart asks to leave school early. Principal Skinner allows him to do so, but only with this proviso: "Don't tell your teacher I let you leave early". This is Skinner - the episode's most reliable authority figure - trying to collude with Bart to ensure that a secret is kept quiet, and though insignificant, they too are attempting to make an untrue narrative more powerful with their consent to tell the same story.

Once Bart leaves school, the writers, again calling attention to the constructedness of the narrative, open the clouds on Bart again, and in the rain, his skateboard wheel comes off and precipitates his fall down a set of stairs. His "What next?" from the ground is met by the cocking of guns, as he has stumbled upon a (perhaps not-so) secret mob hideout marked with a sign reading "The Legitimate Businessmen's Social Club".

First thing in the door, Bart is quizzed by the boss himself: William "Fat Tony" Williams, in the character's first ever appearance. "Hey, what's with the kid..." he starts, and Bart interrupts: "Hands off the material". The mobsters note that Bart has "spunk", then urge him to pick a horse in the third race to see if he's lucky. His answer? The patented "Eat my shorts".

The writers use a little dramatic irony here: while the viewers know that this is Bart's usual way of telling off an authority figure, there is no way that Tony could know this, as he has never met Bart. (The joke is of course that "Eat My Shorts" is a horse in the the fifth race, and, reacting to Tony's outrage at this, Bart tries to calm him with "Don't Have a Cow", which turns out to be both a horse and a horse in the right race.) While this works within the frame of the story, it also works outside the frame: Fat Tony is a new character in this episode and as unknown to viewers as he is to Bart, so the catchphrase, when used, is no longer a catchphrase as it doesn't accomplish its role. It's taken out of context, and as such, the narrative that is the television show itself is stripped of its own authority.

Bart and Tony (not to mention his mobsters) thus place Bart's fate in another report of activity: the call of the horse race. The live action narrative of events. The characters can only wait, and as this is a life and death matter - for Tony does say, after Don't Have a Cow wins the race, "and to think, I was going to shoot you!" - the narrative with the most authority belongs to the race announcer, his words determining what will happen next. What's interesting to note is that Fat Tony has already constrcuted a plan to shoot Bart, and delivers a competing (though defeated) alternate narrative - a speculative fiction, in a way.

Having survived this test, Bart is taken into the mobsters' confidence, but he first has to pass a second test and make a Manhattan for Legs. Being a ten-year-old, Bart does not know this, but he finds the recipe - again, a structured series of additions to the glass (events) being narrated - and overcomes the challenge and shows us a second narrative with the authority to determine whether he lives or dies.

Bart goes on mixing drinks for the mobsters, who play poker, one of them with four aces, the next with five, the next with six. All the men are cheating at the game, clearly, and all are still "in" the poker game. Poker is a game all about interpreting clues: tells such as eye movements or any one of several nervous ticks may give away the player's confidence in his hand, and to bluff is to give the impression of having a better hand than one does. In other words, to embellish it by way of narrative.

But this episode - like any 22-minute delight on the box - can't string its own narrative out as long as it would like, and as a result, it has to rely on some standard narrative pieces to get the viewer to come along for the ride. A classic from the film world that has been truly embraced by the small screen due to episodes' short duration is the montage, and this episode features one set to swinging, jazzy early rock and roll played over Bart's ascension to a trusted associate. Viewers use montages to interpret large pieces of narrative development over a short period of time, and this one seems to speak specifically to Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, setting the rise through the ranks to a similar soundtrack.

The montage ends, and we see Bart on Fat Tony's knee - a sure sign of a stronger, even paternal relationship - watching an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, "The Sound of Silencers". The evocation of the infamous St. Valentine's Massacre (a simple depiction of Itchy with a Tommy Gun mowing down about seven cats - Scratchy among them - against a brick wall) brings about two telling critiques from the mobsters: "It's funny because it's true", Fat Tony remarks, and he's complimented by Legs ("Well observed"). The resonance of narrative here has to be noted: it's funny because, to the mobsters, it's true, and due to its resemblance to real organized crime, it is a narrative that is to them authentic and has legitimate authority.

The cartoon finished, Police Chief Wiggum bursts into the club and asks Fat Tony if he would happen to know anything about a missing truckload of cigarettes. Wiggum drops the details of the heist - particularly that it happened on Highway 401 - and hopes that Tony will say something to complete the story. We can look at this through the lens of the work of Roland Barthes: Fat Tony would be the reader of Chief Wiggum's writing, and as such, complete the narrative work by reading it. Tony resists, "playing dumb" - "what's a truck" - but Wiggum has basically put a story together in his head before passing the responsibility for its completion of to its audience.

Unbeknownst to Bart, Fat Tony's gang have in fact stolen these cigarettes, but the young employee's only role was to hold the cigarettes for a time. This causes a problem with Homer, though, who sees the haul and accuses Bart of having started smoking. To correct the behaviour, Homer falls back on a time-worn cliché, which is to make the child smoke so many of the cigarettes that he will be disgusted and never smoke again. But in the same way as Wiggum a scene earlier, Homer too is asking the reader for completion of the narrative: "Bart, have you started smoking?" Though Bart denies it - like the dog-eaten homework, the contraband is actually being held for a friend - Homer puts a narrative together with the evidence before him: Bart has cigarettes, therefore he has started smoking. As Bart's father, he is the authority, and his goal of enforcing the rules is only compromised by the entrance of the delivery man who has come to get the cigarettes for Tony. And when Bart's narrative triumphs over Homer's, the father is left in awe: "I'll never doubt you again", he says.

The verification of Bart's story by the delivery man stands as enough to convince Homer that everything is fine, and while there is no longer a concern that Bart is smoking, the evening news reports that as many cigarettes as were just in Bart's room have been stolen. Furthermore, Homer's powers of deduction have left him once verfication has been had: while possession of cigarettes had to mean that Bart had been smoking, somehow the possession of the same amount of cigarettes that are being reported stolen goes right over Homer's head.

The authority of the news report - after all, if untrue, the station could be sued - ought to set of some bells for Homer, but perhaps the impact of an even more reliable narrator in this case comes down to only this: does Homer care? If you are not interested in something, the narration can be packed with authority, but (as with so many news stories) if it's not your son illegally acquiring cigarettes, what difference?

The nature of these cigarettes is told and re-told in a total of four narratives, each from a different perspective: (1) Chief Wiggum's, which makes the insinuation that Fat Tony stole the truck, (2) Bart's, which ascertains simply that he is holding them as part of his job, (3) Homer's, which presumes that Bart has been smoking, and (4) the newscast's, which says only that they have gone missing and that the involvement of "reputed mobster" Fat Tony is suspected by police.

To Lisa, the newscast is a dead giveaway ("Bart, is your boss a crook?"), and it's the tipping point for Bart as well, as here he discovers that the missing cigarettes and those in his room may be the same cigarettes. That is to say, the newscast gives him a narrative that makes him question the authority of Fat Tony's narrative, which Bart concedes when he says "It would explain a lot". The lowest on the authority totem pole, however, is Chief Wiggum: his reassurance that there is no concern around the cigarette supply is rebuffed by an angsty smoker, and the crowd is only reassured by the same reassurance from the mouth of slimy Laramie executive Jack Larson. Larson knows that he is so well-received, so authortitative in his position as narrator, that he openly flouts the law, saying (to Wiggum's indifference) that the truck will not observe any stop signs or crosswalks along the way. Wiggum's authority is then completely compromised when he botches a narrative technique - metaphor - and tries to say that he will be "what[ever] cures" the cancer that is Fat Tony.

Bart believes the news story, though, and as such, he has no choice but to confront Fat Tony:

Bart: Uh, say, are you guys crooks?

Tony: Bart, um, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?

Bart: No.

Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?

Bart: Uh uh.

Tony: And, what if your family don't like bread? They like... cigarettes?

Bart: I guess that's okay.

Tony: Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?

Bart: Hell, no!

It is through no less than a Platonic dialogue - an age-old form of reasoning that may still be the strongest - that Fat Tony convinces Bart that he and his associates are not crooks. And dialogic reasoning relies on the sequencing of facts, meaning that again, a narrative has been created, and due to its seemingly undeniable strength - particularly when the author is a manipulative crime boss and the reader is a ten-year-old boy - it holds enough authority for Bart.

Again, in the next scene, as viewers we are given an element of a traditional gangster narrative, Bart singing another song that it would be fair to associate with gangsters in the Scorsese mold, and it constitutes a sign that the narrative has progressed: Bart wears his suit, orders his mother around and gives her "the eyes".

Marge, however, has seen enough by this point, and while trying to talk Homer into going and speaking to Fat Tony to look out for Bart's interests, she looks out the window and sees a truck marked "Pizza Delivery Truck" with a seemingly hastily pasted-on sign. As with the identifier of the mobster's club as one belonging to "legitimate business men", the signifier here is important to the process of generating an authoritative narrative: though the sign on the truck says it is a pizza delivery service, the suspicion of Bart, the duration of its stay (two weeks) and likely the satellite dish on its roof all contribute to an undermining of the story the FBI is hoping to tell; similarly, the fact that the police know that Fat Tony hangs out in this club shows that his sign has no legitimacy. The pizza truck disappears only to be replaced by a less credible delivery truck reading Flowers By Irene, but as the viewer we don't know for sure whether this ruse will hold up. A sign, much like the naming that goes on in Public Relations or various "political correctness" endeavours, does not change the reality: in fact, it oftens puts a mere cover over it that quickly wears even thinner and lets the lie shine through.

Homer's meeting with the mobsters is a success as, less street-wise than Bart, he is even more easily duped, bought off by the fact that he is winning at poker despite his bad hands. The mobster with several aces in his hand lies, saying "I was... bluffing", telling us that he is now bluffing, creating a narrative about having been just creating a false narrative. Homer then passes this false narrative onto Marge.

It is here where the major event - the bribery of Principal Skinner - takes place. Skinner gives Bart another Barthesian invitation to complete the narrative, and in an attempt to change (or at least hide) the truth, Bart slips Skinner some cash, which results in Bart being made to stay late and write lines and thereby miss his shift at work. With Bart absent, Fat Tony has a problem upholding two narratives he presents as facts: (1) that Bart is never late for work, and (2) that he can offer the visiting crime family the best Manhattan. Tony makes Louie make the Manhattans, despite Louie only knowing how to make wine spritzers, and Louie produces a subpar Manhattan that earns Fat Tony a kiss of death from his guest.

Louie, however, should have been able to make this drink: all Bart had to do was trust the recipe. Therefore, one of two things is true: either Louie can't read, or (perhaps most likely for a criminal who subscribes to no authority), he does not know of or take heed of the recipe. The second may be the most likely case if we remember that Bart had to blow dust off of the recipe, which points to disuse of this authoritative source.

When Fat Tony learns of Skinner's hassling of Bart, he says something that the viewer should understand to mean more than it does at face value: "perhaps we should go meet and greet". He leaves Bart, who shows for the second time that he is buying into the narrative of a life of crime, pouring himself a shot of milk (like that which he already asked Marge for) and downing it at an opportune time to drink.

Authority is front and centre when the mobsters descend on Skinner: "You Skinner?", they ask, and he responds "I'm Principal Skinner", placing the emphasis on the title to put the men in their place right away, and letting his authority take the reins. The outcome of the meeting, however, is indeterminate, and Skinner's disappearance becomes the next event told (1) in a montage and (2) from several narrative perspectives:

  • Mrs. Krabappel, who tries to gingerly and caringly inform the children (who, naturally, start celebrating), but breaks down crying as though she had learned he was dead;
  • That of the Springfield Shopper newspaper, with its headline "Principal Still Missing", and the subhead of "Police search for body" (which is then mocked when the live diver is hauled up out of the water and compared to the photo of the allegedly dead Skinner);
  • The television reportage, a representative example being the interview of the seemingly useless Groundskeeper Willie regarding the cat that he turned up;
  • The missing person posters for Skinner, who presume him dead, reading "Have you seen my body today?";
  • That of Chief Wiggum, at his press conference, in which he promises to use the "most advanced, scientific techniques in the field of... body finding".

In all five versions, Skinner is already dead, and the hysteria mounts: a psychic is called in, and the school's fire hose is re-named in Skinner's honour. When an emotional Mrs. Krabappel says "He loved fire drills", Groundskeeper Willie slaps her and tells her to get a hold of herself, for the children's sake ("for the wee bairns", actually), and while this is unfortunate intolerance in the workplace, it might best perceived as a subtle wakeup call to her and to the viewer: we don't know that Skinner is dead.

The clues (for the viewer, but not for the police) continue to mount, as the rumours swirl in the schoolyard and culminate with Nelson's insinuation that "Bart had Skinner killed by gangsters". Bart has no choice but to jump into the fray, to refute this false narrative: "That's not true. It's just a rumour. You're engaged in speculation. I know the law. You can't prove anything." And here too the viewer has a chance to again recognize that nothing can be proven, and Skinner may not be dead.

Bart next has the dream - a completely unreliable narration strung together by one's subconscious, most since Freud would say - in which Skinner haunts him, and tells him over and over "You killed me, Bart". The natural end of this onslaught of hearsay (for the viewer) is that there be an arrest made for the murder of Principal Skinner, which Chief Wiggum subsequently makes. Before the arrest, though, it is denied by Legs: Bart asks the gangsters if they killed his principal, and while Fat Tony accidentally admits that he killed a "Chinese guy with a moustache", when it becomes clear that the question pertains to "that Skinner guy", there is an outright denial. Of course, as viewers, we don't believe the admittedly murderous mobsters, and the arrest tells us that they must be lying.

This of course sets up the ultimate battle for narrative authority: a trial in a court of law, where the defence and the prosecution go head to head and try to present the most plausible version of events. The existence of a trial does not necessarily mean that truth will be found, however, as it must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the person is guilty of the crime: in other words, the story just has to hold up, regardless of whether it's true.

It is for this reason that the mobsters lie, ganging up on Bart and all telling the court that a ten-year-old boy is in charge of the crime syndicate; most tellingly, Legs, who a moment ago said that they did not kill Skinner, claims that Bart likes to wet his beak in everything, then wipes his nose: a fidget that could be a liar's tell, a sign of a cocaine problem, or if nothing else the most literal undermining of the story, as Legs is drying his own (presumably wet) "beak". As the prosecution gets to argue first, when the witness for the defendant - Homer - is called to the stand, he can't even defend his son because he's completely overwhelmed by the story, hopelessly crying out "Oh, it's true, it's true, all the pieces fit!" Bart is convicted, and again we get a news headline that ought to be libel-free: "Sentencing Today for Dinky Don", which, having given the criminal a name (not to get off on a tangent) in the tradition of Adam naming the animals in the Garden of Eden through the "implicit contract" of language's meaning positied by Ferdinand de Saussure, makes Bart's role in the crime inherently true. Following Saussure, "cat" means "furry, often domesticated, four-legged feline animal" to us because we have all at one point in time agreed that this is what such a thing is called: "Dinky Don" works as well as "the Beltway Sniper", "the Craigslist Killer" and many other names that the community of news consumers takes to using in the wake of a crime.

At the crucial moment, where Bart is to be sentenced for his crime, Skinner bursts into the courtroom, and is of course met with this comment from Springfield's biggest boob, Homer: "I thought he was dead". With any luck, viewers can pat ourselves on the back here, as, if we weren't drawn in by the repeated insinuations that Skinner was dead, we are truly engaged watchers and actually uphold the tenet of "innocent until proven guilty". Everyone in Springfield seems to have been duped, however, and the police come out looking the worst, charging for a murder without ever finding a body.

Skinner's narrative is the only one that can set the record straight; though dead men don't tell tales, presumed dead men may, and Skinner's narrative is the most ridiculous, implausible one of all, involving a MacGyver-esque escape from under his newspaper bundles and a Deus ex Machina in a sense: the God in the machine is actually a machine, as a cord-retract button on a vaccuum cleaner gets the writers out of the script and Bart out of jail in less than 22 minutes. Skinner again bestows authority on himself ("that's my courageous story"), though he is perhaps worthy of it when we consider that he says the toughs were "acting on behalf of one Bart Simpson or so they said); and despite a desperate attempt to still uphold a false narrative (when the prosecutor moves to have Skinner's story stricken from the record, equating him perhpaps with bribing Bart), the case is thrown out of court.

Aside from Skinner's lesson to recycle frequently, in the end we get to take away the "morality minute" in which Bart tells Fat Tony that he won't be sticking with the gang, as "crime doesn't pay". In classic Swartzwelder fashion, this line is immediately undercut when the mobsters get into their limos (parked in no parking zones!) with beautiful women and parade off down the street to the Godfather theme music.

The show then ends with the made-for-TV movie version of episode, which is, according to Marge, just far enough from the truth (i.e. Bart, played by Neil Patrick Harris, is depicted pointing a gun at Skinner and shooting [him?]) that the Simpsons will not get paid. Homer has an epiphany in the end, calling "those sleazy Hollywood producers" the "real crooks". He's just upset about not getting paid for the story, we can be sure, but ever the idiot savant, he's pointing out that manipulating the truth for profit - in the way that lawyers, criminals, the police, advertisers and the news media have done throughout this episode - is the actual crime. For the record, as hammered home by the placement of the executive producers' credit over Homer's face (i.e. an exertion of authority over narration), that's a crime that pays too.


Other observations:

  • As in all Swartzwelder-penned episodes, there is a throughline about advertising, and in "Bart the Murderer", his target is clearly tobacco advertising. The chocolate factory trip begins with a video featuring Troy McClure that extols the virtues of chocolate as an early addition to tobacco, and depicts a native very similar to the Cleveland Indians' mascot "Chief Wahoo" smoking. After these endorsements, the urges to smoke carry on, with narratives encouraging Bart to smoke coming from the delivery man ("Hey kid, you look good with that cigarette, kind of sophisticated") and of course, Jack Larson, who can't just say Laramie Cigarettes, but instead says that "a new truckload of Laramies, with their smooth taste and rich tobacco flavour" is on its way to Springfield.
  • Troy McClure is famously a B-list actor in the Simpsons universe, and his usual practice of stating the movies he's been in (here, The Revenge of Abe Lincoln and The Wackiest Covered Wagon in the West) is another example of buttressing yourself with a narrative. You might be saying "who's that guy", but once you know which movie he was in, the identifier - his name, perhaps the most inherently powerful piece of narrative - takes on a larger significance.
  • Bart's perspective isn't totally absent from the chocolate factory: Lisa speaks for Bart, saying that she thinks Bart would have really enjoyed the trip, but that missing out is the only way he'll learn.
  • All the horses in the race were cartoon catchphrases, which puts Bart's in context even if you've never seen the show before: you get the joke once you notice that Don't Have a Cow is racing against horses named Yabba Dabba Do, Ain't I Stinker, That's All Folks and the like. Nice touch, no?

Sunday, September 28, 2008

"It may be on a lousy channel, but the Simpsons are on TV!"

The Peripeteic Consequences of Unethical Advertising in "Mr. Plow"
Episode 68 (9F07), Season 4. Written by Jon Vitti; Directed by Jim Reardon.

Point of entry: "Advertising, whether or not it sells cars or chocolate, surrounds us and enters into us, so that when we speak we may speak in or with reference to the language of advertising and when we see we may see through schemata that advertising has made salient for us . . . . [S]trictly as symbol, the power of advertising may be considerable." -Michael Schudson, Advertising, The Uneasy Persuasion: Its Dubious Impact on American Society, 1984, New York: Basic Books, p. 210. (As cited at

Personal note: Part of the reason for the six-month delay in acting on any of 25-30 ideas I still have for this blog was my recent job change... to advertising regulation. I've been watching countless ads week in and week out, and have found the industry to be incredibly fascinating. The opinions expressed in this publication are solely my own, and do not in anyway represent those of my employer or any persons affiliated with it.

There may never have been a television character that an advertiser would love to target more than Homer Simpson: the man who celebrates New Billboard Day - "There, I got everything they told me - but I certainly won't be going to that clown college" (Homie the Clown) - and almost never fails to entertain any notion put up for sale in front of him. I hope you enjoy this item as much I enjoyed writing it, it was fun to see a classic in a whole new way.


From its opening, "Mr. Plow" is lampooning the ubiquity and effectiveness of advertising in a consumer society: the television on television shows us the opening graphic of "Carnival of the Stars", a made-for-TV special that seems to be as much filler as we know real made-for-TV specials to be. It's introduced and populated by TV stars, and in trying to reach out to the ever-shrinking attention span of the television viewer, celebrities are named in the early going (Troy McClure, the host, who reminds people of his celebrity status by - as always - citing the recent movies he's starred in, and guest star Angela Lansbury). His introduction to the show is "tonight, we'll see...", which effectively says "don't change the channel" and thus creates the first ad seen in this Simpsons episode. When their hero Krusty the Clown is introduced - along with a timely mention of a brand of drug he is no longer addicted to - to perform the episode's first stunt (taming three Siberian tigers, who run amok and begin mauling him), the presumption of a short (and ever-shrinking) attention span is confirmed, as the children utter an indifferent "they'll be chewing on him for a while..." before changing the channel.

The goal of advertising (for this television show) is to keep people watching, or in a sense, as with all advertising, to bring about action - that action usually being consumption of a given product. The ads-within-the-shows continues as, caught in a blizzard while driving home, Homer listens to the local radio hosts, who, with nothing to talk about (as radio hosts invariably do) begin punning on the word snow in an appeal to keep people listening. After all, sometimes people need to listen to the radio: weather forecasts, school closures and more vital information in the event of a blizzard-related emergency. For the second host's poorly-written pun to be met with "You're dead weight, Marty" demonstrates the value of a snappy one-liner in the episode's early going and may be another signal that this will be a story featuring more of the same.

Due to this snow, Homer totals both the family cars in hilariously low visibility, rear-ending the one in the laneway with the one that he is driving. His quest for a new vehicle begins, then, and the many ads in the episode start to come out, each of them demonstrating another facet of the advertising-ridden world in which we live, sometimes mocking it but other times simply observing that it works, or doesn't, and perhaps unintentionally hypothesizing as to why.

Having no car, Homer begins by hitching a ride by using the universal signifier for "I need a ride", sticking out his thumb on the side of the road and advertising his need for charity. The man who catches this simplest of signals is likely among the simplest of men: a farmer (with a pig named Zeke) who knows at the very least that one can't trust a pig with a truckload of watermelons. Reciting just this cliche, he justifies his decision to allow Zeke to ride in the cab, indifferent all the while that the man giving the signal - Homer, the advertiser - is just gorging himself on the watermelons in the back. Trying to sell the idea of giving him a ride, this advertiser recognized that the driver (consumer) also had watermelons (more money) to be had, and used his credibility (obtained, in a distinction that might trouble only George Orwell, by clearly not being a pig) to get his hands on more resources.

Homer arrives at "Crazy Vaclav's", looking to buy an affordable car (from a man who looks like Stalin and a country that "no longer exists"), and he is immediately hit with the most-touted selling feature of any car: gas mileage. The sales tagline, coming in person and not by commercial, is a classically formulated tagline: "take a test-drive and you'll agree...", a sentence that the salesman finishes with an unintelligible burst of a different language (beginning with "Zagreb") that proves just how meaningless such a product claim is. The product doesn't have to do anything: you just have to agree or feel that it does in order to purchase it.

Striking out here, Homer then goes to the Springfield Auto Show, and, entering a draw to win a new car, asks the most ridiculous question of the model standing beside it: do you come with the car? Everyone knows that she does not, but drawn to a product by an attractive actor, they are called to act themselves and enter the draw. That Homer and the man behind him in the line actually ask the same question points to whether or not this works - are they interested in having the car? Or are they admitting they were drawn in by the woman, forgetting the product entirely? That the woman can be considered as up for grabs as the car makes an object of her while simultaneously personifying an ad - as she is as empty as one - and she can offer the same sheepish giggle at he who dares question her function, batting her eyelashes and (as an ad should) effectively "just looking pretty".

In their travels, Bart and Lisa come across the shows more notorious exhibits: Bart finds and takes a stash of cash in the glove box of the car that once belonged to murderous robbers Bonnie and Clyde (despite Homer's insistence that Bart show some respect), but not before Lisa makes a much more informative visit to "Fourth Reich Motors".

All companies have a history, some of them perhaps better than others. While General Motors was spurred on by their construction of engines for the machines that took part in the Second World War, the Axis powers' war campaigns supported the fledgling Volkswagen and Mitsubishi. While the salesman draws attention to another highly-vaunted feature that makes cars desirable - safety considerations in the vehicle's construction - Lisa notices a human crawling away from the crashed car in the test video and remarks as much. While exaggerating automotive xenophobia at the height of the "buy American" years, this scene shows at the very least that even the best PR can't make one forget that Hitler nationalized the German auto industry on his way to committing his future attrocities.

Homer, meanwhile, comes across the batmobile (and the Krusty Weiner-Mobile - a play on Oscar Maier's that ironically features this son of a rabbi advertising pork), reuniting with the children just in time to meet another celebrity, Adam West, who goes through a litany of promotional materials in an attempt to convince the children that he is Batman. The original Batman television series - as we are thankfully more aware thanks to Frank Miller and the Christopher Nolan-directed films - was a blemish on the product's name, and, like the dubious history of auto companies, best forgotten by everyone around the brand, as it does not make a good selling point.

Backing away from the suddenly frightening Mr. West, all these ads having filled only the first quarter of the episode, the action of the episode begins in earnest when Homer comes across the plow that will soon be his. And in classically delusional and consumerist fashion, he immediately fantasizes about how much better his life will be if he buys this product, dreaming of plowing protestors out of the President's way.

Sensibly, though, Homer says "ah, can't afford it" and begins to turn away. Advertising - in the form of the salesman - will always disagree, though, and attempt to convince you that you can indeed... or that at the very least, you will be emasculated if you don't buy the product. It should come as no surprise that advertising plays on our insecurities, but the threat of emasculation - as Freud (sort of) said when he talked of the castration complex - is quite possibly the greatest motivator for a male to consume, or frankly (and Freudian-ly) to do anything at all. The salesman not only ridicules Homer, he presents a pie-in-the-sky vision of this truck not costing money, but being an investment, a tool with which one can make money. Sucked in by the rare on-the-spot ad (for what is advertising if not simply sales pressure over distance?) and unable to take the taunts of the salesman and much to Marge's chagrin, Homer buys the plow.

Advertising has been referred to as "the foot on the accelerator, the hand on the throttle, the spur on the flank that keeps our economy surging forward" (by Robert W. Sarnoff, on the same site as is listed above), and true to this analysis, Homer is - as so often over the course of the series - once more an entrepreneur. It is now up to him to get his business going, and inevitably, he will have to advertise. He dispenses with the disapproval Marge displayed upon his purchase of the truck, claiming that she sold short the effect of flyers and the "flashy jacket" reading "Mr. Plow" on the back.

When Homer's advertising fails, however - not because people aren't getting the message, but by a simple twist of fate (a gust of wind) - interestingly enough he encounters Barney, dressed in a humiliating adult sized diaper and baby bonnet handing out flyers for a nearby store. Barney is an alcoholic, and (thanks to Homer, we learn later) a complete failure in his life because of it. This makes, perhaps, an interesting comment about the "ground floor" of advertising. And though personal experience doesn't count when theorizing, I landed in advertising when I failed at something too - graduate school - and I have to say that the first few months I may not have looked much better than Mr. Gumble. Advertising is, in its simplest form, an attempt to sell over distance, and those who are good at it make a great living: so great, in fact, that if not selling over distance (via TV/Radio/Internet/Print ads), the only jobs in advertising are local gimmicks staffed by temps, students and those looking for a quick buck. Perhaps the advertiser's reputation is safest because they are known in the community, and they can afford to spend little on local promotion - even if, in a town like Springfield or any other, the local business is at the end of the day the advertiser's bread and butter.

Barney points out to Homer that such local advertising is gainless, though: "no one reads these things", he says, and we see him attempting to make people listen. The only comment he gets on his entusiastic promotion is from one man who calls Barney disgusting, perhaps telling us that local advertising is tacky, cheap and sometimes in poor taste compared to the mass advertising with which we are now so familiar.

Homer tries many different ways to advertise, with the flat-out funniest being the special reading he performed in church... in which he proceeded to ask that people patronize his business. While Rev. Lovejoy tells Homer that this is incredibly low, to advertise from the pulpit is not unheard of: in fact, the scripture he was reading was to be an epistle from St. Paul - one of many letters the man wrote to people around the region imploring them to see (the perhaps overblown) "way, truth and light" and become Christians. (Put another way: this was the first direct-mail advertising.)

It is finally Lisa who brings the best idea to Homer - isn't it always? - when she suggests that he simply purchase some cheap commercial time on channel 92. Flipping to this channel for an example, we see Captain McAllister (affectionately known as just "the Sea Captain" to most, I admit that I had to look his name up) in a standard infomercial-for-record-sets to promote his self-produced recording "Sea Chanteys".

Homer purchases the commercial time - the absolute cheapest spot, the one latest at night (as Bart reveals when he asks Homer who is watching TV at 3:17 a.m.) and right before the station goes off the air until morning - and we see the commercial about to be watched by only "alcoholics, the unemployable [and] angry loners". It is a terribly low-budget mess - which captures Grampa Simpson ditching his role to go lie down - but a seemingly honest ad which features the whole family. It's a somewhat intelligently-devised ad too, going not for image points but rather the basics, including (1) a premium offer, (2) a catchy jingle, and (3) the made-up questions from the prospective (or imagined) consumers to put concerns at ease: "Are you tired of having your hands cut off by snowblowers? And the inevitable heart attacks that come with shovelling snow?", which the kids meet with an emphatic "uh-huh" before Lisa breaks in with "But I'm a real tight-wad... can I afford this service" (a question which - if you can manage to take it seriously - is designed to give even the most skeptical peace of mind.)

It is reasonable to presume that Homer devised this succesful ad by accident, perhaps repeating a pattern recognizable from his large consumption of television if no actual technique is present. The lack of technique in local commercials is often endearing, however - Toronto's pawn-shop mogul Russell Oliver or "Idomo furniture guy" provide good examples - and accordingly, Homer does manage to drum up some business. He becomes successful, which in turn engenders resentment - Nelson pushing "Plowboy" Bart into the snow when Homer averts a snow day by getting the bus to school - and envy in Barney.

The product that Homer purchased, therefore - the plow - was actually as heroic as the ads made it seem. The service Homer provided was in its way heroic as well, much as his ads (in which he literally kicked out Old Man Winter) had promised. In addtion to financial success, Homer gains Marge respect, and in telling him she was proud of him, she also asks him to wear the Mr. Plow jacket in the bedroom. Marge shows here that she has become a victim of an inflated brand value, having (literally) fantasies in which a desirable man wears a given brand - in the same way that some may imagine a desirable man as wearing underpants reading "Calvin Klein" on the waste band, or a desirable women in nothing but her partner's favourite sports team's branded jersey, perhaps?

Regardless, the success brought about with good, honest advertising puts Homer in a position of authority, and when Barney states that he wishes he was also a "hero" (as Moe calls Homer), Homer uses a well-worn cliché that resembles the U.S. Army's recruitment slogan - "get out there and be the best damn Barney that you can be" - to encourage Barney to be an entrepreneur as well.

Homer's advertising had become slightly unethical, however: he offered a t-shirt as a premium offer which was not a Mr. Plow t-shirt (as the commercial implies), but a tattered, old (advertising) t-shirt reading "Stockdale for Veep". He also fudged the questions a little to exaggerate the value of the service, and ignored Bart's question about having proper business licenses. Advertising here became more than the traditional "selling over distance", and began to inflate the value of the product and elide restrictions on his business growth. This, combined with Homer's somewhat boastful advertising to Barney ("Well, wishing won't make it so..."), might be the hubristic moment that inevitably leads to Mr. Plow's downfall.

But Barney buys the product: a plow, yes, but also the dream of material wealth as embodied by Homer. Homer effectively (if inadvertently) talks up the idea, advertising this way of life to Barney and filling Barney's imagination with that hope that a good ad always does. And it is from here that Barney's business - a rival snow-plowing outfit under the name Plow King - begins to chip away at Mr. Plow's success by using more effective but less ethical advertising in the race to the bottom that advertising inevitably becomes.

After telling Homer that there is "nothing wrong with a little healthy competition", Barney proves that the competition is anything but: he shoots out Homer's plow's rear tires after saying this, and in metaphorical manner, Barney does this again, literally beating Mr. Plow (well, a cardboard cut-out in his image) with a baseball bat in his ad. Not only is it an attack ad, he then brings in a celebrity endorsement - Linda Ronstadt - who seeks to get involved in the fun of bashing the competition. This aggressive advertising continues when she sings a jingle for Barney, but one that - unlike Homer's, which just said his own name (and his name again) - is abusive and libellous and features her calling Mr. Plow a "loser" and alleging that he is a "boozer". In a manner not unfamiliar to those who make political ads, Barney is projecting his own worst trait onto his competition in order to pre-emptively deflect negative attention... after all, who would hire a snow plow driver who is a known drunk?

Homer takes offense, and asks Barney a simple "how could you?", pointing out all that he's done for Barney, which leads into a flashback: teenaged Barney is depicted as hyper-intelligent, studying for the SATs and set to score very high and get into Harvard, when in comes Homer with beer stolen from his sleeping father. Barney objects, and Homer tosses him a tagline: "Mellow out, man". Peer pressure and ad pressure are remarkably similar in this moment, as Barney says he'll try the product (the beer) just to get Homer off his back.

We try new products - a recent example, I can say that I remember trying Coke Zero - only because we are inundated with advertising. Eventually, even though there is Diet Coke and regular Coca-Cola (not to mention the past "new Coke", a marketing success met with product failure), we will cave. Barney praises the beer like an ad's best convert - "Where have you been all my life?!? - and we see perhaps that Homer is not so innocent as we thought, and did not always participate in generally ethical advertising. Homer has a moment of dejection at the bar, which we could even see as an anagnoristic moment where he recognizes what he has done wrong, and he feels shame at having led Barney astray with booze; therefore, a dramatic reversal of fortunes - peripeteia - must follow.

Knowing all of his clientele by name and having been awarded the key to the city, Mr. Plow is a local hero before the Plow King comes onto the scene. Plow King's success comes only from effective (if unethical) advertising and he does not know his customers, as proven when he indifferently and possibly drunkenly calls Adam West "Superman" after plowing his laneway. Faced with this loss in business, Homer recognizes that he needs to regain his customers, and he turns once more to advertising.

Homer's first mistake, in pitching ideas to his kids upon Lisa's suggestion that he do something "fresh and original", is to do "a rap". (So many commercials were doing "a rap" in the early 90s, and not one of them had an ounce of authenticity, but as it was popular with the youth, this is what we saw. Dark years, I remember.) As his rap crashes and burns, Homer immediately realizes that he is out of his depth, and (in a reference to, of all things, Bewitched, and likely made to deprive real advertisers of free advertising within the episode), he consults fictional agency "McMahon and Tate Advertising" (after which a real agency appears to have now been named -

The McMahon and Tate employee reveals himself right away as a "shooter" in the ad world, promising to come up with the ad that will save Homer's business. Citing annoying radio commercials as examples of his work, Homer immediately calls the man out on his lack of ethics, punching him in the face and holding him responsible for his actions. The man is unfazed: "it happens all the time". What's more, he advertises to Homer (as all ad agencies inevitably must) by putting the sales pitch on him and guaranteeing to save his business. He can make this guarantee, as he always makes ads which are so grating and ubiquitous that people inevitably hate them, but that nevertheless work because of their memorability. This is the most profitable thing an advertising agency can consistently do.

Mr. Plow's new ad is completely out of touch with the customers he is courting and the advertiser himself: Homer doesn't even know if it was his commercial the first time he sees it. It does absolutely nothing to drum up business, but the money is clearly already gone from Homer's pocket.

Following this new commercial, we see another commercial, the first of two to come in the Channel 6 newscast. Near Widow's Peak, as reporter Arnie Pie's chopper is crashing in the blizzard, news anchor Kent Brockman is pressing him to report on the ski conditions - an aspect of the news that, aside from an opportunity to get the highest-bidding ski resort's name into the news instead of the commercial break, is of no relevance to the majority of the population watching, and certainly not newsworthy.

What we are seeing in the news broadcast is infotainment (a term I hope was coined by Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death), a term even more aptly used to describe the "upcoming Fox special 'In Search of Bigfoot'", which is depicted with footage being halted when the wristwatch being worn by the actor posing as Bigfoot appears in the shot. What is interesting here is that the Simpsons are at once promoting and mocking Fox: Kent Brockman's Channel 6 is not (known to be) a Fox affiliate, but he points to a Fox television show in his report, allowing the Simpsons to take a jibe at their own network while still getting a reminder in that we are watching Fox, thus precariously walking the line when it comes to in-program advertising. (It is for this reason that I chose the title that I did for this entry.)

Homer, meanwhile, is so controlled by his envy that he impulsively calls in a false tip to Barney to get him trapped in the storm on Widow's Peak - horribly unethical, but a way in which Homer is able to reconnect with his customers. Homer's call, interestingly enough, interrupts Barney's hot-tub date with Linda Ronstadt, just as she's talking about putting a Spanish version of the jingle on her album; and though popular songs sometimes gain even more popularity by way of commercials - remember U2's "Vertigo" among the many songs used to sell the iPod? - to actually put a jingle on an album to increase sales turns that jingle from a commercial for the advertised product into a commercial for the artist themself. As Barney said earlier, he and Ms. Ronstadt had been looking to do a project together for a while, but this is not at all about creativity or artistic collaboration even if we, as good McLuhanites, accept that advertising is the art of the 20th century.

Their collaboration is based solely on the money generated by this ad, and so too is Barney's publicity-stunt $50,000 donation to the Shelbyville Dance School. The promotion clearly worked, as the event was newsworthy enough that it has provided the stock photo that appears on Channel 6 when Kent Brockman reports that Plow King is missing, and gives us the aforementioned second ad within the newscast. The disingenuous donation may be the most effective but least ethical of all PR moves, but it ensures that Barney can be seen right away as somewhat of a local hero when the news reports him missing. (Ironically, he is not donating to any such organization in Springfield, but rather, their rival town Shelbyville, which might point to more misguided advertising acumen on Barney's end as well.)

And when the episode enters it final movement, as in the beginning it presents us with a cliche that doesn't hold up: Homer says his plow is as "sure-footed as a mountain goat" only to watch one slip repeatedly and plummet from the mountainside. Nevertheless, Homer rescues Barney, and though they decide to bury the hatchet, Homer's hubristic boast that "not even God himself can stop" two friends working together is met with a deus ex machina ending, as a booming "Oh yeah?" from the clouds ushers in a ray of sunshine and an early spring in full bloom.

It is most interesting that the characters are punished by God in the end, and a possible meaning of this immediate retribution is that it may in fact be wrong for companies to team up and attempt to completely cover their given market. This teaming up came after each figuratively or literally attempted to harm the other, and recognizing that they had met their match - as many conglomerates often will - they merge to simply save the effort and cost of competing, and to make more money together. Homer and Barney, as people, are made to pay a price for their behaviour, as both lose their businesses, but do mass-advertising corporations ever pay a similar price? An unethical ad may sink a political candidate, as this is, like Homer and Barney, a person with a reputation and a limited budget. A conglomerate, however, pays an ad agency to come up with a less-unethical ad (or, failing that, pulls out a PR offensive, writing apology letters and often making a donation to a charity affiliated with any injured parties).

A less cynical interpretation would say that the story is one of friendship overcoming hardship, but it is hard to argue that the hardship to be overcome is anything but envy; and when one considers this as a story of creating and overcoming envy, it only makes sense to see it as a story that is, more than anything else, a story about advertising. And when wars fought not with weapons but with advertising conclude, even if all the products and services are gone, the brand - thanks to the amount of literature and art created for and around it - is all that remains; fittingly, in the end, Homer's plow is repossessed, and he still has (as Marge points out) his health and his friend, he has gained just this for his effort: his own brand, Mr. Plow, emblazoned on the back of a jacket that - aside from the joy it gives Marge - might just as well say "Stockdale for Veep".


Other Observations:

  • In Homer's fantasy of plowing away protestors for the President, one has to wonder how happy Mr. Buy American himself - George H. W. Bush - would be with Homer for using a (presumably) Japanese "Kumatsu" (like the real industrial vehicle-maker "Komatsu") truck. This episode may compensate for this, however, in the pro-(domestic) auto industry comments made by both Mayor Quimby - thanking Homer for helping people get around without resorting to public transit or carpooling - and Kent Brockman, who promises to "keep driving his old Pontiac" if the resulting Greenhouse Effect results in warmer winters.
  • Given the amount of emphasis on advertising in the episode, I had to wonder if at least one of the writers involved with "Mr. Plow" had a background in that field. As Chris Turner points out in Planet Simpson, Jon Vitti and John Swartzwelder were contributors to Army Man, the humour magazine founded by the man many believe to be The Simpsons's most influential writer, George Meyer. All episodes go through the rewrite process countless times, essentially by committee, but the contribution and cooperative relationship of this particular trio - over 90 episodes through Season 14, as Turner notes - is noteworthy in the discussion of "Mr. Plow" for two reasons: (1) Meyer has "an intense fascination" with blatantly false advertising, and (2) it was John Swartzwelder, in fact, who was a "legendarily reclusive" advertising copywriter (Turner 22-23).
  • Homer tires of the waiting game and instead wishes to play "Hungry Hungry Hippos", which is a terrible excuse for a board game, a poorly-made but exceptionally well-marketed toy. Is this proof that he has been successfully reached (duped) by these ads in the same way that the average four year-old might be?
  • Though it may be little more than comedic randomness, is it possible that the Batmobile belongs now to Adam West for no reason other than for him to inform the world - that is to say, advertise - that he played Batman first, and to accordingly assist his career?

Monday, February 18, 2008

"The Wax Never Lies"

Literalization and Satire in "Flaming Moe's"
Episode 45 (8F08), Season 3. Written by Robert Cohen; Directed by Alan Smart & Rich Moore.

Point of entry: "A reasonable definition of satire, then, is 'a literary manner which blends a critical attitude with humor and wit to the end that human institutions or humanity may be improved. The true satirist is conscious of the frailty of institutions of man's devising and attempts through laughter not so much to tear them down as to inspire a remodeling.'" - Robert Harris, in "The Purpose and Method of Satire", at Quoted text from A Handbook to Literature (eds. William Thrall, Addison Hibbard and C. Hugh Holman).

Personal note: Bravely and regularly, The Simpsons has satirized many institutions, but in contrast to the episodes in the first two seasons which featured fairly pedestrian plots and minimal jabs at the world around its viewers, Season 3 was where the show entered the new territory of the sustained "spoof" episodes (a style of episode perhaps best executed in "Cape Feare" in Season 5). "Flaming Moe's" is one of my all-time favourites because it is the episode where the show moved beyond not only the clever Poe re-tellings such as "The Telltale Head" of Season 1 or the segment of Season 2's original "Treehouse of Horror" based on "The Raven", but also beyond the cleverly-titled "Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington" of even weeks before this landmark episode, and into the realm of well-crafted satire.


Over its history, perhaps the most important institution that The Simpsons has satirized is television itself, and "Flaming Moe's" (originally aired Nov. 21, 1991) quite evidently weaves in an extended send-up of the most popular television series of its moment, Cheers. But two other social institutions - the "local pub" and its surrounding "social drinking" culture, as well as the famous "American" entrepreneurial spirit - are tackled as well in this episode, making it one that lends itself well to an analysis of the satirical workings of this television series in their infancy.

The situation comedy (or "sitcom") has always come laced with clichés and characters who are little more than types one would find in their various situations, from the stereotyped family or gender roles depicted in early series like Father Knows Best or I Love Lucy through the many different "characters" one could meet on the next barstool over in a Boston pub. Indeed, later in "Flaming Moe's," this holds true, as a gentrified Barney (still a drunk, but now wearing a suit and getting chummy with "Armando and Raffi") stands in for Cheers's Norm Peterson, and new bar staff (Woody Boyd and Diane Chambers, effectively, though neither are given a name in the script) filling the roles that the viewer is familiar with from Cheers after introducing the setting - the all-important situation in this genre - with a wonderful parodic introductory theme that can be viewed here:

Though this comes around the two-thirds mark of the episode, the groundwork has already been laid by Moe's hiring of an intellectual waitress and the argument from the outset that cements the parody by drawing the analogy between Moe and Cheers's owner/bartender Sam Malone, who infamously bedded both Diane and her replacement (after Shelley Long left the series), Rebecca. The waitress is obviously Diane, as she calls Moe "Morris", as Diane called all the Cheers characters by their full names (though Moe will never again be called by this name on the series); what's more, Sam Simon wrote all of her dialogue, turning back to his previous employment as a staff writer on Cheers. The knowledge of Shelley Long's career inevitably comes back at the end of the episode to add to the spoof when, Flaming Moe's having returned to just Moe's, the waitress has "left to pursue a movie career," which is of course Shelley Long's reason for leaving Cheers.

The parodied introductory theme goes beyond a simple spoof, though; in fact, one could even argue that these sketches - or at least, the type of drinking culture they depict - had already been parodied in Season 2's "The War of the Simpsons", where Homer's false memory of the party is rendered with images of well-dressed party-goers classically enjoying alcohol. (As is noted in the episode's Wikipedia entry, these sketches, are more in the style of New Yorker cartoonist Al Hirschfeld's caricature of The Algonquin Round Table.) "Flaming Moe's" montage treads into the territory of satire, however, as what is really happening in Moe's bar is as follows: Barney abuses alcohol to the point that he passes out in the street; uniformed officers are in dereliction of duty and drinking instead of upholding the law; Moe, with his hand in an lascivious postion, is slapped by his employee in response to what appears to be a sexual assault; patrons use whatever they can find around them as weapons to bloody each other in a full-on bar brawl while Moe and Barney egg them on; Aerosmith uses the Love Tester (they're Aerosmith - it's impossible that they're hard up for a lay!), and a scantily-clad Mrs. Krabappel courts two sailors ("sailors on leave", I'm sure) at once.

The lyrics, too, are embittered compared to those used by Cheers. Where there was once:

Making your way in the world today / takes everything you've got
Taking a break from all your worries / sure would help a lot
Wouldn't you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came
You want to be where you can see / our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name
You want to go where people know / people are all the same
You want to go where everybody knows your name

The Simpsons gives us:

When the weight of the world has got you down / and you want to end your life
Bills to pay, a dead-end job and problems with the wife
But don't throw in the towel / 'cause there's a place right down the block
Where you can drink your misery away
At Flaming Moe's (Let's all go to Flaming Moe's)
Where liquor in a mug / Will warm you like a hug
Happiness is just a Flaming Moe away
Happiness is just a Flaming Moe away

While both introductory sequences do tend to musically resemble jingles from 1940's radio commercials, the former seems to promote the more sanitized version of alcohol-fuelled escapism, whereas the latter gives us a more visceral (not to mention accurate) depiction of what it often means to use alcohol to forget one's problems. And this underbelly of social drinking is brought to life in two other ways, by (1) Homer's visit to a different bar, which, presided over by a one-eyed, tattooed shotgun-wielding maniac who thinks it stretch to provide a clean glass, provides a stark contrast to responsible drinking in a respectable establishment, and (2) by Moe's feeble and frightening attempt to explain away the 30 cases of "non-narkotik" cough syrup (shamelessly plastered with Krusty the Clown's face) by saying that he "got hooked on the stuff while he was in the service". Here it is easy to see the duplicity of the cough syrup - for I think it's not a stretch to include cough syrup among the perfumes, colognes, mouthwashes, rubbing alcohol or worse that the desperate alcoholic will drink seeking that kind of escape - that will be exemplified later in the series, when "Homer vs. The Eighteenth Amendment" will end with that classic line "To alcohol: the cause of - and solution to - all of life's problems!"

The final image in the Flaming Moe's montage is perhaps most important, as we see Homer - the regular customer, that is to say the reason for the bar's existence - stuck outside while we hear "Happiness is just a Flaming Moe away". In the montage, two other regulars are harmed: Barney's serious drinking problem is neglected as he lies in the street, and "Glasses Guy" (does he even have a name?), another regular in the bar, looks incredulous after being attacked with a broken bottle. In the latter panel, Moe and Barney are actively encouraging the harming of the original customer base, something that Moe does more passively in this episode when it is revealed that Homer is "not on the list", and when, as Homer desperately tries to make Moe understand that he's just lost him as a customer, Moe is drowning his voice out with the sound of a cash register ringing in sale after sale. Quite literally, the entrepreneur has lost touch with his customer - the customer who in a long-ago golden age was "always right", etc. - and here we see the dark underbelly of the entrepreneurial spirit: the rise of the vice industry and cash's usurping of the customer as "king".

This institution of the local pub and traditional business success have both been successfully lampooned, as has television, and we can safely say that in each case, this episode has as its purpose to snap the viewer to attention and examine the man-made institutions around us. The show doesn't necessarily say that escaping reality through alcohol, or running a successful business, or that even the sitcom are in and of themselves a problem. If there were something wrong with this third target, after all, the show would be criticizing itself and its viewers outwardly - something they really didn't have the audacity to do at this early stage of the series (though Homer does note in this episode that "If there were any justice in the world, [his] face would be on a bunch of crappy merchandise", a fun aside coming at the moment where the series's popularity was exploding, making this already the case).

But more than this, the show gives us countless signals of its desire to test our limits, and to make us see the way the seams are exposed in such institutions. The show opens with "Eye on Springfield", a TV news magazine hosted by Kent Brockman that seems to focus on nothing but women in bikinis. The unwittingly astute Homer relaxes to this progam and channels a term used (if not coined) by Neil Postman in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death to decry the decline of the institution of television news programs in the heyday of shows like A Current Affair: "ah, infotainment". (It is also worth noting how Brockman in this segment - with two women on his arms - is equated to Krusty the Clown when the latter makes a similar entrance to Flaming Moe's, dressed uncharacteristically in maroon that matches Brockman's usual suit. Acutally, Brockman too comes to Moe's with an attractive woman on his arm, proving that as a "legitimate journalist", he is as big of a celebrity as the television clown.) Homer's blind acceptance of the term shows - as does Homer's choice to jump on the opportunity to sock Bart on the arm for speaking while jinxed, claiming simply that these are the rules - the dullest character, Homer, accepting an institution blindly.

The acceptance of conventional wisdom in the face of a duplicity challenging it is also seen in one of the games played during Lisa's slumber party - in one of the series's only moments where Lisa has more friends than even the rarely-seen Janie - in which the girls drip a candle's wax into a bucket of water, and the shape that the wax takes is to represent the girl's future husband's trade (a sad convention in the institution of the slumber party). Lisa's friend drips the wax, and is upset that it appears to be a mop, signifying that her husband will be a janitor. But the open-minded Lisa challenges this right away, turning it upside down so that it is an olympic torch and saying the man in her future will instead be a triumphant athlete. The girl drips again, and says "oh no, a dustpan," at which point even Lisa admits defeat: "the wax never lies." It has always been my opinion though (seriously, from the first time I saw this episode as a kid!) that this supposed dustpan looks like a paintbrush - albeit a wide one more likely to be used by a house-painter than an artist, but nevertheless still not such a seemingly negative fate.

Mrs. Krabappel in this episode straddles two worlds as well: the childrens' educator by day, the veneer is stripped off when, upon Bart's presentation of liquor bottles to the class, she tells him to take them to teachers' lounge, and that he may collect what's left at the end of the day. By night, Mrs. K. is a drunken floozie throwing herself at the declaredly married Homer as well as Aerosmith drummer Joey Kramer (in addition to the sailors). Not only is the educational system satirized, but so too is the political institution when Mayor Quimby declares a given day in the episode's time frame to be "Flaming Moe's Day", despite its already being Veterans' Day. In response to this slight, he simply says from his high authority "It can be two things!".

Indeed, it would appear to be the point of this episode to expose those things that can be "two things" and to show that most may not be only what they seem: Bart discovers that "Hugh Jass" is not just a funny-sounding name, but is actually a bar patron's name, and is forced to back out of his prank call; Tipsy McStagger doesn't actually exist, but is "a composite of other successful logos"; and ultimately, the Flaming Moe is also the Flaming Homer, which trips Bart up during his show and tell segment on "inventors we admire". In the classroom, though, such duplicity can't exist: Nelson Muntz cries out to Bart that this drink is called a Flaming Moe, and "Your Dad didn't invent it, you wuss, Moe the Bartender did!", giving Moe but one identity (his profession). The origin of the drink is hastily confirmed by Mrs. K., who says that "everyone knows that," and from her position as educator, displaces truth with a commonly held falsehood. Pity poor Bart in this case, having to reconcile the images of his father as either inventor or fraud - Bart thought that simply by bringing enough for everybody he would avoid reprimand, as would be the case if he brought cookies or donuts...

It is important, though, that not all things in the episode are duplicit. The contrast between those that are and those that aren't is drawn by literalization; in addition to this concretizing of Moe's only role, for example, we can note Moe's pointing out of the "sneeze guard" on the salad bar, on which Barney promptly sneezes and declares that "these things really work". This may be the only thing in this episode that is exactly what it appears to be - what else could a specifically engineered item such as this be? Everything else, however, is up for grabs.

So what do we do other than revel in all of these satire-enabling double-edged swords? I think the best thing to do may be to consider Homer's famous speech about "making people happy" from his "gumdrop house, on lollipop lane" with his drink despite not getting any credit for it and his subsequent storming out of the bedroom. He sticks his head back in the door, of course, to tell Marge that he was being sarcastic, in case she couldn't tell. To Homer, who takes things as they are without questioning them (as do those who literalize Moe's figure of speech and spit out the drink due to the "blood and sweat" in it), using sarcasm is a big step, and indeed, this is one of the first episodes of The Simpsons that is not as straight-ahead as it appears. (For Marge, it is evident... "Well, duh," she sarcastically responds.)

But it is Homer's ability to conceive of a secondary alternative that gets the action of the episode started in the first place. Out of beer, he has to think of a second way to drink away the memory of Marge's sisters' hairy legs. He makes a mixed drink, accidentally adds cough syrup and - once seredipitously ignited by a stray ash from Patty's cigarette - discovers a new drink. This alternate use of the ingredients - the refuse from both bottoms of liquor bottles and already consumed tobacco, plus the cough syrup - shows the potential that all things have within them to be multifacted (like Aristotle's differentiation between things in actu - realized - and things in potentia - their potential). Moe's bar already has this problem: its potential is not realized before the new drink is sold, and it is serving as no more than a cigarette machine for the junior high students in the neighbourhood. By recognizing the potential - which could also be called the dark side - of the cough syrup, the secret ingredient in the drink around which the whole plot turns, the bar is brought to life. One man's junk is another man's treasure, as Barney (the alcoholic)makes clear by telling Homer that "only an idiot would give away a million dollar idea like that". Unbeknownst to Barney, "that" is a drink based in cough syrup, elixir for a desperate drunk and in a way the height of the vice industry - fitting, no?

And it is similarly this dark side of the drink that will bring about the downfall: the shame of the ingredient and the theft of the idea are, like Quasimodo, the repressed dark secret of Victor Hugo's extolled Notre Dame de Paris - a likeness that Homer takes on while exposing the truth. (Yes, I will propose the Disney's depiction of Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame owes something to Homer's appearance in this scene). In a way, the arrangement is almost Faustian: Moe, out of beer and desperate (as "increased job satisfaction and family togetherness are poison for purveyors of mind-numbing intoxicants") makes a deal with the devil, turning to Homer's cough syrup concoction and learning what he doesn't have the right to know to increase his standing.

Even if Moe too defines himself by his profession as Nelson did, the episode's final line points to a double-faceted Moe as well: it ends with Homer telling Moe that he is the best friend a guy could ever have. While this might just be a barb at a typical sitcom ending, we have to note here that Homer finally has what he has wanted ever since the drink became popular - recognition and, more importantly, his watering hole back. Moe didn't make the million dollars - which he would have shared with Homer, though Homer didn't know this - and welcomed Homer back, which to Homer, seeking only to get drunk, was enough. But out of all of this, we have to note that while Moe may step on Homer's toes to get to the top, he can be reasoned with; it is Homer who cannot be stopped from cruelly exacting revenge on Moe by exposing the secret ingredient. Homer's obsession with revenge dominates the episode, and in the end, though Moe's bar goes back to being what it was beforehand, the satire is complete, as everyone has been exposed, punished and taught a lesson, and no one has risen above his station. Though Homer appears to be the hero, all along he may have been the villain - the best double-edged sword of them all.


Other observations:

  • Among the many "Moes" that Homer utters when obsessed with revenge on Moe, one of them is Marge asking Bart to mow the lawn, to which he responds "Ok, but you promised me moe money." I had some ideas as to wher this came from, but once I researched them I was proven wrong. Particularly: "Mo' Money", a Wayans brothers film from Columbia Pictures, but it was released the following July. (In passing, the Notorious B.I.G. song "Mo' Money Mo' Problems," was released in 1997.) What this is based on, then, I wish I knew.
  • Did anyone else notice that the invention for which Martin Prince says to thank A.J.P. Martin, the Gas Chromatograph, is what Professor Frink uses to deduce the secret ingredient ("Love?!?") in the drink? As far as I can recall, Professor Frink is always using machines he invents, except in this instance... unless he is of course getting credit for someone else's invention, which would dovetail nicely with the episode's theme...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

"Hey, that's not the wallet inspector...!"

Homer the Greek: Anagnorisis in "Homer Goes to College"
Episode 84 (1F02), Season 5. Written by Conan O'Brien, directed by Jim Reardon.

Point of entry: "The source of wonder is often the tragic recognition or anagnorisis. Recognition has been variously defined. In Aristotle it is the recognition of persons through tokens, artistic contrivances, memory, reasoning (including false inferences) and lastly, arising out of the events themselves (as in Oedipus Rex). Aristotle defines this anagnorisis as a change from ignorance to knowledge." -- from Poetics, as summarized by Souvik Mukherjee, at

Personal note: Where else could I start this particular series of examinations but here, in the episode where the dim Homer enters the academic world? One of my more enjoyable courses was on Anagnorisis during my Master's year, taught by guest professor Piero Boitani of La Sapienza (Rome). In this entry, I attempt to apply the study of this poetic device to a legendary episode.


In Greek Tragedy, as Aristotle states in his Poetics, there is a moment of anagnorisis (or recognition) in which the main character progresses from ignorance to knowledge. To Aristotle, recognitions could be made from many sources, but the few above are the most common, and are given in his preferred hierarchy, from lowest to highest.

Nearly every episode of The Simpsons can be watched without recognizing all of the allusions made, but the lowest form of recognition - that by tokens, which is exemplified by Aristotle in the example of Odysseus being recognized by his nurse by a characteristic scar - is rarely seen within The Simpsons. One example would perhaps be in the episode where Homer joins the Stonecutters, where he is recognized as the chosen one due to his birthmark. Aristotle dislikes this form of recognition because it is demonstrates a lack of imagination on the author's part.

The recognitions necessary in the viewer's conscience for the show's many allusions to work, however, must often be made by way of tokens, and I can choose the allusions from this episode as ones typical of the series. The show's opening couch gag, for example, is taken from Monty Python's Flying Circus, and in another instance, the show uses the iconic song "Louie Louie" to enhance the depiction of Homer's college years by drawing on this song's use in the film Animal House. These allusions function not only within Aristotle's schema of recognition, but can also be seen semiotically, as icons bringing with them certain significations. In our "post-modern" (though I hesitate to use that term) climate in which the show was created, it is likely best to take such allusions in more of an intertextual way, as quotations - which is certainly fertile ground for a separate article.

Anagnorisis is not so much focused on the viewer's response as it is on the depiction of recognition within the sphere created in the artwork itself, and we can look at the second type of recognition - that which occurs through artistic contrivance - as it occurs within the show itself, when we see such a contrivance used in the film Homer is watching (School of Hard Knockers). In this film - clearly intended to be a fictional and hyperbolically bad campus romp film in the vein of Animal House or Meatballs we see the Dean (aptly, "Dean Bitterman", a stock name for a stock character) walking with a man in a blue suit. Now, one would presume that this man could be anyone, and of course, we don't have enough time to see if other clues are given - for example, classic cues such as the motorcade or a Secret Service agent could have been used to allow its viewer to infer this man's role - but instead, we are presented with a direct confession not unlike those made in Dante's Commedia, that is to say a simple confession of identity. In the shortened allusion made by the show-within-the-show, the recognition is as unimaginative and and direct as we could normally expect from this grade of film.

The third and slightly better type of recognition (in Aristotle's eyes) is when a character recognizes another character by memory, and the comic moments brought about when we see this type of recognition are enhanced by thinking of them through the lens of anagnorisis. In the episode's opening moments, Homer is tested for his competence, and ends up "melting down" the test work station (despite it not actually being linked to any radioactive material). Later in the episode, when he challenges his professor - "Excuse me, Professor Brainiac, I worked in a nuclear power plant, I think I know how a proton accelerator works..." - and ends up turning the school radioactive as well. Leaving the building, two members of the emergency response team arrive; Homer directs them inside with a simple "It's in there", to which they respond "Thanks, Homer." Homer, therefore, is recognized by memory, and though we don't see these characters earlier in the episode, it is reasonable to infer that they are but two of the many emergency personnel Homer has kept busy with his record of accidents.

But a second instance in this episode also involves a recognition by way of memory. When Homer and the "nerds" are expelled from Springfield University, though the nerds believe they will be fine, the moment they step outside the campus gates are robbed by the series's criminal for all seasons, Snake, who poses as the "Wallet Inspector". As famously stated, Homer comes to a recognition too: "Hey... that's not the wallet inspector...". This can be seen as either the third or fourth type of recognition in Aristotle's hierarchy.

We can look at Homer's long pause before coming to this realization and accept that Homer must have reasoned this out deductively: Snake is not wearing a uniform or badge saying "Wallet Inspector", nor does he present goverment identification or any other token to allow for his recognition. Homer could therefore deduce (better late than never) that this man is not the wallet inspector and satisfy Aristotle's second-best form of recognition. Particularly if he heard Snake's aside ("Wow, I can't believe that worked!") before the criminal makes his getaway.

Before passing to the other way that this scene can be interpreted (which, for my part, I find absolutely hilarious), I would like to take a moment to note something about the text of Aristotle's Poetics which currently survives. The Greeks of course had two principal forms of drama, the tragedy (which we study at length from the Poetics) and the comedy. Forgive me for working from Wikipedia here, they just summarize it so well (I still paraphrase and inject my own thoughts, though):

There is evidence that a very large section - as much as half - of the Poetics is missing, including the section that dealt with comedy. While this section did not survive, the New Comedy - a genre that flourished not even 100 years after Aristotle's death - often used anagnorisis for its resolution, and did so by way of birth tokens (the lowest form of recognition). This genre is mimicked in the work of English dramatists such as Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare in the Jacobean period, one example being in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, in which the final revelation is that Perdita is actually of noble enough birth to marry her lover Polixines, who is a Prince. Her identity is proven by a letter, written in the King's hand, that is suddenly found near the end of the play, using the lowest two forms of recognition - a token and a contrivance - to bring about the recognition.

Knowing that comedies have historically made use of the lower forms of recognition to greater success (School of Hard Knockers included, of course), the second possible interpretation of Homer's recognition that Snake is not the Wallet Inspector could move down the hierarchy one level, to recognition by way of memory. How could Homer know that Snake is not the Wallet Inspector? Instead of a lack of identity-confirming evidence, Homer instead may have a wealth of contradictory evidence that allows him to deny that Snake is who he says he is: a memory. I find myself nearly dying of laughter at this point in the episode, as all I can infer is this: Homer knows Snake isn't the Wallet Inspector because someone else has robbed him this way before. If we are in fact to look toward the lower forms of anagnorisis when studying their use in comedies, while I wouldn't suggest blindly applying this hierarchy, it does encourage me to lean toward memory (and not deduction) as the reason for Homer's recognition.

The highest form of recognition, to Aristotle, occurs when it is a product of the events themselves, such as in Oedipus Rex, where the identity (of King Laius's killer) is revealed in the plot, and not through the outside actors of tokens, contrivance, memory or deduction. While the following may be a touch tenuous, we can see an example of recognition coming directly from a plot, if not necessarily that of the episode itself.

Homer imagines that his college experience will be exactly as it appears in the campus classics like Animal House, and engages in many "typical" activities (pranks, for the most part, but also, a road trip and the spiking of punch at the freshman mixer). Homer assigns a role to the Dean ("that crusty old Dean...."), as well as to himself ("a jock") and to the pre-labelled "nerds". It is by applying his vision of university that Homer's story is resolved, but along the way he shows evidence of the hubris - excessive pride - typical of the Greek tragic hero (the burning of his High School diploma, the plan to save the Dean's life, the prank phone call to the Dean in which he calls him a "stupid-head", and the belief that he can write the entire periodic table of the elements on his hand all provide worthy examples). In classically tragic form, he also experiences hamartia - missing the mark: respecitively, the house catches fire, the Dean is hit by the car the nerds were supposed to save him from, the pay-phone from which Homer calls is visible from the Dean's window, and Homer fails his exam.

The resolution of the story - with Homer confessing to the Dean that the nerds were innocent, and all of them being re-admitted to college - is in line with the plot by which Homer's actions are dictated, and even the nerds pick up how blindly loyal to the plot Homer is when they ask "why does [a prank] always have to be 'zany'?" Homer is, in fact, as (hubristically... if that's a word...) loyal to this plot as Oedipus was to his quest for justice, and in each story (Oedipus Rex and "Homer Goes to College"), the title character goes, from full examination that starts from a position of ignorance (Oedipus quests for justice in his "trial" before Thebes, while Homer has his EYES propped open in a riff on Clockwork Orange to learn as much as possible before the, well, examination) to full knowledge that is harmful: in Oedipus's case, he is exiled and can no longer be in Thebes once he is revealed to be the murderer of Laius, while Homer laments "Now I'm going to lose my job just because I'm dangerously unqualified". For each character, the recognition of himself as the problem element in his environment - keep in mind that Mr. Burns hides Homer in the plant's basement on inspection day - is the passage from ignorance to knowledge that brings about each character's downfall.

One could make the argument, as I hope to have shown above, that this episode, while a satirical take on comedies such as Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds, is actually structured like a tragedy, which is why its use of anagnorisis is so important. Perhaps most interestingly, though, we can look to these campus romps for the little morality lesson that is often taught when, inevitably, the jokers are on the verge of expulsion from their university. In most cases, the protagonists scam their way out and still succeed, despite acting in such a way that, in accordance with a tragic plot, should see them punished. "Homer Goes to College", in addition to being a particularly violent episode, gives us this tragic punishment: Homer has to go back to college in the end, and succeed without cheating, the true purpose of anagnorisis: to make the protagonist learn. This is Homer's peripeteia - reversal of fortune - which is of course undercut by the credits, which use the classic photo montage and "Louie Louie" again, almost to remind us that even though it was a tragedy and used anagnorisis in the way typical of that genre (or, failing that, in a way that is more appropriate to New Comedy as practiced in Ancient Greece and Renaissance England), it will be much more fun to immortalize this episode alongside the college films it parodies - which would be fine too. This aside, I think that the level of violence in the episode - a much criticized point among viewers - can be taken as indicative of the violence done by the college comedies to both the learning process and its depiction in classical tragedy, and if we take these films as the episodes subject matter, we can it as more of an attack on than a glorification of the films Homer attempts to use as models for his learning. The purpose of tragedy, after all, was to educate its audience through the purging of pity and fear. By structuring this episode as a tragedy, and including gratuitous violence - "Dad, start digging some nerd holes..." - I think that when originally aired, this episode can be said to have accomplished such a feat.

Other Observations:
  • Lisa's list of famous nerds, including David Byrne of Talking Heads, is referenced when the episode where "Scratchy finally gets Itchy" comes on under the title "Burning Down the Mouse," a reference to Talking Heads's career-defining single, "Burning Down the House." This is especially interesting given the parodic reference in the title - in a special episode of a cartoon-within-a-cartoon, we see a writer sticking in a "just-for-fun" and somewhat erudite allusion. (Kind of like what Conan O'Brien does with Homer emerging from the melted-down test work station as some variation of the Incredible Hulk and/or Karloff's Frankenstein?) The recognition that takes place in the viewer's mind when watching the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon is therefore layered in a nice "meta-" way, and by displaying self-consciousness about the way recognition works in the universe within the Simpsons (showing that the writers of the shows the characters watch also use these references), the writer is also encouraging us to analyze the allusions used.

Friday, February 1, 2008


Nine months ago, I left, as the Americans call post-secondary education of nearly all forms, "college". I took with me six years of memories and reams of papers I may never look at again, and I fear that my two degrees - a Combined Honours B.A. in English and French (University of Western Ontario), and an M.A. in Comparative Literature (University of Toronto) - may be among them.

University education, at least in the above disciplines, has never seemed to me to be more similar to alchemy than it does at this point in my life, as it professes to magically turn any form of artistic sensibility, creativity and or general humanism into the well-developed critical faculties required for seeking out, as Matthew Arnold would have it, "the best that is known and thought in the world." With a shock, any form of emotional or personal attachment to a significant work of art is torn to shreds upon entrance into the academy, and ever so slowly over the years beyond the first, the last ribbons of the historical document that is one's life experience fall gently to the floor, drifting slightly on the winds of establishment. Artwork after artwork fell from its secure place in my (for lack of a more precise term) soul based on the "teachings" of the institution, and I was normalized even to the point where I must now regard even my tightly- held John Steinbeck (no less than the winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for literature) with grains of skepticism.

True, everything should to an extent be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. And yet, in all the years of learning what I should not be studying, the foundational place of one work of art in my personal make-up could not be shaken. That piece of art is the animated television series currently mid-way through it's 19th season: The Simpsons.

The reasons to revile this television program - at least, from the perspective of the critic of art - are based not only on the fact that, like Steinbeck, it has a populist appeal, but rather, that it is delivered by way of a populist medium. Not only is it on television, it is the lowest form of television: further, as a cartoon, The Simpsons rank even lower on these critics' radars as the animated descendant of the plebian comic book. Television, after all, is no more than an instrument for the promotion of consumption, with programs existing to do no more than fill the space between commercials, to ensure that large numbers of viewers see the ads which pay the network's bills. And yet, when confronted with it, the academy more often than not has to at least accept that the show is well-written and good example of satire, though in my experience, it has done so begrudgingly more often than not. There seems almost to be an element of shame in the teacher when the series is discussed in a classroom setting beyond high school, as I discovered several times (particularly during discussions of parody, pastiche, intertextuality and/or post-modernism) during my so-called education. The Simpsons, however, has been responible for a large part of my learning - not the same as education, it should be noted - be it through its emotional impact, cynicism, realistic portrayal of the world it inhabits, allusion and quotation, and occasionally, through nothing more than the telling of a well-designed and well-executed tale with an emotional impact that embarrasses the floating corpses of live-action television actors and their lame-duck writers who are often little more than slaves to the media empires they serve and write for little more than to increase their market share.

When you live in a media-rich society like that which we enjoy, however, this is a creation that is readily consumed, and thanks to syndication based on the show's high ratings, it is a work of art that is available to be consumed repeatedly: with the standard digital cable package, there are usually between six and 12 different episodes aired per day. Inevitably, this will lead to closer scrutiny, and things not evident in the first consumption of an episode will emerge that fourth, fifth or ninety-eighth time it is watched. The true joy of The Simpsons is in its ability to stay somewhat relevant, for even in episodes from those first years (with animation the show's creators are the first to call, among other epithets, "squishy"), the potential to be re-thought through the lens of a new (or more likely, "classic") work of art one has experienced since seeing that episode, be it a high art form such as painting, sculpture, "classical" music or architecture, or a lower form, such as other cartoons, television shows, films or comics. It is by entering into dialogue with art and history that Simpsons can be timeless, and its continued popularity - particularly in syndication and in DVD sales - runs against the grain, as this is not sold a "classic television" product, but as something which enrages its detractors by proving itself to be as relevant nearly twenty years on as it was in its first years.

The difficulty with The Simpsons, however, is that it is very hard to work from in an academic context. This is not to say that I don't dream of the day where a proposal for a Ph.D. on this television series gets me into Harvard (or equally, Ryerson...) and leads me into a career of teaching undergraduates of the value of this television program - in fact, this blog will most likely serve as a series of rough notes for just such a purpose - but there are difficulties beyond the reputation of its medium. For one, the episodes are short, and rarely allow for a prolonged discussion of any given topic - just when an allusion or reference is made, it's more often than not over before it can really make an extended comment on the matter discussed. These insertions for the erudite, however, are gratifying for not only the viewer, but also the writer, and by recognizing these allusions and other minutia as doors through which we can access the show, an episode's tone can shift drastically. It is for this reason that these references are more than simple gratification of the slumming intellectual, as reading this work of art through some of the chosen intertexts can truly alter the viewing, and make what we can accept as a somewhat formulaic and slapstick-based oeuvre into a work that can equally be seen as creative criticism of the world in which "we" live (Canadians, Americans and all global citizens included). The Simpsons enters into dialogue not necessarily with a given canon of artworks, but it is the quintessential text of cultural studies, a synthesizer of the zeitgeist and that which came before.

It is these tensions and many others that I will set out to explore in a series of readings of Simpsons episodes. The readings come really in no particular order than whatever I have recently seen or read about, and may in some cases be on a single episode (as will be my first planned commentary, "Hey, that's not the Wallet Inspector..."), sometimes on a single allusion, or character (I don't know what it will be, but I have to say something about Sideshow Bob), or sometimes on a theme taken up between several episodes: Sports is another one that I feel I will have to get out my system early on, as some of my personal favourite episodes include Homer at the Bat, Lisa on Ice and the Pee-Wee Football episode whose title escapes me for the moment. I feel also that the odd entry (such as this one, I guess) will be one with no purpose other than to engage popular and/or academic criticisms of the series, in some cases specific books or articles and in other cases comments from people around me (the most common being those where people debate when the show "jumped the shark"). My studies will be somewhat limited, as until seasons beyond the tenth are released to DVD I will be stuck watching more recent episodes on television (and therefore, sometimes in cut-for-syndication mode), and I will come clean and admit that, like most Simpsons fans, my most used sources will likely include Wikipedia and the SNPP (Springfield Nuclear Power Plant) archive, at

Please feel free to comment on anything written in any of these entries should you be either a frequent reader or should you stumble across this page, and should you stumble across this page, please feel free to become a frequent reader. I look forward to sharing most of what this television show has been teaching me since, just before Christmas of 1989 (as a six-year old), I discovered a show that would become a bigger part of my life than I could ever have imagined.