4. There’s No Disgrace Like Home

"Thank you all... ... ... FOR COMING!"

“Thank you all… [reads cue card] …FOR COMING!”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 28 January 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 23 November 1996, BBC1
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti
  • Storyboard: Mike Kazelah, Gregg Vanzo
  • Animation directors: Gregg Vanzo, Kent Butterworth

This was the first episode of The Simpsons to be broadcast on terrestrial television in the UK, almost seven years after its debut on Fox. For millions of people, including me, it was an inauguration into a phenomenon. What a pity, therefore, that the BBC chose such an unrepresentative and patchy effort, rather than one of the many gems it had at its disposal. But we weren’t to know this at the time. It was enough that The Simpsons had finally properly arrived in Britain. And luckily for us, episodes like There’s No Disgrace Like Home would prove to be the exception, not the rule.

Plot
Homer gets so fed up with his family’s uncouth behaviour at a company picnic that he pawns his TV to pay for them all to attend a therapy centre. What starts promisingly as Homer’s struggle to navigate a tricky collision of work and home quickly turns into a very unsubtle, one-note story that riffs almost exclusively on the supposed appeal of what, by this point in The Simpsons’ history, was already being dubbed “America’s most dysfunctional family”. It’s also incredibly dated, thanks to what was considered by the producers as “shocking” in 1990 – Marge getting drunk, Bart chasing some swans, Lisa talking back – now appearing more capricious than provocative. The ending, where the family electrocutes each other continuously for almost a minute, is the show close to its worst, swapping feisty humour for lazy violence. 2

There is nothing good about this

There is nothing good about this

Characters
Every single one of the four main protagonists behaves out of character. Marge is irresponsible and over-indulgent, getting sloshed on “al-ki-hol”; Bart is witless and wimpish; Lisa is a spoilt brat and complicit in making her father unhappy; and Homer is so crazed with responsibility that he sells his television set without a shred of remorse. This isn’t just out of step with how the family came to be later depicted; it doesn’t even match up with what we’ve already learned about them in the short life of The Simpsons to date! By contrast, Mr Burns has evolved into a more of a plausible foe, and is the most entertaining character of the episode. “Fire that man, Smithers,” he growls after having to talk with a particularly toadying employee at the power plant picnic. “He’ll be gone by the tug-of-war, sir,” Smithers replies. “Excellent,” comes the soon-to-be-textbook response. Burns has already forgotten Homer’s name, despite meeting in the previous episode, thereby establishing another precedent rich in comic potential. There is one brand new character: Dr Marvin Monroe, but he is someone without any redeeming features whatsoever, and his arrival in the final act precipitates the episode’s decline into its charmless conclusion. 1

Locations and design
Mr Burns’ mansion – or “stately Burns manor” – is superb. The pointless vastness of the place, the way it utterly dwarfs both its guests and Burns himself, is brilliantly conveyed with an enormity that applies equally to the carpets and television sets as the garden, which seems to be the size of several fields, and the entrance hall which takes characters a full minute to walk across:

Hounds not pictured

Hounds not pictured

The lighting and ambience feels a bit too bright and sympathetic, but would get much darker and Citizen Kane-esque in later episodes. This glimpse of Springfield at its most opulent also makes for a great contest with the town at its most seamiest: Moe’s Tavern, where the TV is still in black-and-white and even the dirt seems melancholy. The one misfire is Marvin Monroe’s Family Therapy Centre. There is an odd lack of perspective and proportion to the background design, distracting objects and artworks are dotted about the place, and you’re left with a sense of it being nowhere in particular. 6

Pardon My Zinger
Befitting his status as the best character in the episode, Mr Burns has all the best lines. He rasps at the picnic’s brass band – “Musicians, cease that infernal tootling!” – before addressing his workers while reading off prompts: “Thank you all… [Smithers hands another prompt card] for coming!” His loathing for the human race is gloriously pitiless: “Please get off my property… the hounds will be released in 10 minutes.” Later he relishes the havoc the Simpsons’ electrocution is having on the town’s electricity grid: “Perhaps this energy conservation is as dead as the dodo.” We’re well on the way to seeing Mr Burns in his fully-formed imaginative fiendishness. The quality of jokes is actually pretty good all-round, and despite the plot this is possibly the funniest episode of the season so far. Other highlights are Homer inventing a dinner-time grace during which he refers to God as “omnivorous”; the relish with which he declares, at the end of act two:

"They're on TV!"

“The answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle. They’re on TV!”

And finally his moaning to Marge: “Sometimes I think we’re the worst family in town,” followed by her snappy response: “Maybe we should move to a larger community!” 7

Special guests
Christopher Collins returns to provide the voice of Mr Burns. There’s a touch more fruity malevolence to his performance than in the previous episode, and this, together with the character’s increased quota of comically punitive dialogue, helps dilute some of the jarring differences with Burns’ more familiar depiction by Harry Shearer. 5

Music
After three episodes where his contributions were either mixed too low or cut to ribbons, the show’s composer Richard Gibbs finally gets a bit more room to make his presence felt. His music cue for the end of act one is a stunner: a raucous, creepy arrangement of the old folk song Bingo Was His Name-O to accompany Homer’s contrasting visions of a colleague’s goody-goody family in their car ascending gracefully into heaven, and of his own brood disconsolately motoring down into a fiery hell:

Highway to heaven

Highway to heaven

 

Road to hell

Road to hell

For the first time in the show’s history, animation and score work together to create a visual gag, rather than jostle each other for attention. There’s also a nice little call-back to Bingo in the closing seconds, so your head isn’t too full of the ghastly Monroe as the episode ends. Elsewhere the same extract from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that was playing in the progressive school in Bart the Genius turns up in the hall of Mr Burns’ manor, again helping to establish a suitably rarefied atmosphere. A queasy instrumental version of Love is Blue is being piped throughout the therapy centre. And for the fourth episode in a row, we also get to hear a character sing. Unfortunately, unlike in the previous three, it is not Bart but Marge. Fortunately it is only 15 seconds long. 6

Voices
Let’s start with that singing. It is dreadful. There’s a gulf of a difference between giving an amusing performance of someone who is out-of-key, and someone who simply can’t sing at all. In this episode, that gulf is too wide for Julie Kavner. When she batters your ears with a few lines of Dean Martin’s Hey, Brother, Pour the Wine, not even the fancy orchestral accompaniment can offset the horror. Yes, her character is meant to be drunk. But again, there’s comedy drunk, and then there’s absolutely unbearably hideously unlikeable drunk. Even this, however, is preferable to what happens whenever we hear from the mouth of Dr Marvin Monroe. His voice is actually painful to listen to. His gravelly, hoarse tones are one of the main reasons the episode’s final five minutes are such a struggle to sit through. And it just keeps on getting worse, as his character is required to raise his voice repeatedly to compete with the bickering Simpsons. When he bawls: “THIS IS NOT THE WAY TO GET HEALTHY!” it’s like a chainsaw running through a dictionary. Compared to all of this din, Dan Castellaneta’s continuing trouble to find a consistent voice for Homer is blissfully trifling. 2

Animation direction
This was Gregg Vanzo’s only episode of The Simpsons on which he worked as director, though he would supervise the layout and storyboards of many more. Kent Butterworth, who co-directed this episode, worked only on season one of the show. Whichever way the pair divided up the work on There’s No Disgrace Like Home, there’s a definite shift in style from the more polished and inspired section at Mr Burns’ picnic, up to and including the heaven/hell sequence, to the rest of the action at the Simpsons’ house and then the therapy centre. The former has some lovely touches, including Homer peering through some jelly:

"Ooh - marshmallow."

“Ooh – marshmallow.”

This is followed by the family in the car clutching jellies, and then an entire table of jellies quivering inside Mr Burns’ mansion as if in fright. Non-gelatin highlights include Bart being quacked at by marauding swans and the sack race between Mr Burns and his entire workforce:

First place: Mr Burns; second place: everyone else

First place: Mr Burns; second place: everyone else

The second half of the episode is more inconsistent and off-model, including a frankly bizarre attempt at depicting the family running along a pavement with legs turning like cartwheels. The electrocution finale owes its tiresome impact more to the editing than the direction, though there’s an impressive cutaway to the entire town at night with its lights blinking on and off as the power wanes. 5

On the blink

On the blink

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Aside from the impressive heaven v hell montage at the end of act one, this episode boasts a real treat: our first proper glimpse of an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. It’s brief, but it’s amazing: basically, a cat’s head explodes and rolls along the floor through the bones of its own stomach. The family’s reaction – enormous guffaws – is priceless. What a gift Itchy & Scratchy would be to the series (and also a chore, the writers testifying almost unanimously that the cartoons were always the thing that took up the most time to devise). 7

Emotion and tone
Just what are you meant to feel towards the Simpsons in this episode? Sympathy? Not even Homer comes over as agreeable in his fanatical attempt to force his family into therapy. Pity? You’re given hardly any cause to feel sorry for them. Humour? Sure, there are some good lines, but they succeed in spite of rather than because of a scenario that in itself is not the slightest bit funny. With each of the characters acting in a manner so removed to that glimpsed in the previous three episodes (and from what we know they would go on to become), it’s perhaps not a surprise that there’s no sustained tone or emotional substance here. And then we come to the very end, where Homer’s personality does another 180-degree turn the moment 500 dollars are in his hand. It’s all a bit of a mess. 2

Verdict: 43%
The Simpsons is always at its weakest when the entire family is shown to be stupid and behaving without wit or logic. Many years later, this would become the default setting for the entire series. For now, such lapses were rare and isolated. Thanks to Mr Burns’ sparkling disgust, some punchy gags and flashes of visual flair, this episode isn’t a complete dud. But it’s not one to seek out if you’re after the blueprint of a superlative cartoon.

2 thoughts on “4. There’s No Disgrace Like Home

  1. I love Homer peering through the jelly, it’s probably my favourite image of the whole first season. I really hate the electrocution sequence, though, it’s just a horrible concept and it looks horrible as well. I think it’s the teeth that do it.

    Of course, Harry Shearer did say later that the main reason they got rid of Dr Marvin Monroe was because he hated doing the voice and everyone else hated listening to it. The introduction of a therapist so early in the run and him being quite prominent in many early episodes I suppose fits in with the idea of the Simpsons being the world’s worst family, which was obviously toned down later on.

    Like

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