Thanks to the way the BBC jumbled up the terrestrial premiere of The Simpsons, viewers in the UK encountered season one of the show in a ramshackle fashion, with episodes spliced seemingly at random between those dating from as many as three years later.
But in retrospect this probably did the season a massive favour. Its weaknesses, of which there are many, got diluted by virtue of its episodes not appearing sequentially, sparing viewers a sustained dose of off-model animation, crudely-drawn sets and half-realised voices. Its strengths, of which there are few, also got scattered through the schedules, but this had the advantage of the entire season having its credentials levelled up rather than down.
It was only some years later, when the BBC began to repeat The Simpsons in order, that the deficiencies of season one were fully and rather pitilessly laid bare.
Here’s how British audiences were introduced to the show in the winter of 1996 :
- 23 November: There’s No Disgrace Like Home (Season 1, episode 4)
- 30 November: Bart the Daredevil (2, 8)
- 7 December: The Call of the Simpsons (1, 7)
- 14 December: Lisa’s Substitute (2, 19)
- 21 December: Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire (1, 1)
- 28 December: A Streetcar Named Marge (4, 2)
- 4 January: Homer’s Night Out (1, 10)
- 11 January: Krusty Gets Busted (1, 12)
- 18 January: Radio Bart (3, 13)
- 25 January: Simpson and Delilah (2, 2)
- 1 February: Bart the Genius (1, 2)
- 8 February: Lisa the Greek (3, 14)
- 15 February: Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish (2, 4)
It’s a baffling sequence. What possessed the BBC to jump in the space of a week from season one’s Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire all the way to season four’s A Streetcar Named Marge? It also meant that less than half of season one had aired on terrestrial television by the time the show was dropped from BBC1 in mid-February and replaced with repeats of Dad’s Army.
After a short break The Simpsons reappeared on 10 March, now on BBC2 and airing at 6pm every Monday and Friday. But it wasn’t until 30 May and the first transmission of Life on the Fast Lane that we finally reached the end of season one.
(The other episodes were premiered as follows: Moaning Lisa, 21 March; Some Enchanted Evening, 28 March; Homer’s Odyssey, 4 April; The Telltale Head, 11 April; Bart the General, 21 April; The Crepes of Wrath, 19 May.)
Revisiting these episodes 18 years since they were first shown on mainstream television in the UK, and 25 years since they were first broadcast in the US, I’ve been struck not just by how inferior many (but not all) of them feel when compared with the seasons that came later, but also at how poor most of them are in and of themselves.
I’d pick only three to watch again by choice: Krusty Gets Busted, Life on the Fast Lane and Bart the General. The rest have varying degrees of flaws, but none stands alone as a piece of television I’d want to watch for any reason other than duty at best and jaundiced curiosity at worst.
Here’s an overview of all the scores I gave to season one on this blog:
The episodes towards the bottom of this list are failures not simply in view of what followed in subsequent seasons; they are also failures in their own right. Sometimes it’s the storyline that’s at fault (Homer’s Odyssey); sometimes it’s the characterisation (Homer’s Night Out); sometimes it’s both (The Call of the Simpsons). The lousy animation and half-formed vocalisations compound the problems, but don’t excuse them.
I’d like to think that such a wide span of scores – 53 points separates the highest from the lowest – won’t reoccur until I get to season nine (in the year 2022!). While season two is an unambiguous step up, my instinct is the lows will still outnumber the highs. But what is so laudable about The Simpsons throughout its first few years is its innate tendency towards self-improvement. There is no resting on laurels for at least the first four seasons: a by-product of the same writing and producing team staying in place for the duration, and of their attitude that the show was only ever as good as its next episode.
This is why even though season one is so hit-and-miss, it can’t be entirely dismissed. It is flawed, but it is flawed on its own terms. It doesn’t fail by trying to be the same. It fails by trying to be different. What happened next was that its creators learned how to carry on being different and not fail. They learned how to succeed and, even more resourceful, how to go on succeeding.