25. The Way We Was

Flashback (what a feeling)

Flashback (what a feeling)

  • First broadcast: Thursday 31 January 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 7 April 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Al Jean & Mike Reiss, Sam Simon
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: John Eng, David Silverman
  • Animation director: David Silverman

Up to now, The Simpsons had evolved inside a universe whose timeframe was elastic enough to stretch across pretty much the whole of the late 20th century. Episodes looked and felt like they could have taken place at any point between the mid-70s and early 90s. The Way We Was changed all this. Against Matt Groening’s wishes, this story gave the show its first fixed point in history: 1974, the year Homer and Marge left high school. From here onwards, The Simpsons slowly became more topical and self-referential, drawing inspiration increasingly from itself rather than the everyday. This was never a problem while the programme was at its most witty and creative. But when self-referentiality became The Simpsons’ sole obsession, the results were abject. Fortunately, this was not to become the scriptwriters’ default attitude for a good number of years.

Plot
Homer and Marge reminisce about the time they first met and fell in love on the night of their school prom. And that’s it. There’s about five minutes of exposition here, eked out with three times as much 1970s window-dressing. Each time the story threatens to pick up a bit of pace, the action pauses for another scene of people standing in front of self-consciously 70s backgrounds, holding self-consciously 70s objects or name-dropping the 70s in a self-conscious manner (“I wouldn’t go to the prom with you if you were Elliott Gould”).

Look - the 70s!

Look – the 70s!

While all this period detail is evoked with great care in both the design and the dialogue, and can be admired on its own terms, it bears no relevance whatsoever to the mechanics of the plot. Homer’s clumsy wooing of Marge, her decision to attend the prom with the school swot, followed by a late-night change of heart, could have taken place in any era. The show would get better at integrating a flashback story with its historical context, but here the two co-exist awkwardly and fail to resolve into anything significant. 3

Not what it used to be

Not what it used to be

Characters
Mid-70s Homer is written as a largely unpleasant individual, prone to stupid outbursts (“English? Who needs that? I’m never going to England”), chauvinism and deviousness. It’s hard to feel sympathetic of his repeatedly doomed attempts at courtship. Perhaps there’s just something fundamentally unfunny about exaggerated depictions of boorish teenage males. He has traces of self-awareness, however; trapped in detention, he tells Marge: “I’m here for being me. Every day I show up, act like me and they slap me in here.”

Detention!

“Detention!”

He also seems genuinely grateful when Marge helps him with his studies: “You’re telling me new stuff and minutes later it’s still there!” Marge is shown as naive but articulate and open to new concepts. She embraces radical feminism and burns a bra, but quickly goes off the idea (“Last time I ever take a stand”) after being caught. Her description of Homer as “dear and honest and open, without a trace of pretension” is great bit of writing that helps explain the foundation of their relationship both then and now. She is by far the most persuasive of all the younger incarnations that feature in the episode, which also include a shambolic Barney, a tetchy Mrs Bouvier and a sarcastic Patty and Selma: in other words, pretty much unchanged. The one entirely new character of note is Artie Ziff, Marge’s preferred prom date. Aggressively verbose, socially artless and an outrageous snob, he is another fabulous grotesque to welcome to Springfield. 5

Locations and design
Judged purely on appearances, The Way We Was is a tour de force. All of the sequences set in 1974 have a confident authenticity. Even if you weren’t alive at the time, you’re inclined to give the storyboard and layout artists the benefit of the doubt, such is the vivid profusion of period clutter. Homer’s bedroom is a good example: packed with dabs of mid-70s bric-a-brac, but not too many as to dilute the impact of the overall design.

That 70s show

That 70s show

Homer’s digital watch is an instance of attention to detail on the smallest rather than largest of scales, typified by the way he has to use two fingers to operate it:

Time sensitive

Time sensitive

Period touches are painted into the smallest of corners, such as the school noticeboard:

kjh

SEE BOB

Above all there’s a refreshingly unromantic and non-reverential approach to everything: the lives of ordinary people in the 70s unfold in environments as mundane and dingy as any other decade.

Stain

A kitchen, yesterday

The leaks in the ceiling of Grampa Simpson’s kitchen count for two points alone. 9

Pardon My Zinger
Jokes get somewhat crowded out in this episode, coming a distant third place behind the conceit of the flashback and the endless shots of people pointing at old things. Most of the humour comes from situations: Homer opting to moon the school debating society rather than formulate an argument; Artie Ziff dancing with Marge at the prom while reciting, rather than singing, the lyrics to (They Long To Be) Close To You; present-day Homer howling in despair when the TV goes on the blink (“Dear God, just give me one channel!”). The best of the zingers come not from any of the main characters, but a supporting part: the chauffeur of the limo hired by Homer for the night of the prom. “Where to now, Romeo?” he cracks on seeing a despondent Homer leaving the school alone. “Inspiration Point,” Homer replies – the town’s smooching spot. “Okay, but I’m only paid to drive,” the chauffeur snaps. Come midnight, a Marge-less Homer tells the driver: “It’s okay, I’ll walk home.” “Yeah, why spoil a perfect evening?” is the response. 4

Special guests
Jon Lovitz plays Artie Ziff and brings some much needed life to the otherwise pedestrian proceedings. “Marge,” he coos after making an advance in the back seat of his car, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anybody about my busy hands. Not so much for myself, but I am so respected it would damage THE TOWN to hear it.”

"Good-NIGHT!"

“Good-NIGHT!”

Lovitz shares with Albert Brooks a capacity for voicing casual eccentricity that is endlessly appealing. Both actors make their characters sound simultaneously at ease in Springfield but slightly aloof from the regular townsfolk. Ziff delights in outsmarting his peers (“There is a difference between ignorance and stupidity,” he informs Homer, to which Homer replies: “Not to me there isn’t”) but he craves their acceptance anyway. Lovitz captures these contradictions with aplomb. Ziff wouldn’t reappear in The Simpsons for over a decade; thankfully Lovitz would be back within a year. 9

Music
Songs from the early 70s wallpaper the episode. Close To You appears several times, and there are extracts from The Streak by Ray Stevens, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John, The Hustle by Van McCoy, Colour My World by Chicago and Pick Up the Pieces by Average White Band. Homer also sings along with The Joker by the Steve Miller Band. He gets the words wrong: a gag the writers feel of sufficient merit to include not once but twice, the second time in place of the signature tune over the end titles. Hard luck if you’re not a fan of 1970s AOR. Alf Clausen can’t really compete with this greatest hits jukebox, though there’s a quietly effective cue to accompany the scene when Marge first accepts, then rejects, Homer’s invitation to the prom, with the music both shaping and reflecting the change in mood. 4

Voices
Dan Castellenata modulates his voice between scenes set in the past and present, given Homer a slightly higher register for the flashbacks. Julie Kavner doesn’t bother altering her voice at all, meaning Marge, Patty, Selma and even Mrs Bouvier all sound the same in 1974 as now. The Bouviers’ gravelly throats are clearly not only hereditary but also familial: the little-seen Mr Bouvier, Marge’s father, has a voice like an coal scuttle.

*rasp*

*rasp*

The chauffeur, voiced with panache by Hank Azaria, would go on to make regular appearances in The Simpsons in a number of guises, often referred to in the script as Wiseguy. 6

Animation direction
David Silverman’s skills are best exercised in the intricate location designs of mid-70s Springfield, many of which he storyboarded himself. Mercifully, we’re spared the sight of a full-on shot of Homer’s naked arse:

Mooning for rebuttal

Mooning for rebuttal

Equally well-judged is the staging of Artie’s pawing of Marge, which is done entirely in silhouette:

'Busy hands' not pictured

‘Busy hands’ not pictured

The stand-out sequence, however, is when Homer and Marge meet for the first time. Marge enters the classroom and, in Homer’s head, the walls change colour as she moves towards him in slow motion in time to the opening bars of Close To You. 6

Why do birds suddenly appear...

Why do birds suddenly appear…

...every time that you're near?

…every time you are near?

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The idea of making fun of the 1970s simply because they are the 1970s would, as the 1990s continued, spawn an entire industry of popular culture, from feature films to documentaries to sitcoms to any number of stand-up routines. Here, The Simpsons is ahead of the game, establishing a template for future parody, rather than cribbing from other sources. There is one instance of the show spoofing something else, however, and it’s one of the best moments of the entire episode. This is the first appearance of Schwarzenegger-clone McBain.

"McBain!"

“McBain!”

The present-day Simpson family watch clips of him on the programme Yakkin’ About Movies, itself a parody of the film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.

"Bald guy" and "fat guy"

“Bald guy” and “fat guy”

McBain is an exceptional creation: a lumbering, inarticulate, hulking dispenser of well-timed punches and poorly-timed quips, brilliantly designed, animated and voiced, and destined – like Wiseguy – for many welcome return cameos. 9

Emotion and tone
This is another season two episode that leaves you continually unsure of the mood it wants to project. Flippant or sincere? Coarse or schmaltzy? With the plot see-sawing between past and present, there’s no equilibrium of tone and your emotions end up scrambled. In these kinds of situations your instinct is towards the sceptical rather than the indulgent. When the 1970s Homer tells Marge: “Once you stop this car, I’m gonna hug you and kiss you, and then I’ll never be able to let you go!” we switch back to the present day, whereupon Homer adds: “And I never have.” The camera cuts immediately to Bart pretending to be sick. You can’t help but agree. 2

*vomiting noise*

*vomiting noise*

Verdict: 57%
A patchwork of finely-drawn period detail and crudely-drawn period cliché that seems impressive from a distance but gradually loses substance the closer you look and longer you watch.

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