33. The War of the Simpsons

Fish

“You’re thinking about fishing even when I’m talking right now.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 2 May 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 10 November 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Raymie Muzquiz, Kevin O’Brien
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

As the scramble continued to get season two finished on time, so the consistency of the episodes began to slide. The same problem would come to affect every season: tired writers grappling with tight deadlines, leading to rushed stories that tended towards cliché and stupidity rather than originality and cleverness. The War of the Simpsons is one of those episodes you kind of wish had never made it to screen. It’s not the worst story in season two, but it’s possibly the most unpleasant.

Plot
Marge and Homer host a dinner party, at which Homer gets blind drunk, ogles Maude Flanders and passes out. Irked by her husband’s behaviour, Marge enrols the pair of them on a marriage counselling course run by Reverend Lovejoy, leaving the children to run amok under the lax supervision of Grampa Simpson. It’s a wholly unwelcome return to the “worst family in America” of season one, with everyone behaving obnoxiously and the plot founded on the false idea that crassness alone equals comedy. You simply do not believe for one second that Marge and Homer’s marriage is “in crisis”; the jeopardy is contrived so unimaginatively that, unlike One Fish, Two Fish…, the journey to the inevitable all’s-well-that-ends-well conclusion is insipid and leaves you cold. The first subplot – Bart and Lisa hold a party while their parents are away – is spiritless and vapid; the second – Homer tries to catch a catfish – is summed up by a shot of him in a boat being towed round and round, advancing nowhere and moving in ever decreasing circles. 2

Characters
No member of the Simpson family emerges well from this story. Homer is coarse and uncaring; Marge is whiny and a bully; Bart’s pranks are cruel rather than crafty; Lisa is a brat; and Grampa has lost his lucidity and gone back to being plain stupid. Everyone is rude, loud and foolish; these are not people you want to spend time with. You sympathise completely when Dr Hibbert tells Marge she should only roll the comatose Homer on to his stomach “if” she wants him to live through the night. Far more appealing – and the sole reason this episode gets any points for its characters – are the two chief supporting players: Ned Flanders, who can’t wait to take his wife to the marriage retreat for “a spit-shine”; and Reverend Lovejoy, his saintliness sorely tested throughout (“I’m sorry, the Lord and I can’t compete with the squeaking of Homer Simpson’s shoes”). 3

Locations and design
The venue for Lovejoy’s marriage guidance weekend is a lodge in the woods: one of those places meant to feel homely and comforting, but whose bare floors, giant walls and murky corners invariably make its occupants feel intimated and on edge. Quite the wrong sort of location for a spot of intimate therapy, in other words:

Retreat

Retreat

It’s just the kind of habitat someone who means well (Lovejoy) would think suitable for something they really know nothing about. The catfish that Homer captures is straight out of the same world: a ludicrously-oversized monster living in a supposedly idyllic lake. The rest of the episode takes place in familiar locations – the Simpsons’ house, the church, the supermarket – though thanks to the plot none of them have their usual quirky charm. 5

Pardon My Zinger
Homer gets one decent gag. When Bart complains “You can’t have any fun in bed!” Homer replies sagely: “Oh son, when you’re older, you’ll know better!” – at which point the picture dissolves to a shot of Homer under a duvet, purring in delight at the sight of…

A big sandwich

A big sandwich

The best of the jokes come from the best characters: the supporting cast. Dr Hibbert’s censorious tone at the dinner party is a treat. “These novelty ice cubes are often made from HIGHLY TOXIC CHEMICALS,” he admonishes Homer. “Ironically a real fly would have been much more sanitary.” We get the first glimpse of Flanders’ rocking-chair zealotry: “Sometimes,” he sighs, “Maude – God bless her – underlines passages in my Bible because she can’t find hers.” But it’s Reverend Lovejoy who gets the pick of the zingers, informing his congregation that among the pamphlets currently available at the back of the church are “Bible Bafflers, Satan’s Boners, Good Grief – More Satan’s Boners, and, for the teens, It’s Not Cool To Fry In Hell.” 5

Special guests
There aren’t any. A neutral 5.

Music
One of the episode’s strengths. There’s a fabulous scene when Marge orders Homer into the car to give him an ear-bashing, but to ensure the children don’t hear what she says, she switches on a recording of The Mexican Hat Dance. Cue the sight of Marge hectoring and the sound of uproarious Latin tootling. “That music always sends a chill down my spine,” says Lisa, watching from the living room window. Homer may have lousy taste in dinner-party etiquette, but he has a fine record collection including It’s Not Unusual and The Look of Love. Alf Clausen’s score is also well-judged, particularly the bustling cue when Lisa and Bart are cleaning up the house and the first appearance (of many) of the shimmering glissando that accompanies our move in and out of Homer’s imagination. 8

Voices
The sound that rings loudest in your ears after this episode finishes is that of cacophonous grousing. It is not pleasant. 1

Animation direction
Mark Kirkland gets a couple of moments to shine: once when Marge’s face turns into a fish, and then when Homer reimagines the dinner party as an interwar high society soiree, with beautifully stylised animation to match:

dry Martini

“I must get out of these wet clothes and into a dry Martini!”

The dissolve from this fantasy back to reality is a continuous shot lasting about 20 seconds, and it’s easily the most impressive visual sequence in the episode. Then again, when compared with the likes of this…

Wink

Out of water

Winker

Winker

…it’s perhaps not that much of an achievement. 4

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
McBain returns for a tantalising few seconds and suddenly everything comes good.

"Bye book"

“In this department we go by the book.” “Bye, book!”

Then it’s over and you’re back to the shouting and unpleasantness. Homer’s incantation to the catfish (“I love you but I must kill you!”) references the text of Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 short novel The Old Man and the Sea (later the inspiration for the season eight episode title The Old Man and the Lisa). There’s also a flashback to Bart’s previous encounter with a babysitter, which nods – in both the music and the framing – to the 1976 film The Omen. The whole episode has the desperate whiff of trying to send up divorce-based melodrama: a genre so hackneyed as to be almost beyond spoof. 3

Emotion and tone
The holier-than-thou tone of the script swells to maximum pomposity with Bart’s line: “In these crazy, topsy-turvy times, who’s to say what’s right and wrong?” It’s meant as a joke, to explain away Bart and Lisa’s mistreatment of Grampa. But it’s not funny and is the kind of forced wordplay that would so ruin the show in later years. The only things for which you feel emotion in this episode are, in no particular order: a) the catfish b) the Simpsons’ cat c) Reverend Lovejoy and d) the state of the Simpsons’ carpet. 1

Fatal floor

Fatal floor

Verdict: 37%
Granted, it’s hard to make bickering sound convincingly funny. But The War of the Simpsons fails to make even bickering sound convincing. This isn’t an episode you want to sit through twice. Or once, if you can help it.

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