44. Saturdays of Thunder

"Quoth the raven: what a shine"!

“Quoth the raven: what a shine!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 14 November 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 7 November 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Ken Levine & David Isaacs
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

Ken Levine and David Isaacs were responsible for one of the weakest stories of season two: Dancin’ Homer, a dose of near-impenetrable Americana wrapped inside a tissue-thin plot featuring Homer at his most boorish and least likeable. Here they return with another dose of near-impenetrable Americana, wrapped once again inside a tissue-thin plot and featuring… well, you can guess.

Plot
For the second week in a row Homer’s bad parenting is under the microscope. But he’s lost the self-awareness and poise he had seven days ago, spending most of the first part of the episode unwilling to even consider the idea he is a poor father. Then some boffins from the National Fatherhood Institute arrive in the plot to move things on a bit, and it becomes a story about Homer trying to help Bart win a soapbox derby. Even in isolation it’s a weak story, but coming directly after one of Homer’s finest hours, which also happens to be the best episode of The Simpsons so far, it’s a stinker. 2

Characters
Everyone other than Homer is fantastic. Patti and Selma have a couple of superb cameos, turning up at the Simpsons’ house purely to have a moan (“What do you know? He’s wearing pants” “I owe you a lunch!”) then deciding to have a makeover in a beauty salon. The pair have no relation to the plot whatsoever, but one of them does get to say this while sitting under a hairdryer:

“Listen to what Henry Winkler told a friend: I don’t always keep my cool like the Fonz, but my love for my kids has given me plenty of Happy Days.”

Bart’s enthusiasm for soapbox derby racing is depicted as a wholly plausible, all-consuming pre-teen obsession. It’s great to see his delight at actually winning something for a change. Marge and Lisa are barely in the episode but at least their characters behave with consistency and Marge gets to deliver a homily (about bad parenting) with which you can actually agree. This being a sitcom, Homer naturally comes good at the end, but before that we’ve had to sit through him moaning and whining and acting stupid and sulking and failing to come up with a name for any of Bart’s friends other than “the fat kid with the thing… Hank? Hank Jones?” A 7 for everybody other than him.

Locations and design
The derby racers are expertly drawn and designed to tailor the personalities of their respective drivers: crude but homely for Bart; brash and ungainly for Nelson; meticulous but overcomplicated for Martin:

Derby day

Derby day

Springfield has acquired a giant hill down which the races are run, making it look like a suburb of San Francisco:

The great curve

The great curve

But it’s always nice to see the town sporting a new shabby retail outlet for its citizens to visit. 8

Not pictured:

Not pictured: Laserdisc Lay-by

Pardon My Zinger
Most of the gags come from the supporting characters. Homer is someone it’s very difficult to both laugh with and laugh at. There’s one scene where he has an extraordinary overreaction at seeing Martin – “YOU! Homewrecker!” – that is so ludicrous it ends up funny, especially when Dr Hibbert, chucklingly inappropriately, observes: “Well, you certainly gave that boy the heebeegeebees!” But that’s more or less it. In one scene he tells Marge that Bart “reminds me of me before the weight of the world crushed my spirit.” Yes, along with his wits. 3

Special guests
Phil Hartman is back as Troy McClure, who no longer has just a string of movie flops to his name but a host of TV series as well, including the splendidly-titled Troy and Company’s Summertime Smile Factory. We see him here gamely presenting I Can’t Believe They Invented It!, promoting products including Mr Sugar Cube and Spiffy the stain remover. Hartman is so good at this, and occupies the role so completely, that you’d quite happily watch him and Troy for the entire episode. 9

Music
By now it’s rare for there not to be at least one popular song jammed into a Simpsons episode. Here there are three. While Homer helps Bart with his soapbox racer, a few lines of Bobby Goldsboro’s treacly 1970 song Watching Scotty Grow are heard (“There he sits with a pen and a yellow pad/What a handsome lad/That’s my boy…”). More schmaltz is on hand when Homer is reconciled with Bart and we’re subject to a brief snatch of Wind Beneath My Wings. There’s also the return of the ironic-song-being-played-down-a-phone-while-being-kept-on-hold, in this case when Homer rings the National Fatherhood Institute and hears Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle. All three songs add to the sense of this being a very Americana-choked episode. 5

Voices
The usually disagreeable Dr Nick Riviera is Troy’s guest on I Can’t Believe They Invented It!, but his obnoxiousness is tempered by his new role as Troy’s stooge. “I’ve brought with me the gravestone of author and troubled soul Edgar Allan Poe!” he trills. “One of our best writers,” Troy pointlessly explains. Riviera proceeds to demonstrate the power of Spiffy on even the grave’s most stubborn stains. “Quote the raven: what a shine!” booms Troy. As a finale, Dr Nick promises viewers a “state of Kansas jello-mould” if they phone for Spiffy right now. Homer is so excited by all this he can barely dial the right number on his telephone. It’s a marvellous scene, impeccably voiced by Hartman and by Hank Azaria as Riviera. 9

Animation direction
Aside from the spoofs (see below) and the racing scenes, this is a very pedestrian episode. It doesn’t give director Jim Reardon much scope to have fun, although he does get to make Patti and Selma look like this:

*hmmmm*

*hmmmm*

Reardon manages to animate the two soapbox derby races in a way that isn’t simply a long boring blur, helped by the fact that a) neither of them is especially long and b) the first one ends with Martin’s spectacular crash. 6

"Deploy, damn you, deploy!"

“Deploy, damn you, deploy!”

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Almost the whole of the first act is taken up with pastiches. First comes I Can’t Believe They Invented It!:

Can

then an extra-long instalment of McBain:

sat4

then assorted grisly sport videos:

sat5

The main plot – such as it is – doesn’t really get going until we’re 10 minutes in. Luckily the spoofs are so good and so well-crafted that they more than keep things ticking over. In fact they’re among the best things of the entire episode. The soapbox derby race, with all its frantic Ben-Hur undertones, just can’t compete. 8

Emotion and tone
Homer’s flip-flopping and unpersuasive behaviour makes it almost impossible to feel any warmth towards either him or his predicament. It’s an emotionless episode. You watch it with implacable indifference, moved to a reaction only when something happens that doesn’t involve father or son. Troy and Company’s Summertime Smile Factory would have struck a far more entertaining tone. 2

Verdict: 59%
I can’t believe they transmitted it.

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