- First broadcast: Thursday 26 December 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 9 February 1998, BBC2
- Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- First draft: Jeff Martin
- Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
- Storyboard: Peter Avanzino
- Animation director: Jeff Lynch
Boxing Day happened to be a Thursday in 1991, and as Thursdays were traditionally the day on which Fox broadcast The Simpsons, an episode duly appeared – albeit one that had nothing do to with Christmas. Neither was it particularly special. There wasn’t even a star guest on hand. It’s almost as if Fox needed something to keep its schedule ticking over unobtrusively until the free world started watching television again in January.
Not one but three plots are used up: Homer and Marge get married; Homer gets a job at the nuclear power plant; and Bart is born. Each could easily have merited a separate episode. It’s a shame they get crushed into a single script; three extended treatments would have given the slapstick and the drama more space to co-exist. Instead we get a hectic sequel to The Way We Was, but while it shares its predecessor’s fondness for over-egging the period references, it surpasses it in characterisation, the Homer of 1980 (“Only in America could I get a job!”) being more much likeable than the 1974 version. 6
Mr Burns offers a description of Homer – “feisty but spineless” – that is better than anyone has come up with so far. The idea that Homer is hired because of his aggressive absence of a backbone contradicts the line just seven episodes earlier about Project Bootstrap. But from here onwards The Simpsons would never let continuity block the way of a good joke. The stupid Homer of 1974 seeps into the Springfield of 1980 from time to time, such as when he misunderstands Smithers’ hypothetical nuclear meltdown for the real thing. His fondness for Marge is achingly genuine, however, and the scenes where the two of them are temporarily estranged are depicted with just the right amount of tragicomedy. 7
Locations and design
Listen for the sound made by the arm of the mechanical cowboy atop the entrance of Shotgun Pete’s wedding shack. It’s a sort of mournful electronic wheezing, and captures perfectly the spirit both of the establishment and its occupants.
We don’t see the stains on the ceiling to which Marge refers dejectedly, but the look on her face is enough. Our imagination does the rest. All of the flashback scenes move through a sequence of stubbornly grim locations: the crazy golf course; the Bouviers’ over-crowded house; Bergers Burgers, the fast food joint where Marge works; Shotgun Pete’s; Gulp ‘N’ Blow, the drive-through restaurant where Homer takes a job; and finally the hospital where Marge gives birth. Virtually nothing is rose-tinted; everything – the power plant excepted – is shabby and glum. It’s a bracingly anti-romantic vision. 9
Pardon My Zinger
Marge’s mother has good joke at Homer’s expense, observing that Marge should swap him for a cat as that “would leave less hair on the couch.” Dr Hibbert dispenses another of his inappropriately-titled pamphlets when diagnosing Marge’s pregnancy:
Later, while giving Marge a scan that shows Bart inside her womb, he surmises: “If I didn’t know better I’d swear he was trying too moon us.”
“I heard radiation can you make you sterile,” a pregnant Marge tells Homer when he’s considering a job at the power plant. “Now you tell me,” he replies. 6
There aren’t any, so a neutral 5.
Another reason this episode outranks The Way We Was is the way it uses period music. Instead of overloading the soundtrack with wall-to-wall contemporary hits, we get a short burst of The Logical Song by Supertramp (“When I was young/it seemed that life was so wonderful…”), a few bars of Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, a chorus of You Light Up My Life by Debby Boone to which Homer and Marge sing along semi-tunefully, and that’s it. Less is definitely more. 8
It’s Julie Kavner’s turn to win an Emmy, as she harumphs, gurgles, coos, bawls and swoons her way through not just one but four parts. Kavner is just as convincing when, as Marge, she ignores Homer’s half-mast trousers and sighs plaintively “This is the most beautiful moment of my life!” as when, voicing Patti/Selma, she interrupts Homer’s sorrowful late-night farewell to scream: “Shut up with that pen-scratching down there!” By keeping all her characters the right side of plausibility, including Marge’s mother, Kavner offsets the less than plausible behaviour of everyone else. 8
Everyone has badly-drawn pupils. It’s a legacy of problems at the animation studio in South Korea, which there wasn’t time to correct before transmission. Once you notice the mistake you can’t ignore it. Each character looks permanently wired:
It’s fine for scenes that are meant to be slightly frantic, such as Homer’s confrontation with Burns or Marge giving birth, but the opposite is true for the more tender moments. It wouldn’t matter quite so much were the episode blessed with a story that has plenty of potential for visual flair and experimentation. But sadly it isn’t, so it matters rather a lot. 3
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
After a run of episodes encrusted with spoofs of all sizes, suddenly the cupboard is bare. Not a homage, skit or pastiche is to be found – unless you treat the whole thing as a send-up of the sitcom flashback, as signalled by the contemporary songs, the exaggerated fashions and Homer’s mock-earnest scene-setting (“Those were idealistic days. The candidacy of John Anderson! The rise of Supertramp! It was an exciting time to be young…”) 5
Emotion and tone
Amid the scrambled dashing between plot point and plot twist come moments of slower-paced intimacy, and these are this story’s real highlights. The shot of Mr Burns having a whale of a time playing Ms Pacman, for instance, or Homer offering Marge an onion ring in lieu of a diamond one. Whenever we flash forward to the present day and see Bart and Lisa utterly disinterested in Homer’s reminiscences, the episode gets a welcome injection of scepticism. This helps maintain a tone of detached curiosity rather than unalloyed schmaltz. 5
The Springfield of yesteryear is still an ill-matched combination of period cliché and detail, but shorn of its mid-1970s sentimentality it’s becoming a more quirky and interesting place in which to dwell.