54. Dog of Death

“…and the children are held in place with magnets”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 12 March 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 19 January 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Kevin O’Brien, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

Any Simpsons episode with the word “dog” in the title doesn’t exactly set the pulse racing. It’s almost as much of a turn-off as the word “Lisa”. Face it, the Simpsons’ dog just isn’t interesting. It lurks in the corners of most episodes, doing little except get in the way or supply the set-up for the occasional joke. Most of the time the family ignores it completely, which is just fine as it means we can ignore it too. Then suddenly, as with this story, the dog is the centre of attention and we’re asked to treat it with the kind of concern it has never been shown by its owners, and then invest it with the sort of respect we’d usually give the likes of Mr Burns or Mrs Krabappel. At least the dog can’t talk, which means it can’t talk back, and that’s a point in its favour over Lisa.

Plot
The largest element of this episode – Santa’s Little Helper falling ill and needing an operation to get better – is the also least entertaining. Much more fun is all the stuff that goes on around the edges: Springfield’s citizens gripped by lottery fever, Homer moaning about money, Bart getting his hair cut at Springfield Barber College, and more tasty insights into the out-of-hours habits of Mr Burns and Smithers.

The lottery storyline is the first time we’ve seen the town go crazy over the irrational prospect of potentially getting very very rich very very quickly. It will not be the last. 5

Characters
Ignoring the dog, the character that leaves the biggest impression in this episode is probably Principal Skinner. He’s only in it for a total of 30 seconds, but he outranks everyone else by virtue of a) his dream of building a detention centre in which children are held in place by magnets and b) his outrage at benefiting from the lottery to the tune of one eraser. “One eraser?” he howls into a TV camera. “Oh, I’m used to my government betraying me, I was in ‘Nam…” Kent Brockman pops up and wins the lottery, there’s a brooding hunk of a doctor working at the veterinary surgery (“I spend my life saving animals and they can’t thank me – well, the parrots can”), and also someone called Mr Danielson who is sorely vexed about the health of his gamecock. 7

Locations and design
After Kent Brockman wins the lottery he moves into a house that instantly becomes Springfield’s latest hotspot for conspicuous tastelessness:

He dresses for the occasion as well.

Springfield is evidently large enough to entertain these enclaves of outrageous wealth, which in turn allow all the well-off comic grotesques to continue to rub shoulders with the everyday comic grotesques. Which, for the purposes of the show, is just how it should always be. 6

Pardon My Zinger
There are a couple of treats. The first is Homer’s description of doggy hell: “There’s Hitler’s dog, er, and that dog Nixon had… and one of the Lassies – the mean one.” The second is when Mr Burns asks Smithers: “If I came into your house and started sniffing at your crotch and slobbering all over your face, what would you say?” “If you did it, sir?” replies Smithers. Both question and answer are spoken with not a trace of innuendo or double entendre, which just makes them all the more joyous. 7

Special guests
Whenever a Simpson script calls for Santa’s Little Helper to do more than just slink through the background of a scene looking stupid, voice artist Frank Welker gets hauled in to supply a gamut of canine sounds, ranging from bark to whimper via any number of degrees of panting. It’s never fun listening to an animal character “emoting” in a quasi-human way in order to help advance a plot, but you can’t fault Welker for commitment. Whether required to howl like a monster or whine like a baby, he always delivers right on cue. 8

Music
A generous helping of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf accompanies the sequence when Santa’s Little Helper runs away and has a few generic mute adventures. It’s a very generous helping, in fact, lasting for over a minute. As nice as it is to hear this kind of unadorned slice of classical music, it doesn’t really serve any purpose other than to make you notice it and go, ooh, that’s Peter and the Wolf. Harking unashamedly from another world into which The Simpsons rarely strays, the music ends up feeling like a temporary track someone stuck on the animation as a placeholder. Much more in keeping with the style of the show are the cues that Alf Clausen supplies for the scenes at the vet’s surgery, which are all camp soap opera and parping theatrics. 5

Voices
Of the many shades of humiliation Dan Castellaneta is required regularly to provide for Homer, pitiful humiliation is always the best one to hear. There’s a particularly fine example in this story, when Homer is so short of money that he resorts to singing for coins in Moe’s Tavern. “Buffalo gals won’t you come out tonight…” he croaks, half-choking back sobs, hopping gamely from one leg to the other, as whoops of derision echo all around.

Harry Shearer is also on fine form, having Mr Burns crow with glee as he recalls the day one of his hounds “bagged his first hippy… That young man didn’t think it was too groo-vy!” When Burns, resting happily in his iron lung, orders Smithers yet again to “release the hounds”, Shearer makes him sound almost bored with malice – a lovely touch. 8

Animation direction
A mark of how confident The Simpsons has now become with its own reputation, and how comfortable it is with its own past, is the scattering of visual throwbacks that turn up throughout this episode. Flanders is once again wearing his expensive trainers:

Skinner’s picture is still on some of the town’s lampposts:

Bill Cosby’s book on fatherhood is still in the fireplace:

– and there is now, as promised by Mayor Quimby, a Michael Jackson Expressway. None of these are vital to the plot of this episode or important to the casual viewer, which makes them utterly harmless. Only in later years would these kind of in-jokes become the centre of the plot rather than at the periphery. 7

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Jim Reardon’s best animation is all during the set-piece sequences: Homer dreaming of how winning the lottery will make him the biggest man in the world, complete with a body made of gold:

Santa’s Little Helper running off for an adventure around the county:

– and later, when Mr Burns is retraining the dog to become an attack hound, the brief foray into the brainwashing sequence of A Clockwork Orange.

There’s more imagination in this particular 10-second sequence than pretty much the rest of the episode put together. 9

Emotion and tone
John Swartzwelder’s scripts for The Simpsons sometimes tip too far over from scepticism to cynicism, and here the family’s fickle attitude towards the wellbeing of Santa’s Little Helper is much too bald to be funny. They’re wholly indifferent to the creature when it is sick, then after an interlude when they suddenly seem mighty concerned about its welfare, they’re wholly indifferent once again. Then they hate it, then they panic when it escapes, then they love it. If only the wretched thing had run away for good. 2

Verdict: 64%
Every second the dog is off screen is a second more of enjoyment.

One thought on “54. Dog of Death

  1. The thing about the Simpsons is that it’s very character-centric, so making an episode about the dog, who can’t talk is redundant because he has so little personality and he’s not anamorphic in any way so he has no human qualities that can help make us care about him outside of a] being a dog and b] being the Simpsons pet (which is meaningless as they don’t care about him}. Unlike say Gromit, Perry the Platypus ect who while dumb do have enough body language or the animals in Disney movies which can talk so we can understand them.

    Also didn’t they later replace Welker with Dan after they found out that he could do dog noises too?

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