The Simpsons on Reflection Part II: Where did it really begin?

This was intended to be an overall look at the first season, but as usual, I’ve gone off on a tangent. Part III will be up soon…

The first episode of The Simpsons I ever saw was “There’s No Disgrace Like Home.” This is the 4th episode of the first series, but it always felt like the perfect introduction. This may be why BBC 2 chose to air this one first (there was no order to it at all; the next one they aired was “Bart the Daredevil” from Season 2, followed by others from the first two series and, I’m pretty sure, Season 4’s “A Streetcar Named Marge” fell in there somewhere in the initial run of episodes). I was always quite intrigued by BBC 2’s decision to do this, and what their purpose was in the order. One might argue that the show’s chronological order in the first series was never the best way to introduce the Simpson family. The story goes that “Some Enchanted Evening” was intended to be the first episode, to air in Autumn ’89, but the animation turned out to be so poor that it needed to be completely redone. Therefore, the premiere of the series was moved to the Christmas season, and henceforth “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” became the “first” episode of The Simpsons.

This wasn’t a bad decision to make and in light of the situation it seems as though this was the right way to go. It does introduce a number of classic characters: Moe, Barney, Flanders, Principal Skinner, Milhouse, Patty, Selma, Santa’s Little Helper, and maybe even more that have slipped my mind. Marge’s open letter to Friends Of The Simpson Family is, in itself, a great little introduction, and the still-present classic traits of each family member are portrayed. Christmas specials, however, are usually a means to give a warm and festive twist on a familiar TV show (though this would be the case if you count the shorts). When I first saw this episode, a few months down the line from There’s No Disgrace Like Home, this was the general feel of the episode, and I was very surprised to learn in my much-loved “The Simpsons: A Complete Guide to Our Favourite Family” that this was episode 1.

There’s No Disgrace Like Home (episode 4), on the other hand, dragged me and my own dysfunctional family in immediately, as we all sat down to watch it together in autumn 1996. On re-watching, this remains a terrific episode, with joke after joke dished out, all very quick-witted and well delivered (take note, Zombie Simpsons). Moreover, all 5 members get a decent amount of screen time, with the focus of the story on the family as a whole and their overall dynamic. As biased as I am, I’ve always thought of this one as the “true” original episode. I only found out recently that Some Enchanted Evening was meant to uphold this status, which I found even more surprising – perhaps because it’s embedded in my mind as the last episode of the season. On re-watching this one, however, there are giveaway signs:

1)       The animation quality seems to regress slightly. Naturally, this isn’t a strong point for series 1 on the whole anyway, but compare this to “Krusty Gets Busted,” the penultimate episode, and it was definitely improving after the first 12 episodes. Some Enchanted Evening is a step back, and there are a few very small segments (such as Bart and Lisa running to answer the door to the babysitter) that were clearly part of the “first draft” – before the cartoon was (almost) completely redone. Let’s not forget that Barney’s hair has returned to its original blonde colour, and Moe’s hair from grey back to black.

2)       After two previous episodes in the series featured Homer and Marge having marital difficulties (“Life on the Fast Lane” and “Homer’s Night Out”), it was odd to see this one open with the much more basic issue of Marge feeling underappreciated by Homer. This is resolved swiftly, unlike the other two episodes, which uses the whole 22 minutes for the couple to eventually make amends. It seemed like it should be more of a preliminary issue, leading on to the events of the other named episodes. By contrast to Homer’s antics in Life on the Fast Lane and Homer’s Night Out, his actions in Some Enchanted Evening are relatively tame, and Marge’s reaction seems dramatic.

3)       The children and the adults seem to be regarded as two very distinctive groups, very much like the shorts, though Homer and Marge have much bigger roles.

4)       Finally, I think there is also a subtle regression in the characters’ voices (which, I believe, would have been left untampered from the first draft). Homer, in particular, is typical “Season 1 Homer.”

Would this have made a bad first episode? Not in the least. It would’ve made for a very original opening – it doesn’t ponder on the characters and their personalities too much, but at the same time, sums The Simpsons up well.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the quality of The Simpsons that there is no true “Episode 1.” After the shorts, the show knew what it wanted to be and what it wanted to do. No Assembly Required.

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One Response to “The Simpsons on Reflection Part II: Where did it really begin?”

  1. […] starting with the shorts and going from there.  Part 1 is about the Tracey Ullman shorts; Part 2 deals with the question of which was really the “first” episode.  While I’ve never gone […]

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