Well, we had to get a major off-model episode eventually. While it’s consistently funnier than any episode up to this point, this episode is rooted in some ideas that never took hold in The Simpsons, with the chief one being this: Homer being embarrassed by his family being assholes. At the company picnic, Homer is eager to impress his boss, and he sees impossibly good families who genuinely love each other and act nice; by comparison, Bart and Lisa terrorise swans in the fountain, and Marge channels her boredom into getting drunk. Homer yells at (and occasionally threatens) his family, and ultimately his attempt to bribe his son into kissing him is scorned by Burns.
In theory, this is actually all a good idea. Bart has had an image of the perfect childhood instilled in him by television, which leads him to try and act like a stereotypical TV kid when he wants something; over time, Homer would be even more warped by TV than Bart is, but here he’s warped by the stereotypical idea of the American family, a more adult but ultimately just as false image that messes up Homer’s decision-making. I also like the hints of Marge as a bored housewife who is genuinely clueless and spineless in parenting, and of a Lisa who is just as much a hellraiser as Bart, with the bonus of cynical intellectual insight (“Commence shovelling!”).
After the events of the picnic, Homer tries to get his family to step up their game, only to find his short temper ruining things just as much as their apathy. Despondent, he heads out to drink, which leads him to discover Dr Marvin Monroe, a family therapist. Homer decides to take his family to him, going as far as to pawn the TV over their protests. We’re treated to the big comic setpiece of the episode: the family, all hooked up to electric shock devices, shocking each other over and over to the point of knocking out the power, scaring off all the other patients, and angering Dr Munroe enough that he just gives them double their money back. The family come together over this windfall and agree to buy a new TV, giving us a heartwarmingly cynical ending as the Worst Family In The World come together.
(Once again, I find myself curious as to how this cynical-but-not-really ending was received at the time. Did it look totally mindblowing to have a TV family come together over buying a new TV instead of loving one another?)
I think, to some extent, the comedy of this episode suffers from a level of insecurity on the part of the writers. It feels like they started with the idea “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if they all electrocuted each other with shock treatment” and wrote around that rather than it logically evolving from the story. By comparison, the episode is never funnier and never more like its classic self than when it simply lets the characters banter with each other.
Chalkboard Gag: “I will not burp in class.”
Couch Gag: The family squeeze in the couch, and Homer pops out onto the floor.
First appearances: White Smithers, Lou (though white), Eddie, Dr Marvin Monroe, Itchy & Scratchy (though they appeared in the shorts), the phrase “release the hounds”.
Lisa sadly says goodbye to her dreams of going to Vassar, which doesn’t square with her Vassar-bashing later in the series.
Burns and Smithers vanish after the first act, only to appear during the Electric Shock setpiece. This episode was off in a lot of ways, but it was already expanding on the town beyond the family. I skimped on research last episode which lead me to miss that Burns was played by Christopher Collins then, with Harry Shearer taking on the role from here on out. Burns greeting people with index cards was influenced by Ronald Reagan.
Burns’ manor is a reference to Citizen Kane, and it’s described as “stately Burns manor”, which is a reference to the Batman TV show. Lisa references Freaks with “one of us, one of us”.
I can’t quite nail down how the feel of this episode is different to later in the series – something about the music when Homer leads the family in peeping on ‘normal’ families reminds me of corny comedy sequences from Hannah Barbera cartoons.
This episode’s emotional arc would effectively be remade as Scenes From A Class Struggle In Springfield, and would not only fit the characters better, it would be funnier, have better satire, and have better storytelling.
Biggest Laugh: “When will I learn? The answer to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle. They’re on TV!