Here we are, people, an episode that eclipses almost all that came before it. This is a well-oiled machine of an episode, one that delivers heart, jokes, satire, funny animation, and an exploration of American life in a way that’s universal – in this case, the parent/child relationship – and yet specific to these particular yellow four-fingered freaks. Frankly, I was astounded by the sheer variety of jokes this episode pulls out of its story, and yet it’s the dedication to storytelling that allows all these different jokes to emerge.
As has been established all the way back to the first episode, Homer’s pathos comes from his sincere desire to do anything for the people he loves, and his comedy comes from his complete inability to think through his decisions; this episode is built entirely around that dichotomy. Homer gets a call at work from Lisa asking him to bring a saxophone reed for her performance at the school talent show, and this sequence is brilliant for taking a fairly mundane concept – every child has gone through the school talent show thing – combining it with prime Simpsons mythology – we know Lisa’s saxophone is important to her, we know is inclined towards beer and has trouble with Lisa’s interests – and using them all as the basis of a highly tense, constantly escalating comedic setpiece. We really do sincerely want to see him succeed, and it’s just like Homer to keep pushing his luck over and over; when he fails, it hurts us as much as him and Lisa.
(Also, this sequence has some prime cynicism on the part of Principal Skinner – “They seem to get worse every year.” followed by “I think this is the best talent show we’ve ever had!”)
Homer then goes and watches old home videos and comes to recognise that he’s an inattentive father. I really like this scene as a balance between the need to assume that this is your first Simpsons episode with the possibility that you’ve been watching (and obsessively documenting) the show from the beginning; you and I already know that Homer isn’t the most helpful dad in the world, so to show Homer coming to realise that, the writers have to pull from outside our knowledge base. He then latches onto a brilliant idea: get Lisa that pony she always wanted. We’ve talked before about how Marge’s wet blanket personality works against making her a credible comic character, but in this case it pays off perfectly, as Marge’s reasonable counter to the idea is rebuffed absurdly.
“You sound like you’re going to buy a pony. Promise me you won’t.”
“What was that? Was that a yes or a no?”
“Those aren’t even words!”
So of course, Homer buys the pony. Ben said once that he liked it when an episode started away from the plot and veered towards it; this episode doesn’t do that and it doesn’t have any sideplots, which I prefer in my Simpsons episodes because I feel they really benefit from the nuance it gives. In this case, Homer tries visiting a pet store, gets snidely redirected by the Sarcastic Guy, finds out how much a pony actually costs, and is forced to get a loan to pay for it, which leads to a surprising but not unwelcome cameo from Mr Burns.
(Related to this, having no sideplots means that Bart gets pushed to the background, and just like Homer this only serves to make him even funnier – I’m especially tickled by his offer to get Lisa to change her mind with “five minutes alone with her”)
Rather than subplots, the episode fractures into two at this point – mainly, Homer having to deal with getting Lisa a pony, but also Lisa spending time with it. What this does is create proper emotional stakes for the ending; on the one hand, we see the massive physical toll buying the pony has on Homer, and the massive emotional payoff it has on Lisa. Homer is forced to take a second job to pay for the upkeep on the pony and for some reason believes that he can pull off sleeping about 11 minutes a day, while Lisa plays her sax to her pony; Homer collapses at work and nearly crashes his car into the house while Lisa licks the salt block to encourage the pony to do that.
This leads into the ending, one of the most moving the show has ever done. There are a lot of stories about clueless parents with gifted (or at least nerdy) children – I think of Stan and Steve Smith on American Dad – but none are like Homer and Lisa. Homer doesn’t understand Lisa, but he’d do anything to make her happy, and Lisa is both smart enough to understand that and empathetic enough to care and return that sacrifice; this dynamic reminds me so much of my relationship with my own father that I’m brought to the point of tears by their true reconciliation at the end of the episode.
“There’s a big dumb animal I love even more than that horse.”
“Oh no! What is it, a hippopotamus?”
“I mean you, you dummy.”
Chalkboard Gag: “Bart Bucks” are not legal tender.
Couch Gag: Homer lays out on the couch, so the family sit on him.
The episode was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss and directed by Carlos Baeza, who gets a very Wes Archer-like sequence when Homer falls asleep driving.
The episode opens with a reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey, with a Homer-like monkey using the monolith to nap on. Homer missed Lisa’s first steps when he was watching Fantasy Island. Lisa meets her pony in a hilarious riff on The Godfather. Homer’s dream references Little Nemo In Slumberland, and has “Golden Slumbers” by the Beatles (!!!) in the background. One of the kids in the talent show sings Chuck Berry’s “My Ding A Ling”, which I’m sure is how so many of us were introduced to that song. The music shop owner is physically based on actor Wally Cox.
Apu’s stereotypical nature is the most embarrassing part of the show and of this episode; he even has broken English that would be dropped in time.
First Appearances: Lunchlady Doris.