The Simpsons, Season Three, Episode Nineteen, “Dog Of Death”

“Dog Of Death” feels to me like an example of ‘lesser Simpsons is still better than every other show’; my gut tells me that it lacks the heart of stories like “Lisa’s Substitute” or the specific satire of “Radio Bart”, but when I pull back and look at what actually happens in the episode, it’s about a family too poor to afford to take care of their dog’s medical bills. My reaction is really two halves of a reaction; the ‘lesser Simpsons‘ half comes from the fact that this episode isn’t really a dramatic presentation of character the way even things like “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” are; we have Bart’s love for his dog, Homer’s love for his family motivating him, and Santa’s Little Helper coming to Bart at the end, but even as someone who loves dogs that’s not terribly all that shocking a set of developments.

The second half of my reaction is ‘better than every other show’, and that comes down to the thing this show does above and beyond the basic standards of good storytelling: the very specific, very strange world our characters inhabit. The episode begins with the State lottery hitting an extremely high jackpot, and not only does this give us the chance to see Springfield become a mob, we even get to see it spill out in unexpected ways – the runner of Kent Brockman winning the lottery is great, but my favourite is Principal Skinner standing in for the school system that stands to benefit from the lottery, only to fly into a rage when he gets a single eraser.

What I’m underplaying, though, is that this episode delves into the Simpsons’ poverty. This sort of thing died out somewhere in the middle of the Golden era of the show; by the time we get to season eight, the show can joke about how weird it is to think of the family as poor when they live in a massive house and regularly go on adventures. Here, we see how they’re living paycheck-to-paycheck, unable to afford a $750 vet bill (which is about $1,300 in US money today), and we get a long montage of what that means for the characters’ daily lives, which makes their resentment towards the dog understandable. What does it say about the world that they have to do that?

Ending the episode by sending SLH to Mr Burns would feel like a crutch if it weren’t so funny (“If that were a real Girl Scout, I’d have been bothered by now!”), though I do like it as a counterpoint to the Simpsons’ poverty – before he visits Burns, Bart visits Kent Brockman, who dismisses him as another person looking for a handout (he’s got his, apparently). I won’t go as far as Nathan Rabin and say the ending is unearned; I would call it functional. I come back to how I started this – this is a lesser Simpsons, which makes it better than most other TV. What I think it is is not so much that it’s not as good, as it is a balance between and contrast to the heavy emotional heart and the nihilistic absurdity, a Day In The Life for the Simpson family.

Chalkboard Gag: I saw nothing unusual in the teacher’s lounge.
Couch Gag: Homer sprawls out on the couch, so the family sit on him.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jim Reardon, and this story has Swartzwelder’s fingerprints all over it – Principal Skinner’s delightful description of a high-tech detention facility that somehow traps the students with magnets is such a Swartzwelder line (“Magnets! Always with the magnets!”), and I also think only he could be responsible for the vet throwing the dead gerbil not only into a bin but through a little basketball hoop.

SLH’s adventure is a reference to the film The Incredible Journey. Mr Burns’ training for SLH is a reference to A Clockwork Orange. The vet is a reference to the TV show Ben Casey. At the height of lottery fever, Springfieldians buy up copies of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, unaware it’s not a book of tips on how to win the lottery. There are a truly absurd number of references to previous episodes, my favourite being a Missing Skinner poster from “Bart The Murderer” – I wonder how that kind of thing was taken in 1991.

First Appearances: A character other than Homer saying “d’oh!” – Lisa, when she gets an assignment on Copernicus shortly after having to give up her encylcopaedias.
Biggest Laugh: Homer’s fantasy world is consistently something that will bring me to tears of laughter, and this is the greatest fantasy sequence of all.