This is the first, best, and arguably only good future-set episode of The Simpsons. This is one of those concepts that can only work in either animation or extraordinarily goofy live-action comedy. Our favourite four-fingered freaks are perpetually frozen in time, thanks to the combination of being animated and being syndicated television from the Nineties, so jumping ahead to the magnificent far off future of 2010 and seeing how everyone will look in two decades can be a lot of fun. The only live action show I can think of that did something like this was The Goodies, in which the actors played the sons of their characters, although I suppose the episodes of Friends set in the past were effectively the same thing. The great thing is that it isn’t 90% jokes themed on Where Are They Now – it isn’t even 90% jokes about the future! Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of great jokes about the differences (and sad lack of differences, in Homer’s case) between the present and the future. As always, the show goes the extra mile to make the character’s futures neither obvious nor obviously ironic – Mayor Quimby having apparently been indicted and reduced to driving a taxi is my favourite example, not being precisely where your mind would go with him but definitely feeling appropriate. Hell, even when it does go somewhere obvious, it makes it work, like the joke that apparently Maggie talks a lot but keeps getting cut off. It’s an easy joke heightened by the fact that she clearly has a whole personality and lifestyle being held tantalisingly out of our view.
But this is also a real story, with jokes coming out of the different turns of the plot. My favourite part in this respect is the explosive romance between Lisa and Hugh, all the important beats of some middling romantic comedy themed around Lisa’s interests and personality and reduced to their purest essence. The subtlest difference between The Simpsons and Futurama is that the latter plays with genre by mashing together specific references – like, when the characters end up at war, you’re gonna see a whole bunch of lines riffing on M*A*S*H or Gomer Pyle, as well as riffing on specific cliches and scenes like “take this personal item to my son”. The Simpsons, on the other hand, will more often work under the same logic as a genre but with our specific characters and world filtered through it. Hugh is Lisa’s perfect man, sophisticated and intelligent in everything from his manners to his morals (this episode manages to predict Lisa’s vegetarianism!), and he grew up in the lifestyle Lisa dreamed of, give or take a mentally ill uncle. One of the interesting contradictions in Lisa (not unlike Krusty’s contradictory love of performing and deep cynicism with the business) is that she’s ill-suited to her environment but also a definite product of it; her values make her stand out from her peers, but they were also developed in response to the things she’s seen and by her need to adapt to her situation. In the foreword to the comic Lisa In Wordland, Matt Groening remarked that of all the characters, Lisa would be the one most likely to escape Springfield, but I also think she’d take the lessons she learned with her, and they would separate her from people like Hugh who neither understand nor want to understand places like Springfield. To put it another way, Springfield has assured that Lisa would never grow up to be a limousine liberal.
Which is all a buildup to the actual purpose of this episode. Lisa says that the fortune teller was going to show her her True Love, but the actual phrase she used was first love, and what we see is that Homer was her first love. This is about the father-daughter relationship Lisa and Homer share, the specific expectations and responsibilities they’ve grown to share with one another. It actually ties in with “Homer vs Patty and Selma” in how being around Homer all the time lets you see things in him most people miss, like his big heart. This goes a step further, reducing everything we know about their relationship into a single babbling speech; I think Homer truly nails it with the line “You’re my greatest accomplishment, and you did it all by yourself.” I don’t know how well that summarises many parents’ views of their children, but it definitely conveys Homer’s genuine awe for his daughter, and how he managed to create and raise someone whose power he doesn’t fully understand. Homer is not a smart man, and he knows it; Lisa is a smart woman and he knows that too, and while he can’t understand how to reconcile those two facts, he can respect them. In return, Lisa recognises that big, sincere heart and does what she can to protect it. The thing that always gets me about this episode is that Homer is perfectly willing to drop the cufflink matter as soon as he realises Hugh’s embarrassment over them, and it’s Lisa who pushes the matter. It’s the Simpsons view on love reduced to two ideas: that it’s annoying, and that we do it anyway.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not strut around like I own the place.
Couch Gag: The family are sprung off the couch into the ceiling.
This episode was written by Greg Daniels and directed by Jim Reardon. I love all the futuristic redesigns – Lisa’s in particular feels really accurate to a hip young woman as well as a spin on her normal design. My three favourite bits of animation are Homer’s hopeful reaction to being told about his performance review, the closeup of Hugh’s eyes as he sees the flag burn, and Maggie disdainfully eating according to company rules. It’s six seasons in and I’m still shocked by how good this show’s animation is, because despite being showy it’s never anything the show actually draws attention to like, say, Cowboy Bebop or Steven Universe. It’s always something directed by the story; this is the best way to convey the emotion we’re dealing with, so that’s what we do. The theme song gets two variations: a futurised version, and a Ren Faire version at the end.
Mandy Patinkin guest stars as Hugh and dopes a fantastic job. I’m particularly struck by his performance when Homer meets his parents – emotionally, he sounds like a rubber band stretched to its limit, and the slightest thing could make him snap. There are a lot of famous Simpsons predictions, but the strangest to me was accurately predicting vending machines that take credit cards. The most depressing are “IN MEMORY OF A REAL TREE” and the school being owned by Pepsi. I am aware a lot of people like season twenty-three’s “Holidays of Future Past”, but I found it as cruel to its characters as any other post-Golden Age episode. The writers take care to keep this in continuity with “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie” by having Bart drop the line that he’s getting out all his aggression before going to law school.
Lisa mentions “forty classic films starring Jim Carrey!” The cars use the same sound from The Jetsons. The wrist communicators use the same sound from Star Trek. The news station implies CNN, NBC, and CBC merged to become CNNBCBS. Hugh is a parody of Hugh Grant. His and Lisa’s relationship beginning is a reference to Love Story. Martin’s fate parodies Phantom Of The Opera, and he plays “A Fifth Of Beethoven”. Krusty’s design is a reference to Groucho Marx.
Iconic Moments: “Fox turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually I hardly noticed.”
Biggest Laugh: One of the little ways The Simpsons affected my sense of humour was teaching me the exact right time to pause.