It honestly awes me that an episode of TV this good was allowed to happen – if you asked me to write down my top five, this would easily make it – hell, if you asked me to make my top three, this would easily make it! I said that “Last Exit To Springfield” was the purest distillation of the show, but it’s more accurate to say it’s the purest distillation of one aspect – its satirical takes on the daily grind of living in a vast capitalist machine. This episode is the distillation of another aspect: the half-ironic kid adventure. It’s been making these kind of stories since “Bart The General”, and it’s never so perfectly balanced the ironic and half- aspects of the story; it’s a genuine arc of adversity and triumph, with our hearts rising when Bart succeeds and falling when he seems to fail, and it’s also a hilarious piss-take on the warped view kids have of the world. I’m not sure if it’s accurate to say that this is the biggest long-lasting influence the show has had, that constant attempt to deliver both serious plot beats and ironic jokes – Joss Whedon is probably more to blame for that kind of humour proliferating – but it definitely deftly blends humour and adventure in a way many wannabe lighthearted adventure stories could learn from. Often the difference between story beat and joke is impossible to quantify – that classic “there’s a lemon behind that rock!” gag is the most memorable example, where a hilarious gag is also a moment of triumph, which only makes the gag funnier because we’re taking an absurd moment seriously. A lot of comedy/dramas tend to carefully delineate the funny bits and the serious bits, but in the worldview of The Simpsons, the serious can be absurd without being any less important. This is an idea I’m certain I picked up from this show, one that got me through a lot of hard times because I could recognise and take pleasure in the sheer absurdity of a bad situation I was in.
It helps that the drama and humour draw on the same sincere emotional core. The story goes to the effort of having Marge instill a sense of civic pride in Bart, but I could totally buy him simply reacting to some Shelbyvillian talking crap about his town because it’s such a small town kid thing to have that kind of rivalry; the way the kids immediately draw battle lines, believe themselves the inventors of random traits, and project mystery onto a fairly ordinary town (“The fire hydrants here are yellow!” / “This place is startin’ to freak me out!”) so perfectly captures the way a child’s egocentrism and limited worldview collide. I definitely see a lot of my own childhood in these kids, and in fact the episode makes my memories even funnier as I remember the older kids who seemed so wise and experienced and wonder how full of shit they were (“Remember, you can always find east by staring directly at the sun.”). The plot is absurd, but it feels like an exaggeration of real emotions. It’s the real world, only moreso. Despite that sense of universal childhood, these aren’t generic children – the jokes are so wonderful at feeling like extensions of who these kids are. Bart likes to think of himself as streetsmart and gets about halfway there (“You said you could read lips.” / “I assumed I could!”); he’s got enough wits to get out of situations even when his knowledge base draws from pop culture. His intelligence is less about remembering a whole bunch of stuff and more about putting together the things he has into a workable plan. Milhouse’s geeky imagination is sadly relatable, a case of a child believing their toys have more power than they actually do. And I go absolutely wild for the surprise pairing of Nelson and Martin, where teaming up has defanged the bully and given an edge to the nerd.
The episode successfully widens its view when the adults get caught in the rivalry, and again that feels true; when I was a kid, we hated the town over because it was the town over, and as adults we came to hate the town over because it gets funding for hospitals and schools that would be more useful centralised in another part of the area, because it’s full of crackheads, and because it’s the town over, and we see that in how the adult Springfieldians and Shelbyvillians treat each other. It’s basic human nature to hate the Other, and that can express itself in really stupid, hilarious ways. Something very clear in 2019 is how “both sides” is useless as a reflexive assumption; “Lemon Of Troy” builds some great humour out of how mirrored the two towns are and shows a situation where both sides are petty assholes. The ending is so brilliant, Shelbyville rewriting its own history to make them the heroes just as the Springfieldians would under the same circumstances.
Chalkboard Gag: The first amendment does not cover burping.
Couch Gag: The family are in the style of an old Mickey Mouse cartoon.
This episode was written by Brent Forrester and directed by Jim Reardon. Hank Azaria based Legally Not Homer on Walter Matthau as a reference to the fact that Dan Castellanetta originally based Homer’s performance on him.
There’s a lot of really great deliberately wooden dialogue in this episode. Everything said in Bart’s vision of the future is great (“He must have been a lot smarter than his sister Lisa, about whom we know nothing!”) but as always Marge gets the line that has wormed its way into our generation’s vocabulary (“I choose to take that literally!”). That precision also goes the other way with Bart’s declaration that they’ll succeed “or choke their rivers with our dead!” My favourite line in the whole episode is “There’s a-doin’s a-transpirin’!” but the one I end up using the most is “Shake harder, boy!”
Milhouse paraphrases “When Doves Cry” by Prince. Bart figures out Roman numerals using the Rocky series. The shot of the kids looking down on the impound lot is lifted from Mad Max 2. The overall plot is a riff on the legend of the Trojan War (“No one in history has ever done anything this clever!”). Bart’s description of Todd as “the quiet religious guy who ends up going crazy” is a reference to Full Metal Jacket.
Iconic Moments: 5. “Hey everybody! An old man’s talking!” | “This is what it feels like when doves cry!” | “Wait a minute. There’s a lemon behind that rock!” | “Stupider like a fox!” | The guy eating a lemon is the basis of a whole form of Simpsons shitposting, and indeed that specific meme was what pushed the concept into the stratosphere.
Biggest Laugh: I’m going to break my own rule here and include two jokes, which I will justify by saying a) they’re barely ten seconds away from each other b) they’re two of my favourite Simpsons jokes of all time, and c) this is one of the greatest episodes of all time. Both of them use really offbeat staging to make the jokes land so much harder, too!