The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Two, “Radioactive Man”

“Radioactive Man” has what might be the fastest pace this show has had up to this point. Pace in storytelling is actually something really easy to quantify: the shorter the distance between action and its consequence, the faster the story feels. The first season feels lumpy and misshapen because the writers were often following their inspiration, and the start of the show’s Golden Era is tied to how the stories got a real sense of direction and forward movement. At the same time, up until now the show has had fun sketching in moments between story beats – moments of whimsy, absurdity, and philosophy. I believe that’s what drew most of us to this series; that strange mix of density and forward movement. “Radioactive Man” is all forward movement, and as I look forward to the rest of this season, I believe it points the way to what this next version of the show will be. There is an extent to which this series becomes more traditionally sitcommy from this point onward, and there is an extent to which I am perfectly okay with that. This is a show driven by principles that it develops and refines over time, and one of the side effects of refining principles is that you get faster at acting on them. Think of it as like science – you come up with the theory of gravity. You test it under various conditions. You see when it works and when it doesn’t work. Eventually you understand exactly how gravity works and you interpolate it into your future actions. Or, let’s flip it over – the classic philosophical situation David Hume came up with, of how, if you drop a rock, you can never know for certain what will happen each time you drop it; it might fall to the floor, but it might float to the ceiling. The Simpsons has been dropping rocks over and over, seeing how they fall, and now it’s gone past certainty that the rock will fall, it knows which way it’s gonna land.

At the same time, it’s amazing how they’re still finding new ideas to throw into Springfield. This is the 130th episode of the show, putting us six episodes ahead of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (which is up to 124 episodes as of season thirteen); Always Sunny has been recycling ideas since season eight (which by comparison is season five of this show). Don’t get me wrong, that’s what I love about that show – it’s about the ridiculous bubble the Gang has built around themselves that has left them completely cut off from the world at large, and we’re watching them degrade like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. But it’s great fun watching The Simpsons constantly inventing and building and creating. Radioactive Man (character) has appeared a few times in the show, most notably in the season two episode “Three Men And A Comic Book”, but this goes far more into the RM mythology, which is to say the superhero mythology, or more accurately the superhero film mythology. Thinking about this actually makes me quite nostalgic; there’s an extent to which the RM movie heavily captures how superhero movies worked at the time, where the director is embarrassed about the shadow cast by the campy Sixties TV show, and the character is seen as an extension of the actor’s star power. In this post-MCU world, I think the genre has become more comfortable with spandex, superpowers, and other aspects of the superhero genre, and as a result directors look for the right actor for the character as opposed to molding a story to a star, and so you’ll see less shit that makes you think of Wolfcastle bumbling his way through a voice coach.

But what we see once again is that constant battle between superficial pleasure and deeper substance, and for once Bart stays on the former for the whole episode. This is another good argument for the idea that Bart would be happiest when he discovers drama in high school; every part of the process of acting seems to appeal to him (aside from rejection, and even then he’s pretty enthusiastic about trying again). It’s a really interesting choice to have Milhouse immediately recognise and reject the shallowness of Hollywood filmmaking; it’s not something I would automatically associate with him, but it does feel right when it happens. The way he expresses it feels appropriate for a child, thoughtful but in a non-specific way. Bart’s rejection of his view is funny in both a ‘funny haha’ and ‘funny makes ya think’ kind of way; The Simpsons generally presents a embittered leftist Baby Boomer’s view of the world, but Bart’s speech reminds me a lot of cynical Gen-Xers raised on pop culture, the kind of attitude that formed the baseline of Futurama. Bart is so disillusioned by the failure of people trying to good that he sees it as natural and right to simply chase the superficial joys of pop culture. It’s an extension of the work the show has done before, and it expresses an attitude that would drive the world for decades after; I think back to my pop culture haunts all through the 00’s, and I think of “You want results, you have to the Schwarzeneggers, the Stallones, and to a lesser extent the Van Dammes”. What’s really funny is that the world has shifted further from that, with a certain level of earnestness rising up in response to that attitude already. One of the lesser reasons The Simpsons has lasted so long is, ironically, because it captured a sense of how people saw the world that has passed away.

Chalkboard Gag: “Bewitched” does not promote Satanism.
Couch Gag: A picture of the family is printed out by the couch.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Susie Dietter. It’s the first episode to be digitally coloured, which makes it stand out radically from other episodes of this time; the show wouldn’t try digital colouring again until season twelve. Mickey Rooney guest stars as himself and delivers a really great, hilariously sincere performance.

“That was perfect! Let’s do it again.” I confess, I’ve unironically said that when directing a movie. I completely skipped over how great the jokes about the town taking advantage of the filmmakers are, but they’re great. I also love the deliberately cheap and lazy ways the show gets the premise going (“They don’t need a big ad, or even correct spelling!”).

Much of Radioactive Man parodies Batman, particularly the campy Sixties show parodying the campy Sixties Batman show. A scene from the movie parodies Waterworld. The director compares Milhouse to Gabby Hayes. Moe reveals he worked on Little Rascals as a kid. Prince and one of the guys from Revenge Of The Nerds are both in the internet montage. The website Comic Book Guy visits is a reference to the Simpsons Usenet fan forum. “Hurl whiskey bottles at when he’s feeling low” must be a reference to Jack Kerouac.

Iconic Moments: 2, which isn’t many, but one of them is a top ten most used quote. “My eyes! The goggles do nothing!” It amazes me that after all these years and being quoted so heavily, that moment is still hilarious. | “And with good cause!”
Biggest Laugh: