As regular readers will know, I generally divide episodes of The Simpsons into one of three loosely defined and even more loosely named categories: heartwarming, satirical, and just funny. This feels like the first episode all season where the A plot just tries to be funny with no satirical or emotional edge whatsoever. Traditionally, long-running series lose their edge or their intelligence over time as they plain run out of ideas – and god knows this show will – but for now it’s like the worldview that underpins this show has become an engine that drives the whole thing. The rules that thrust the show forward – that all power is corrupt on some level, the system is based not on caring for either individuals or the environment but on constantly feeding more to the people at the top, the majority of people will take easy answers, shortcuts, and cheap hedonism over real spiritual and emotional fulfillment. These insights have powered basically every episode of season seven in some way… except this. And even then, kind of? In a quiet, barely visible way?
The plot of the episode – that Homer puts together a rag-tag bowling team so he can bowl on league nights – feels almost but not quite like the post-movies seasons of Futurama in how it throws together random characters, with the main difference being it feels like they came up with the premise first and threw in Apu and Otto to fill out the necessary cast (I can practically hear them saying “Okay, so Homer convinces Moe to start a team, and then he gets Apu, and then, uh… Otto.”). It lends it a kind of naturalism where this does feel like a fairly logical series of events, not some constructed absurdity hitting its marks (one of the reasons I’m not as crash-hot on American Dad as other people is that the scaffolding of the plot is extremely visible, and it flattens the effect of the absurdity). In terms of character, I love the story because it shows how Homer could function as a legitimate leader who earned his position – he’s not the captain of the Pin Pals because he’s the most technically proficient or particularly innovative, but because he had one great idea and a big heart, trying to make the experience as fun as possible and catching everyone up in his enthusiasm.
Meanwhile, Bart and Lisa’s plot at the school completely undoes my entire first paragraph by being a very pointed satirical takedown of school uniforms. This is the kind of thing where I can nitpick the details but get and agree with the overall point – it’s saying that government schools are less concerned with educating children than they are maintaining order, and uniforms are an expression of them wiping the identity from the kids in order to keep things running. Now, I went to public schools when I was a kid (by which I mean ones run by the government as opposed to being privately-funded), and in high school we had to wear ugly, uncomfortable jumpers with vertical green and gold stripes that made us look like dolls in a toy store bargain bin, but I also remember over time the school found ways to compromise with students on the matter, introducing better-looking and more comfortable items that counted as uniforms (like a black hoodie with the school logo on it). In turn, I remember students eventually compromising with the standard, like a Nelson-esque friend of mine who wore a denim jacket over the school jumper. But this only proves the point of the episode, where my school was not committed to the pointless maintenance of order to the extent of wiping out individual expression.
There are a lot of really great beats to the story; my favourite is the unsettling moment where the students all blink in unison (“I love that sound!”), and Chalmers’ line that the school is “preparing the students for permanent positions in our mills and processing facilities” is the most cutting moment of satire in the episode because even if it’s not true, it certainly feels that way – that children are asked to fill out rote copies of information that has no bearing on them personally because it’s preparing them for the tedious day-to-day work of screwing on toothpaste lids and filling out forms in an office. This is the kind of perspective we lacked all the way back in “Bart The Genius” – that only gave us Bart’s confusion, hurt, and anger, while this gives us all that and Lisa’s perspective on the issue and the specific structural reasons things are so awful for the kids. Things would be so much easier if Skinner had the resources to handle the individuality of each student – both emotionally and financially (“I’ve just been informed we’ve run out of extra large!”), and the image of the children joyfully playing in the rain is a moment of exuberance.
Back to Homer, Burns’ introduction to the story is a pretty great escalation (“You want to join my what?” / “You want to what his team?”). It’s an interesting twist on Burns’ infinitely evil/old/rich paradigm, because now he’s being played as a sad old man sitting alone at the top of a pyramid, too evil to have any actual friends, too infirm to be of any actual use to anyone, and too rich to say no to. I find myself pitying Burns as he innocently fails to realise how badly he’s dragging the team down. One of the little sources of comfort the show offers is that the sharks that drive the horrors of the world forward don’t get to feel that sense of spiritual fulfilment, and one of the major points of despair is that they’re too stupid or evil to care; this is a rare moment of a monster coming close to realising what he’s missing out on, which makes him sympathetic, and it’s genuinely moving when he presents the Pin Pals with proper uniforms (ironic that something terrible in one plot is heartwarming in the other). His shift back to evil after they win seems kind of arbitrary in a sitcom way (though as he points out, it’s not exactly out of character for him), but it leads to the Pin Pals coming together in a real heartwarming moment as they realise it was just about having fun together. Though, as per the series’ idiom, it’s immediately subverted with dogs ripping Homer apart.
Chalkboard Gag: I am not certified to remove asbestos.
Couch Gag: After the family sits, we zoom in to a hole in the wall to see a family of mice sitting at their own couch.
This episode was written by Mike Scully and directed by Mark Kirkland. Say what you will about Scully as a producer, this is an incredibly quotable episode; it generates so many great, offbeat quotes. The episode was inspired by Scully’s bowling hobby, and by his childrens’ school wanting to introduce uniforms. Kirkland went out of his way to top “Life In The Fast Lane” by going all-out with the look of the alley. When the episode was finished, the staff all received custom bowling balls, bowling bags, and Pin Pals shirts as gifts. Doris Grau, voice of Lunchlady Doris, passed away shortly after this episode was made, and this episode included a dedication to her.
The other great thing about this episode is how it uses the massive world of Springfield, grouping characters by theme. My favourite is the Homewreckers. There’s a very Conan O’Brien-esque gag when the kids tip over a desk and it immediately catches alight for no reason. I’ll be honest, I actually like the berets. I absolutely love Hank Azaria’s delivery of “Ow, ow, OW, ow!”
Originally, Homer’s stolen Academy Award belonged to Haing S Ngoir, but he was murdered inbetween production and the original broadcast, and the producers didn’t want to imply that Homer had killed Ngoir for his Oscar. The syndicated and DVD versions replace him with Don Ameche. The school plot is kicked off by Bart using an iron-on from Mad Magazine. The final bowling scene references the final golfing scene of Caddyshack. Homer drops a reference to “Mr Roboto” by Styx. Moe’s attempt to assault Mr Burns is a reference to Shane Stant’s assault of figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.
Iconic Moments: 4. “Boy, they’re really socking it to that Spiro Agnew guy again. He must work there or something.” | “You go through life, you try to be nice to people, you struggle to resist the urge to punch ‘em in the face, and for what?” | “I’m better than dirt! Well, not that fancy store-bought dirt. That stuff’s loaded with nutrients, I can’t compete with that.” | “Gotta go, my damn weiner kids are listening.”
Biggest Laugh: I could break down every little nuance of what makes this so brilliant – in the monologue itself, in the direction, and in Harry Shearer’s performance, but it would feel to me like breaking down the act of sex – there’s so much happening so fast that it becomes exhilarating. I will limit myself to one observation per element: the magnificent zigging instead of zagging with “Came close to madness”, the slow zoom-in that kicks in towards the end, and Shearer pounding on the words in “just–can’t–get–the spices right”. This is where the show has truly influenced my sense of humour. This is what happens when you commit to a bit.