The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Thirteen, “Two Bad Neighbours”

We’ve talked about the increasingly sitcommy nature of the show this season, and much like Bob Dylan going full country on Nashville Skyline in 1969, this episode consciously brings that to the fore. It’s that old cliche of a popular new neighbour moving in and making our hero jealous – which is at least partially the raison d’être for Ned Flanders – and creating an escalating prank war, played completely straight except for the twist that the neighbour is former President George HW Bush. It’s strange to think that this could be considered if not the most influential episode of the show, then definitely the one that most clearly pointed the way animated sitcoms were going to go. I can think of any number of Family Guy and American Dad episodes where the joke of the plot was partially based on the characters having an inexplicably generic relationship with a celebrity – “Stewie Goes For A Drive” has Peter befriend Ryan Reynolds, “Tears Of A Clooney” has George Clooney acting as Stan’s romantic rival for Francine, and it’s an aspect of “Lost In Space” where Sinbad acts as Jeff’s sidekick and mentor. ‘Generic’ is the crucial word here; this isn’t like “Homer Goes To College” where the joke is that the world doesn’t work like the movies Homer’s seen, this is where the structure is familiar but the content is absurd.

(Rereading that essay also shows how much the show has changed again, having crossed from “gritty absurdism” to “TV rules only moreso” to “TV rules only weirder”)

What this means, though, is that I face the trouble of not having a whole lot to say about this episode, because it’s not about George HW Bush any more than Breaking Bad is about meth. The few satirical jabs (“Good, they’re roasting the new guy.”) are so weak that they often feel of a piece with gags that are just riffing on his career (“I’ll ruin you like a Japanese banquet!” is my favourite in this regard) – contrast with Futurama’s take on Richard Nixon, where they initially lean so hard in on drawing attention to every awful thing Nixon did that on the commentary, David X Cohen got a laugh by pointing out the one positive thing Nixon did that they reference. I will say that it’s great that they put the work into making their George Bush into a real character and not just a list of references; it presents him as exactly the kind of humourless stuffed shirt that would find Homer’s boorishness, uh, boorish. I think my favourite subtle gag of the episode is that none of Bush’s pranks are actually any good and only escalate the situation because Homer is offended by the very principle and intends to escalate things anyway – his list of actions includes ‘putting up a sign nobody understands’, ‘driving on the Simpson lawn’, and ‘following Homer and Bart into the sewer’, which is nothing compared to, like, locusts and clown wigs. It only feels like an escalation because of the energy and pace of the episode.

The closest it comes to any real meaningful statement is on Homer. I love how the very boorishness that makes him so annoying to Bush is presented as a fun, good time in the opening act, much like it was in “Team Homer” last week. We often talk about what makes Homer sympathetic in spite of him being a crass, thoughtless, selfish loudmouth, and sometimes I think it’s easy to forget that we love him because of that – his big musical number comes about because, in a fit of boredom, he impulsively starts grabbing things and riffing on them, and it entertains both the crowd and us watching the show. People like Homer are fun right up until they aren’t; I love that Homer’s drive throughout the episode begins with the line “Now let’s all turn around and pay attention to me again,” because you couldn’t get a more elegant demonstration of how a big spirited extrovert can go from charming to annoying when they need the spotlight longer than you’re willing to give them, and the whole rest of the episode shows how that same impulsive big heart can make Homer so destructive (and as a bonus, it throws in how Homer and Bart’s relationship is one in which they understand each other too well). The Simpsons gives us all the pleasure of being around someone who follows their heart and lets us see the consequences for it without having to suffer from them.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: A hunter walks in and sits on the couch, surrounded by trophies of the family – including Homer as a rug.

This episode was written by Ken Keeler and directed by Wes Archer. The idea for the story was born from the actual feud the show had with Bush, which began when Barbera Bush dismissed it as “the dumbest show [she] had ever seen”; the producers responded by sending her a letter ‘written’ by Marge. Later, Bush referenced the show in a speech where he wanted to make American families “more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons”. In an interview later, Josh Weinstein remarked that the writers had basically no network oversight at this point and cited this episode as one that they were surprised they were allowed to do. Semi-famously, the writers didn’t know that Bush actually does has a son named “George Jr” and intended it to mean Homer didn’t look up Bush’s sons names. The gag still works because I assume Dubya didn’t greet his dad with “It’s me, George Bush Jr!”

It’s a tiny note but the sandcastle competition somehow perfectly demonstrates how boring Saturday afternoon TV is without resembling any show I have ever seen. I may love reading, but “I’m trying to reduce my boredom” is such a hilarious line and works well as a retort to any ‘useful’ suggestion people throw at you in such moments. This is our first appearance of Disco Stu! And in reverse, we see Revitalising Tonic and I Didn’t Do It shirts in the rummage sale, and Mrs Glick makes a triumphant return with a $90 candy dish.

Much of the episode is a riff on Dennis The Menace, with Bart referencing his catchphrase, “Hello, Mr Wilson!” Apu washes his car to “Dream Police” by Cheap Trick. Homer sings filks of “Big Spender” from the musical Sweet Charity and “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. Grampa remarks that Grover Cleveland spanked him on two non-consecutive occasions, which is simultaneously brilliant and dumb.

Iconic Moments: 1. “There it is, Homer. The cleverest thing you’ll ever say and nobody heard it.”
Biggest Laugh: