It seems like every Simpsons fan old enough to remember a time before home video and streaming has a personal white whale – an episode they heard about that always seemed to slip by them in reruns – and this one is mine, being one that I never saw until collecting the show on DVD in 2014. It’s another Semi-Ironic Kid Adventure story, though interestingly it sits closer to a conventional adventure story than most Simpsons episodes. It’s no less full of jokes, but the concept of the tontine is lifted straight out of any WWI or WWII story – a group of soldiers hides a cache of paintings to be taken by the last living survivor of the group – with no comic twist or inherent absurdity the way the kids chasing a lemon tree into Shelbyville feels inherently absurd. Technically, I feel like I should knock points off for an episode of a comedy not being as funny as another episode, but I actually like that tonal diversity that the show hits on an episode-by-episode basis – you’re never quite sure what one episode or another will feel like, and I like getting continuously caught flatfooted like that. And I like what this episode specifically does, too, delivering a mostly conventional sub-Indiana Jones adventure that happens to take place in Springfield with our usual cast of characters. There are precious few television shows where every episode feels like a movie, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – movies are movies and TV is TV, and one of my complaints about blockbuster films the past few years is how many of them feel like the best episode of a mediocre television show. But there’s something special about shows where individual episodes feel like whole movies; Cowboy Bebop is one, and I realise now that The Simpsons is another. It’s a feeling that comes when you genuinely don’t know exactly what the show is going to give you – in plot, tone, or theme – beyond that it will be resolved by the end of the episode.
(Community is probably the best example I can think of for showing what I mean about a) a show feeling like either TV or a movie and b) feeling like TV not being a bad thing. I always thought the pilot felt like a whole ninety minute comedy movie crushed down into twenty minutes, while the rest of the series develops a simple grammar – both film grammar like the recurring two-shots used in the study room – and story beats that a viewer gets familiar with very quickly. Shows that feel like movies are constantly switching out their grammar.)
The writers were still enjoying finding new pairs they hadn’t made yet, and here we get Bart and Grampa as a rare twosome. It makes sense because Bart would, of all the family, have the least patience with Grampa’s notorious stories, having neither grown up under his care like Homer (thus actually seeing any competence from him first-hand) nor having the general patience and compassion of Marge and Lisa, and so be the one most suited to a story about coming to respect his grandfather’s past; I obviously came to find myself thinking of my own grandfather, who I grew up idolising, and saw resonance between Bart getting confirmation of Grampa’s heroics and my own wide-eyed view of Granddad. It feels right that Bart would not believe someone just based on the words they say, but the deeds they do, and to have actual proof in his hands and in front of his eyes creates genuine pride (or at least less shame) in his grandfather. This is the story of a boy who came to respect what his grandfather was capable of and relishing in the fact that he’s the next generation of Flying Hellfish. But he also feels right for this kind of action-adventure genre – if there’s any story Bart would want to be in, it’s a hoo-rah Boys Own adventure story with Nazis and treasure and harpoons.
And then there’s Grampa’s side of the story. This is another Simpsons episode that gets a wide emotional scope because it empathises with every character. I actually found myself kind of identifying with a man whose past disconnected him from his present; in a lot of ways, Abe is confused and angry all the time because there was a point where everything made sense to him, but then the world changed without him getting the memo, and he’s been left powerless and lonely because of it (we’re only a few episodes away from his “I used to be with it” monologue!). When we see Abe in flashback, he’s highly competent and surrounded by men he understands and who understand him (short Burnsie, obviously), a far cry from the sad old man who waits for junk mail to pile up and successfully avoids an assassination attempt on the realisation that his family never comes to visit him. I see resonance with the fact that I’ve successfully kept up writing an essay a week on The Simpsons without missing a single one, sometimes writing some profound stuff, and that being totally meaningless to the people I work with whenever I fuck up, which I do on a regular basis. There are situations where our past actions have consequences we wish they wouldn’t; this is a horrible situation where our past actions have no consequences. Grampa’s situation is a pathetic one where you get why things have played out why they have because he’s too stubborn and incompetent to be able to adapt to the modern world, and the family have no reason to see him as anything other than what he is right now – a stubborn, possibly senile asshole. I suppose if there’s any lesson here, it’s to do what Grampa is forced to do here – recognise that the past and present are two separate entities, and respect the power of deeds over words.
Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: Homer gets up and pulls a plug from the middle of the room, and everything gets sucked in.
This episode was written by Jonathon Collier and directed by Jeffrey Lynch. Collier was inspired by stories of lost art surfacing from the ocean, and Bill Oakley worked in the concept of a tontine from an old Barney Miller episode. Lynch had more time than usual to work on the episode and storyboarded almost all of it himself, and the results are incredible.
Grampa’s stories coming into the plot is also another case of the show making greatness out of its own iconography. Grampa’s team having fathers of the men from around town is a comic choice that’s obvious, and would be obviously wrong if they didn’t do it (and does have the funny gag of Abe tossing off the names of guys not related to people we care about). Homer passing on the adventure is one of the best gags of the episode.
The military flashbacks riff heavily on the Sgt. Rock and Sgt. Fury comics. Many of the paintings are based on real paintings that went missing in WWII. When Grampa tells the family about his brush with death, he says it much the way Dorothy recounts her dream in The Wizard Of Oz. The Flying Hellfish raid on the castle recalls The Dirty Dozen. The scene of Grampa trying to assassinate Hitler is based on The Day Of The Jackal. As the German man drives off, he listens to “Caterpillar (Rabbit In The Moon mix)” by DJ Keoki.
Iconic Moments: 1. “Now, my story takes place in Nineteen Dickety-Two. We had to say ‘dickety’ coz the Kaiser had stolen our word ‘twenty’. I chased that rascal to get it back, but gave up after dickety-six miles.”