The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Twenty, “The Canine Mutiny”

One of the most common observations about The Simpsons is that a bad episode of the show is still better than 90% of the rest of television, and not only does that play out here, I think I’m starting to understand why it happens. This episode is funny enough to the point that it has multiple iconic moments and even moments where I’m not sure if they’re iconic or if I just respond to them strongly, and its story is functional, but that story is made up of so many things we’ve seen before and it fails to really transcend any of those elements and go anywhere new and interesting. It’s another episode where Bart is impulsively hedonistic in a way that’s recognisably childish and yet absurd in practice, sees that have really negative consequences, and works to fix them; it’s another episode about A Boy And His Dog. This is the Goofus to last episode’s Gallant, in fact – that episode had functionally the same story conception, but used it to get us to a new relationship and a new side of characters we already know. This is also a perfect articulation of what I meant by the show’s ambition undoing it now; what has come to define not just the post-Golden episodes but the post-Scully era (and especially the post-movie era) is a complete lack of ambition – a desire to just get in, make jokes, have a heartwarming moment, and get out, and this episode feels like an early look at that. Now, this is different at this point because the process is still strong enough to sell individual beats of emotion – Bart breaking down when he admits to giving Santa’s Little Helper works, because Nancy Cartwright sells that this is soul-killing for him to acknowledge and the ‘camera’ zooms in on him as he talks, putting him on the spot and the animators twist his face as the confession seems to physically tear him apart from the inside – but it also points to why this approach doesn’t fit with the show’s identity.

The lack of ambition in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia is actually one of the things I love about it – this is a show that dedicated itself purely to the goal of being funny, and it’s willing to bring elements in or throw them out to achieve that, and a consequence of it committing to that is that it really is just churning out episodes; not only are the majority of episodes straightforward “the Gang embarks on the same kind of scheme they have for over a decade”, fans tend to get frustrated when the show gets too experimental (like the derided “Frank’s Brother”) and tend to enjoy when a season opens with a completely classic setup (like “The Gang Beats Boggs” opening season ten). American Dad very quickly became exactly what The Simpsons became – formulaic sitcom plots with specific moments set aside for the characters to Learn Lessons – but, while the show isn’t completely to my taste, I can see how that’s something like the twelve bar blues for sitcom plotting, and it’s a jumping off point for gleeful absurdity that works in a way that, say, Family Guy doesn’t due to its complete lack of structure. Aside from generally having A-plots and B-plots, The Simpsons is notable for not having a normal structure – in fact, of constantly reinventing its structure for every episode, and for having both consistent characters, consistent worldbuilding (philosophically if not in detail), and consistent interests and morality, and in fact that ability to continuously reinvent itself and find some new ambition to chase is, somehow the consistent quality we – or at least I – appreciate about it*. I suppose this is another case where the show is fighting against the very notion of the status quo it’s forced, by genre convention, to uphold; eventually it has to either break the status quo or the sensibility, and we all know what it picked.

(*If we leave sitcoms, this is also a quality in Cowboy Bebop, another of my favourite cartoons ever)

That said, I do have to appreciate the craft that went into this episode. My favourite thing about it is the way SLH is animated with a gleeful innocence; at no point does SLH seem to even consider that he may be annoying or not wanted, which makes Bart’s betrayal of him that much worse, and of course the majestic hypercompetence of Laddies is an absurd comparison not just with the other dog but with the Simpson family. I really enjoy the creativity that the animators bring to Bart’s spending splurge too; his room ends up looking like a Sim’s house. The only genuinely bum note has to be the ending, which feels weird and pointless as soon as the blind man shows up and zigs and zags, not in an expert shift in expectations, but kind of at random, like the apparent union between him and Laddie ending in him being revealed to have marijuana, which then itself turns into the cops having a party at his place? Season eight has been defined by this endings that don’t so much conclude as burn out, something that actually gets much worse when the show enters its comfortable mediocrity. 

Chalkboard Gag: A fire drill does not demand a fire.
Couch Gag: Grampa is sleeping on the couch folded out. The family shove him in and sit.

This episode was written by Ron Hauge and directed by Dominic Palcino. The original idea came from the family being issued a credit card named “Hobart Simpson”, which Bart would use, and that Lisa would get addicted to pep pills, which is reduced to an offhand gag. Hank Azaria ad-libbed the credits sequence, and I love Wiggum saying “Shut up, I love this song!”

I’ve never gotten a credit card, and I wonder how much of that came from this episode. Pushing Homer to the background still only makes him funnier (“He’d better know how to keep his mouth shut.”).

The title is a reference to The Canine Mutiny. Laddie is a parody of Lassie. Marge listens to “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. The Repo Depot is loosely based on the agency in Repo Man. The blind man’s address is lifted from The Harvard Lampoon. His belief that his parrot is still alive is a reference to the dead parrot sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The episode ends with “Jamming” by Bob Marley.

Iconic Moments: 2. “Then why did I have the bowl, Bart?” | “I can’t promise I’ll try. But I’ll try to try.”
Biggest Laugh: I quote both of Moe’s lines here all the time.