“The Simpsons” was the first grown-up TV show I ever watched. I can’t remember when it first infected my weekly routine, but to this day I remember exactly when it would air: Thursdays at 8pm on Fox (“Simpsons” scholars would pinpoint this as sometime between Seasons 1 and 6; Season 3 is probably my best guess). It was always, always, always the highlight of my week.
Even though I wasn’t watching from the very beginning, thanks to syndicated reruns and DVDs I’ve seen every episode (at least from the first 10 years) many, many times. And I’m not alone in that. “The Simpsons,” for myself and many others of my generation, went beyond formative. It was iconic, a “2001”-esque monolith of pop culture that grabbed us young and never let us go. Even for those of us who no longer watch regularly — maybe haven’t watched regularly for over a decade — it’s stayed with us, in our references to Bort license plates and our new insect overlords. When it comes to “The Simpsons,” there’s a party in our hearts, and everyone’s invited.
So FXX’s 552-episode marathon, beginning today, is a return to childhood as well as a chance to re-engage with this life-defining series as both an adult and a professional binge-viewer. I’ll watch as long as humanly possible today, with commercials and everything, because it’s “The Simpsons.” Attention must be paid.
6:30am PT: My theory is that the potentially toughest part of this experience was accomplished earlier this week, when I scrolled through my cable program guide to figure out where, exactly, FXX was located in the listings. (Time Warner Cable subscribers in Los Angeles, you’ll find the HD feed on channel 394.) But I’m also just starting out. Who knows what madness awaits me?
10:00am PT: Welcome to the West Coast viewing experience! Otherwise known as “three hours after everyone else, we finally get to experience the wonder.”
Things kick off with “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” which is of all things a Christmas special. This might not make sense until you remember that “The Simpsons” was already a pre-established property thanks to “The Tracey Ullman Show,” which ran “Simpsons” shorts from 1987 to 1989.
The advantage of those extra years means that “Roasting on an Open Fire” may not be a proper pilot, but it feels fully formed in a way that most animated series — heck, most comedies — never really achieve from the first episode.
First commercial break: A full-length “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” trailer, as well as an ad for this very marathon I’m watching. (I immediately prepare myself to see both many more times today.)
Things that happen in “Roasting” — Bart gets a tattoo, Homer makes his first visit to Moe’s Tavern, and there’s a trip to the racetrack. But it’s also weirdly heartwarming and lacks the absurdity that marks later seasons.
Second commercial break: Short ad for FXX’s “The League,” followed by Microsoft Surface promo, the “Madden ’15” video game, some sort of local ad for a guy who wants to buy and sell my house, and Starz’s “Outlander”… Wait, no, it’s an ad for “Outlander” AND Time Warner Cable.
Gonna watch a lot of commercials today.
10:30am: Credits from the last episode led directly into the second one — at least, the title sequence. And the first ever airing of the title sequence means we get to see the first ever couch gag — Bart popping off the couch.
It shouldn’t be a shock that an episode called “Bart the Genius” has so many smart jokes in it, but Bart’s transfer to a school for geniuses is full of math, science and philosophy references designed to make even adults feel dumb.
But speaking of dumb: Right now, the biggest complaint iterated on Twitter is one I agree with. Because these episodes were made in a pre-HD era, they’ve been reformatted from their original format (4:3) for 16:9. This means cropping the top and bottom of the screen — and ensuring that certain visual gags, like a Bart reaction shot I remember being really funny in the original, aren’t as funny/clear as they used to be.
11:30am: In the third-ever episode of “The Simpsons,” “Homer’s Odyssey,” Homer loses his job, steals money from his children to buy beer and then attempts to commit suicide. Yikes.
Here’s an example of the cropping from 4:3 to 16:9, from the fourth episode, “There’s No Disgrace Like Home.”
I’m pretty sure, in the original version, that baby had an actual face.
Commercials continue to bounce primarily between video games, junk food, financial services and FX/FXX shows. Whoever is programming these ads may be assuming that the viewership skews male. I have literally watched MMA fighter Chuck Liddell punch a rhino.
“There’s No Disgrace Like Home” is one of the rougher episodes of the first season on a number of levels — if your memory is shaky, it’s the one where the Simpsons literally engage in electroshock treatments to try to be a better family. It probably wouldn’t work in these sensitive modern times of ours.
12:30pm: “Bart the General,” in which there are jokes about armistice treaties and the Franco-Prussian War, offers up a reminder that “The Simpsons” drew much of its writing staff from a group of young men Tina Fey once dubbed as “Harvard nerds.”
It also ends with a coda about how wars are bad, except for “The American Revolution, World War II and the ‘Star Wars’ trilogy.” These episodes aired in early 1990 — just before the Gulf War, and nine years before “The Phantom Menace.”
“Bart the General” is followed by “Moaning Lisa,” which I’m watching now. It’s the first major Lisa episode, and perhaps the first really great one of the series, in which Lisa is “just too sad.” How many shows would concern themselves with the existential crisis of a 7-year-old girl? The answer is “the best ones.”
1:09pm: The extended used car dealership riff that opens “Call of the Simpsons” is an excellent opportunity to make some lunch. This episode, thanks to its uber-sitcom-y plotting, is the first real dud of the day.
1:30pm: Okay, the twist at the end of “Call of the Simpsons” redeems the first half. German scientists make everything funnier. (In comedy, at least.)
“The Telltale Head” features the first “Simpsons” appearance of Krusty the Clown and Sideshow Bob (currently only speaking through his slide whistle). With its conclusion comes the four-hour mark; it also marks the approximately 10th time the same Hanes ComfortBlend commercial has played. In this commercial, one young man is wearing a shirt made of kittens. The novelty of the shirt made of kittens has fully worn off by now.
2:00pm: “Life on the Fast Lane” celebrates Marge Simpson’s 34th birthday, though in later seasons she may be 37. Whichever number is officially canon at this point, it doesn’t really matter — characters on “The Simpsons” never age, never change. There is some sort of comfort in that.
The first season at this point has firmed up what it does well — taking advantage of its medium to push sitcom tropes beyond the capabilities of a live-action series. In “Fast Lane,” for example, when Marge has an elaborate fantasy about the bowling instructor who’s been tempting her into potential adultery, the animation takes on an exaggerated, art deco feel.
“Fast Lane” also features one of the first overt and direct moments of pop culture parody: Marge returning to Homer in an echo of “An Officer and a Gentleman.” “The Simpsons”: Teaching kids popular gags from R-rated movies since 1990.
Also, I finally recognize one of the actors in the Hanes kitten shirt commercial, and do some important investigative journalism on Twitter:
@lizlet it was like me being half naked on a couch as Michael Jordan made fun of me take after take. It was basically a fever dream.
— Elisha Yaffe (@elishayaffe) August 21, 2014
@elishayaffe IT JUST AIRED AGAIN.
— Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet) August 21, 2014
@elishayaffe AND AGAIN.
— Liz Shannon Miller (@lizlet) August 21, 2014
Those time stamps are not lying: The ad literally played twice in less than two minutes.
3:00pm: You know, I’ve maybe seen the “Simpsons” opening sequence a thousand times, and I’ve never before now questioned the logic behind it. In what world do a housewife doing the grocery shopping, two school children and a 9-to-5 worker all arrive home at the exact same time? Like, within seconds of each other? Maybe Homer works a 7-to-3 shift and so he gets home around 3:30? But then what are they all rushing to the couch to watch as a family? Primetime doesn’t start for another four and a half hours!
These are the thoughts that occur, when you’re approaching the six-hour mark of a marathon like this.
It’s been a while since any local ads have aired; as it’s after 6pm on the East Coast, presumably that means we’re moving to new, high-end primetime commercials–
Wait, no. At 3:08pm, the Hanes Kitten Shirt ad aired once more. Hello, old friend.
Also, “The Crepes of Wrath” is the first episode which seems like a genuine classic of the series. The animation is a bit more refined, the premise just absurd enough to fit in with future seasons, and it still has those weird high-brow touches that define the show at its best (like a visual reference to “Le Ballon rouge”). It’s worth it just for Lisa and exchange student Adil debating the fallacy of the American dream at the dinner table.
3:30pm: “Krusty Gets Busted” keeps this upward trajectory going — and also, it’s the glorious beginning of the Sideshow Bob saga, with Kelsey Grammar making his first of many, many guest star appearances.
4:00pm: It’s the last episode of Season 1! Reaching this point is, truly, an accomplishment. At this point, I messaged my friend Mike, who’s a massive “Simpsons” buff, to see if he knew what the show’s situation was at this point in its history. Was there any chance of it not getting renewed for a second season?
“It’s weird because FOX in its infancy was such a unique and different animal than what we saw in TV networks then, and especially now,” he said. “The show was a hit right off the bat so I would think S2 was a foregone conclusion pretty early on, especially knowing how long it took to make an episode. They would’ve wanted them coming down the pipe.”
4:30pm: Season 2! The opening sequence’s jump in animation quality cannot be overstated.
4:32pm: Hanes kitten shirt commercial airing number 6,125.
4:45pm: The Season 2 premiere, “Bart Gets a F,” is a big episode for Bart’s erstwhile 4th grade teacher Mrs. Krabappel. Any show that’s been on the air for over two decades is going to have its sad losses, and Marcia Wallace, who voiced the character until just last year, is definitely one of them.
It’s going to be even worse once Phil Hartman starts showing up.
But this episode also marks the first appearance of Mayor Quimby! It’s kind of a beautiful thing to see the world of Springfield expand and grow with each episode. With each new character and location, things seem richer.
5:30pm: Following the episode where Homer magically grows hair and makes out with Harvey Fierstein is the first-ever Treehouse of Terror episode!
5:38pm: Kitten shirt.
5:55pm: The first Treehouse of Horror is, sadly enough, not the best installment of this particular series-within-a-series — none of the three shorts reach the iconic heights of later episodes. However, one of them does introduce beloved evil aliens Kang and Kodos, and it’s hard to find fault with James Earl Jones reciting Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven.” And our high school English teachers wondered why we were already familiar with that poem.
6:00pm: Oh, something I just noticed! In Season 1, the opening sequence had Lisa riding her bike into the garage with a guitar on the back. In Season 2, she instead has a saxophone (I’m sorry, “sax-oh-mah-phone”). So glad the show corrected that.
6:10pm: Kitten shirt.
6:30pm: Let me confess something to you, gentle readers: I never really declared a stopping point for today’s marathon. And while some of Season 1 was a slog, the fact is that we’re now in Season 2, and it’s just good, good television — television I haven’t seen in over a decade. I… I don’t want to stop watching.
I will have to at some point, because of a need to sleep or because Indiewire, quite fairly, will expect me to pay attention to television that isn’t “The Simpsons.” But right now, I have no official plans for the evening, and thus, here I still am.
Maybe the universe will give me a sign, like when Bart prayed for an extra day off from school so that he could study for a rest, and the next day it snowed. Maybe that will happen.
6:46pm: “A Simpson on a t-shirt? I never thought I’d see the day.”
Man, “Dancin’ Homer” is a perfect early prototype of what made “The Simpsons” great in its day — a story sketched out of almost too many pop culture tropes to mention, but with some real emotional stakes. The rough edges of the characters have been sanded down; it’s now not hard at all to root for Homer’s potential success.
7:00pm: Hello, Hour 9. You know, as good as Danny Elfman’s theme song is for this show, it’s funny to think about being, say, someone who has to hear it over and over again. Like a person who loads guests onto the “Simpsons” ride at Universal Studios. And how that person probably flinches at the merest hint of saxophone.
I feel for that person, in this moment. I feel like we’d understand each other.
7:01pm: Kitten shirt.
7:02pm: KITTEN SHIRT AGAIN.
7:30pm: The episode where Bart and Todd Flanders compete in minigolf doesn’t leave much of an impact, though it does contain the Marge line “Homer, I couldn’t help but overhear you warp Bart’s mind.” I have higher hopes for “Bart vs. Thanksgiving.”
7:45pm: MR. BURNS JUST SAID “RELEASE THE HOUNDS.” I gasped with joy.
7:48pm: Kitten shirt.
8:02pm: I’ve been trying to mute the commercials as much as possible. It’s not helping as much as one would hope.
8:09pm: But after Lisa’s recital in “Bart the Daredevil,” Homer is humming Schubert. Lisa: “I reached him!” Just one of those perfect little moments this show nails.
8:17pm: It came up before, with that T-shirt joke, but “Bart the Daredevil” contains yet another meta moment of the show dealing with its impact on society — Marge muttering about not realizing the impact that television can have on young people is just another reminder of how even in its second season, it was a huge cultural influence.
8:28pm: It might be Stockholm Syndrome settling in, but “The Simpsons” might be more than just one of the great animated series of all time. It might be one of the best shows about families of all time. Even when things get truly absurd, it comes down to that moment between father and son, or brother and sister. Really, it’s a beautiful thing.
8:30pm: Complaint! Most of Bart’s chalkboard gags in the opening sequence seem rather… sophomoric? Maybe it’s a personal preference thing, but the funnier ones always seemed to be the most cerebral.
8:39pm: Kitten shirt.
Also, “Itchy and Scratchy and Marge”? Another great example of “The Simpsons” reacting directly to its role as an influencer of culture–
8:40pm: Kitten shirt again. What was I saying? Oh, right. “The Simpsons” engaging with accusations of stirring up violence. After less than two years on the air, it’s dealing with those issues directly.
8:56pm: “I told you she was soft on full-frontal nudity!” Oh, “The Simpsons.” Amazing.
9:27pm: Took a break to go outside for a walk, now catching up with “Bart Got Hit By A Car” on my DVR. Hello, Lionel Hutz. It does, in fact, hurt a little to hear Phil Hartman’s voice.
9:48pm: At 9:31 and 9:33pm, if I’d been watching live — kitten shirt.
Here’s how Lisa’s face got cropped in a scene at the beginning of “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish.”
10:008pm: Caught up with the DVR, watching live again. Just in time for “The Way We Was,” the first flashback episode to unravel the mystery of how a slob Homer landed a dish like Marge. (Points to “The Simpsons” for not taking that equation for granted.)
10:20pm: Kitten shirt.
10:29pm: The end of “The Way We Was” actually feels like a good place to end this live blog. It’s a sweet, sincere note. A reminder that “The Simpsons,” in its early years, was extraordinarily grounded in relationships.
This is, maybe, the way I feel right now.
We may check in with the marathon again over the following 11 days, to continue this examination of the show’s evolution. But for now, a good night to you. Happy “Simpsons”-ing.