Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 10, 2006)
Hey, hey – it’s time for Season Eight of The Simpsons! We’ll look at the shows in their original broadcast order, which is how they show up here. I’ll examine them each on their own to document the specifics. The plot capsules come straight from the DVD’s booklet.
Treehouse of Horror VII (aired 10/27/96): “In this annual terror-themed trilogy, Bart (voiced by Nancy Cartwright) and Lisa (Yeardley Smith) discover an evil creature living in the attic, Lisa inadvertently creates a miniature civilization, and aliens Kang and Kodos run for President of the United States,”
As the series progressed, season premieres came later and later in the year. For the first time, a Halloween show launches a season. And “Horror VII” does so in grand style. Each of the three stories works well, though the one about the presidential election dates the episode more than I’d like. Still, it’s funny, and even if it’d flopped, the other two are more than enough to compensate.
You Only Move Twice (aired 11/3/96): “Homer (Dan Castellaneta) gets a new job and the family moves – only to find out his new employer (A. Brooks) is an evil millionaire intent on ruling the world.”
Given the obvious ease with which James Bond can be spoofed, it comes as something of a surprise that The Simpsons waited so long for an extended parody. (Earlier shows occasionally tossed in a Bond moment but none got quite this involved.) Guest actor Albert Brooks acts as the real star of this one. Scorpio starts out as a great take on the casual, hyper-friendly boss of the era and mutates into something unusual with the Bond elements. It ends up as a strong show with one of my favorite lines when Bart’s teacher tells him “sounds like someone’s got a case of the ‘supposed-tas’”.
The Homer They Fall (aired 11/10/96): “Homer displays an amazing ability to take a punch, which spurs Moe (Hank Azaria) to urge Homer to become a professional boxer. But when Homer is about to be killed by Drederick Tatum (Azaria), Moe decides they’ve had enough.”
With a clever concept behind it, “Fall” seems like a candidate to become a strong episode. Unfortunately, it never quite lives up to its potential. I like the emphasis on the Homer/Moe relationship, and the program features some good moments. It just doesn’t become anything more than average for The Simpsons.
Burns, Baby, Burns (aired 11/17/96): “The Simpsons are amazed to discover that Mr. Burns (Harry Shearer) has a long-lost son Larry (Rodney Dangerfield). Burns is slow to embrace his offspring, and Homer’s best attempts, they don’t reconcile.”
“Baby” requires a serious leap of faith: we have to accept the concept that someone had sex with Mr. Burns. If you get beyond that grotesque notion, the episode succeeds. I love the start at the apple mill, and it continues to soar when Larry becomes part of the show. Of course, the character doesn’t require Dangerfield to do much more than his usual shtick, but that’s fine. All in all, this is a solid program.
Bart After Dark (aired 11/24/96): “Bart gets a job at the Maison Derriere, an after-hours club of ill-repute, much to Marge’s (Julie Kavner) chagrin. Featuring the Emmy-winning song ‘The Spring in Springfield’.”
While the concept of “Dark” stretches credulity, it’s too funny for me to worry about those issues. I love the opening parts with Homer and Bart alone, and Bart’s lame comedic routine also delights. Marge’s crusade is awfully similar to her attack on Itchy and Scratchy in Season Two, but I don’t care – “Dark” is a winner.
A Milhouse Divided (aired 12/1/96): “Milhouse’s (Pamela Hayden) parents reveal they are divorcing. Homer becomes concerned that his own marriage is in trouble, but breathes easier when Marge agrees to renew their vows.”
Most Simpsons episodes don’t affect the series’ continuity; if something extreme happens, the show just ignores it and puts everything back to normal the next week. “Divided” stands as an exception, as it splits Milhouse’s parents for good. (Or at least for a long time – I admit I’ve not watched broadcast episodes of the series for a few years, so I don’t know if they ever reunited.)
This is an episode in which all the small moments make up a great big picture. Lots of little tidbits create humor and turn the show into a winner. I like the overall theme as well, for the take on divorce makes it unusual.
Lisa’s Date with Density (aired 12/15/96): “Against all her best instincts, Lisa has a puppy-love romance with bully Nelson Muntz (Cartwright). Meanwhile, Homer’s use of a telephone auto-dialer runs him afoul of the law.”
“Density” boasts two quality stories, as both “A” and “B” prosper. I love Homer’s phone scam, and Lisa’s plot puts both her and Nelson in new circumstances. It’s especially good to get the added development to Nelson, as he needs the extra screentime more than she does. His torturing of Willie creates the funniest moments, but plenty of laughs emerge. Add to the the copious use of the word “crumb-bum” and this is a very enjoyable show.
Hurricane Neddy (aired 12/29/96): “A hurricane blows through Springfield, destroying Ned Flanders’ (Shearer) home, but leaving the Simpsons unscathed. The pious Ned is so outraged by the unfairness of this that he ends up in an asylum.”
Another secondary character spreads his wings in this clever program. It’s a hoot to see the ever-chipper Ned reveal his dark side, The first act works well as we see beats related to the hurricane, and then the Job-like problems suffered by Ned create many opportunities for mirth. Ned’s rant against the townspeople is excellent, and we even find the hilarious return of his beatnik parents. “Neddy” enters classic territory.
El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (aired 1/5/97): “Homer eats some ultra-hot chili, which immerses him in an out-of-body experience reminiscent of Carlos Castaneda. In Homer’s vision, a talking coyote (Johnny Cash) urges Homer to find his soul mate, which, after several false starts, he finally does.”
I have to give “Jomer” credit for ambition, as it definitely stretches the series’ boundaries with its acid-inspired moments. Unfortunately, that’s all the credit I can throw at this unsatisfying show. It seems too concerned with its attempts to be unusual and doesn’t bother with an interesting story or a lot entertaining moments. Despite a few funny bits, I didn’t like this episode when it first aired, and it hasn’t improved with age.
The Springfield Files (aired 1/12/97): “Homer sees an extraterrestrial but no one in town believes him. He camps out with Bart and they discover the surprising truth.”
“Files” could have turned into little more than an opportunity to promote another Fox series. The show manages to become something more interesting than that, but not by a ton. It churns out a few laughs but fails to rise to the series’ normal standards.
The Twisted World of Marge Simpson (aired 1/19/97): “Marge starts a pretzel franchise but her best attempts are thwarted by a group of women known as the Springfield Investorettes. To help his wife, Homer recruits the assistance of mob boss Fat Tony (Joe Mantegna).”
“Twisted” would be a treat if just because it boasts a guest turn from Jack Lemmon; that makes it special right there. Even better, he does a version of his sad-sack character from Glengarry Glen Ross. Add that fun thread along with all the delightful franchise spoofs, a glimpse of Cletus’s ridiculously extended clan of offspring, and “Twisted” works.
Mountain of Madness (aired 2/2/97): “Mr. Burns orders his employees to attend a survivalist mountain retreat. An avalanche traps Burns and Homer together in a small mountainside cabin.”
We’ve some episodes in which Burns and Homer bond in the past, but “Madness” manages to add a fresh spin on that theme. The snowy setting places them in some fun predicaments and allows the other characters to expand as well. “Madness” never approaches the level of classic, but it’s a good show.
Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(d’oh)cious (aired 2/7/97): “Marge’s hair starts to fall out from the stress of raising her children. A singing nanny, Shary Bobbins (Maggie Roswell), mysteriously arrives to help,”
Like the chili show, this one never quite lives up to its premise. A spoof of Mary Poppins seems like a good target but the episode itself just doesn’t produce the desired number of laughs. It takes some predictable paths and leaves me disappointed.
The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show (aired 2/9/97): “Attempting to update the appeal of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoons, their writers add a new character. Their creation – a hip, surfboarding dog – is voiced by none other than Homer Simpson.”
Season Eight heartily rebounds with the excellent “Poochie”. It manages to spoof TV’s conventions in a clever way and also pokes fun at The Simpsons itself. The fans take a jab as well, so everyone gets a little mockery in this fine program.
Homer’s Phobia (aired 2/16/97): “Homer begins to suspect that Bart is gay. When a visit to a steel mill to boost Bart’s manliness backfires, Homer takes his son on a camping trip to ‘straighten him out’.”
Homosexuality wasn’t as big a subject on TV 10 years ago, so “Phobia” was more daring than it might seem now. It brings a good spin to the topic, though it occasionally feels a little heavy-handed. Still, the episode has enough cleverness to work,
The Brother From Another Series (aired 2/23/97): “Bart’s nemesis Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer) returns, this time with his evil brother Cecil (David Hyde Pierce). Though Bob has reformed, Cecil attempts to blow up the Springfield Dam, only to be foiled as his brother has so many times.”
The series usually produces good work when Bob appears, and “Brother” lives up to expectations. Actually, it exceeds expectations with its great choice to bring Pierce into the affair. This could’ve been a little too clever-clever but it works exceedingly well and brings out another terrific show. It helps that Pierce and Grammer are such good voice-over artists, and their long-time connection allows their episode to prosper.
My Sister, My Sitter (aired 3/2/97): “Homer and Marge go out, and because Lisa is more responsible, they put her in charge of Bart. Under her care, the disgruntled Bart almost kills himself.”
“Sitter” mixes wacky moments with reality as it places Lisa in a logical position. Her conflict with Bart creates realism and also brings out the comedy. The segments in which Lisa babysits the various kids in town are a delight – it’s always great to see more of Rod and Todd – and Bart’s antics make the show a solid one. Heck, even Maggie actually gets something to do!
Homer Vs. the Eighteenth Amendment (aired 3/16/97): “A St. Patrick’s Day riot leads Springfield to reinstate Prohibition. Homer becomes a notorious bootlegger known as the Beer Baron.”
“Amendment” pokes fun at the reactionary, irrational way society often responds to problems. It also manages to make Prohibition amusing. Throw in a nice guest spot from SCTV’s Dave Thomas and I find a lot to like about “Amendment”.
Grade School Confidential (aired 4/6/97): “Bart’s principal (Shearer) and his teacher (Marcia Wallace) begin a secret romance. When Bart reveals it to the world, they nearly lose their jobs.”
As with the divorce of Milhouse’s parents, “Confidential” launches a plot thread that would endure into future seasons. The romance would percolate slowly, but it continued through the years. I like that fact, and the developments here launch things in a manner both realistic and amusing. It reminds me a bit of the episode in which Skinner fell for Patty, especially via the way it uses Bart as the intermediary. Nonetheless, it becomes its own piece.
The Canine Mutiny (aired 4/13/97): “Bart’s new dog Laddie is so impressive that Bart gives away Santa’s Little Helper. When Bart decides to get his old dog back, he discovers that Santa’s Little Helper is living with a blind man who doesn’t want to give him up.”
As a sucker for dogs, episodes focused on Santa’s Little Helper work for me. It follows a rather predictable path but I can’t hold that against it. The episode creates real sympathy for poor, forgotten SLH and packs a nice little punch along with the comedy.
The Old Man and the Lisa (aired 4/20/97): “Burns loses all his money and must move into the decrepit Springfield Retirement Castle. Vowing to make back his fortune, Burns does it – with Lisa’s help – through recycling.”
As the years progress, the series has to work harder and harder to create interesting combinations. That leads to the odd pairing of Lisa and Burns. Happily, the episode doesn’t come across as forced or stiff. It makes sure its leads stay true to themselves while they create an interesting story. Actually, Burns’ financial collapse doesn’t make much sense, but once you get beyond that, it’s a good show.
In Marge We Trust (aired 4/27/97): “Marge attempts to assist Reverend Lovejoy (Shearer) and becomes more popular with his congregation than the Reverend is. Meanwhile, Homer is befuddled by his apparent likeness on a box of Japanese dish soap.”
Here we get a program in which the “B”-story outshines the main plot. Homer’s obsession with Mr. Sparkle is a terrific theme that creates many fun moments. As for the Marge side of things, I’m not as wild about the show simply because I don’t care for the Lovejoy character. I suppose it’s nice to get some additional exposition for him, but I simply never found the role to be very interesting, so a program that focuses so strongly on him falters. I do enjoy the glimpse into how Flanders extinguished Lovejoy’s passion, though.
Homer’s Enemy (aired 5/4/97): “A new employee at the nuclear plant, Frank Grimes (Azaria), is disgusted by Homer’s laziness and popularity. Grimes’ spite eventually gets the better of him, but Homer is never aware of just how much he was hated.”
During this episode’s commentary, the participants discuss how it didn’t go over very well at the time. I’d not watched it in a while, so I didn’t recall how I felt about it. Now that I’ve seen it again, I recall that I agreed with the moderately negative sentiments. However, I continue to maintain these. Homer comes across as too obnoxious even for him, and Grimes is unlikable and unsympathetic. The show’s an interesting departure for the series but not an especially successful one.
The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase (aired 5/11/97): “In this trilogy of Simpsons spin-offs that never made it, Chief Wiggum (Azaria) gets his own cop show, Grampa’s (Castellaneta) spirit inhabits the love tester at Moe’s, and the family gets a smarmy variety show – complete with a new Lisa.”
“Spin-Off” gets a little high concept, as it goes rather far away from the series’ reality. Nonetheless, it creates more than a few laughs. The variety show is the best of the bunch, but all three succeed. They’re appropriately cheesy as they mock the lame conventions that infect so many TV series. I especially love the variety show; it’ll strike a real chord with anyone who remembers its horrifying predecessors from the Seventies.
The Secret War of Lisa Simpson (aired 5/18/97): “A destructive prank gets Bart sent to a military school. Lisa joins as well but is intimidated by a difficult physical test.”
Season Eight ends on a positive note. “War” does nothing revolutionary as it adds some definition to Bart and Lisa, but it has heart. The show becomes a rich and enjoyable one.