Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 21, 2003)
Alert the Pope and call your mother – the DVD set for the third season on The Simpsons is finally here! And it only took a mere 55 weeks! At this rate, we might get to Season Four before I die – maybe.
Rather than idly gripe, I’ll just dig into the programs that make up Season Three of The Simpsons. In their original broadcast order, I’ll look at each show individually to document the lows, the highs, and the creamy middles. The plot capsules come straight from the series’ official website. Lastly, I’ll toss in a fun line from each episode; the quotes won’t always be me absolute favorite, but they’ll provide tidbits I find to be amusing that seem to work in the written context.
Stark Raving Dad (aired September 19, 1991): When he wears a pink shirt to work, Homer's (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) coworkers mistake him for a mental patient and commit him to the New Bedlam Rest Home for the Emotionally Interesting. While there, Homer meets a tall, stocky white man who claims to be Michael Jackson (John Jay Smith). Despite his reservations, Homer befriends "Michael" and takes his new pal home with him upon his release. Meanwhile, Lisa (Yeardley Smith) celebrates her eighth birthday without a present from Bart (Nancy Cartwright), who was too inconsiderate to get her anything.
I don’t know if I’d call “Dad” a classic, but it starts Season Three on a positive note. The program gets sappy on more than a few occasions, and it lacks the acerbic bite of the series’ best shows. Nonetheless, it tosses out some good laughs, and the guest appearance by Jackson – under a pseudonym – works well; Michael shows an ability to mock himself that still surprises me.
Representative line: Bart: “Homer, whatever they’ve got you on, cut the dose!”
Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington (aired September 26, 1991): Lisa enters an essay contest and wins a trip for the whole family to go to Washington, D.C. While there, her faith in democracy is shattered when she witnesses a congressman accepting a bribe.
”Washington” has its moments but never seems like one of the series’ better programs. Part of that stems from its somewhat icky ending. The show exhibits a tone that feels more appropriate to a less biting and cynical series. It starts well with Homer’s obsession with Reading Digest. After that, the show seems more erratic, and it remains pretty average overall.
Representative line: Homer: “Who would’ve guessed reading and writing would pay off?”
When Flanders Failed (aired October 3, 1991): Ned Flanders (Harry Shearer) decides to open his own business called the Leftorium, a store that sells tools and products aimed at left-handed consumers. Homer, filled with resentment towards Flanders, hopes that the Leftorium fails.
Mean Homer equals Funny Homer, so “Failed” presents an above average show. He seems unusually crude here, which makes him amusing. The subplot with Bart and his karate class also adds good material, especially when he threatens to turn the “Touch of Death” on Lisa. Another sappy finish slightly mars this one, but it remains generally solid.
Representative line: Homer: “I don’t care if Ned Flanders is the nicest guy in the world. He’s a jerk – end of story.”
Bart the Murderer (aired October 10, 1991): When he crashes his skateboard into the stairwell of the Legitimate Businessman's Social Club, Bart falls in with a particularly bad crowd: the Springfield Mafia. Soon, he befriends Fat Tony (Joe Mantegna), Louie (Castellaneta), and other goodfellas, who take him on as their bartender and errand boy. As Bart adopts more and more gangster-like traits, Marge (Julie Kavner) grows anxious. Meanwhile, Principal Skinner (Shearer) disappears and the police strongly suspect that Bart and his new friends are responsible.
Season Three’s first truly great show, “Murderer” starts off strong and gets even better as it moves. Sure, mafia parodies have been done to death, but this one brings a fresh approach and remains consistently amusing. It lifts bits from flicks like GoodFellas but never becomes simple thievery. A great guest spot from Mantegna helps. “Murderer” also feels like the first episode of this season that really moves the series ahead; it seems like something a little more incisive than most of what came before it. It’s a great show, and it even avoids the sappiness that marred the last few shows’ endings. Heck, this program finishes with one of the series’ more cynical conclusions – gotta love that!
Representative line: Wiggum: “Fat Tony is a cancer on this fair city. He is the cancer and I am the... uh... what cures cancer?”
Homer Defined (aired October 17, 1991): During a near-fatal meltdown at The Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, Homer frantically presses buttons on his console until he hits the right combination and saves the day. Homer becomes a hero even though he knows in his heart that what he did was a fluke.
After the excellent “Murderer”, “Defined” marks a regression. Not much of a regression, though, and it was almost inevitable that the show wouldn’t match up with its predecessor. Crass Homer beats modest Homer, which makes “Defined” drag at times. Actually, the B-plot in which Bart and Milhouse split seems more entertaining. It’s a good show but not a tremendously memorable one.
Representative line: Marge: “Dear Lord, if you spare this town from becoming a smoking hole in the ground, I’ll try to be a better Christian. I don’t know what I can do... umm, oh, the next time there’s a canned food drive, I’ll give the poor something they’d actually like instead of old lima beans and pumpkin mix.”
Like Father, Like Clown (aired October 24, 1991): During a tear-filled dinner at the Simpsons' house, Krusty the Clown (Castellaneta) reveals that he is the estranged son of an Orthodox Jewish Rabbi. It seems that Krusty's father, Rabbi Krustofski (Jackie Mason), never accepted his son's profession, and disowned him years ago. Bart and Lisa decide to reunite the two men, but find that getting the Rabbi to agree to a meeting is nearly impossible.
Despite my long-term, active disdain for the annoying antics of Mason, “Clown” offers a pretty solid show. It lacks a surfeit of guffaws, but it manages to be sweet and heartfelt without becoming sappy. It’s more of a charming show than a laughfest, but it does the job.
Representative line: Homer: “Mel Brooks is Jewish?!”
Treehouse of Horror II: A Simpsons Halloween (aired October 31, 1991): After eating piles and piles of Halloween candy, Bart, Lisa and Homer have nightmares that haunt them all night. Lisa dreams that the family goes on a trip to Morocco and buys a cursed monkey paw that grants its owner three wishes. Homer dreams that Mr. Burns (Shearer) steals his brain for a giant robot he's building. Bart's dream, in which he has the power to read minds and affect people with his thoughts, seems less like a nightmare at first.
Today the “Treehouse” shows are a Simpsons institution, but they weren’t so hot their first couple of years. The 1991 incarnation does top the original from 1990. None of the three stories stands out as particularly excellent, though the monkey’s paw one probably works the best. Chalk up this episode as a decent Halloween set.
Representative line: Burns: “Damn it Smithers, this isn’t rocket science. It’s brain surgery!”
Lisa’s Pony (aired November 7, 1991): When Homer disappoints Lisa one too many times, he tries to make it up to her with one grand gesture: He buys her a pony. Lisa is thrilled, but Homer and Marge are shocked to discover how expensive maintaining the animal can be. Homer is forced to take on another job working the graveyard shift at the Kwik-E-Mart to pay the bills.
Episodes in which Homer has to redeem himself to others aren’t a rarity, and “Pony” falls in the middle of that genre’s pack. Homer’s escapades at the Kwik-E-Mart definitely add life to the proceedings, and some of his other antics make the show good. I like “Pony” but don’t consider it to offer a great program.
Representative line: Apu: “He slept, he stole, he was rude to the customers. Still, there goes the best damned employee a convenience store ever had.”
Saturdays of Thunder (aired November 14, 1991): Bart becomes deeply immersed in competitive soapbox racing while Homer begins to realize that he's not as good a father as he thought. After attending a lecture at National Fatherhood Institute, Homer becomes a more attentive father, helping Bart build the ultimate soapbox racer.
One of my Season Three faves, on the surface, “Thunder” essentially just rehashes the theme of its predecessor. We find a Homer who treats his kids in a tremendously indifferent – and occasionally neglectful – manner who has to face up to his weaknesses as a father. However, “Thunder” simply seems funnier than “Pony”. The soapbox derby elements provide lots of great gags, as do the chances to mock then-rival Bill Cosby. “Thunder” offers a great episode.
Representative line: Bart: “Three-time soapbox derby champ Ronnie Beck says, ‘Poorly guarded construction sites are a gold mine.’”
Flaming Moe’s (aired November 21, 1991): Homer invents a bizarre drink he calls the Flaming Homer. It's so good that Moe (Hank Azaria) steals his recipe, renames it the Flaming Moe, and takes credit for it. The Flaming Moe revitalizes the bartender's business, turning Moe's Tavern into the hottest spot in Springfield.
From Lisa’s slumber party at the opening through the Cheers spoof at Moe’s, this episode’s another real winner. Homer gets some of his all-time best lines, including a great run where he mocks Marge’s attempts to have him accept his fate. We even find a great twist on Bart’s prank phone calls when he asks for “Hugh Jass”. All in all, “Flaming” provides a terrific show.
Representative line: Moe: “He may have come up with the recipe, but I came up with the idea of charging $6.95 for it.”
Burns Verkaufen der Kraftwerk (aired December 5, 1991): Mr. Burns sells The Springfield Nuclear Power Plant for $100 million. The buyers are two wealthy German investors who promptly fire Homer and other employees.
Another Homer-focused episode, “Verkaufen” doesn’t quite match up with its immediate predecessors, but it’s a funny one nonetheless. It’s a little odd to see a program that emphasizes Homer’s incompetence at work so soon after “Defined”, though. Still, the depiction of the Germans provides some good material, and the Burns moments are unusually clever. It’s a generally positive program.
Representative line: Diamond Joe Quimby: “Ich bin ein Springfielder.”
I Married Marge (aired December 26, 1991): It's a walk down memory lane as Homer and Marge recount their early years for Bart and Lisa. Back in 1980, a young Homer and Marge are forced to get married at Shotgun Pete's Wedding Chapel after Marge becomes pregnant. But married life is difficult for the young couple and Homer decides to leave Marge until he is able to provide the sort of life he thinks she deserves.
Something of a sequel to Season Two’s “The Way We Was”, the flashback concept works again here. The show develops a good sense for the era in which it takes place and helps develop the characters nicely. Both sweet and funny, “Married” provides a nice piece of Simpsons history.
Trivia note: “Married” presents our first look at a redneck named Cletus. However, don’t expect the slack-jawed yokel the show would use relentlessly in future seasons; this one shares a regional heritage and name only.
Representative line: Marge: “Homer, maybe it’s the Champale talking, but I think you’re pretty sexy.”
Radio Bart (aired January 9, 1992): Homer buys Bart a Superstar Celebrity microphone for his birthday. Bart thinks it's the lamest gift in the world until he realizes he can play some great pranks with it. One of his pranks backfires when the entire town comes to the rescue of "Timmy O'Toole," the little boy Bart pretends has fallen down a well. Krusty the Clown brings his celebrity friends, including Sting, to record a song "We're Sending Our Love Down the Well" to benefit Timmy. Realizing things have gotten out of hand, Bart tries to undo his prank, but winds up falling down the well himself.
Despite the potential for some heavy-handed moralizing, “Radio” provides a terrific show. From Bart’s crappy birthday to his pranks to the public reaction to Timmy’s trapping, the humor flies fast and furious in this excellent episode. It’s one of the better ones.
Representative line: Homer: “Y’know Marge, Bart’s really gonna like my birthday present this year. It won’t be like those shoetrees I got him last year, or the shelf paper I bought him for Christmas. I’ll buy his love yet!”
Lisa the Greek (aired January 23, 1992): Homer discovers that Lisa has an uncanny ability to pick winning football teams. Soon, the two of them spend every Sunday afternoon together, betting on football games and winning. During these "Daddy-Daughter Days," Lisa feels closer to Homer than ever, but she begins to feel betrayed when she realizes Homer is only interested in her winning picks.
Although “Greek” echoes the neglectful father theme seen not long ago in ‘Pony”, the show doesn’t feel like just a retread. It doesn’t do much to develop the Lisa/Homer relationship, but it tosses in some good pokes at the NFL and the culture that surrounds the sport. It’s not a classic, but “Greek’ remains an above average program.
Representative line: Lisa: “Look around you, Malibu Stacy. All this was bought with dirty money. Your penthouse, your Alfa Romeo, your collagen injection clinic.”
Homer Alone (aired February 6, 1992): Marge has a nervous breakdown and is sent to Rancho Relaxo resort for some much-needed rest and relaxation. While she's off pampering herself, Homer sends Bart and Lisa to stay with their Aunts Patty and Selma (both voiced by Kavner) but must take care of Maggie himself.
“Alone” comes close to finding the series in a rut, as it sort of offers another iteration of the “Homer’s a bad father” theme. However, the emphasis on Marge’s issues makes it different, and it’s also fun to see life at Patty and Selma’s place. Plus, who can now go bowling and not whine about “alley balls”? It’s another solid show.
Representative line: Radio DJ: “This is Coma – WKOMA. Restful, easy listening. Coming up next, a super set of songs about clouds.”
Bart the Lover (aired February 13, 1992): During a particularly long detention jag, Bart discovers that his teacher, Mrs. Krabappel (Marcia Wallace), has placed a personal ad looking for love. Thinking it would be funny to string her along, Bart writes her a love letter as "Woodrow," the perfect man who loves holding hands and hates yo-yos. Mrs. Krabappel falls madly in love with Woodrow and Bart begins to realize that he's done a very cruel thing.
The first show to emphasis Edna, “Lover” steers clear of most potentially sappy material and offers a lively piece. We get a better feeling for Krabappel and see another side of Bart as they romance each other semi-inadvertently. The “B” story in which Homer tries not to swear also swings and creates some great moments. “Lover” stands out as a very strong episode.
Representative line: Gas station attendant: “Bingo, bango – sugar in the gas tank! Your ex-husband strikes again!”
Homer at the Bat (aired February 20, 1992): Mr. Burns makes a million dollar bet with his arch-rival Aristotle Amadopolis (Castellaneta here, though Jon Lovitz originated the role in “Homer Defined”) that the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant team will beat the Shelbyville Nuclear Power Plant team in the softball championships. To ensure victory, Burns hires a number of ringers, including pro baseball players Darryl Strawberry, Ken Griffey, Jr., Steve Sax, Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Ozzie Smith, Wade Boggs and Mike Scioscia to replace the plant employees he cut from the team. But as game day approaches, the pros all succumb to various strange ailments and accidents that prevent them from playing and it's up to Homer and his teammates to beat the Shelbyville team.
Back when “Bat” originally aired, I didn’t like it. While I’ve warmed up to the show slightly over the last decade, I still think it’s generally weak, and I’d definitely pick it as Season Three’s worst. The problem stems from all the guest stars. For one, most of the players can’t act, and the program needs to fit in so many little subplots to accommodate them that it becomes diluted and simply silly. “Bat” tosses in a few good moments, but I don’t care for it overall.
Representative line: Bart: “Gotcha – can’t win, don’t try.”
Separate Vocations (aired February 27, 1992): After taking career aptitude tests, Lisa discovers that the occupation she's best suited for is homemaker while Bart is pegged as a future police officer. Each takes the opportunity to explore their options as Lisa spends the day doing chores with Marge and Bart goes on a ride along with the police.
While I wouldn’t call this show’s role-reversal theme original, it still works really well and marks a solid rebound after the lame “Bat”. Bart’s rapid embrace of fascism and Lisa’s descent into hooliganism provide a number of funny opportunities, and “Vocations” exploits them well. Though it’s not one of the year’s best shows, it seems like a good one for the most part.
Representative line: Bart: “All right, boys, break it up – that belly ain’t getting any pinker.”
Dog of Death (aired March 12, 1992): Santa's Little Helper is rushed to the hospital to undergo an emergency operation. Homer is saddened to tell Bart and Lisa that they just can't afford the $750 for the operation, but seeing how much everyone--including himself--loves the dog, he resolves to find a way to pay for it. To save up the money, everyone must give up their small luxuries and begin to resent the dog for forcing them to lose out on the things they enjoy. Hurt and dejected, Santa's Little Helper runs away from home, only to be adopted by Mr. Burns, who trains him to become one of his vicious attack hounds.
From top to bottom, “Death” offers a terrific program. It launches DVD Four with a genuinely memorable show. From the cracks about the lottery and public hysteria that open the program to the calamities that befall the family when SLH gets sick to the bizarre escapades that greet the pooch when he splits, “Death” provides a hilarious piece. SLH-oriented shows seem to always work well – like Season Two’s “Bart’s Dog Gets an ‘F’” – and this one’s excellent. It even presents possibly the funniest Clockwork Orange parody I’ve ever seen.
Representative line: Homer: “I’ve figured out an alternative to giving up my beer. Basically, we’ll become a family of traveling acrobats.”
Colonel Homer (aired March 26, 1992): Homer and Marge have a fight after attending a movie and Homer drives off angry. As he drives, he pulls up to a honky-tonk bar called Beer 'N' Brawl where he meets an aspiring country music singer named Lurleen Lumpkin (Beverly D’Angelo). Struck by her talent and her beauty, Homer becomes her manager, securing her gigs and a record deal while at the same time fraying his relationship with Marge.
After the great “Dog of Death”, one might expect some drop-off with “Colonel Homer”, but virtually none occurs. It offers another classic episode that benefits from a memorable guest voice performance from D’Angelo. Homer’s moment in the sun creates a fun plot and the program nicely lampoons the country music business. How can you not adore a show in which Bart does a “hambone solo”?
Representative line: Bart: “As much as I hate that man right now, you gotta love that suit.”
Black Widower (aired April 9, 1992): Selma agrees to marry her prison pen pal, Sideshow Bob (Kelsey Grammer). Bart and Lisa are terrified of their soon-to-be new uncle, since Bob swore he'd get revenge on Bart for having him sent to prison for framing Krusty the Clown for robbery. Sideshow Bob tries to show the Simpsons that he has changed his ways in prison, but Bart remains skeptical.
Could we find another excellent program via “Widower”? Yup! Theoretically, the show should start to peter toward the end of the season due to general tiredness and the pressure of creating so many programs. However, that didn’t occur in Season Three, and “Widower” fares very well. The folks at the series rarely botch Sideshow Bob episodes, and “Widower” offers an additional reason to love his occasional appearances. It’s hard to believe this was only his second spot, as Bob seems like a very well developed character here. Great stuff!
Representative line: Selma: “We’re a package. Love me, love MacGuyver.”
The Otto Show (aired April 23, 1992): After seeing Spinal Tap bring the house down (sort of) in concert, Bart decides he wants to learn how to play electric guitar. Playing is harder than Bart thought and he becomes dejected when he sees what a guitar god his bus driver, Otto (Shearer), is. Because he was too busy jamming with Bart's guitar, Otto arrives late to school and is fired until he can get a new license from the DMV. With no job and no prospects, Otto is thrown out of his apartment and is forced to live in the Simpsons' garage until he can get his job back.
I feel like a tool since I’ll shower more praise on Disc Four, but “Otto” is another solid episode. Actually, it regresses somewhat from the high quality of its predecessors. The Spinal Tap material feels somewhat tacky – it was a tie-in with their then-current attempt to sell a new album – and Otto’s not a strong character. I don’t think the series ever made him the lead again, and he works best in small doses. “Otto” remains very good, but it doesn’t compete with the year’s best shows.
Representative line: Homer: “If something’s hard to do, then it’s not worth doing. You just stick that guitar in the closet next to your short wave radio, your karate outfit and your unicycle and we’ll go inside and watch TV.”
Bart’s Friend Falls In Love (aired May 7, 1992): Everything's coming up Milhouse (Pamela Hayden) when Bart's best friend falls in love with the new girl, Samantha Stanky (Kimmy Robertson). Bart is jealous of how much time Milhouse is spending with Samantha and plots to break them up by telling Samantha's strict father about the relationship.
From the ingenious and hilarious Raiders of the Lost Ark parody at the show’s start, “Love” is a keeper. It actually develops the characters and gets into pre-teen emotions but never becomes sappy. The “B”-plot in which Lisa tries to get Homer to lose weight provides terrific laughs as well; my friends and I still cackle over the “Good Morning Burger”. “Love” seems like a winner.
Representative line: Milhouse: “How could this happen? We started out like Romeo and Juliet but it ended up in tragedy.”
Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes? (aired August 27, 1992): Homer's half-brother Herb Powell (Danny DeVito) returns, but this time not as a successful businessman. After Homer wrecked his car company, Herb has become a bum, but with a little help from Maggie, he thinks he has come up with a shoo-in invention that will put him back on top. Herb wants to build the first baby translator, a device that will interpret babies' cries and mumbles into plain speech.
Season Three ends with yet another fine program. It’s fun to see what happened to Herb, and DeVito’s performance helps make the show more successful; they really need to bring him back one of these days. Toss in a little bitterness toward the Emmys and you have a solid conclusion to this year.
Representative line: Homer: “Why did this have to happen now, during prime time, when TV’s brightest stars come out to shine?”
Was Season Three the best year ever for The Simpsons? Probably not, but it was the show’s first genuinely great year. Seasons One had some good moments, and much of Season Two seemed very good, but both had more than a few miscues. Season Three was when the series really got into a groove and became consistent. When you consider that the year presented only one show that I don’t like and even it wasn’t too bad, that’s a fine run.