The Simpsons: Season 5

December 18, 2004

A man, a bear, and a baby: image from 'Rosebud', a fifth season highlight, drawn by the great Wes Archer


            It seems like only yesterday when I was writing about the most recent DVD of “The Simpsons”, effusing high fan-boy praise on how brilliant the show evolved, year-by-year.  It wasn’t yesterday, but early June, and now, with unusual speed, undoubtedly to capitalize on the Christmas season (the average length between releases is usually a year at least), the greatness of that summer set, Season 4, has given way to what may be the shows prime year, the famous fifth season, from 93-94.  Ask most rabid fans, or TV critics, and they will say that this year was the pinnacle, the year that produced 22 singular masterpieces of animated family and social satire, and if you look at later seasons (especially the most recent hit-or-miss years) you can see a decline- albeit slow- starting somewhere mid season six.  But all hot streaks must come to an end, and we’ll deal with that when season six is released next year, but for now, let us look at why this particular season in Springfield was so special, and why, as usual, the great American Dream of success and fame for our favorite family of five continuously, and hilariously crumbles to pieces. 

            The fifth season of “The Simpsons” was the year where the writers, having already accepted much fame and praise for the great first four years, opened up the box and let the family enjoy plotlines that would have seemed too out-of-reach in the years before, and that’s saying something, given the strange situations Homer Simpson had gotten his family into over the early years.  This was the year where Homer was launched into space, picked by NASA simply because he was an average Joe, or because Barney, his strongest competitor, was too drunk to complete the mission, either way, it was the first time Homer Simpson, in the realm of the show, received national attention, rather than simply from Kent Brockman.  And look at some of these other plotlines, each one comedic gold; Bart winning an elephant from a radio station, Ernest Borgnine leading a Junior Campers expedition into the dark Springfield woods, like something out of “Deliverance” and “Friday the 13th”; Bart freaking out on the school bus, ala Shatner in an old 'Twilight Zone' ep, in the great ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episode; Marge and her new friend, Ruth Powers (introduced in season four), leading a police car chase into the Springfield flats, like Thelma and Louise, to teach the chauvinist men of Springfield a lesson (it doesn’t hold); Principal Skinner befriending Bart after Bart’s dog gets him fired (and causes a greased Scotsman to crash down on Superintendent Chalmers); Grandpa Simpson wooing Marge’s mother away from Mr. Burns, with echoes of Chaplin, Jimmy Durante, and “The Graduate”; and Mayor Quimby’s soulless nephew mocking, and possibly beating up, a clumsy French waiter for mispronouncing “Chowder”. 

This was the year, more than ever, where some of the previous seasons sweetness took a backside, occasionally anyway, to pure lunacy.  Absent, for the most part, are the touching finales that marked the early years as something outside of simple comedy; Maggie’s “Daddy”, Lisa’s note from her substitute teacher, Homer and Marge’s kiss after their high school prom, Grandpa’s restoring the retirement home, “Come in friends, dignity’s on me”, and Selma’s love song to Jub-Jub, her pet iguana.  Now we were beginning to see a more broad comedic ending: Homer ripping off Tom Hanks’ “Big” piano dance at the end of “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy”; the mad, mad, mad, mad dash to Molloy’s buried lute in the famous episode, “Homer the Vigilante”; Bart and Chief Wiggum landing on a huge mound of garbage, and Homer kissing it for sweet life at the end of “Marge on the Lam”, and possibly the funniest of them all, the futuristic adventure of robot Burns (with his sidekick dog, Smithers), recovering his ancient teddy bear at the end of “Rosebud”.  With the exceptions, “$pringfield”, “Secrets of a Successful Marriage”, and the bitterly ironic ending to “Homer and Apu”, and “Lady Bouvier’s Lover”, the fifth season capped in the tradition of vaudeville, leaving you wanting more, with a joke.

But I think that is one of the reasons “The Simpsons” evolves so well, that it doesn’t have to emulate past successes to create new success.  In Season Four we saw a year where nothing went right in Springfield- from the Monorail disaster, to the power plant strike, to Homer’s plow business- and here in Season Five we see more instances of failure, but on a larger, more national scale.  Homer nearly ruining NASA because of hunger, and rage, while in space; Bart’s carefree anarchy becoming the model for the Messiah-like Brad Goodman (series all-star guest Albert Brooks) to peddle his “easy answers” on self-help and shame; Homer winning a Grammy with his Barbershop quartet, and then falling lower than Alf on US Magazine’s hot list; Mr. Burns’ disastrous, Howard Hughes-esque venture into casino gaming; Bart becoming a one-hit wonder on Krusty after a set accident (“I didn’t do it”) makes him famous, and lands him on former ‘Simpsons’ writer Conan O’Brien’s “Late Night”; and Lisa taking on the Malibu Stacy empire with her own socially respectable doll, Lisa Lionheart, which tanks on the market when a new and improved Stacy is released the same day.  Like always, the core family unit holds strong, even if they never learn from their mistakes- that’s what makes it so funny- and through all the mad and heinous undertakings, Springfield and its residents always live to see another week, perfectly healthy, perfectly yellow, and perfectly abnormal.

There is greatness to be found in all 22 episodes, but here is my take on the ten best from a really good batch of episodes:


10.  Boy-Scoutz N the Hood:  When Bart and Milhouse go on a squishy bender, Bart ends up with drinkers remorse after he learns he joined the ultra-geeky Junior Campers.  “The Simpsons” often has great musical sequences peppered into the season, and here, while high on sugar, Bart and Milhouse sing “Springfield, Springfield” in tune to “New York, New York” from “On the Town”.  Throw in Ernest Borgnine, Captain McCallister’s admitting “Arrgh, I don’t know what I’m doing,” and an offshore oil rig Krusty Burger, and you’ve got yourself a classic.


9.  Cape Feare:  Written by series original Jon Vitti, and directed by Rich Moore, this famous spoof of “Cape Fear” features Kelsey Grammer’s third, and best, performance as Sideshow Bob, this time foiled because he couldn’t sing the “H.M.S. Pinafore” score fast enough to kill Bart, before his boat unfortunately saddles up next to a brothel frequented by Chief Wiggum and Springfield’s finest.  Watching the FBI painfully trying to explain to Homer his new undercover name, Homer Thompson, says it all about how stupid Homer really is.


8.  The Boy Who Knew Too Much:  One of the four episodes this season written by the legend John Swartzwelder, this ep is notable for its courtroom mystery layout, and for Homer telepathically singing the Meow Mix song to Bart.


7.  Homer Goes to College:  This hilarious spoof of college-themed comedy films was the last script written by Conan O’Brien before landing his late-night show, and features Homer at his most careless, literally running over the college dean- his mortal enemy- because, as a jock, it’s his duty to take some of the starch out of the deans stuffed shirt.  Richard Nixon, and a drunken pig are just two of the highlights.


6.  The Last Temptation of Homer:  Much like season four’s “Colonel Homer”, Homer is tempted by a beautiful woman, this time a coworker, Mindy Simmons (guest star Michelle Pfeiffer), who shares his love for foot-long hot dogs, free shower curtains, and jelly donuts.  When Homer and Marge reconcile in the end, the song is “Can’t Get Enough of Your Love” by Barry White, a sly nod to “Whacking Day” a year earlier.


5.  Deep Space Homer:  When NASA learns their latest shuttle broadcast was beaten in the ratings by “A Connie Chung Christmas”, Homer is selected as an average Joe to garner interest, ending, as is the case with Homer, in complete disaster.  This great episode is famous for its homage/spoof of everything from “2001” to “The Right Stuff”, and features one of Homer’s greatest defeats- his losing “Worker of the Week” to an inanimate carbon rod.  Irony of all ironies, it is the rod that saves his life in the end, and ends up on the cover of a magazine.  D’oh.


4. Rosebud:  By now, we’re fully aware that the writers of “The Simpsons” adore “Citizen Kane”, but this episode takes the cake, framing Mr. Burns’ search for his childhood teddy bear, Bobo, as if it were Charles Foster Kane’s beloved lost sled.  Written by Swartzwelder, with a frightening performance by The Ramones at Mr. Burns’ birthday party, this classic also has one of Homer’s more slovenly moments- staying up all night devouring 64 slices of American cheese. 


3.  $pringfield (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling):  Another Burns heavy episode, this one starts a recurring joke- that Marge is a terrible gambling addict, ruled by a demon Homer names, Gamblor, which keeps her at the slots in Burns’ new casino 24/7, with little time to sew Lisa’s school costume, or protect Homer from the Boogie Man.  If you haven’t seen it, than these references will miss you, but to us fanatics, it’s genius.


2.  Homer’s Barbershop Quartet:  The first episode of the season, written by series original Jeff Martin, is one of the shows very best flashback episodes, recalling Homer, Barney, Apu, and Principal Skinner’s Beatles-like rise to fame, in the much maligned Barbershop Quartet genre.  The group is The B-Sharps, the song is “Baby on Board”, the guest stars include David Cosby and George Harrison, Homer gorges on a mountain of brownies, and Barney dates a Japanese conceptual artist who favors a single plum, floating in perfume, served in a man’s hat, which Moe is more than happy to supply.  In all regards, a legendary episode. 


1.  Homer and Apu:  In any other year, “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet” may have led this list, but I adore “Homer and Apu”, the episode where Homer eats a rancid hotdog at the Kwik-E-Mart, gets Apu fired, takes him into his home, and travels with him to India to the Kwik-E-Mart HQ, where the CEO, an enlightened Maharaja slurping a squishy, grants them three questions, all of which Homer naturally botches.  I don’t know what it is about this episode- the “Who Needs the Kwik-E-Mart?” song number; James Woods filling in for Apu at the store, researching a film role as a clerk, which later evolves into an Eskimo; or Homer’s wise line, “I’ve learned that life is one crushing defeat after another until you just wish Flanders was dead,”- but the entire affair is inspired.  Look closely at the cash register in the Kwik-E-Mart and notice that they no longer accept checks from Homer J. Simpson, Homer S. Simpson, H.J. Simpson, Homor Simpson, or Homer J. Fong.  It’s in the little details that make this episode the year’s best, and solidifies “The Simpsons” as the funniest sitcom of all time.

by Adam Suraf