Recently I bought Season 9 of the Simpsons on DVD (the special edition carved in the shape of Lisa’s head) as part of the HMV Blue Cross sale when everyone thought it was going out of business. Ironically enough, there were plenty of copies of this for sale, meaning I got it at a pretty cheap price (a fiver, I think).
I found this interesting in itself; season 9 is largely seen as where the wheels started to come off the show’s incredibly high-quality run. In some respects, it is unreasonable to think a show that between seasons 4 to 8 are considered some of the best TV has ever produced; probably THE best during the 90’s. It was in these seasons where the show grew in confidence from it’s initial boom in it’s first three seasons (which still has plenty of excellent episodes) to grow into a full concious, self-aware cultural phenomenon, due to it’s insanely consistently brilliant episodes, jokes and characters. It was here that the show began to really turn it’s mirror towards America, with particular reference to its TV, Film and media consumption, and found it ripe for excellent parody and satire.
So what went wrong in Season 9? Well, Tonally, it is all over the place. There’s a few reasons for this but it would not be unfair to say that it was a transitional season. After the incredible peaks of Season 7 & 8 (and my they are high), many of those who had brought the show to its ascension decided it was time to move on before or during Season 9, namely the immense Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein.
Equally, Season 9 has episodes from all over the shop. Holdovers from both Season 7 and 8 (the first 4 bar Halloween VIII) and written and directed by a much wider cast of writers than before. From ‘The Cartridge Family’ onwards, the show was ran by the much criticised Mike Scully, and the animation and tone changes a lot from there to ‘Natural Born Kissers’. Scully would eventually become full-time show-runner from Season 10 through 12, and this would become the period of which many of The Simpsons early fans would become disheartened. Personally, I think these are very underrated series, as it saw the show become even further delving into meta and self awareness without (in my opinion) going into pastiche as it would from 13 onwards.
But Season 9 was the first real bump in the road, and having now re-visited the series, has confirmed to me that it is one of the most inconsistent (though obviously still much more preferable to whatever the show is churning out now). Here, I’m going to explore the best, worst and more intriguing moments in the series:
- The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson
Written by Ian Maxtone-Graham, ran by Oakley and Weinstein
Let’s start at the beginning shall we? The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson (a hold-over, and it shows) opened Season 9 which much promise and is still remembered as a fan-and-critic-favourite. It obviously has since taken on a rather eerie after-life, concentrating as much on the Twin Towers as it does, which saw it taken off the air for some time after 9/11. But here we see Maxtone-Graham (one of the only remaining really consistent writers to this day) and the classic production team of Oakley and Weinstein.
The Simpsons being tourists somewhere episode has since been done to death, but at this point was still a relatively new thing (Bart vs. Australia being the only other prior example) and this remains a great one. A Yonkers native, Maxtone-Graham perfectly captures New York’s essence without expending its relevance to plot or the characters. It’s also really funny; “Oh that’s just drunk talk! Sweet, beautiful drunk talk.” and contains one of Al Clausen’s most infuriatingly catchy creations in ‘I’m Checkin’ In’ which rivals ‘Stop the Planet of The Apes – I want to get off!’. It also includes some brilliant moment’s such as Homer’s lingering memories of New York City in the late 70’s, Marge getting excited about really nondescript landmarks (and later, shoes) and Bart visiting MAD Magazine.
But this would be the penultimate episode from Oakley and Weinstein (though their finale still raises eyebrows today – more on that later) and it is the one that very much feels like a continuation of the brilliant 2 seasons that went before it. It’s hard to find this quality again in the Season or indeed in the shows run hereafter.
- “The Cartridge Family” – Or, the gun control episode. This one was also a hold-over, though it was Scully’s first producing, and is probably even more relevant today than at the time. It is also probably one of the last Simpsons episodes to really take a serious American social issue on with as much vigour, even though it decides to be balanced given large disagreements within the cast and crew over its subject manner – Matt Groening for instance is completely anti-guns and feels this episode is too soft. It is a great episode though, and the Soccer sequence that opens it is one of the best opening shticks the show ever did.
- “The Joy of Sect” – This one was ran by David Mirkin who oversaw Seasons 5 and 6 (some pedigree then) and is a scathing bite at Religion and Cults (with particular reference to Scientology). It is also one of Marge’s finest moments – along with “In Marge We Trust” – as she helps to bring down the town’s hypnotism with The Leader; until he fully does it himself.
- “The Last Temptation of Krust” – Krusty is a pretty consistently great character, one can tell the writers have a lot of fun with him. This is a fun episode with lots of great guests, including most notably, Jay Leno, and seeing Krusty morph into a Bill Hicks type, only to realise he’s a corporate shrill at heart. And then there’s “Canyonero!”
- “Simpsons Tide” / “The Trouble With Trillions” – I’ve put these two together because they’re next to each other in the run but also because they’re startlingly similar in politics (and yet both still great). “Simpsons Tide” would be the last for 3rd and 4th season showrunners Al Jean & Mike Reiss (yet another brilliant duo). It starts off as one of “Homer’s wacky jobs” episodes – this being being the Naval Reserve after being fired, only to return to the plant NEXT WEEK – but it goes completely all out bonkers by it’s dénouement; an indication of things to come. Homer’s participation in War Games see’s him end up in actual combat, and ending up in Russia The Soviet Union (this episode also gives the game away that Springfield is in fact based on Portland, Oregon). While in the latter (also written by Maxtone-Graham), it is communist Cuba rather than Russia which Homer, Mr. Burns & Smithers attempt to buy with a trillion dollar bill, as they fight back from Government oppression and Tax. It’s rather amazing that such an anti-American government episode exists, particularly one that ends up with Mr. Burns claiming he’ll bribe the grand jury to get out of trouble, whereas in the previous episode, Homer is off the hook because of various misdemeanour’s by the jury trying him.
- “The Principle and The Pauper”
Written by Ken Keeler, ran by Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein
So, the Elephant in the Room. For the record, I don’t actually think this is a bad episode, nor even the worst on this series (That is obviously “All Singing, All Dancing”). But it is certainly the most controversial and the one which led many to believe in the “beginning of the end”. What’s funny about it is that it’s also a hold-over, and is Oakley and Weinstein’s last episode* (airing only a week after The New York episode) which is a weird place to park their legacy. When I was re-watching these episodes on the DVD, I had the commentary on all of them, and this was by far the most interesting. Oakley, Weinstein and writer Ken Keeler still defend this episode as one of the great misunderstood anomalies of The Simpsons’ legacy, and they make a convincing case (though they also joke about it being their last episode and they just wanted to fuck with it at this point). In their view, what this episode is about, is how changing the status quo is largely an unpopular and unsuccessful thing to do, hence the ending where everyone decides never to talk about this episode again. It’s easy to see why that feels like a slap in the face to the many millions of viewers worldwide who had stuck with the show from the beginning, just to have an established character be besmirched, then seemingly joke about how it was a terrible idea in the first place. But the crew do have a point, there is a very salient, meta-life this episode took on when they ended up satirising its own audience who didn’t quite catch on to the episode’s nuanced tone, which does possess some very touching moments. Ultimately though, it’s not a hugely funny episode and the emotion it contains runs out of sympathy once the “real” Seymour Skinner is simply cast-away after an expertly delivered speech from guest star Martin Sheen. Unfortunately, this episode just scraped a little too close to the bone for many to handle.
The aforementioned, terrible “All Singing, All Dancing” though as they make reference to, was a contractually obligated clip-show and not their choice. Elsewhere, “Lisa the Simpson” (*which is Oakley & Weinstein’s finale) struggles with a Lisa-oriented show, “This Little Wiggy” and “Bart Carny” are just a bit dull, and “King of the Hill” is just a bit pointless over all. Though not as bad, “Das Bus” is a strange one with some great moments and an obvious homage to Lord of the Flies has no real other meaning (though it does make a much better joke than in “Principal and the Pauper” where a God-like voice-over conveniently explains that the marooned children are “Saved by… ohhh, I don’t know, let’s say… Moe.”
- Lisa the Skeptic
Written by David S. Cohen, ran by Mike Scully
“Lisa the Skeptic” has always been one of my understated favourites, a very dark and emotionally powerful episode which yet again puts Springfield onto the brink of potential Armageddon. But where before these kind of episodes were thrown at man-of-faith Ned Flanders (“Bart’s Comet”, ”Hurricane Neddy”) this time the central conflict is between Lisa and Marge (or Science vs. Religion) and it is at once a very touching and at times difficult watch. It’s not exactly big on laughs, though this does start the process of “Flanderization” as Homer exploits the town’s faith (particularly Flanders) for monetary gain which provides much humour, but it is The Simpsons at perhaps its most existential, as well as giving Lisa and Marge some of their strongest moments in the show’s history. The angel Lisa discovers ends up being merely a marketing ploy which becomes instantly more important to Springfield, but more importantly, tests the bonds between the central monther-daughter relationship of the show and leaves them stronger than ever.
About halfway through Season 9, the show changes in to this era of the programme ran by Scully. Season 6 also does this from around “Bart’s Comet” to bein the era that ends at “The Joy of Sect” as Scully grew in confidence with the position – 6 incidentally is also as a result a very transitional season, but it still remains much more consistent than 9. “Dumbbell Indemnity” is the first truly successful episode of what was to come for the next three seasons, by possessing some great gags and an interesting plot, and would be followed by “Girly Edition”, “Lost Our Lisa” and “Natural Born Kissers” as excellent examples of the now very different tone to what the season started with. It is in these episodes that Scully really found his feet and would continue to do so for the remainder on his tenure. Ultimately, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen these episodes, and you weren’t impressed initially I implore you to give them another try, and while you’re at it, revisit seasons 10 and 11, because there are some great episodes in there which go largely ignored because of this idea that Season 9 (and Mike Scully) ruined it. Though they may not have had the consistency (but who could, honestly?) there are lots of undervalued episodes that are well worth re-visiting here.