Season 1: Episode 4. Original airdate: January 28, 1990.
Why do we watch TV?
There’s a large group of people that still believe television is meant to be a distraction, something we have on in the background while we live the rest of our lives. I refuse to accept that, especially in a time when our TV series are rivaling our movies in quality and relevance. The world may be gravitating away from watching its shows live, instead using DVRs and services like Hulu and Netflix, but the importance of TV has never been greater.
If we go to the movies as an escape from reality, we watch sitcoms as a reminder of our reality. It’s the ultimate comfort-entertainment, a safe place full of familiar faces that we can visit and laugh along with every week. We want to relax when we come home from work at night, and be able to relate to what we see on the screen. That’s partly why the most popular sitcoms are those that are the most familiar, in both style and content—say what you will about The Big Bang Theory, but it’s a hit precisely because people feel safe watching its traditional, old-fashioned approach.
As the sitcoms of today move farther and farther from the family comedy that made the genre explode in the 1980s, The Simpsons remains a constant, a show that has (mostly) stuck to its formula for 23 years. In the beginning, before it became a more conventional cartoon, The Simpsons was a true sitcom, a comforting save haven for viewers that gave them a reflection of their own lives. Homer and Marge shared America’s dilemmas and fears, and captured the attention of the nation unlike anything the animation world has seen since.
Tonight’s episode distills those ideas and makes for yet another example of what made this first season stand out. Mr. Burns invites his workers’ families to his manor for a company picnic, where the Simpson family makes a horrible impression. Marge gets drunk and performs the series’ first musical number, Bart dares to attempt beating Mr. Burns at a gunnysack race, and Homer is left to keep his composure while his family embarrasses themselves. After seeing the other families behaving angelically (literally), Homer finally views his family as they are, as depicted in today’s featured picture.
He tries to show Marge and the kids the error of their ways, but they are too preoccupied by TV to even eat dinner at the table. They can’t even be bothered to stop eating long enough to say grace. Fed up, Homer goes to Moe’s, but still can’t escape the specter of his disgraceful offspring. Desperate for the acceptance of the town, he makes the ultimate sacrifice by selling the family TV to earn enough money for therapy.
The therapist, a skeezy character named Dr. Marvin Monroe, fails to move the family past verbal and physical abuse during their session. Out of options, he sets up electric shock therapy, which results in the Simpsons electrocuting each other so greatly that they cause a city-wide power outage. Once the doctor realizes that the family is unfazed even by serious physical abuse to each other, he gives up and refunds them double their original payment. After four episodes of financial woes, the Simpsons finally have enough money to get by. Instead of spending it on necessities, though, Homer opts to win his family over again by getting back the most necessary necessity of all: a new TV.
It’s a happy ending that doesn’t force its sentimentality too much. Homer realizes that despite his family’s problems, of which there are many, they’re still the only one he’ll ever have. As future episodes will reveal, the Simpsons never stop being a menace to Springfield, either. This episode strikes a universal chord for any family—the embarrassment that accompanies seeing your family members act out. The themes that have filled these first Simpsons episodes have revolved around struggles of class, money, and a sense of belonging. These unifying ideas were a deep concern for the average American family in 1990, and the show is a comedic mirror of sorts for those people.
The only show remotely comparable to The Simpsons in its early goings is Roseanne, a show that was merely in its second season at this point. Roseanne was a working-class family sitcom as well, beginning a genre that would erupt in the mid-1990s. These two shows were in stark contrast to the stability and even prosperity that peppered NBC and ABC’s lineups. Even Married…with Children, FOX’s only other hit of the period, wouldn’t reach hit status until later.
It’s funny that the family TV is used as a motif throughout the episode. The Simpson family truly was cut from the Midwestern cloth that made up its audience. They watched TV together, using it as a way to relax and forget their problems and flaws. I can’t think of many other sitcoms of the time that were so cognizant of the impact television had on its characters. It’s not just a meta-textual gag; more than that, it’s an assertion that The Simpsons knew what it was, and knew the type of people its characters would be. While other shows would depart into whimsical lunacy (as this show soon will), the first season of The Simpsons capitalized on something that primetime desperately needed: honesty.
Perhaps that’s why, even more than its live-action counterparts, The Simpsons hit a nerve that revealed deep insecurities in the population. Despite the creative team not quite knowing its characters completely (this episode is full of strange character work—Marge being drunk, Mr. Burns welcoming his workers, Homer being embarrassed by everyone else), they put honesty over consistency. Without that prioritization, the show would have never become what we know it as.
It would have just been another cartoon.