Season 2: Episode 12. Original airdate: January 31, 1991
Growing up, my Simpsons experience was largely based on event episodes that caused a huge buzz. In other words, if it was newsworthy enough for USA Today and I managed to read the newspaper at my grandma’s house the Friday before, I’d watch the episode out of curiosity. As I write that, it sounds pretty archaic, but I was a freshman in high school before my family had a legitimate form of internet service. Idaho was a strange place in 2006. Anyway, one of the few episodes that caught my attention during my “dark” period was “That 90s Show,” a now-infamous flashback episode that set Marge and Homer’s romance in the mid-1990s.
Wait a second.
I understand that this is an animated show, and only a loose sense of continuity is necessary, but what? Even as a neophyte to the show, I could tell that something was wrong about that episode. If The Simpsons had been on the air for nearly 20 years at that point, how could the Simpsons be childless newlyweds during the period those early seasons were set in? It made my brain hurt, but I still didn’t comprehend why fans were up in arms over the episode. In my research, I found everyone referencing “The Way We Was” as one of the episodes “That 90s Show” tried to retcon. I’ve been very excited for this episode just so I can understand the hatred for one of the few that I’d seen before this project, and now that I have watched it, I can firmly stand in the anti-“90s” camp.
This episode opens on the family watching TV (as if I have any reason to be shocked at that by now). They’re watching a fantastic parody of Siskel and Ebert, who Homer refer to as “the bald guy and the fat tub of lard.” Given that this episode was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss, this little gag seems like the foundations of The Critic being gelled together. In fact, the title of this episode is a parody of a film itself, another hint at the show these writers would soon move on to create. Sidebar: Once I finish this project, I totally plan on blogging through The Critic , since I somehow watched more of that than The Simpsons as a kid (1. that’s a long ways off, and 2. No, my asides about childhood will never get any less weird).
The TV suddenly cuts out, forcing the family to actually communicate with one another. It’s a terrifying prospect, to be sure, but Lisa offers a suggestion that her parents tell the story of how they were married. Marge and Homer are visible uncomfortable with the idea of telling the tale of Bart’s out-of-wedlock conception, so they instead dive into the story of how they met, way back in 1974.
Like the very best episodes so far, “The Way We Was” is ridiculously sweet. It wears its heart prominently on its sleeve, which likely made the idea of Bart being born out of wedlock a less bitter pill for 1991’s more conservative audiences. Once the flashback begins, it’s 100% nostalgic endearment. This episode doesn’t have to do any work to make the young Homer and Marge likable characters, as the writers wonderfully keep them in line with what we’ve come to know about them. Homer, along with Barney, represents the stoner population of Springfield High School. Marge, on the other hand, is a vocal activist and leader in the debate club.
The two cross paths after both are given detention, Marge for literally burning her bra in protest, and Homer for, well…being himself. From the moment Homer sees his future wife enter the detention room, he’s lovestruck. The Carpenters’ “Close to You” begins playing, and Homer becomes a hopeless romantic, desperate to win this girl over. Since watching the episode, I’ve been listening to quite a few of Karen Carpenter’s songs, and they comes dangerously close to making me want to become a romantic myself. Yeesh.
Homer finds himself in need of guidance, so he naturally visits the guidance counselor. Unsure of why he’s being asked for advice, the counselor recommends that he find some interests he and Marge have in common, and also to “spend, spend, spend.” In an attempt at more suggestions, Homer asks his father, who gives the greatest anti-motivational speech that I’ve ever seen. Abe tells his son to always “aim low for the dented can, the dead end job, and the less attractive girl.” Homer joins the debate team, in both an effort to get close to Marge and prove his father wrong.
In debate club, Homer finds himself at odds with another kid seeking Marge’s affection, Artie Ziff. Played by Jon Lovitz (holy crap, Critic connection #3), Artie is a creep by every definition of the word. He’s arrogant, patriarchal, and feels himself entitled over Homer merely by intellectual superiority. Homer is embarrassed by Artie during a debate, but hatches another scheme by asking Marge to be his French tutor. Marge finds herself smitten ever so slightly by Homer, and even agrees to go to prom with him, but is furious when she discovers his ulterior motives. She instead goes with Artie, leading to an excruciating scene with Homer at the Bouvier house, unaware that Marge is going to the dance with a different man.
Homer sees Marge and Artie crowned prom royalty, and sobs in the hallway. It’s a remarkably vulnerable moment for Homer in an episode full of them, and I can’t express how bad I felt for him in that moment, despite knowing exactly how his future plays out. After the dance, Artie goes full Biff Tannen on Marge, but she stands her ground and makes him drive her home. Homer finds himself completely alone after he runs out of limo time, and is on his way home when Marge pulls up to confess her love for him. She picks him up, and the two drive away into the rest of their lives.
That last sentence actually makes me tear up a little bit. This episode is a beautiful origin story for this marriage, and its naked emotions are refreshing to watch. Not telling the actual marriage story first sets up next season’s “I Married Marge,” another episode I’m eagerly anticipating. I can’t say enough how much I love the Homer/Marge relationship, but this and “Life on the Fast Lane” are the two episodes I’ll hold up as understanding that relationship in the most meaningful way—that is, until the next episode like this comes along.