Alright guys, I’m back. I swear I’m not dead, and I’m really sorry for the hiatus. That should be the last hiccup in my daily posts until late June, when I’m going overseas for a while and may only be able to write sporadically. I’m going to try to write most of those entries in advance, but what am I saying—that’s two months away. You could care less about my business. You’re here to read about some stone-cold classic Simpsons.
Season 2: Episode 17. Original airdate: March 28, 1991.
Being sentimental is tough. Attempting to portray honest emotion on TV can easily come off as schmaltzy or overly-saccharine, but so far, The Simpsons has expertly balanced its cynical and sentimental sides in episodes like “Life on the Fast Lane” and “Bart vs. Thanksgiving.” However, “Old Money” represents a point at which many critics thought the show was a little too corny for its own good. I think it’s highly unfair to call this the worst episode of Season 2; in fact, it’s near the very pinnacle for me, and when I recap the whole season, it may come out as my favorite. It’s definitely hampered by a hokey last scene, but I won’t let that detract from what is, overall, this show at its finest.
It’s easy to take for granted the way the writers treat Grampa as a character, and on a greater level, the entire elderly population. Back in “Bart the General,” Grampa’s first scene featured him writing a letter to TV executives, complaining that the portrayal of elderly people as wacky comic foils is far from accurate. Indeed, in the world of Springfield, growing old is terrifyingly similar to the way I imagine it to be— lonely and longing for family or some form of companionship, most likely in a depressing institution like the Springfield Retirement Castle, and all the while slowly watching your body and mind fail you. It’s a horrible interpretation of the elderly, but it feels far more honest than the hijinks of The Golden Girls.
In short, growing old sucks, which is why I was so overjoyed at Grampa’s blossoming love affair with Bea, another resident at the Retirement Castle. Bea is the perfect combination of every adorable grandmotherly trait, and her relationship with Grampa is beautiful, something for both of them to keep living for. Their romance is so charming that I could even stomach the pill seduction scene, which I now know is a reference to Tom Jones (see, this blog is teaching me something!). This tale of star-crossed lovers feels like it blissfully goes on for the episode’s entire length, which a lesser show likely could have got away with, but it instead lasts 2 minutes before Homer shows up and meddles in his dad’s life.
Now, I’m a huge proponent of the Homer/Abe relationship, and I’m stoked to see it fleshed out over the course of the series. With that in mind, I was royally pissed when Homer barged into the retirement home and assumed that Grampa was making Bea up. Ignoring Grampa’s pleas, Homer drags him away for family time on Bea’s birthday. It’s the most unsympathetic thing Homer has done so far, and even though his intentions were grounded in compassion and spending precious time with his father, I couldn’t get over how big a tool he was in that scene. When it was revealed that Bea died while Grampa was away, I was overcome with emotion, something that does not happen often.
Obviously I knew Bea’s days were numbered, as she had never recurred after this episode, but the suckerpunch still came. I was floored, both through the pure shock of the moment, as well as the brutal pain shown in the characters during the scene. It’s these moments when I forget that I’m watching an animated show, and these aren’t living, breathing people. In few words, we see Grampa’s hope for a happy future dashed, and Homer’s realization that he may have ruined the rest of his father’s life. It’s heartbreaking, but these early seasons had the special kind of power to pull off that kind of raw emotion.
There’s only one voice that can make me happy again after such a dark scene, and it’s Phil Hartman’s. Thank goodness for Lionel Hutz showing up, skeezy as ever, to deliver Bea’s inheritance, a cool $106,000. It’s another incredible feat that the episode can pull off a story as touching and deep as Bea and Grampa’s relationship in its very first act, only to have it serve as an elaborate setup for the real plot. Grampa is tasked with determining what to do with the inheritance, and his first move is calling Homer to inform him that he won’t be receiving a dime of it. After lots of soul-searching and turmoil (and a trip to buy “Napoleon’s Fez”) for Grampa, Bea’s ghost appears and tells him to distribute the money to those who needs it, and also to forgive his son.
Grampa chooses to be extremely generous with his money, and offers the sum to whoever can give him the best pitch for why they deserve it. Every minor character we’ve seen so far makes an appearance, and we even meet Professor Frink for the first time. All in all, the line scenes are impressive solely to see how well-realized this world had already become in 30 episodes, but it’s mostly an excuse to get Lisa in a room with her grandfather and have her wax philosophic about the benefits of charity. Realizing he doesn’t have enough money to help everyone he wants to, Grampa goes to a casino to try to double his money. While there, he gets incredibly lucky—lucky in that Homer stops him before he bets all the cash away. Father and son reconnect, and while leaving the casino, Grampa realizes exactly what he should do with the money.
I imagine the next scene is what irks people about this episode. In an homage to If I Had a Million, Grampa renovates the Retirement Castle entirely, making it a sleek and state-of-the-art facility for its residents. Sure, it’s sweet, but not sickeningly so. I think it’s true to Grampa’s love for Bea that he’d want to put her money into the place where they fell in love. Not only that, but the renovation alleviates the ills that the episode showed early on, and creates a place that’s suitable for the elderly to live their lives. Retirement homes can be a prison, with their residents isolated and alone. Thanks to Grampa’s donation, the Retirement Castle becomes a place that the old folks of Springfield can enjoy, instead of toiling as they circle the drain of eternity.
Okay, so it all does sound pretty sappy as I write it, but you know what? I still love it. I think this is as heartwarming as The Simpsons gets, and I don’t fault the show for that. It has every right to show emotion, and if it can do so as remarkably as it does here, I encourage it even more. After all, given the current state of the show, couldn’t we all go for a little more heart?