Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 14, 2004)
Call it progress: while it took more than a year between the releases of Seasons Two and Three of The Simpsons, Season Four follows barely nine and a half months later! Will this trend continue, or might they even - gasp! - pick up the pace and move the product in less time than it takes to pop out a baby? Dunno, but we Simpsons fanatics will take what we can get.
Rather than idly gripe, I’ll just dig into the programs that make up Season Four of The Simpsons. In their original broadcast order, I’ll look at each show individually to document the lows, the highs, and the creamy middles. The plot capsules come straight from the DVD’s press materials. Lastly, I’ll toss in a fun line from each episode; the quotes won’t always be me absolute favorite, but they’ll provide tidbits I find to be amusing that seem to work in the written context.
Kamp Krusty (aired September 24, 1992): Bart (voiced by Nancy Cartwright) and Lisa (Yeardley Smith) go off for the summer to Krusty’s (Dan Castellaneta) camp for kids, but instead of meeting Krusty they meet his bean-counting surrogate, Mr. Black (Harry Shearer). With their children gone, Homer (Castellaneta) and Marge (Julie Kavner) enjoy a romantic summer, but Bart and Lisa are put to work making crummy merchandise until Krusty returns and sets things right - by taking the kids to Tijuana.
I never went to summer camp, and this episode reminds me why I didn’t want to go. No, I don’t think the program represents an accurate depiction of summer camps, but it’s close enough for me! The level of degradation offered seems hilarious, especially via Krusty’s usual callousness. It all builds to a great climax with the camp rebellion.
Representative line: Krusty: “And for you fat kids, my exclusive program of diet and ridicule will really get results!”
A Streetcar Named Marge (aired October 1, 1992): Marge wins the lead in a musical production of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Ned Flanders (Shearer) plays Stanley Kowalski. Marge is infuriated by Homer’s brutishness and insensitivity during pre-production, until he sees the play and reveals to Marge that he has grasped its meaning. While rehearsing, Marge sticks Maggie in the Ayn Rand Day Care Center, where her pacifier is immediately taken from her, and ala The Great Escape, she must struggle to win it back.
”Streetcar” reminds me a little too much of The Flintstones’ “Frogmouth” episode, as both Wilma and Marge get their roles for similar reasons. However, “Streetcar” manages its own identity and benefits from the wonderfully over-the-top presence of Jon Lovitz, who succeeds in two separate parts. A nice musical spoof makes this a good program.
Representative line: Llewellyn Sinclair: “I am not an easy man to work for. While directing Hats Off to Hanukkah, I reduced more than one cast member to tears. Did I expect too much from fourth graders? The review, ‘Play Enjoyed By All’, speaks for itself.”
Homer the Heretic (aired October 8, 1992): Homer decides not to go to church one Sunday and has the greatest morning of his life. He continues to avoid services, causing Marge to worry about the fate of his soul. Then one Sunday Homer inadvertently burns the house down and is saved by the heroism of the local fire department, manned by volunteers of all faiths.
“Heretic” reminds us why religious sorts and those with no interest in the subject can embrace The Simpsons. One could take a message both pro and anti-organized religion from the episode, as its barbs offer no clear path. That makes the show clever and interesting, and it includes the usual collection of funny moments.
Representative line: Marge: “Your father’s… resting.” Bart: “’Resting’ hungover, ‘resting’ got fired? Help me out here.”
Lisa the Beauty Queen (aired October 15, 1992): After a caricature artist does an unflattering portrait of Lisa, she enters a junior beauty pageant to regain her self-esteem. She finishes second, but when the winner is unable to fulfill her duties due to a freak accident, Lisa is able to ride in a parade as Little Miss Springfield. But when the cigarette company which sponsors the pageant asks her to promote their produce, she is confronted with a terrible dilemma.
Not one of the more quotable episodes, “Queen” goes for more of a low-key, sentimental vibe. Or at least that’s what it does until it turns into something of an anti-smoking screed, though it doesn’t go over the top in that regard. It’s not an actively hilarious show, but it works.
Representative line: Krusty: “I heartily endorse this event or product.”
Treehouse of Horror III (aired October 29, 1992): In “Clown without Pity”, a Krusty the Clown doll goes berserk in the Simpson home. In “King Homer”, Marge is wooed by a giant ape. In “Dial ‘Z’ for Zombie”, Lisa’s attempt to bring back her dead cat turns the town of Springfield into a pack of marauding zombies.
I always thought the Halloween episodes started slowly, as the first couple weren’t terribly good. “III” helps redeem the concept with the first truly strong entry in the series. All three segments work nicely, but “Clown” stands out as the best of the bunch. The interaction between the doll and Homer is priceless.
Representative line: Bart: “I’d say that the pressure’s finally gotten to dad, but what pressure?”
Itchy and Scratchy: The Movie (aired November 3, 1992): At a school open house, Marge and Homer learn that the way they handle Bart’s misbehavior now will set him on the path for the rest of his life. Hence, when Bart’s negligence sends Maggie careening down the street in a runaway car, Homer forbids Bart from seeing the new film about Itchy and Scratchy that is every kid’s dream. Homer makes the ban stick, and in the future, we see that Bart will become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Perhaps the first genuinely great episode of Season Four, “Movie” stands as a classic. Some of this comes from the wonderful material connected to early I&S; how can one not love the gleeful parody “Steamboat Itchy”? Homer also seems unusually compelling, from his obsession with Supreme Court justices to his inability to deal with Bart. It’s a great show.
Representative line: Homer: “Well, I’ve always been a firm believer in the three ‘R’s: reading TV Guide, um… writing to TV Guide and… renewing TV Guide!”
Marge Gets a Job (aired November 5, 1992): Marge gets a job at the nuclear plant, where Mr. Burns (Shearer) develops a crush on her. He kidnaps her idol, Tom Jones (himself), in a futile attempt to win her away from Homer. Meanwhile, Bart becomes the boy who cried “wolf” - literally.
“Job” follows a classic with… well, maybe not another classic, but a great show. My favorite parts come from the infinitely quotable first act. I refer to my own house as the Slanty Shanty, and I adore the phrase “hand me my patching trowel, boy!” The program continues to work nicely after the first act and remains a fine show.
Representative line: Bart: “Behold, the horrors of the Slanty Shanty! See the twisted creatures that dwell within! Meet Cue Ball, the man with no hair!”
Editing note: when the episode originally aired, Mrs. Krabappel listed Tourette’s Syndrome as one of Bart’s faked illnesses. This later got changed to “rabies” apparently due to viewer complaints. Unfortunately, the DVD doesn’t use the original line, though Bart still mutters “Tourette’s Syndrome” under his breath after his teacher departs.
New Kid on the Block (aired November 12, 1992): A single mom (Pamela Reed) moves in next door to the Simpsons with a teenage daughter (Sara Gilbert) with whom Bart falls in love. Unfortunately for him, she has a crush on Jimbo Jones (Tress MacNeille). Meanwhile, Homer sues an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant when it won’t let him eat all he can eat.
One of my all-time favorites, both of “Block”’s storylines succeed. It treats Bart’s first crush in an affectionate but not sentimental way. Most of the laughs come from the “B”-story, though, as Homer’s lawsuit is hilarious. These components add up to a great show.
Representative line: Restaurant employee: “That man ate all our shrimp - and two plastic lobsters!”
Mr. Plow (aired November 19, 1992): Homer starts a thriving snowplow business, only to have his best friend Barney (Castellaneta) start a rival service, complete with commercials featuring Linda Ronstadt. Homer is so jealous he sends Barney into an avalanche and certain death, then repents and risks his own life to save his friend’s.
“Mr. Plow” has to be one of the series’ best episodes, as it’s packed with laugh out loud moments. The plot’s idiotic but the show makes it work shockingly well, mostly because I was too amused to worry about the stupidity of the concept. And guest spots don’t get funnier – or more bizarre – than Adam West here. It’s a brilliant show.
Representative line: Homer’s jingle: ”Call Mr. Plow, that’s my name, that name again is Mr. Plow!”
Lisa’s First Word (aired December 3, 1992): In this flashback episode, we see the birth of Lisa and young Bart’s jealousy towards her. But he softens when he hears her first word: “Bart”. Then we hear (but no one else does) Maggie’s first word, voiced by Elizabeth Taylor.
The series’ third flashback episode, the first two worked well, and this one follows suit. It’s fun to watch the development of the family Simpson, and two-year-old Bart offers lots of good opportunities for mischief. The best parts come from Bart’s time with new neighbors the Flanders, though Homer’s home-made clown bed remains wonderful.
Representative line: Todd: “Iron helps us play!”
Homer’s Triple Bypass (aired December 17, 1992): Homer has a heart attack, leaving him near death. He must get a bypass operation, but is only able to afford the cut-rate doctor, Nick Riviera (Hank Azaria). Guided by Lisa, Dr. Nick performs the surgery and saves Homer’s life.
When I first saw “Bypass” in 1992, I thought it offered a weak piece. I’ve warmed up to it somewhat over the years, but other than the clip show, I regard it as Season Four’s worst program. The comedy feels more forced than usual, and “Bypass” comes across as a fairly lackluster piece.
Representative line: Homer: “Now I know I haven’t been the best Jew, but I rented Fiddler on the Roof, and I will watch it.”
Marge vs. the Monorail (aired January 14, 1993): A fast-talking con man named Lyle Lanley (Phil Hartman) sells the people of Springfield a monorail, and Homer is thrilled to be the conductor. Marge warns that the monorail is a mistake, and is proven correct when it speeds out of control with VIP passenger Leonard Nimoy.
After the weak “Bypass”, the series rebounds wonderfully with the excellent “Monorail”. Another episode that merits the moniker “classic”, this one takes the show into even more bizarre than usual territory, where it goes in a terrific manner. From the great opening parody of the Flintstones theme through the disaster flick spoof at the end, this one fires on all cylinders. We even get a superb and semi-surreal guest turn from Leonard Nimoy. “Monorail” makes virtually no missteps and stands as a winner.
Representative line: Homer: “Oh, Andy Capp, you wife-beating drunk!”
Selma’s Choice (aired January 21, 1993): A death in Marge’s family sends the Simpsons to a funeral and makes Selma (Kavner) wonder if she should have a child before it’s too late. But after she takes Bart and Lisa to the Duff Gardens theme park - where Lisa drinks water on a ride and goes berserk - Selma scratches her maternal itch with a pet iguana.
While not quite up to the level of “Monorail”, “Choice” continues Season Four’s high standards. Selma-oriented shows usually work well, and “Choice” is no exception. Despite her status as a secondary character, she gets some good time here, and the visit to Duff Gardens is excellent, as is the absurd subplot connected to Homer’s spoiled sandwich.
Representative line: Homer: “I’m not pouting, I’m mourning! Stupid dead woman!”
Brother from the Same Planet (aired February 4, 1993): When Homer is late picking up Bart from soccer, Bart decides to get a “Bigger Brother” who’ll take care of him. Out of jealousy, Homer gets a “Little Brother” and then gets in a knockdown drag-out fight with Bart’s Bigger Brother. Meanwhile, Lisa runs up a huge phone bill calling a 900-line run by a teen film star.
Another day, another terrific program. Competition between Bart and Homer usually works well, and I especially like the bits where Homer tries to be a role model for the sadly adorable Pepi. Homer’s negligence sets up the story nicely, and it continues to excel the rest of the way.
Representative line: Tom: “Bart, I could kiss you, if the Bigger Brothers didn’t make me sign a form promising I wouldn’t.”
I Love Lisa (aired February 11, 1993): Feeling sorry for luckless classmate Ralph Wiggum (Cartwright), Lisa gives him a Valentine. He develops a huge crush on her, which ends unhappily when she tells him that she doesn’t reciprocate during a Krusty the Clown special. Ralph’s dad, Police Chief Wiggum (Azaria), takes vengeance on Homer, but in the end the kids agree to be friends.
Another episode with a potential to be sappy, “Lisa” mainly manages to avoid that trap. It gives us some out of character behavior from Ralph - no way the school’s dumbest boy could turn into its finest thespian - but at least it allows him to develop in some way. Not one of Season Four’s best programs, “Lisa” still manages a lot of laughs.
Representative line: Ralph: “The doctor said I wouldn’t have so many nosebleeds if I kept my finger out of there!”
Duffless (aired February 18, 1993): After skipping work for a Duff brewery tour, Homer is arrested for driving while intoxicated. He is at first miserable, but uses the opportunity to find out what life is like without beer. Meanwhile, Lisa makes Bart the subject of a Clockwork Orange-style science fair project.
Just like the visit to Duff Gardens was hilarious, the trek through the brewery also opens up plenty of laughs. This culminates in one of the most amusingly violent non I&S bits during the series when Homer tries to stop Barney from driving drunk plus plenty of nice bits from sober Homer.
Representative line: Homer: “Yeah, syrup is better than jelly.”
Last Exit to Springfield (aired March 11, 1993): Lisa goes to the dentist and learns she needs braces. At the same time, Mr. Burns tries to remove the dental plan from the plant employees’ benefits, and an upset Homer becomes a union leader, taking the workers out on strike. Burns tries to run the plant with robots, but cannot dent the workers’ resolve and agrees to restore the dental plan if Homer will resign as union leader.
According to this episode’s commentary, some fans once voted “Exit” one of the series’ best programs ever. I disagree, as I think it’s actually a pretty bland show and one of Season Four’s weaker episodes. In later years, the series would feature a lot of shows that looked good on the surface but simply lacked the quirky cleverness and kick of the funnier pieces. “Exit” falls into that category; I can’t put my finger on its exact problems, but it simply fails to engage or amuse me much.
Representative line: Kent Brockman: “Tonight on Smartline: The Power Plant strike: argle-bargle or fooforah?”
So It’s Come to This: A Simpsons Clip Show (aired April 1, 1993): In this April Fool’s Day themed clip show, Bart shakes up a bottle of beer, intending to soak Homer, but winds up putting his father in a coma. The family reminisces about the past while waiting at Homer’s bedside.
Is there any such thing as a good clip show? Yeah, as this one offers more merits than most. It helps that it contains a reasonable amount of new footage, and the unique material presents some good laughs. Indeed, I laughed more during this show’s initial four minutes of new set-up than I did in all of “Last Exit”. Add to that some well-chosen clips and a cool “d’oh” montage and “This” seems good.
Representative line: Homer: “You couldn’t fool your mother on the foolingest day of your life if you had an electrified fooling machine!”
The Front (aired April 15, 1993): Bart and Lisa write Itchy and Scratchy cartoons using Grampa (Castellaneta) to submit them to the studio. But when one wins an award, Grampa is appalled to see what he has been putting his name on. Also contains a short, short feature entitled “The Adventures of Ned Flanders”.
“The Front” definitely has its moments, and it generally seems like a good show. It doesn’t quite manage to hit the heights of the better programs, but it includes more than a few fun moments. The bizarre Flanders bit at the end concludes the show on a delightfully odd note.
Representative line: Lisa: “That’s as bad as the tasteless “Itchy and Sambo” cartoons of the late Thirties.”
Whacking Day (aired April 29, 1993): Springfield engages in an annual ritual of whacking at snakes with sticks - a ritual Lisa is determined to stop, with the help of guest star Barry White. Meanwhile, Bart is kicked out of school after a prank and home schooled by Marge.
Am I wrong to be bizarrely proud that they set Whacking Day on my birthday? But that’s not the only thing that makes this a memorable show. It’s amusing to see Bart’s schooling, and the shenanigans that surround Whacking Day also work well.
Representative line: Homer: “No son of mine is going to be a 19th century Cockney bootblack!”
Marge in Chains (aired May 6, 1993): A flu epidemic sweeps through Springfield, and Marge must care for her entire family. She is so distracted, she inadvertently shoplifts from the Kwik-E-Mart and is sent to a women’s prison, leaving the family to fend for themselves. Without Marge’s marshmallow squares, the Springfield Parks Commission must purchase a statue of Jimmy Carter instead of Abraham Lincoln, and the town realizes its error and releases Marge.
I like episodes that start one way and veer off in another, and we get that from “Chains”. The first act details the effects of the flu, and then we see Marge’s plight. How can you not love a program that mentions Flintstones Chewable Morphine?
Representative line: Homer: “Gotta get a juicer, gotta drink juice, lose weight - won’t get chest pains from answering the phone anymore.”
Krusty Gets Kancelled (aired May 13, 1993): A rival TV show starring an incredibly talented ventriloquist’s dummy goes on opposite Krusty, and he is taken off the air. Bart and Lisa decide he must do a comeback special to save his career. They enlist the help of Johnny Carson, Bette Midler, Luke Perry, Hugh Hefner and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the special is a huge success.
One of the all-time great season-ending episodes, “Kancelled” uses guest stars better than most. The Gabbo bits are hilarious, as is Krusty’s degradation. The climactic comeback show works wonderfully, and “Worker and Parasite” offers one of the series’ best moments. “Kancelled” is a serious winner.
Representative line: Grampa: “Oh, everything’s stolen nowadays. Why, the fax machine is nothing but a waffle iron with a phone attached.”