Saturday, May 14, 2011

Countdown: The 10 Greatest TV Seasons of All Time - #3

The Simpsons - Season 6 - The Simpsons is the pop cultural touchstone for generations X and Y.  In the show's heyday, which spanned almost an entire decade, the show's influence went beyond the water cooler and into our lives.  Most of us have seen all of the episodes hundreds of times and our brains have become encyclopedias ready with a Simpsons quote for any situation life throws at us.  The series added new words into the English lexicon and spawned comic books, art, video games, music, clothing, a hit film, and books on surprisingly academic topics such as physics, psychology, religion, politics, and philosophy.  And all this from a cartoon spun-off from a sketch-comedy show.  In many ways, The Simpsons is the definitive American television show.  It has the broad premise of a nuclear family living in the suburbs, which allows the writers to poke fun at all aspects of American culture from the education system to holiday celebrations.  Season 6 is the perfect season because, by this point, the animation was honed but had not yet switched to CGI, and the writers had perfected the craft of delivering hilarious scripts that paid equal attention to high-brow and low-brow humor without losing their emotional resonance.

Key Episodes:

Lisa's Rival - A new girl, Allison, moves to Springfield and joins Lisa's class at school.  It quickly becomes clear that Allison is superior in all of the areas that make Lisa special -- she is smarter, younger, and a better saxophonist.  Lisa makes an effort to suppress her jealousy and befriend the new girl, but this grows increasingly difficult as Allison's talents are revealed. While visiting Allison's house after school, Lisa is invited to play a game that Allison and her father are fond of where they rearrange the letters of proper names to form a description of that person.  When her father gives her "Alec Guinness," Allison effortlessly responds, "Genuine class."  Lisa is then given "Jeremy Irons" and can only muster, "Jeremy's...iron."  The episode culminates with Lisa sabotaging Allison's diorama at a school competition and becoming overcome with guilt.  (It doesn't matter anyway since Ralph Wiggum takes the blue ribbon with his shoebox full of Star Wars action figures, all in their original packaging, which Principal Skinner cannot resist.)  I would argue that Lisa is a more integral character to the show than Bart, The Simpsons' first true breakout character.  She is the audience surrogate who strives to be a better person, often at odds with a town full of distinctly American stereotypes (a fact best lampooned in the season 8 episode "The Old Man and the Lisa" where Mr. Burns uses recycled six-pack holders to turn the town's sealife into Li'l Lisa's Patented Animal Slurry, a multi-purpose edible compound.  Lisa is then forced to run through the streets of Springfield crying for everyone to stop recycling and is met by her robotic disciples chanting, "But-Lisa-you-told-us-to-recycle.").  "Lisa's Rival," like the majority of Lisa's episodes, is sweeter and more grounded in reality than those centered around other characters.  The episode also contains a classic subplot where Homer steals a giant pile of "white gold" (i.e. sugar), but can't find a way to turn it into a profit.  He ends up sleeping on the front lawn guarding his stash, mumbling to himself one of the series' great references: "In America, first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women." 

Homer the Great - Homer discovers that every guy he knows is a member of a secret Freemason-like society called The Stonecutters, and he wants in.  The problem is that in order to become a Stonecutter, one has to either save the life of a member (preventing them from eating a cholesterol-rich egg sandwich doesn't count) or be the son of a member.  This exclusion brings back painful childhood memories for Homer of when he was denied entry into the No Homers Club.  "But you let in Homer Glumplich," little Homer protests.  "It says No Homers," replies the clubhouse leader, "We're allowed to have one."  Fortunately for Homer, Grandpa Simpson remembers that he actually is a Stonecutter (in addition to an elk, a mason, a communist, and the president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance for some reason) and the club has to let Homer in.  After enjoying all of the drinking, sing-alongs, and ping pong that comes with Stonecutter membership, Homer is discovered to have a birthmark branding him The Chosen One, the Stonecutters prophesied leader who...who...well that part is not clear, but now everyone has to worship Homer.  This leads to so much fear and resentment that the Stonecutters all quit to form a new No Homers Club (Homer Glumplich is a member).  "Homer the Great" is a great showcase for the character who would have to be second on my list of the greatest television characters of all time (after George Costanza of course).  Homer just wants to be loved and respected, but he doesn't seem to understand that achieving this goal often requires abandoning his selfishness.  In other words, he is a typical American.  The voice acting here is superb (especially from Dan Castellaneta as Homer and guest Patrick Stewart as Number One), there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and the Stonecutter anthem "We Do" is another in a long line of great original musical numbers by the unheralded Alf Clausen.

The PTA Disbands - There’s no heart in this one -- just pure silliness from top to bottom.  The teachers of Springfield Elementary go on strike thanks to a little meddling from Bart, and suddenly the town’s children are given a permanent vacation.  Lisa, it turns out, can’t handle the sudden lack of structure and fills her time with such pursuits as building a perpetual motion machine (an annoyed Homer bellows, ”In this house, we obey the laws of thermodynamics!”).  Bart, on the other hand, is so happy to be out of school that he goes a bit insane himself and takes up new hobbies like creepily flying his kite at night.  Driven by the disturbing mood changes of her children, Marge takes it upon herself to convene a PTA meeting (at which the PTA doesn't actually disband) and the group decides to recruit volunteers to teach at the school.  Lisa is happy to be back in class, but finds herself stuck with Grandpa Simpson’s elderly friend Jasper whose curriculum apparently consists of simply listing all of the infractions that will earn them a paddlin’.  Bart terrorizes a number of substitutes until his worst fears come true as his mother Marge steps in and takes over the fourth grade.  “The PTA Disbands” is a quintessential Simpsons episode.  The script is lightly satirical but certainly not preachy, and the gags come so fast that you need a DVR to catch them all (among the banned books in Principal Skinner’s office is a copy of Satanic Verses: Junior Illustrated Edition).  The hilarious lines (of which there are many) are equally distributed among about 20 different citizens of Springfield, all of which would be funny on their own, but are elevated to classic status because we have come to know these characters so well.

The List So Far:

10. Twin Peaks - Season 1
9. Northern Exposure - Season 4
7. Deadwood - Season 1
6. The Office (U.K.) - Season 2
5. The X-Files - Season 2
4. Seinfeld - Season 4
3. The Simpsons - Season 6


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