Ah, season 3.
The debut for showrunners Al Jean & Mike Reiss churning out 24 glorious episodes spanning from September 19th, 1991 to August 27th, 1992. It’s a crime to dismiss the rest of the season’s installments. So many series favorites come to mind and may very well only be excluded due to writer’s block. If it were up to me, I’d rank and review the entire season, but sometimes we must kill our darlings in order to make a random Top 7 list. Enjoy!
7. “Lisa’s Pony” (Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss)
It’s every little girl’s dream to have her own pony. At least that’s how the generalization goes, but what if The Simpsons took that cliche’ and ran with it to explore the physical and economical toll it would have on the father providing for it? Lisa, starved of the support of a present father figure is disappointed once again when Homer fails to retrieve a saxaphone reed in time for her recital. Her cynicism however is flipped to pure childhood bliss when she’s given a pony as a grand apologetic gesture. The premise is ‘out there’ for so early in the show’s run, but its the emotional resonance which keeps it glued together. What seems like a quick fix exercise in parenting from Homer, becomes an extraordinary example of the commitment he’s willing to endure (working a second job at the Kwik-E-Mart) just to uphold his daughter’s happiness. In the end, it’s Lisa who meets Homer’s sense of willpower by admitting “there’s a big, dumb animal I love even more than that horse…”
“Oh no, what is it, a hippopotamus?” – Homer
*This episode won Dan Castellaneta the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Voice-Over Performance’
6. “Dog of Death” (Written by John Swartzwelder)
Maybe it’s because I’m a sucker for dogs like anyone else, but out of all of season 3’s episodes, this one always jumps out at me. The Simpsons family dog, getting his key introduction in the pilot “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, became a gleaming symbol for the love and gratitude shared as the family continued to live paycheck to paycheck with a colorful, down-but-not-out optimism. If the pilot was about being grateful for the riches you have or find in life, season 3’s “Dog of Death” is a story of how complacent we can get when carrying that appreciation forward. The best aspect to this episode as Santa’s Little Helper faces imminent death is the balance between cynicism and sincere emotion.
Writer John Swartzwelder holds back no punches whether it’s Mr. Burns literally bopping SLH in the face to make him a fiercer attack dog or if Bart, SLH’s number one defender, calls his beloved pet a “dumb dog” with utter contempt due to the misfortune brought on the family in the effort to pay for the dog’s surgery. This is not a fluff piece on whether or not the dog will survive by episode’s end, but of what happens if he did survive after considerable sacrifice. That said, there are moments found in this episode that are quite special and real for anyone who has had to deal with a dying pet and one I’ve found especially reassuring after losing my childhood wheaten terrier, Mickey.
5. “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” (Written by Jon Vitti)
Many people refer to this episode as the one that gave us the famous ‘Land of Chocolate’ sequence, as it should, but for me, the first associative image I have is what shortly follows: A can of carrot cat food whizzing miserably as it rotates slowly in an electric can opener, followed by Marge walking through the kitchen door with her beehive hairdo split in two. The ‘Land of Chocolate’ fantasy helps to enhance this moment as it whisks both Homer and the audience into a playful fantasy before completely gutting you when Homer is fired from the nuclear plant and the family is forced to improvise their penny pinching (back when Homer being fired actually had some punch). This is a result from Mr. Burns’ depression which leads him to sell the plant to a snug and friendly consortium of German businessmen, whom despite their easy-going nature, find no use for Homer’s continued employment as safety inspector. Not to mention the extra sting that prior to this, Homer impulsively sold his company stock for a measly $25 (spent on beer) unaware it was set to skyrocket to $5,200.
What ties “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk” together in a very interesting way is that Homer’s termination happens for all the right reasons and him losing money on the stock is completely derived from his own carelessness, but also his naivety. You still feel immense sympathy for him and yet, you also feel bad for Burns when Homer, Bart, and Moe’s barflies throw Burns’ depression back into his face, taunting “Nobody loves you” and reiterating how money doesn’t bring you happiness. Sure, Mr. Burns is an entitled, filthy rich man who only wants to open new opportunities to raise terror in his fellow man, but he absorbs every blow in this moment, considerably, with absolute defeat.
It’s amazing how Homer and Mr. Burns couldn’t be any more repelled from one another as characters, yet they oddly need each other. This is an episode I believe winks as a potential set-up for an idea that could have been in a future final Simpsons season, as Burns buys the plant back and vows to employ the man who sassed him in the bar, only to make him feel safe and secure throughout the years, before bringing the hammer down when it’s least expected. If it wasn’t for Burns’ increased senility and forgetfulness over the show’s run, I have no doubt Burns would follow through.
4. “Bart the Murderer” (Written by John Swartzwelder)
“Fat Tony is a cancer on this fair city. He is the cancer and I am the…uh…what cures cancer?” – Chief Wiggum
Stupid cops. Stupid criminals. Stupid everybody. “Bart the Murderer” is once again a Swartzwelder jamboree of thrilling absurdism, being one of the earlier installments to really test the foundations of the Simpsons universe’s flexibility. It’s the introduction of Fat Tony’s mafia and a humorous exhibition of Springfield’s criminal underbelly with Bart caught in the center. The very heart of its comedy derives from Bart’s routine day-to-day serving as comic foil, doing no favors in steering him towards any hopeful direction regardless of his relentless optimism. The first act break shows him falling face first into a mafia syndicate’s headquarters and the second act demonstrates, through his own obliviousness, how much Bart fits into this dark world as he mixes drinks, busses tables, and helps confine their operation.
As the police and opposing mob members tighten the noose on Fat Tony, Principal Skinner proves to be another problem on the mafia’s laundry list by keeping Bart late after school. It’s when Skinner goes missing where Bart must come to terms with the bizarre company he keeps. This episode helps us see that it’s Bart’s own guilty conscience instilled by his day-to-day upbringing which may some day save him regardless of where the monotonous chicanery of Springfield Elementary or the incompetence of lawful authority pushes or pulls him. And if Bart were to find himself before a court on trial for murder, Skinner himself may come busting through the door to tell the most pathetic story imaginable on how a lifetime of exercising seemingly useless knowledge and mundane patience can be the very key to one’s freedom.
3. “Black Widower” (Written by Sam Simon & Thomas Chastain)
Depending on how you look at it, the best Sideshow Bob episodes tend to be the ones where he’s at his most unpredictable. “Black Widower” is exactly that while pushing Bob’s innocent facade to the absolute edge regardless of whether you share Bart’s mistrust towards him or not. Bart keeps the audience’s guard constantly up yet any suspicion of ill intent on Bob’s account in becoming smitten with Aunt Selma is squashed almost immediately when he admits in full transparency the disdain he felt for the little boy who got him incarcerated. Any obvious endeavor to do harm towards Bart is shrugged off with flattering dinner party banter.
“Bart, if I wanted to kill you, I’d have choked you like a chicken as soon as I walked in that door. But then what kind of a guest would I have been?”
The conflict seems to solely be that Bart doesn’t like how Krusty’s treacherous sidekick is marrying into the family. Keep in mind this is the first Sideshow Bob episode to air after Krusty was framed for armed robbery in season 1 so there never was any inkling that Bob was anything more than a TV clown’s begrudging sidekick who got locked away. His return is shocking but the rest of the episode does a pretty good job at establishing his spiritual turn-around and lulling us into the minutiae of Bob and Selma’s developing relationship and wedding preparation satire. It’s what’s in the smaller details of Bob and Selma’s domestic life where the mystery lies, perhaps being more complex than what Bart was tasked to deduce in “Krusty Gets Busted” and is brashly realized in what I’d consider the best climax a Bob episode ever pulled off.
2. “Lisa the Greek” (Written by Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky)
The episode where Lisa and Homer make bets on pro football is one of those stories where I wish I could have been in the same room when the idea was conceived and/or pitched to showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss. Out of all the Homer/Lisa episodes which delves into their unique, sometimes rocky relationship, “Lisa the Greek” is the most surprising every step of the way, offers the most seamless balance of emotional conflict with levity, and arrives at quite possibly the most inspired resolution to a character conflict in the show’s 31+ year history.
Usually these episodes follow the general direction where Homer is falling short to embrace Lisa’s interests and as a result he’s left picking up the pieces. This installment goes the opposite route by having Lisa take the initiative to get closer to her father by joining him on the couch for Sunday night football. At first glance, Homer is uncomfortable with her “invading” upon his down-time and you’re just waiting for Lisa to give up and write the sport off as mindless or barbaric. However, she grows to not only appreciate the intelligence and art of the game, but they both grow to enjoy each other’s company. The conditional glue of Homer and Lisa becoming an undefeated team of gamblers and their mutual agreement to let it be their own little secret, helps bring them closer, but also suggests that conflict is on the horizon once the football season is over while the illegality of gambling remains an overlooked fly in the soup. All of that in mind, the story pulls off this lovely feat where their time together plays so enjoyably in-the-moment that you don’t care if conflict is creeping around the corner.
An episode about weekend-daddy-daughter bonding actually feels like it’s on ‘Sunday drive’ and the smaller moments become magnified because of it. Even Bart’s small subplot of getting dragged to go clothes shopping with Marge helps feed into the main plot’s tone of simplicity and casual pacing. A completely character-driven script where its conflict raises the question if Homer and Lisa’s relationship would crumble once conditions are removed is best resolved by what the episode has already been bathed in throughout: Their chemistry. Is it based on love despite Lisa proving to be a beneficial asset in helping Homer win money?
“Lisa the Greek” dives into these questions when Lisa realizes how shallow Homer comes off when he only seems to care about her winning predictions for the superbowl after already voicing disappointing plans to post-pone their weekly time together until next football season. The lack of reciprocation is incredibly thoughtless and inconsiderate on Homer’s part, but is it just a misstep in how he ascertains the value of the time they spend together? Do they still love each other? Lisa unenthusiastically tells Homer who she believes will win the superbowl, but notes that if she’s wrong, it’s most likely due to her subconscious wanting Homer to lose. The outcome of the game has now become less about money and more about where they stand with each other as father and daughter. It’s one of those final acts that makes you realize how the psychological and poetic framework of The Simpsons runs much deeper than its technical, moving parts because this resolution only works when the art of the show speaks for itself.
*This episode also won Yeardley Smith the Emmy for ‘Outstanding Voice-Over Performance’. That’s two Homer/Lisa episodes this season (“Lisa’s Pony” and “Lisa the Greek”) where Dan and Yeardley won respectively.
1. “Homer at the Bat” (Written by John Swartzwelder)
In one of John Swartzwelder’s earlier pushes for the The Simpsons to embrace the absurdist humor it so expertly seemed destined for, “Homer at the Bat” is a master stroke in having fun with a ‘far out’ idea without straying too far from the central character’s headspace. Homer’s humble desire to become a team hero in the eyes of his friends and family by playing for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant’s company softball team is the pathos to the mock-up of the entire episode. He builds up his secret weapon to his co-workers and son by revealing ‘Wonder Bat’, a homemade baseball bat he made from scratch. It’s a very down-to-earth origin story, born from a lightning storm and Homer’s naivety, being two strong forces of nature which are arguably beyond you or me. Homer is persistent to follow with the dream of molding the “magic piece of wood” into something special. It’s treated like an extension of himself and he feeds a deep mythology into the bat, believing it will garner him the most homeruns. It’s a symbol of turning his dumb luck at the face of danger into an opportunity to count his blessings and achieve something great. Homer may be dumb and lazy on most occasions but when passionate he works hard towards his goals.
Lenny and Carl may mock and undercut the reveal of the bat during their first game, but Homer transcends their disbelief by hitting his first home run on the first pitch. There’s hope for Homer’s rising success but it’s here where the higher operating powers of Mr. Burns and his million dollar bet with Shelbyville will swiftly marginalize the well-trodden zero-to-hero story with an even zanier premise. Mr. Burns’ plan to recruit major league ringers on the team serves as an antithesis which happens to be so overwhelmingly fun and hilarious to the point where you laugh rather than cry when Roger Clemens destroys Homer’s homemade bat immediately with a 100 mph+ fastball. Many shows that attempt to make an extensive band of guest stars the focal point of an episode usually run the risk of the final product falling flat. An episode can come screeching to a halt if celebrities are shoe-horned in with lame jokes or scenes that are written solely to highlight the vanity of their presence. “Homer at the Bat” avoids this (with sports guest stars no less!) which is a much more impressive feat given their inexperience in voice acting or any theatrical performance work on TV.
What helps is the self-awareness on the Simpsons staff of what exactly they could expect out of this unique guest cast. While the jokes that are written around them are wildly bizarre (Ozzie Smith falls into another dimension, Steve Sax gets arrested and charged for every unsolved murder in New York City, etc.), the dialogue is written with each player in mind and they are all well-directed in the parts they have to play. It’s almost as if Swartzwelder, Al Jean, and Mike Reiss knew that some of the dead-pan deliveries of the lines would only add to the comedy. Not lessen it. And some of the performances actually come as a fun surprise like Roger Clemens being completely game to cluck like a chicken or Wade Boggs getting increasingly fed up with Barney over their Pitt the Elder vs. Lord Palmerston debate.
Not only does the inclusion of MLB guest stars benefit the episode as a comedic piece, but narratively it harkens back to Homer’s talents being smothered by something much more uncontrolled and systematic. Homer can’t compete with Mr. Burns’ wealth and resources in generating an all-star softball team, but can he prevail? For an episode that’s subversive in favor of a comedic sandbox, it’s important for Homer to remain the sympathetic lens for what ensues. ‘Wonder Bat’ may have been built up only to be obliterated in a quick throwaway gag, but “Homer at the Bat” doesn’t lose sight of Homer’s desires amidst the chaotic hi-jinx that continuously makes him seem largely irrelevant to Mr. Burns’ desire to win. One of the small marvels of the episode is how Homer doesn’t even question the absurdity of what unfolds like Darryl Strawberry soaring into the sky to rob his pop-fly catch or the sheer luxury of getting to share a spot on the team with these MLB legends to begin with. The episode may have become a loony circus for comedy but Homer’s still feeling down and out over the conventions of his own personal crisis. The balance of that with say, Ken Griffey Jr. becoming monstrously deformed due to an obsession with Brain & Nerve tonic, is nothing short of genius.
Overall, “Homer at the Bat” is a gold mine, being rich in reference and astounding in its casting while remaining true to what makes The Simpsons great by carrying its story’s intentions out from beginning to end with lovable characters and a fun, experimental universe. It’s definitely required viewing if you call yourself a fan of baseball and television alike. Also, the closing song “Talkin’ Softball” is a parody of Terry Cashman’s “Talkin’ Baseball” (1981) and is sung by Terry Cashman himself. It’s the episode that keeps on giving!
Thanks for reading! What are your favorites?