‘Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song’ – The Simpsons at its Most Real

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When we think of classic episodes of The Simpsons, our minds tend to drift towards the big guest stars, the bombastic plots and the most biting of satires. For me, though, I enjoy the episodes where they’re brutally realistic. For example, an episode consisting of Homer lending money from Patty and Selma may seem instantly throwaway, but upon watching it’s grounded in low-key brilliance.

A prime contender for the most underrated episode is, fittingly, its 100th outing. Upon watching this episode for the first time in donkey’s years, I was shocked at just how real and emotionally restrained the script is; there is an abundance of pauses, awkward silence, shy mutterings…for an animation, it’s brave to concoct over 20 minutes of material to such a bare subject, but it works brilliantly because, as real-life people (we are that, I think), we invest so heavily in such a real-life situation.

The plot is great because it’s handled in such a mannered way. The main issue with The Simpsons from, say, Season Ten, is that the characters are all ‘Flanderised’ – Mr Burns and Smithers are joined at the hip, Moe is perpetually suicidal, Lenny and Carl are embroiled in some subconscious asexual pact. No more so is Skinner, who is essentially a spineless middle-aged man who apparently sleeps in a cot. Here, though, he is still Skinner at his purest – he cares about the school, though is permanently stressed over budgets, low test scores and Superintendent Chalmers (and another thing, does Chalmers only work at Springfield Elementary these days?! He’s always there).

It’s when the plot’s main premise kicks in do we get a fascinating overview into a secondary character’s life. After he is fired by Chalmers, Skinner is rudderless, though cocoons himself in chipper optimism, a sad reflection on something a lot of us do when we’re let go from a job we enjoy. The scenes of Skinner going about his daily routine – choosing detergents at the laundromat, shopping at the Kwik-E-Mart and faux conducting in his bourgeois bedroom – are really intriguing. It might surprise writers of modern day Simpsons, but the inquisitive nature of us viewers relishes the chance to see a character of authority go about his life, without explosions or over-the-top embellishment.

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Some episodes of The Simpsons usually balance a fearlessly real plot with something a bit more outlandish (see ‘Lisa’s Rival’, for example). Here, though, added to the scenes of Skinner peddling his wares is his new acquaintanceship with Bart, which invokes a large of amount of awkward badinage, murmurings and forced conversation. It works not just because Bart befriends Skinner out of guilt, but because outside of their school roles, they obviously need each other. In particular, the scene of Bart and Skinner gawkily exchanging pleasantries as he does his laundry is wonderful, and mirrors a real-life conversation beat for beat.

As their friendship grows, it works really well, particularly the scene where Skinner is barbequing in his back garden. The writing flows really nicely and naturalistically, and you really invest in the situation, especially Skinner eagerly hoping that the school is struggling without him (we all want to know this about a place that’s fired us, surely?).

The episode ends as it should, with Skinner returning as Principal (we do, before this though, get a moving shot of Skinner mournfully walking past the school, which is handled with just the right amount of pathos) and Bart being reinstated as his nemesis. But for the whole episode, the show shows deft amounts of restraint; there are no outlandish side-plots, no Homer being a jerk or ramped-up action sequences. Instead, we’re treated to an almost voyeuristic view into a humdrum life. It’s almost like a Noah Baumbach movie.

For having the gall to make their 100th episode such a low-key affair, and using one of their sweeter, understated plots, the writers deserve a lot of praise. Would The Simpsons of modern day even contemplate doing an episode like this? And, furthermore, what show of any kind can get genuine emotion out of the line “we’ll always have the Laundromat”?

 

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How ‘Moaning Lisa’ Tackled Depression and its Outcomes

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As I previously mentioned, the best episodes of The Simpsons are the ones that match mirth with genuine pathos. The first season is sometimes maligned for its embryonic characterisations and clumsy animation, but in ‘Moaning Lisa’, they produced arguably their most progressive and challenging episode.

I’m no expert, but I can’t think of any animation – which, perhaps back then, was strictly aimed at younger viewers – that tackled the taboo subject of depression and anxiety, let alone used it as the principal story. Also, on that thought, would a modern episode of The Simpsons – now so rooted in a bombastic malaise – dare to do this? Methinks not.

Watching the episode again in the modern day, the parallels of Lisa’s emotional turbulence and that of many real-life sufferers is frighteningly accurate. Just take the beginning shot, where Lisa stares vacantly in the bathroom mirror as Homer boorishly bangs on the door. The toothpaste called ‘Glum’ is a little on-the-nose, but the fact Lisa continues to hold that rudderless expression as she listlessly eats breakfast makes her condition seem remarkably real. Lisa enters an almost Esther Greenwood-style sense of disembodiment.

Depression is a tricky subject, and one can only assume back in 1989/90, it was even more so, so it’s brave that the writers focused on it, and got it spot-on for good measure. Like many people, I suffer from depression, and although I don’t exactly wear my condition around on a bumper sticker or tell the bus conductor, the reactions you receive can differ. A disappointingly common retort is that you should “man up” or, in female cases, “get over it.” People are dying in the world, people live on the streets, there’s so many situations you could find yourself in.

I’m not sure if other people who suffer feel the same, but my reaction is that I just feel considerably worse. I then begin to scorn myself for feeling so low when I have so many good things in my life. But that’s depression, in a nutshell. It’s a feeling of emptiness; no matter what you think of to feel chipper, nothing works. You just have to ride out that feeling. Sometimes I feel wistful and melancholic, I feel resentful, sad and bitter, other times it can come on without warning. In Lisa’s case, it’s a mixture of them, but all I know is Lisa’s blank void of an existence, while the family set about their bourgeois activities, chimes with how I look and feel on a bad day.

Touching on reactions, the writers here each give Homer, Bart and Marge great ripostes to Lisa’s woes. “She doesn’t look sad, I don’t see any tears in her eyes,” Homer lovingly, yet thoughtlessly, comments, which is a perfect reaction of someone who can’t confound unwarranted despondency. Homer later gets it hopelessly wrong again when he assumes Lisa’s change in mood is simply “an underwear thing”.

There’s a weirdly hilarious scene when Homer, apropos of nothing (perhaps needing a power fix), makes Bart hoover the carpet. Bart’s churlish chide to Lisa that it’s her fault he had to do it (Lisa was sent to have a bath to forget her troubles) again hits home the kind of snarky asides and brutal badinage people who don’t fully understand what depression entails would say. That feeling of emotional defeat is even highlighted when Bart wants Maggie to come to one she loves best, and Lisa sighs and says “fine, just go to Bart.” It’s strangely poignant.

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It’s the parental reaction to Lisa’s sombreness that brilliantly projects the guilt and concern parents would feel when they discover their child is silently suffering. Even Bart sweetly concedes he loves her (though won’t admit it), and his worried look when Lisa forlornly trudges off to band practice (after he tried and failed to make her laugh), gives the episode an almost real-life feel to it – Lisa’s depression engulfs the whole house, and all three try to solve it. But with depression, there’s no quick fix, as they all realise.

Arguably the best scene is where very little happens. Marge is driving Lisa to band practice, and nothing is said, apart from Lisa going to speak and instead looking wistfully out the window. It’s a nanosecond of a clip, but it hits home. When I’ve felt depressed, going out with people, or being in an intimate place with someone, can feel strained and awkward, and here it’s done to a great degree, with Marge not knowing how to address the issue. When she tells Lisa to smile, Lisa obliges, but only when she is exploited by her classmates does Marge realise that Lisa’s depression isn’t something that can, or should, be swept under the rug. It’s another neat reflection of Marge’s own lack of fulfilment.

Lisa’s Girl, Interrupted-lite personality traits would come up often in other episodes, but the current Lisa merely serves as a social and political mouthpiece for any episode that satirises or chastises (making her character far too antagonistic and forthright). Here, though, on only their sixth episode, the creators project a feeling of emptiness to an admirable degree.