“Aw, come on Dad. This could be the miracle that saves the Simpsons’ Christmas. If TV has taught me anything it’s that miracles always happen to poor kids at Christmas. It happened to Tiny Tim, it happened to Charlie Brown, it happened to the Smurfs, and it’s gonna happen to us.” – Bart Simpson
Season 7 began with what may have been the show’s high water mark in terms of pop culture appeal and influence. Season 6 had ended with the only cliffhanger The Simpsons ever did, and the first episode of Season 7 answered the question “Who shot Mr. Burns?”. Their parody of the infamous “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger on Dallas generated enormous attention, including national advertising tie-ins, a viewer contest, and news reports. FOX even ran a cross-promotional special with America’s Most Wanted host John Walsh pretending to identify suspects. The episode was a critical and ratings smash, and both parts routinely show up on “best of” lists.
The show was as big and adored as it had ever been, but backstage the turnover among the writing staff that would eventually doom the show was beginning to become serious. Of the ten writers David Mirkin had brought in to restock the staff in Season 5, only five were left by Season 7. At the same time, Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley took over the all important role of “show runner”. And there was the tragedy of Doris Grau’s death, which happened midway through Season 7. While The Simpsons was approaching these problems from a strong base, the kind of multi-year staff stability that had characterized the early years of the show was slipping away.
The overall tone of the show remained remarkably consistent throughout the two years Oakley and Weinstein were in charge, but there were some shifts into more explicitly emotional or political themes, a few “experimental” episodes that eschewed the usual three-act story format, and a couple of episodes that took stock of the show as a whole. Almost without exception these were handled with the cynical disdain and witty efficiency that had become the show’s hallmark, but Oakley and Weinstein had to move into those new areas because there simply wasn’t much left to do within the traditional bounds of the show.
The new focus didn’t prevent The Simpsons from producing some of its most beloved episodes. When Lisa decides to become a vegetarian, the concept of vegetarianism isn’t relentlessly advocated the way her later causes have been. Rather, vegetarianism is the butt of an enormous number of jokes, even while the show is just as scathing toward food industry propaganda and moralizing in general. When Bart, Lisa and Maggie are taken from Marge and Homer by child services, there’s a briefly wrenching moment of separation, but one that is done as quickly as possible. After Lisa discovers that the heroic tales about Jebediah Springfield are frauds, the show allows the lies to stand rather than insist on honesty at any cost.
Examples like that abound, and Season 7 is packed with episodes that have gone on to hallowed spots in the hearts of fans. Befitting a great season, several of its jokes are still widely recognized pop culture artifacts many years later. To name just a couple, there’s Troy McClure’s star turn in the Planet of the Apes musical, as well as the word “cromulent”, which went from not existing to dictionary worthy in just a few years. But Season 7 does have one noticeable slip-up, and it was a direct result of the show having to push into new areas.
Most of the season follows the classic Simpsons formula of rejecting television convention wholeheartedly. Whether it’s Lisa only being able to make friends by pretending to be someone she’s not, Marge actually gaining the acceptance of stuck up blue bloods, or Homer successfully abusing a program intended to help the less fortunate, standard television sensibility is being subverted. The exception is “Marge Be Not Proud”, which indulges in the cheap moralizing and rote storytelling of the family sitcoms The Simpsons had started off explicitly mocking.
“Marge Be Not Proud” was, in the parlance of crappy television, a “Very Special Episode”.25 Like so many very special episodes, this one involved a small family crisis brought on by a childish moral breach. Channeling countless television kids who came before him, Bart steals something. That sets in motion a series of television tropes and cliches that play out so predictably that they wouldn’t have been out of place in the 1950s: Bart steals, Bart gets caught, Bart feels bad, Marge finds out, Marge distrusts Bart, Bart feels worse, Bart makes good, they hug, the end.
The episode is made all the more jarring by having Bart be the one who sinks into guilt and self pity. Bart was America’s bad boy, the underachiever who was proud of it. Here he acts like every sitcom kid since television began, haunted by something he did and crushed that his mother is disappointed in him. The Simpsons had never before handled emotions that clumsily.
In the first season, Marge rescued Lisa from bad motherly advice (“Moaning Lisa”); in the second season, Marge accused Bart of ruining Thanksgiving (“Bart vs. Thanksgiving”); in the third season, Homer sulked and didn’t want to go to Bart’s soapbox derby race (“Saturdays of Thunder”); in the fourth season, Marge felt ignored by Homer during her play (“A Streetcar Named Marge”); in the fifth season, Marge threw Homer out (“Secrets of a Successful Marriage”); and in the sixth season, Lisa’s wedding (“Lisa’s Wedding” . . . duh) collapsed because of her love of Homer. Genuine emotional moments were often handled within the framework of the show and The Simpsons knew how to play them with a light touch; using them to swiftly advance the story and then getting them out of the way. But in “Marge Be Not Proud” the emotional moments don’t just linger, they repeatedly grind the story to a halt so that the audience can be assaulted by the obvious time and again.
That tendency has grown considerably worse over time, so compared to episodes in the later seasons, “Marge Be Not Proud” is subtle, witty and well constructed. But while it’s got enough great jokes that it would be the standout of just about anything past Season 10, in Season 7 it sticks out like a sore thumb. It was produced right after “Mother Simpson”, which had ample opportunities to delve into schlock and didn’t, and it preceded “Bart the Fink”, “A Fish Called Selma” and “Summer of 4 Ft. 2”, all of which could’ve easily been weighed down by their heavier moments but weren’t.
In Season 7, it is only “Marge Be Not Proud” that uses a shop worn, moralistic plot and unfolds it at such an agonizingly glacial pace. It is a very special episode, the first one the show ever did, and the harbinger of Zombie Simpsons.
Continue to Chapter 8: Frank Grimes and the Phony Kidnapping.
Notes and Sources
25. See the Very Special Episode article at http://tvtropes.org for plenty of other examples.