“Now, about last night, you might’ve noticed Daddy acting a little strange and you probably don’t understand why.” – Homer Simpson
“I understand why. You were wasted.” – Bart Simpson
“I admit it. I didn’t know when to say when. I’m sorry it happened and I just hope you didn’t lose a lot of respect for me.” – Homer Simpson
“Dad, I have as much respect for you as I ever did or ever will.” – Bart Simpson
“Aww.” – Homer Simpson
Even all these years later, the vast range of types of episodes the show managed to knock out of the park remains astonishing. Case in point, “The War of the Simpsons” was preceded by the heart crushing “Lisa’s Substitute” and followed by the pop culture romp of “Three Men and a Comic Book”, but it’s nothing like either one. (This is one reason I’ve always found it so hard to pick favorites or even stand-out episodes.)
It starts fast with Homer immediately becoming a drunken buffoon at Marge’s fancy party. But the scene isn’t just Homer being a jerk, we’ve also got Moe resenting Flanders playing bartender, Barney getting maced, Maggie tearing up money, Lisa wanting to hear the “witty banter of sophisticated adults”, and Hibbert telling Marge what to do “if” she wants Homer to live through the night. (She doesn’t do it.) This sets up Marge’s justifiable anger at Homer as well as her solo trip to church where we get the marriage encounter weekend set up.
All of that happens before the first commercial break. Plus there’s Bart patronizing Homer about how much respect Bart has for him, Homer’s fictional Algonquin Round Table flashback, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it callback joke to Homer ogling Maude where she checks her blouse buttons in church, and more.
That music always sends a chill down their spines.
What makes all of it work so well is that everyone is perfectly in character. So, for example, Marge gives Grampa an overly-detailed list of numbers to call in case things happen. Marge being Marge, she then sneaks a number to the kids in case Grampa falls down in the bathtub (one of the episode’s many brutal old people slams). Directly after, Bart, having anticipated this move on his mother’s part, hands Grampa a list he made that allows the kids to run wild. Lisa is initially reluctant, but she’s still a kid and more than happy to go to the grocery store and buy nothing but ice cream.
Both stories then accelerate from there: Homer botches the marriage retreat, Marge gets her patience tested more than ever before, Bart runs too wild, Lisa begins to regret what they’re doing, Grampa gets increasingly overwhelmed. The whole family is showcased, and everyone’s funny just being who they are.
Even the non-family characters get to be funny as caricatures of real people. Reverend Lovejoy’s retreat is both shallow (“A marriage can’t be reconciled in a few hours, Homer. It takes a whole weekend to do that!”) and pathetic (“Three couples, our best turnout yet!”). The bait shop guy is a dead-on bait shop guy: not in any kind of hurry and master of local lore that only he (and Homer) could possibly think is important. And, of course, there’s John and Gloria, quite possibly the bitterest couple in television history. They’re only in one scene, but in just their handful of lines we get a technicolor picture of their years of mounting anger and resentment and frustration.
Here’s your crown your majesty!
This is the show putting all of its considerable powers on display. The writing is dense with jokes and meaning, but flows so well that it’s hilarious no matter how rapid it gets. The art and animation can handle everything from intimate scenes between couples to Homer’s epic battle with General Sherman. And the voice acting is stand-out perfect in more places than I can count: Castellaneta’s sarcastic, “I also understand bowling expressions”, Cartwright’s resigned, “You’re great at a party, Lis. Really great”, and Kavner turning a simple “No, I’m not” into a repeated punchline.
Even the ending works perfectly. Homer and Marge get back together despite Homer’s continued idiocy because for all his flaws, he is supremely dedicated and loyal to Marge (“I gave up fame and breakfast for my marriage.”). And, best of all, Grampa finally gets one over on the kids who’ve been taking advantage of him all episode, which the show turns into one of its trademark anti-authority statements, with Bart declaring: “I’ll never trust another old person.”
Like so many episodes from the show’s golden years, there isn’t another one quite like this. But being so distinct doesn’t hurt it in the least. It’s still perfectly hilarious, it’s just perfectly hilarious in different ways that the others.