Archive for the 'Permanent Record' Category

26
Feb
13

Permanent Record: Jimbo Jones

The Telltale Head14

“That one looks like a school bus going over a cliff in flames with kids inside screaming.” – Jimbo Jones

Like any other organization or group of people, a school has a natural hierarchy.  The adults are separate from the kids, obviously, but even within groups there are levels and layers.  For the adults there are staff and faculty, for the students there are grades, gender, circles of friends and lots of other ways the students sort themselves out.  One of the things that made Springfield Elementary so compelling and recognizable as a place, even though it’s fictional and inhabited by people with bulging eyes and no chins, is that the show captured the social ecosystem of a grade school with such trenchant clarity.

Among the kids in Bart’s class we have Milhouse, a weak kid who latches onto Bart, Martin, a true nerd who kisses the teacher’s ass, Sherri and Terri, the goody two (four?) shoes twins, and Nelson, the kid who gets to be the bully by dint of being bigger than everyone else.  “The Telltale Head” shows us some of the kids outside of Bart’s class, specifically the three older bullies: Dolph, Kearney and, above all, Jimbo.

Whereas Nelson is in the same grade as Bart and therefore serves as his daily tormentor, Jimbo and his cronies are older.  They wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to harass Bart, but he’s much too small fry for them to care about on a day to day basis.  In the school hierarchy, Jimbo and company are far above Bart.

When Bart and Jimbo first meet, we see this discrepancy in Bart’s awe of Jimbo (“you’re the worst kid in school”) and Jimbo’s total ignorance of Bart (“what’s your name, man?”).  As the story progresses, we see Bart trying as hard as he can to hang out with the older kids his idolizes, so he goes along with things he isn’t comfortable with (stealing from the Kwik-E-Mart, stoning the statue) while struggling to seem cool.

For his part, Jimbo plays the elder bad boy perfectly.  He’s okay with boosting candy and Playdudes and throwing rocks at inanimate objects, and he likes that Bart’s got a smart mouth and willingness to go along with stuff.  But he’s willing to dropkick Bart out of his orbit in an instant once it becomes clear that, for all his enthusiasm, Bart is still too much of a little kid to hang out with them.

Later episodes would use both sides of the relationship.  So Jimbo and Bart will work together when their interests are aligned (like the escape from Utility Basement B in “Whacking Day”), but Jimbo will easily turn on Bart when that suits him (“As soon as the check clears, I’ll let you go”).  When he wasn’t around Bart, Jimbo (and Dolph and Kearney) were the show’s way to make fun of sullen teenagers.  They’ll chase Bart down for doing ballet, but they’ll also rush off to the library to read about the Founding Fathers because of Ralph’s moving portrayal of George Washington.

Like so many of the other recurring minor characters, Jimbo and company made Springfield feel more like a real place.  They didn’t have to be good or bad, and none of them ever really got their own episode, they just had to be there, acting like the mostly harmless juvenile delinquents that they are. 

12
Feb
13

Permanent Record: Mr. Largo

Moaning Lisa9

“Alright, class, from the top: one and two and three and. . .” – Mr. Largo

American primary schools are filled with godawful bands.  While a few students might genuinely like playing music and even have some skill, most of the members are kids that have no particular aptitude for music, aren’t overly fond of their instruments, and/or are only in the band because their parents made them join.  In this context, “band” is just another class or after school activity, something most of the kids will go through the motions for, if only to keep the adults off their backs.  At the head of this artistically doomed enterprise is the music teacher, someone who has, for whatever reason, ended up teaching on the lowest rung of musical education. 

Mr. Largo perfectly exemplifies every bad stereotype there is about school music teachers.  He’s an authoritarian, he long ago lost whatever passion he had for music or his work, and, as Lisa would reveal in Season 2, his most profound lesson to probably his best student was that “even the noblest concerto can be drained of its beauty and soul”.  We can see all of these traits in Largo’s brief two scenes in “Moaning Lisa”. 

In the first, at band practice, he not only lashes out at Lisa for not playing along dully like the rest of the students, but evinces not a whit of empathy for her or the hardscrabble Americans she invokes as her justification for straying from the sheet music.  All he cares about is making those kids play “My Country Tis of Thee”, and if their rendition is off key, off rhythm and only barely recognizable as the song they’re trying to play, well, he doesn’t care about that. 

In his second appearance, just after Marge has given Lisa her terrible advice about smiling no matter what, he point blank tells Lisa that he doesn’t want any more “creativity” from her.  For Largo, music isn’t about being creative, it’s about muddling through with strict adherence to the original, however inadequate or terrible sounding. 

As a character, and despite his inclusion in the opening credits, Largo never developed into a standby the way many other Season 1 creations did.  He didn’t become Lisa’s foil the way Krabappel and Skinner were Bart’s, and except for background shots he rarely appeared outside of the school.  But as with so many other characters, Largo didn’t need a great deal of backstory or his own star turn in an episode to make him seem like a real person.  He was a music teacher who, by temperament, talent and good, old fashioned apathy, was cut out to be little else.  He didn’t really like his job or his students, and that made him a perfect fit in Springfield and at Springfield Elementary.

28
Jan
13

Permanent Record: Burns Manor

There's No Disgrace Like Home13

“There it is, kids, stately Burns Manor, heaven on earth.” – Homer Simpson

Watching Season 1 episodes with the knowledge of what the show was going to become can often blur out just how well formed many of the show’s ideas were, even before the voices and the animation had developed.  Burns, and the palatial estate on which he lives, illustrate that well.  “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” is the first time we get to see Burns Manor, and while it would be revised and updated in Season 2 and later, the fundamental ideas of it are all right here.

The image at the top of this post is the establishing shot, and right away we know that a) it’s luxurious to the point of absurdity (note the string music in the background when the family walks in), and b) the Simpsons (and by extension, you) are not the least bit welcome.  On only one day per year does Burns allow regular people into his perfect world (the warning sign doesn’t say that “Trespassers” will be shot, it says “Poachers”), and even then it’s only so his employees can bow and scrape before him.  The sack race is mandatory (and Burns must be allowed to win), the father whose kid didn’t want to be there is not only getting promptly ejected from the party, he’s being fired permanently.

But the mansion itself is just as important, particularly vis-a-vis the rest of Springfield.  Besides the Simpson home, there are only three other real settings in this episode.  There’s Moe’s, a dingy bar that doesn’t even have a color television, the pawn shop, and Dr. Monroe’s clinic, which is hardly a top notch medical facility since, as Lisa points out, he advertises it during boxing:

Dumpy Springfield

The bar is dirty and dingy, the pawnshop is a pawnshop (and has cracks in its walls and ceiling), and the rather grandly named “Family Therapy Center” is just some rented office with a dumpster right where you can see it on your way in.  Burns Manor, on the other hand, is the only really nice place in the entire town:

Opulent Burns Manor

It’s got a foyer worthy of Versailles, classical architecture, and enormous grounds decorated with fountains and gazebos.  Unlike Springfield, which is kind of a mess, Burns Manor is polished and perfect.

We’re still years away from Bart having the train that disappears for hours and one time came back with snow on it, or the band shell where a captive Tom Jones performs for Marge and Homer, or the guards who sing that all they own they owe, but Burns Manor is already recognizable as a place that is both very rich and very cruel.  Moreover, it’s already a place that highlights all the things the Simpsons don’t have, and really can never have.  Homer’s place is at Moe’s with the passed out drunk on the bar; Marge has the house that Bart describes as a “dump” when he thinks its someone else’s.  Even the perfect family Homer sees leaving Burns Manor at the beginning is stuck at Dr. Marvin Monroe’s run down clinic.  Burns Manor, on the other hand, stands literally up on a hill, looking down on them all.

22
Jan
13

Permanent Record: Sherri & Terri

Homer's Odyssey9

“We’re gonna make you sing, Bart Simpson.” – Sherri
“Yeah, Bart Simpson, we’re gonna make you sing.” – Terri

When “Homer’s  Odyssey” was first broadcast, and The Simpsons was considered just this side of Satanic cults by much of mainstream culture, one of the best things about it was the way it mocked success.  People who did well in Springfield didn’t always deserve it, and even the ones who did were often portrayed as insufferable jackasses.  The most glaring example of that is easily Flanders, who is a genuinely nice guy but who is also grotesquely inhuman in the way he is immune to the humdrum failures and humiliations of ordinary people.

Sherri and Terri, though much less prominent than Flanders, fill a similar role.  They are goody two shoes; teacher’s pets who are plenty willing to abuse their favored status among the adults to torment Bart Simpson.  They are proof that the kids who get good grades, do their homework on time, and never get detention can be just as mean and troublemaking as anyone else.

Just as bad, both they and their father, who’s one of Homer’s bosses at the nuclear plant, aren’t above using their favored status to shame and taunt people below them.  In short, it isn’t enough for their family to be better, they have to rub it in.  Society’s betters are just as bad as you are.

Homer's Odyssey8

Like Milk Duds, they’re poison on the inside.

This idea of universal mockery is one of the things that differentiates The Simpsons from regular comedy, then and now.  Just having Homer crash his cart and get fired in front of his son is funny.  But even in Season 1, that wasn’t enough.  Homer and Bart losing is much better when we not only see other people looking down on them for their failure, but also the way that the people looking down on them are selfish jerks too.

From the time they deliberately misinform Bart about US history to when they narc on Milhouse’s secret birthday party all the way up to trying to make Moe sing the million dollar birthday fries song twice, Sherri and Terri enjoy picking on people who aren’t as competent and put together as they are.  They have a mean streak, and they’re perfectly willing to exploit the fact that they’re twins to express it.

Homer's Odyssey10

The twins enjoy the suffering and humiliation of others.  Just like the rest of us.

Unlike Zombie Simpsons, which frequently has characters show up in a scene for no reason other than to spout some piece of hacktacular dialogue, The Simpsons made even very minor characters like Sherri and Terri into real people.  It understood that even characters who only get a few lines can be recognizable people, and that no one is too minor to have some funny flaws.

14
Jan
13

Permanent Record: Dr. J. Loren Pryor

Bart the Genius9

“Ah, finished already?  Principal Skinner will be very interested to . . . oh. . . . You know, you misspelled ‘confession’.” – Dr. J. Loren Pryor

Even at its earliest stages, The Simpsons was always careful not to pass up comedy opportunities.  Whether it was minor characters, secondary locations, television shows, or anything else, the show made sure to populate the universe of Springfield with people, places and ideas that were just as delightfully twisted as the main family.  A school psychologist evaluating troublemaking Bart could easily have been portrayed as a straight ahead public servant, a caring individual who tries to help steer the wayward young man.  But that wouldn’t have been any fun, so instead the show gave us Dr. J. Loren Pryor, a book smart quack who can’t see past his own glasses to the obvious fact that Bart Simpson is scamming him.

This is the first episode with “Dr J.”, and while he pops up a few more times in the show, this is his definitive performance.  Consider his first interaction with Bart.  The show lets us know right from the get go that this guy is not nearly as smart as the tie and vest would have you believe.  Not only is he measuring Bart’s head with calipers, but he’s getting quickly, thoroughly and easily had:

Bart the Genius8

Sir, phrenology was dismissed as quackery a hundred sixty years ago.

Dr. J. Loren Pryor: Tell me, Bart, are you ever bored in school?
Bart: Oh, you bet.
Dr. J. Loren Pryor: Mmm-hmm, ever feel a little frustrated?
Bart: All the time, sir.
Dr. J. Loren Pryor: Do you ever dream of leaving your class to pursue your own intellectual development on an independent basis?
Bart: Wow, it’s like you’re reading my mind, man.

Look at those questions!  Bart’s sold a lot of adults on a lot of crap in his time, but Pryor is such a sucker that all Bart has to do here is agree with him.

This is only the second episode, but the societal nihilism that underpinned so much of the show’s satire in later years was already apparent.  The only person who sees through Bart’s con is Lisa.  Everyone else, from his parents to the principal to the “learning coordinator” are all fooled.  Pryor, the supposed expert, is the worst offender, and we get further payoff from his academic obtuseness at the end.

Sitting in his office, which is adorned with a picture of Bart next to a picture of Albert Einstein, Pryor falls hook, line and sinker for Bart’s plan to return to his regular school.  Even after the chemistry explosion, Pryor still doesn’t understand that Bart isn’t a genius.  Indeed, he leaps at the Jane Goodall comparison and rushes from his office to put Bart’s plan into action.  It isn’t until Bart literally spells it out for him in his confession that Pryor finally realizes how big a fool he’s been.

Though he’s only a small part of the episode, “Bart the Genius” leaves no doubt about the fact that Dr. J. Loren Pryor is a nebbish idiot.  So as the series progresses we understand why he can be so callous in telling Lisa that a homemaker is “like a mommy” or careless when he gets mixed up and thinks that Bart is the kid with the “flamboyant homosexual tendencies”.  He’s a doctor, but he’s also a dolt.




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