OTH: The Simpsons- "The Telltale Head"/"Life in the Fast Lane"

An iconic early episode and another rough but passable take. Bet you'll never guess which is which.

Aired February 25, 1990

Directed by Rich Moore

Written by Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Sam Simon & Matt Groening

This doesn’t seem like a very important episode on first inspection, and in truth, it’s pretty far from one of the best. But “The Telltale Head” is significant for being the first episode to show Springfield as a fully alive town.

Granted, we’re still not spending that much time away from the core family. This is another episode heavy on Homer, and particularly Bart. But introducing the audience to the legacy of Jebediah Springfield, and his impact on his namesake town, brings us closer into the world of the Simpsons.

I normally try to write these as much as I possibly can in the mindset of someone watching the show for the first time, ideally as it aired in 1990. It’s good to keep my expectations and feelings in line with the show as I’m watching it, not thinking forward of the series as it will become. But I can’t help but think about how different this episode would be if it was done a couple of years later, and how much more the residents of Springfield would factor in. We get a little taste of community here, but it’s more through the eyes of Homer and Bart as they’re nearly about to be impaled by the residents.

There’s a couple of funny moments scattered around, but little that really stands out. We’ve already seen Bart skirt a line between a good and bad kid, just as we’ve seen Homer give Bart terrible advice that condones selling yourself out for the approval of others.

What I did like best was the church material in the first act. Besides the obvious nature of Bart’s harmless delinquency and Homer’s ambivalence towards church time, which culminates in a great little contrast with Homer ignoring Reverend Lovejoy’s sermon for his game along with Bart and the rest of his Sunday School class giving Ms. Albright hell with earnest questions. It’s funny to see how their troublemaking contrasts, and that neither Homer nor Bart mean to offend.

It’s worth noting that this episode has four writers, including a rare contribution by Groening. While “The Telltale Head” is a little too consistent to call it a mesh of different styles, at the same time, none of them bring enough of their own flavors in to make this more than a nice early episode at the end of the day.

Aired March 18, 1990

Directed by David Silverman

Written by John Swartzwelder

What does Marge see in Homer?

We’re early in the show, and while we can tell thus far that the two do love each other, it’s very clear that Homer is the reacher, and Marge is the settler. Homer’s boorish behavior and idiotic tendencies tend to clash with Marge’s more sedate, humble self. We also don’t know much if anything about their life before becoming parents yet. What made them click with each other, and why has she stayed for so long?

This is the first episode that really brings this question to the forefront, although I’m not sure if we’ve found the logical answer yet. So Marge finds Homer pathetic, and likes to watch over him like a lost puppy? That’s honestly pretty pathetic, and pointless when she has three children to raise. There’s passion at the end when Homer carries Marge off into his car, but that and the PB&J speech isn’t really enough to suggest a terrific romance.

I’m mainly annoyed with Homer in this one for forgetting Marge’s birthday, which is apparently a reoccurring issue. I just can’t understand forgetting such basic, important information about the supposed love of your life, or not even bothering to find a gift she’d like in hopes of getting something for yourself. I do like the character of Homer thus far, when he’s depicted as a well meaning buffoon, but here he’s looking far less competent or considerate than desirable.

So seeing their marriage in jeopardy is unfortunate, but not undeserved. Doesn’t Marge deserve better? Are Patty and Selma’s cracks about Homer warranted? Maybe to both, but to be fair, neither Marge’s sisters, or her suitor Jacques, are real prizes.

Jacques may seem suave and charismatic at first, but the more time we spend with the character, the more unhinged he proves himself to be. Between the few times he lets his accent lapse and how seriously he takes a game like bowling, there are cracks to be found. However, I can understand and appreciate how exciting he may seem after a long period of being with someone like Homer.

From what I understand, Jacques was meant to be a Swedish tennis instructor, but Albert Brooks suggested making him French instead, which I think works well. I’m not sure where it was decided to switch his sport from tennis to bowling, but I think it was a good call, especially as Homer seems like much more of a bowler.

When asked if The Flintstones was a major inspiration for The Simpsons, Matt Groening will generally state that he was more influenced by Rocky and Bullwinkle. Based on the show’s love of fast-paced, witty dialogue and its comfort with allowing the animation to slow down for it, I can see where he comes from. Also, Homer and Bart share their middle initials with the moose and squirrel, but it’s this episode where you can definitely see a Flintstones influence. This is something more likely for Fred, a likable but undeniable jerk who is able to forget his wife’s birthday. I bring this up not only because of Fred Flintstone’s love for bowling, but also how it was brought up in the commentary that as opposed to The Flintstones, The Simpsons tends to focus on real, relatable issues as opposed to sitcom issues. Which maybe, except it only feels right for a sitcom in which Marge and Homer can still be together.

Although I’m knocking Homer, as well as Marge’s decision to stay with him, I want to make it clear that I otherwise really like the episode. A big part of that comes from Albert Brooks’ performance as Jacques, who adlibbed nearly three hours worth of material, and sells every line. Brooks so far has found a knack for giving manic performances that fit in as well as above the content he’s given, and finding fresh ways to make his delivery unforgettable.

I do also admire the episode from an emotional standpoint. Not only seeing Marge try to determine which man she wants to be with, as well as Homer realizing that his marriage may be falling apart, but also for Lisa and Bart, who can recognize that there’s marital friction occurring. As a child of divorce, I can understand their reactions, and I like that it’s never once discussed that it could be any of their faults. It’s never the child’s fault. Lisa does well in putting two and two together when Marge is away, and while it understandably takes more time for Bart to figure it out, it’s nice to see his bad boy streak challenged as he sees how Homer is affected.

This is the first episode to win an Emmy, the highest one The Simpsons is eligible for in fact, the award for Outstanding Animated Program for Less Than One Hour. It even went up against “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”, a rarity allowed due to that being considered a separate special, along with two Garfield specials and a Charlie Brown. All of these are mighty fine half hours of television, including the other episode, but I’d call “Life on the Fast Lane” a well deserved for one of the best episodes we’ve reached thus far. I’m excited to see what comes next, but this is a true season 1 highlight.

Stray Observations (yes, I should come up with a more creative title for this section):

  • Life on the Fast Lane” doesn’t have a full intro, so we only have one chalkboard and couch gag to consider. “I did not see Elvis” is pretty funny, but we already saw Bart jumping off the couch into the TV.

  • “The Telltale Head” is the first of a scant few episodes we’ll see to feature the episode title on the screen. That’s not really relevant to anything, but worth observing all the same.

  • I didn’t mention the flashback elements of the episode because there isn’t much to mention, it doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the story itself.

  • About 23 minutes and 5 seconds, lol

  • What about a robot with a human brain?

  • I love Marge’s reluctance to try on Bart’s nasty smelling perfume. Girl same.

  • ’ accent breaking for onion rings is purely priceless.6

  • “It’s not quite breakfast, it’s not quite lunch, but it comes with a slice of cantaloupe at the end.” That’s how I’ll describe all of my meals for now on.

  • I plan to talk more about the voice acting as the show goes on, but Julie Kavner’s delivery of “Goodbye, Homer” is stunning.

  • Y’no, I’ve been able to pick up most of the film references thus far, but I’ve yet to see An Officer and a Gentleman. Should I fix that?

  • New Character Column- We get a lot this week, heh. First of all is Reverend Lovejoy, who Harry Shearer is giving a great performance for already, even if his true purpose hasn’t been found yet (ie, becoming increasingly aggravated by Flanders). Next up are Jimbo, Kearney, and Dolph, the local bullies… older bullies at least. It’s funny to hear Tress MacNeille voice Jimbo. She does fine with the character, but it’s not how I’m used to hearing him, either. She’ll voice the character a couple more times, but Pamela Hayden will take over the role sometime in season 2. Jimbo himself is a decent character, but there isn’t as much to say about Kearney and Dolph, aside from the former being a good dad. We also meet Apu… yep. Krusty also makes his first appearance in the core series, despite debuting on Tracy Ullman. He’s one of my favorites, but doesn’t have a whole lot to say here yet beyond his tattletelling pleas. There’s also a blink and you’ll miss it appearance from Sideshow Bob, who I’ll talk about soon. In the next episode we meet Reverend Lovejoy’s wife, Helen, who introduces herself as the gossipy wife, which yes. As well as Lenny. Yes, Lenny!