I always meant to rewatch The Simpsons in order, and when the opportunity came up to watch with someone else, it seemed a good plan. I’ve watched the Tracey Ullman Show shorts before, but we wanted to simply watch the first full season, which kicks off with a Christmas special.
The early episodes of The Simpsons are often referred to with a mixture of reverence and affectionate mockery, but what is usually stressed is how different things were from how the show became, not just now but in its glory days. But what surprised me was how well-established a lot of characterisation and plot structures were. Yes, sometimes Smithers has the wrong skin tone or Barney’s hair is the same colour as his face, but there were bigger gaps I expected. For one, I often hear it said that at the beginning, Bart was the major focus of the series, but it shifted to Homer when everyone realised he was both more complex and more entertaining. But while that may be true of the marketing – which was very much Bart-focused in those early years – the same is not really true of the series. If anything, Homer and Marge are the real focal points.
Then there’s the characterisation. The idea that some Simpsons characters begin multi-faceted and were gradually boiled down to flat caricatures defined by a few exaggerated quirks is called ‘Flanderisation’, and while I haven’t really seen the worst seasons of The Simpsons, it feels like these early episodes are painted with very broad brushstrokes, so to speak. But then, there hasn’t really been that much time to flesh out secondary characters, with Mr. Burns being the most nuanced in this season. Some parts seem a bit off – I never quite felt like Lisa should find Bart’s prank phonecalls to Moe as funny as she does, and Marge leaving Maggie to wander after Bart and Homer in the woods doesn’t ring true to her character later at all, but what I was most surprised by were how well-established some traits were very early on.
I didn’t expect Sideshow Bob to be introduced so soon, let alone be so fully-realised way back in season 1. Apu has yet to be well fleshed-out but appears more than I expected him to, and Reverend Lovejoy and his wife are a bit two-dimensional at this early stage. But Barney and Moe despite odd appearances are pretty much as they will always be, as are Otto and Principal Skinner.
A recent Treehouse of Horror had fun harking back to these days – the episode was weak but it was fun to see the animators mocking the very fluid animation back then, especially the way Bart’s face would often twist (bringing back Marvin Monroe was also a clever touch). That fluidity was actually a lot of fun and rather missed. The eccentricities and unconventional risk-taking in the animation is fun and I would prefer to see more of that over the sleek and smooth animation of today.
It will be interesting to see the show develop, but the thing that I’m most surprised by is that the show had a strong and established identity even this early on, and little has really changed over the high points and low points of the show’s long history.