Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge: Sentimentality and The Simpsons
"Marge, is Lisa at Camp Granada?"
It's fair to say that my love for The Simpsons is one of the few things about my personality that hasn't changed since about the age of the seven. Like countless people of my generation, the show is synonymous with my childhood; I take pride in my obscure-quoting prowess and, even though I have the plots to every episode from season one to 13 memorised (because I have seen them all more times than I could count), re-watching them still gives me so much joy.
As I walked past somebody recently wearing a "Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge" t-shirt it reminded me that although it's been over 20 years since the most acclaimed seasons of The Simpsons originally aired, the series maintains a loyal fan base. Sustained love for the "golden age"1 of The Simpsons – generally considered to be seasons two to 10 (1991–1999)2 – is recognisable in the podcasts dedicated to detailed analysis of each of these episodes, such as Four Fingered Discount and Everything's Coming up Simpsons, or in the current rising trend of getting very specific Simpsons reference tattoos, as is seen in the popular Instagram account, @thesimpsontattoo. It is a devotion, however, that is frequently stressed by fans to be wholly separate from the more recent seasons of the long-running show.
Loyalty surrounding "golden age" Simpsons episodes (often paired with disapproval of more recent seasons) can be understood by looking at moments such as this single shot from the end of "Marge Be Not Proud" (season 7 episode 11). This moment achieves a perfect blend of both sentimentality and humour. Strongly written moments such as this set the older seasons of The Simpsons apart from the seasons created in the 2000s.
First airing in December 1995, "Marge Be Not Proud" was the second Christmas-themed episode of the show. Its plot centres around Bart's fear that he has lost his mother's love after he is caught shoplifting. This episode captures that almost universal feeling of your parent's disappointment somehow being so much worse than their anger. In the episode's concluding moments, Marge forces Bart to show her what he has hidden in his jacket. She assumes that it is another shoplifted video game but Bart reveals a nice framed photograph, an attempt to make up for all of the family portraits he has ruined in his short life (we see these earlier in the episode). Marge is deeply touched by this gesture and lets Bart open a Christmas present early. When Marge optimistically states that she knows he likes video games and "I asked the clerk which is the one every boy wants," both the viewer and Bart presume that his gift is Bonestorm (the video game Bart was caught attempting to steal). Viewed through Bart's perspective, this shot is the moment he opens his present. He sees that it's a dull golf game, but also notices that Marge is happy again and, suddenly, the game isn't important anymore. What matters is that the distance between them over the last few days is gone.
This is my favourite ending to an episode of The Simpsons. To me, this one shot where we see Marge's naive smile beam at Bart as he lowers the game down to look at her, poignantly expresses meaningful character growth and the love shared between the two, all while simultaneously maintaining a comedic tone. What's more, the placement of Marge behind the video game is a beautifully subtle reflection of Bart's recognition that the person behind the gift is what counts.
It's in these kinds of representations of relatable family issues where the viewer almost forgets that they're watching a cartoon as opposed to a real sitcom.3 Moreover, The Simpsons' ability in moments such as this to reveal a greater depth to characters beyond their set formulas bolstered the audience's emotional ties to them because they seemed more multi-dimensional and human. Although the viewer has an established understanding of Bart's as the "bad boy" with an inherent disrespect for authority, this episode and this final moment show that his character is layered: while he may think Marge is lame, he does care about her opinion and misses her motherly expressions of affection (like tucking him in or putting a marshmallow in his hot chocolate) when they're gone.
While a large factor of The Simpsons' charm has always been its cynicism and satirical take on traditional family sitcoms,4 it is the unique mix of clever cynicism and sentimentality in writing of the early seasons which is a significant point of difference fans identify when comparing the older and newer seasons.5 A recurring criticism that appears in articles on The Simpsons "golden age" is that the characters have become exaggerated caricatures of their former selves and are lacking the depth that made them relatable.6 In a 2007 interview, even creator Matt Groening credited realism or the "legitimate problems" the Simpson family faced such as Homer living in fear of losing his job or having trouble connecting with his daughter with being a crucial element in the show's success in the earlier seasons.7 In contrast, in later seasons, episode plots and humour have become progressively more dependent on outlandish circumstantial comedy. For instance, although Bart's troublesome nature and apathy for authority were always exaggerated qualities, later storylines that see Bart selling nuclear secrets to the Chinese government (season 22 episode 12) feel like bizarre shifts away from the show's earlier nuance.
As The Simpsons heads into its 30th season, it's unrealistic to expect the writing and the premise to have remained as consistently relevant and strong over such an extended period of time.8 The dismissal of later episodes is due partly to the unbelievably high expectations cultivated by the show's first few seasons. Heart-warming and uniquely "Simpsons" moments such as Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge are reminders of how layered the satirical style of The Simpsons was, why it was considered groundbreaking in its time and why particular seasons of the show continue to hold an intensely loyal fan base.