Episode 1 - Stark Raving Dad
23 February 2012
Synopsis: Lisa begs Bart to take her birthday seriously and give her a meaningful present. Homer wears a pink shirt to work and Mr Burns assumes he must be a troublemaker. Homer lets Bart fill in his psychological assessment form and he is committed. Inside he meets a large white man who thinks he is Michael Jackson. Michael helps Homer get out and comes to stay with the family.
The Good: The use of Michael Jackson here is extraordinary.
At the time his involvement was quite a coup and retrospectively it adds a strange nostalgia to this episode. But the more you think about this episode the more daring and original it was to "cast" him as a large white mental patient only imitating Jackson. It's a reflection of where The Simpsons was as a show at the time. It was a comedy about an ordinary family from a very ordinary town. No one as famous as Michael Jackson has come anywhere near Springfield in decades and so the writers clearly felt they couldn't script Homer to actually run into the King of Pop.
By virtue of this clever writing, Jackson is able to play a full role in the episode without anyone having to suspend their disbelief too far. Jackson's singing (and dancing) talents get used to their fullest too to tie Homer's insanity storyline back into the tale of Lisa's birthday. Some of the show's later uses of celebrity appearances were tame or lame compared to this cunning and unexpected bit of work.
As to the story it's wonderfully simple. Homer once more points out the real world morality that TV shows don't normally express when he claims he can't wear a pink shirt to work as he isn't cool enough to be different. Sure enough he is mocked by his co-workers and committed by his boss. It's an exaggerated response which lands himself in the same room as Jackson. In another nice touch forty year old (or so) Homer hasn't heard of Jackson which allows him to believe his new roommates story.
Meanwhile Lisa continues her role as overly wise and mature for her age by placing such significance on her brother's demonstration of affection on her birthday. As her family are out tending to Homer she sings sadly to herself "Happy birthday overlooked middle child..." Her sensitivity to the effects of childhood on later life come through again when she writes a note to Bart claiming their relationship is over and will doubtless lead to therapy in her future.
Bart too is richly characterised as he blithely ignores both his father and sister's needs in between rudely answering the phone and gossiping about Jackson's impending arrival. He even cracks wise about being an old timer (aged 10) when Lisa tries to talk seriously about turning 8. Jackson then steps in to counsel Bart to search for the real emotions he has for Lisa and constructs a song to reflect that. It's no mean feat to write a song that can lead to a heart warming conclusion as this one does. Jackson then reveals the truth that he is actually a brick layer from New Jersey with a surprising message about mental health.
The humour bubbles away in the background nicely. Bart shows Jackson what the real pop star looks like and points out that he just looks like a fat mental patient. "You'd be amazed how often I hear that" Jackson responds with utter sincerity. When Marge calls the mental institution to speak to Homer she is put on hold and the inappropriate music choice is "Crazy, crazy for feeling so lonely."
The Bad: Nothing much.
Best Joke: Jackson warns Bart to take his phone call seriously, "you don't want him to get a lobotomy do you?" Bart pictures a scene where Homer is so slow and witless that he can get away with anything but agrees commenting "Well there's probably a downside I don't see."
The Bottom Line: An original and clever piece of writing which told a pleasant and fun story.
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