Natural Born Kissers” (season nine, episode 25, originally aired 05/17/1998)

In which it’d just be awkward, what with the sex and all…

Season nine of The Simpsons is a Frankenstein season of television. Ostensibly Mike Scully’s first season as showrunner of the venerable institution, his debut was surrounded by pieces of showrunners past. The departing team Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein had three episodes left from the eighth season: “The City Of New York Vs. Homer Simpson,” “The Principal And The Pauper,” and “Lisa The Simpson.” David Mirkin returned after stepping down in season six to helm “The Joy Of Sect” and “Singing And Dancing.” Al Jean and Mike Reiss, showrunners in seasons three and four (the most gilded of Golden Age Simpsons), returned for “Lisa’s Sax” and “Simpson Tide.” The end result is an uncoordinated mix of voices and tones, each of which had its own idea about what made the show work.

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That unfocused blend of creative energy, paired with the natural entropy that affects any show that’s on the air for eight years, is a large reason why the ninth season of The Simpsons is not a great season of television. It’s still a good season, with more high points than lows, but given that it comes on the heels of consecutive all-time greats, being less than great is enough to get it labeled as the end of something special. Episodes were less successful at hitting their satirical marks, plots suffered from a lack of inspiration or felt recycled from prior years, and the family became broader and consequently more grating. It began the string of complaints that have dogged the show for eighteen seasons since: that The Simpsons was no longer this brilliant thing at the forefront of television that could be called, without hyperbole, the greatest comedy of all time.

Those objections have always obscured one crucial fact: Just because The Simpsons isn’t uniformly great anymore, that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of being great. Even as recently as this season, the creative team and the ensemble are capable of producing something that proves the show doesn’t need to be put out of its misery. “Natural Born Kissers,” the season nine finale, is a welcome example of that and a perfect way to close an uneven stretch of episodes. It understands its characters and how to make them funny and human at the same time, and has the ability to go from relationship angst to public nudity without batting an eye.

“Natural Born Kissers” is so successful because it’s a simple episode at heart. In his first script, Matt Selman—as of the 27th season still a writer and executive producer on the show—doesn’t go for tackling social topics or send the family on a wild international adventure. Instead, he goes for a quieter story about the marriage of Homer and Marge Simpson and whether or not it’s in trouble. This is well-explored territory, be it Homer spilling their dirty laundry in an adult education course or Marge getting too friendly with her bowling instructor, but those instances are based on one of them (Homer 95 percent of the time) making a mistake that can be resolved at the end at the half-hour. Much like The Simpsons itself, “Natural Born Kissers” is facing up to broader issues of entropy, the idea that the spark has gone out and the worry that it’ll never reignite.

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By moving the Simpson marriage outside its usual stasis with their eleventh wedding anniversary, Selman enhances the melancholy of their married life. A loud family dinner at an airplane-themed restaurant could take place at any time, but on the one night Homer and Marge reserved for something special—and a night where their leftovers have to share space with their wedding cake—it makes the lack of excitement painfully clear. Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner, always superlative in their work together, are terrific as they try to fumble their way back to familiar intimacy, a painful awkwardness familiar to anyone who’s lost that particular spark. (Marge: “We probably should, you know, rock the casbah.” Homer: “Yeah, it seems like the thing to do.”) When Santa’s Little Helper jumps on the bed, the relief is almost hilariously palpable, the two of them so happy to have something to focus on that isn’t each other.

The way Homer and Marge get their groove back is a mix of the basic (broken refrigerator motor) and the contrived (thunderstorm and farmer with shotgun-pitchfork), but it comes together because it doesn’t get away from what we know of the couple. They’re sexually active and eager throughout the first nine seasons, so this isn’t like the show breathing life into a sexless sitcom couple from the 1950s. They simply need a jolt, and find a way to get one—and also give a cow something to see in what Matt Groening called possibly the best act break of all time.

If that was all this story had to it, it would feel like a rehash of a past episode—that most damning criticism of latter-day Simpsons. Homer and Marge’s weakened sex life was a key part of season six’s “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy,” and there it was only a cold open to get to a Homer and Abe story. Selman’s script isn’t interested in a quick fix though: When the couple goes to the Snuggler’s Cove bed and breakfast, energy levels are dormant once again. They’re looking for distraction up to and including a moving butter churn, and Marge can only muster “Hey! Look at that!”—a top-tier delivery from Kavner—when Homer takes his shirt off. As they connect the dots to their fear of getting caught, it leads to an oddly sweet moment that also works as a Freudian encapsulation of the Simpson marriage. Homer’s the id and Marge is the superego, and both are necessary to fit together (no pun intended).

Looking to keep that spark going, both the couple and the show return to a place where their energies were at their highest: the Simpsons’ old romantic nest in Sir Putt-A-Lot’s Merrie Olde Fun Centere. (On the commentary track, Groening and others acknowledge that it went from a castle in “I Married Marge” to a windmill here, and they apologize for the continuity error while also noting their checks still cleared.) “Natural Born Kissers” pivots in a smartly organic way, broadening its focus to encompass all of Springfield. Turns out that having sex in public means that eventually the public is going to notice you, and in this case the public takes the form of a surprising number of recognizable Springfieldians who chose this exact day to go mini-golfing.

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This is another great aspect of “Natural Born Kissers.” Even though the episode is principally about Homer and Marge, it still takes full advantage of the full Simpsons ensemble as they react to the windmill mystery. Moe wins the day with his executive decision to “monoxide” whatever’s in there and the way he appropriates Mrs. Lovejoy’s catchphrase, but everyone else is similarly on point. There’s Ned’s patronizing advice to his wife (and Maude’s weary response to it), Principal Skinner’s identification of a “truant ball” and Agnes immediately moving to correct him, Chief Wiggum’s assessment of the situation and sad reflection on what Homer’s underwear does to the police dog, and a Ralph-ism about presents. They’re a spice that flavors the episode without overwhelming it, a testament to nine seasons worth of world-building.

As the Simpsons go on the run from prying eyes, both director Klay Hill and composer Alf Clausen have a lot of fun shifting the mood from semi-drama to whimsical romp. On the commentary track Groening and Scully both talk about how this was one of the rare episodes where Fox told them outright they didn’t want to air it. (Though evidently the “hard-core nudity” montage that they used to close their third clip show was perfectly fine.) But despite being the first episode of The Simpsons to feature Marge’s naked butt, there’s nothing particularly risque about any of the nudity—if anything, the pitchfork-wielding farmer’s threat of “ass-forking” feels the most over the line. The show understands that implied nudity is worlds funnier than actual nudity, and goes to delightful lengths to keep Marge and Homer’s unmentionables out of view.

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The story finds both literal and metaphorical new heights once Homer and Marge acquire a hot-air balloon, as the script decides that since this is already a disaster for them it might as well become a glorious disaster. Sure, Homer and Marge being caught naked in front of the town is funny, but why not make it total humiliation? Why not have Homer dragged ass-first over a church’s glass ceiling and force the pastor to give praise to God’s floors? Why not have Homer’s rear end block a game-winning field goal? And when the couple is naked in front of a stadium full of fans, and they challenge them to take a picture, why not have it be Camera Day? And, with everything exposed, why shouldn’t Homer and Marge just decide to smile and wave? The answer to all those questions: “Why not?”, indeed.

Despite going to those comedic extremes, “Natural Born Kissers” gets back to a centered point by relocating the action at the Simpson house. It’s a great encapsulation of how this family works: Homer and Marge have to try to explain things to children who are too worldly to fall for most excuses, the explanation trails off, and what could be a pleasant family outing to solve it all turns out to be yet another excuse for self-involvement when one public humiliation doesn’t outweigh the joys of getting busy in a windmill. The Simpsons are a weird, dysfunctional, and ultimately loving family, and this is an ending—and an episode—that reminds us how wonderful that can be.

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Stray observations

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • Chalkboard gag: “I was not the inspiration for Kramer.”
  • We haven’t even mentioned the episode’s B-story involving Bart and Lisa’s metal detector treasure hunt, which mostly justifies the kids’ presence when they’re not reacting to their parents’ newly charged libidos. While a slight plot, the concept of the Casablanca alternate ending gets some good laughs, particularly in Grampa and Bart’s reactions to it. (“And the question mark leaves the door wide open for a sequel!”) Interestingly, the It’s A Wonderful Life killing spree idea will reappear a few seasons later, when Mel Gibson lets Homer talk him into rewriting the ending to his Mr. Smith Goes To Washington remake.
  • It’s sort of amazing to realize that Gil didn’t appear in The Simpsons until this season, as he feels like he’s been part of Springfield forever. His appearance here is peak Gil, between living in the hot air balloon (just until things pick up), a hot plate with two payments left, and his simultaneous inability to stop trying to sell to people and his inability to do it well.
  • Homer’s suit contains a program from the funeral of Frank Grimes (or Grimey, as he liked to be called). “Yeah, him! I wonder whatever happened to him.”
  • The visual gag of the utensils falling on Homer’s head goes on the exact right amount of time: a few seconds longer than it should, but not so long that it stops being funny.
  • Also re: great visual gags, when the radio ad suggests divorce as a solution relationship problems, Homer and Marge’s eyes both widen noticeably for a fraction of a second. It’s a subtle thing, but one speaks volumes about their fears. And following it with the upbeat tones of “Spanish Flea” calls back fond memories of Homer inventing the song’s lyrics while a Spinal Tap concert burned to the ground all the way back in “The Otto Show.”
  • The maid’s mortified “I saw everything” belongs in a Simpsons one-liner pantheon.
  • “And that’s how I earned the Iron Cross.”
  • “Bart, this could be priceless!” “Priceless like a mother’s love, or the good kind of priceless?”
  • “Oh, why are people always trying to kill me?”
  • “Dear Lord, look at that blimp! He’s hanging from a balloon!”
  • Marge: “I don’t want you reading these awful scandal sheets.” Lisa: “Uh, I was just trying to find Dave Barry’s column.” Bart: “He’s great! He pokes fun at life’s little foibles.” Nancy Cartwright’s reading of that line always kills me, probably because Bart using the word “foibles” is so amusingly out of character.
  • “They’re gonna feel so silly when they realize they forgot us.”

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And now, an announcement: This review marks the end of The A.V. Club’s coverage of classic The Simpsons. When Nathan Rabin started this project all the way back in 2010 with “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire,” his goal was “to examine how this most beloved of comic institutions became such a ferocious cultural force, how a modest animated show on a fledgling network attained a rare sort of comic perfection and irrevocably changed comedy forever.” After nine seasons, more than 200 episodes reviewed, and participation by 21 different reviewers, we feel we’ve found the answer to that many times over and reached the logical conclusion of that journey. There’s definitely memorable episodes to come, but also a lot of average and outright bad ones, and we feel neither the show nor the readers would benefit from us dissecting the upcoming seasons and why they’re not as good as what came before. Thanks to all our contributors and everyone who’s followed along with these reviews, discussing and quoting your way through each episode in the comments.

And if you’re feeling some Simpsons withdrawal, why not revisit our past reviews, like “Marge vs. The Monorail?” If memory serves, that’s a good one.