“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” contains one of my favorite sequences not just in The Simpsons but in television as a whole. In it, a censorship-happy Marge has neutered Itchy & Scratchy to the point where the children of Springfield are moved to do the unthinkable: stop watching television. No longer willing to suckle hungrily at the glass teat, they leave their houses and embark on All-American adventures. Nelson paints a fence, Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn style. Other children ride bikes or jump rope or just luxuriate in the comforting warmth of sun.
A dystopia instantly becomes a small-town paradise, a happy realm of frolicking children and sunny innocence as kids wake up from a TV fog and embrace life’s rich pageantry. It’s a lovely, lyrical, even beautiful sequence even if it’s light on gags. It presents, then ruthlessly yanks back, an alternate universe Springfield ruled by dewy innocence rather than greed and mob mentality.
One of the many things I love about The Simpsons is its ability to comment insightfully on political and social issues without resorting to speechifying or beating audiences senseless with heavy-handed messages. The aforementioned sequence, for example, seemingly works against the episode’s overall message but ultimately ends up reinforcing it. “Itchy & Scratchy And Marge” argues convincingly that free expression we don’t like or approve of or find disturbing and even potentially harmful is the price we pay for freedom of speech.
So even if the Marge Simpsons of the world, and I suspect, much of the show’s audience and writing staff, would love to inhabit a world where children turned off ultra-violent television and went out exploring the rich, full, beautiful world around them, violent and crass and offensive television is the price we pay for great television and art that does push boundaries and offend people and go too far, whether the art in question is Happiness or The Sopranos or, yes, Itchy & Scratchy or The Simpsons.
Ah, but I am once again getting ahead of myself. “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” opens with the family innocently enjoying Itchy & Scratchy’s stylized brand of mindless ultra-violence. Itchy & Scratchy are, to my mind, one of The Simpsons’ greatest and most overlooked creations. The eponymous cat and mouse duo are at once a gleeful, inspired parody of bloody children’s cartoons that use death and dismemberment as punchlines and a genius example of the form.
As a kid I always marveled that Tom & Jerry, Itchy & Scratchy’s overt inspiration, were able to get away with so much bloodshed. Itchy & Scratchy pushes that bloodshed to comic, then surreal and gothic extremes. The irascible cat and mouse duo has only one joke: mouse finds increasingly sadistic ways to torment hapless cat. Yet the show has managed to make that seemingly limited premise fresh and gloriously offensive and over-the-top for over two decades.
Marge Simpson, on the other hand, is less enamored of Itchy & Scratchy, especially after Maggie hits Homer in the head with a mallet in a fit of cartoon-instigated violence. The mallet attack is a shot-by-shot remake of the famous shower sequence from Psycho; unlike Gus Van Sant’s ill-fated adaptation, this is one shot-by-shot remake of Psycho that’s supposed to be funny.
Springfield’s most tolerated busybody gets on top of her soapbox and launches a crusade against cartoon violence. Her campaign is widely mocked until she goes on Smartline with Dr. Marvin Monroe and an out-of-his-depths Krusty (who keeps engaging in blatant clownery) and inspires scores of like-minded souls to write in to the makers of Itchy & Scratchy and demand less blood and more good vibes.
Marge’s campaign ultimately proves successful in the short term. Almost too successful. This leads to one of the most glorious moments in Itchy & Scratchy history: a new and improved Itchy & Scratchy in which the quarrelsome duo no longer fight and fight and fight and fight but rather love and share and love and share and love. Outsized displays of aggression are out; slow-dancing and sharing a pitcher of homemade lemonade on a Sunday afternoon are in.
Ah, but Marge’s campaign backfires when censorship-happy harpies try to co-opt Marge’s mission for their own ends by launching a campaign against Michaelangelo’s David. Marge can’t get behind such blatant censorship of great art and is wearily forced to concede that, as I stated earlier, free expression we don’t like or approve of or find disturbing and even potentially harmful is the price we pay for freedom of speech.
So “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” got to make a relevant point in line with writer John Swartzwelder’s libertarianism without sacrificing the momentum of the episode or losing track of the characters and turning them into mere sounding boards for their creator’s beliefs. Somewhere Trey Parker and Matt Stone weren’t paying close enough attention.
- “I told you: my baby beat me up. No it’s not the worst idea I ever thought of.”
- "I never knew mice led such interesting lives."