The first season of the greatest television show of all time ends with an episode that began as a botched beginning. “Some Enchanted Evening” was supposed to be The Simpsons’ pilot but the animation from Korea proved bad to the point of being unusable. The animators were left to start over more or less from scratch. Only about thirty percent of the original animation proved usable.
The producers reportedly contemplated pulling the plug on The Simpsons if the animation for the next episode, "Bart The Genius", wasn’t better. Let that marinate in your mind for a moment there, dear reader. The Simpsons was nearly snuffed out in its infancy, strangled in the womb.
Can you even imagine a world without The Simpsons? Can you imagine the agonizing silences that would ensue in a world without Simpsons references? What would we say? What would we do? What show would be there to console us in our darkest hours? What show would provide a common cultural currency for multiple generations? If the show never existed we’d all have to develop fascinating and intriguing personalities instead of merely parroting choice lines. Verily, it would be the end of civilization.
With the benefit of hindsight, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” introduced The Simpsons to non-Tracy Ullman Show audiences on a much stronger, more assured note. When you’re trying to interest audiences in the first prime-time animated sitcom in forever do you want to start off with a heart-tugging Christmas episode involving an adorable dog and a heartwarming moral or do you begin with a pitch-black comedy about a deranged criminal babysitter and a failing marriage temporarily saved by the shimmering promise of hotel sex? One would appear to be just a little more crowd-pleasing than the other.
“Some Enchanted Evening” opens, as many future episodes would, by establishing Marge’s perpetual low-level existential ennui. She justifiably feels underappreciated by Homer and takes her concerns to airwave shrinkologist Marvin Monroe (who we would be seeing a lot more of in the future), who recommends drastic action.
Homer overhears Marge’s complaints at work, where he has yet to be promoted to safety inspector, and is appropriately mortified and ashamed, albeit not enough to spend fifty-five dollars on a dozen roses. In my favorite moment in the episode, Marge stews at home and watches the clock, waiting to explode with bottled-up rage at Homer the moment he comes home. But when a disgraced Homer returns and makes those sad puppy dog eyes and tenderly mumbles, “I love you” all of her anger and resentment dissolves into a warm puddle of love.
That’s a recurring theme in The Simpsons: no matter how badly Homer behaves, no matter how he tests his family’s patience there’s a baseline of love between Homer and Marge that can survive just about anything, including Homer being Homer.
While Marge and Homer fuck their way towards a restored marriage, they leave their children in the “care” of the notorious babysitter bandit. Part of what makes “Some Enchanted Evening” such a perverse choice for a pilot is its intensity and creepiness. Even before Bart and Lisa learn her true identity, the babysitter bandit is legitimately terrifying, a hunched-over, vaguely feral crone with the assaultive sandpaper rasp of guest Penny Marshall.
The episode takes on a bit of a Night of The Hunter meets Home Alone vibe when the Babysitter Bandit ties up her charges before Maggie frees them and Bart enacts furtive revenge on his tormentor. A dark episode ended on a suitably dark note, with a clueless and oblivious Homer not only untying the dangerous criminal and paying her but paying her double for all the hardship she’s had to endure.
Of course, by this point The Simpsons was still working out the kinks, so Barney and Moe look substantially different here than they do throughout the rest of the series and the animation is sometimes primitive, especially during a graceless dance scene. It’s remarkable to think that this stellar episode was nearly the show’s undoing.
“Some Enchanted Evening” ends the first season of The Simpsons on a high note but it would only get better from here until, of course, it became worse. The introductory annum of my all-time favorite show was smoother and slicker and faster than I had remembered. In its first season, The Simpsons was rooted indelibly in the terra firma of the family sitcom. It didn’t take full advantage of the infinite possibilities of animation as a medium but it created a family worth caring about and that made future flights of fancy possible. We feel for The Simpsons; we are the Simpsons. If any television show could be called the definitive show of my generation, this is it.
But the best is yet to come, even if it'd be nearly impossible improve on the grade I'm giving the first season: A. Next week we begin season two. Until then, happy Labor Day!