Meanest Moments

Beggs

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One of the hallmarks of a lot of great fiction, no matter what the medium, is that it can provoke an emotional response. Even though you know it isn't real, you become invested in the story, empathise and sympathise with the characters, and feel happy, uplifted, angry, sad, triumphant, defeated, and so many other emotions along with them. At its best, The Simpsons has done that masterfully.

I posted some reflections on "The Front" in its old R&R thread earlier, specifically about the meanness of Dondelinger's actions. It got me thinking, what are some of the meanest moments in the history of the show, for better or worse? Some have been great for the story, while others have been handled poorly and been too mean-spirited for the characters to be sympathetic and the story enjoyable, A few examples that come to mind include...

Dondelinger's Revenge

The aforementioned example from "The Front". As I said, upon happening to catch this one today, the meanness and pettiness of Dondelinger really jumped out at me on this particular re-watch. There's really no reason to be going through the permanent records in the middle of a reunion, and it's clearly just done to spite and embarrass Homer. It's taken a step further by taking away Homer's awards, which were basically for fun anyway.

It's well done, though. It makes you feel for Homer, and get behind him as he's determined to finally graduate and earn his diploma. It's also amusingly absurd that they're taking awards like "Most Improved Odour" so seriously, to the point that they're taking them away from Homer just because he didn't technically graduate. It's satisfying to see him finally succeed, and it sets up a good joke to end the episode on with a flash forward. Jerk move though, Dondelinger. Jerk move.

Bart is Woodrow

With a little help from former President Woodrow Wilson and hockey legend Gordie Howe, Bart invents a persona called Woodrow and answers Mrs Krabappel's personal ad. After leading Edna on, he stands her up on a date, after which he finally feels guilty about what he's done. Rightfully so as it's one of his cruellest pranks, and done pretty much just because Edna confiscated his yo-yo.

I think this story resonates even more these days than it did in the early 90s. With online dating losing its stigma and gaining popularity, a lot of people have been taken in by fake profiles, some created by scammers who have swindled them out of money, others by people simply pulling nasty pranks. What Bart does is terribly mean, but it's because he's too young and immature to think ahead and realise the impact of his prank, so he's not irredeemable. When he realises the consequences of his actions and that he's gone too far, he does feel bad, and finds a way to make amends. It's a mean and heartbreaking moment, though.

Homer Simpson in: Kidney Trouble

Of course, meanness doesn't always result in well-written conflict that makes for a good story. Sometimes, it results in an off-putting tale, with the characters veering into downright unlikeable territory. Such was the case with this infamous episode, wherein Homer runs out on Grampa twice, rather than donating one of his kidneys.

The focus of the vitriol towards this episode tends to be on that part of it - Homer running away and his shame - but to me, it's the setup which comes across as being a lot meaner. Putting aside the liberties the episode takes from a medical perspective (Grampa would have simply wet himself before his kidneys failed, let alone exploded), it all happens because Homer refuses to wait or pull over so that his father can use the bathroom; even when they're making great time, and just so that he can catch a TV show. You could chalk up running out on his father to fear and obviously he felt ashamed about it, but how they got in the first place was through the epitome of Jerkass Homer.

Milhouse's Friend Gets Jealous

Can't leave out this one from my favourite episode, "Bart's Friend Falls in Love". Bart's snitching to get Milhouse and Samantha in trouble and kept apart is not one of his finest moments to say the last. It's petty, mean, and he absolutely deserves to feel guilty.

I've always been able to sympathise with him though, because his jealousy is understandable. Milhouse also pushes his luck by asking if he can keep using Bart's treehouse, while also telling him he doesn't want to hang out with him as much. Bart crosses the line, but he's kind of pushed over it, too. It's not justified, but you can still feel for Bart and understand why he did what he did. The story stands as a good example of how meanness can come out of feeling very hurt. It doesn't make it right, but it's relatable, and you can see both sides.

What are some of the moments where you've been struck by the meanness of the story/characters, for better or worse?
 

Financial Panther

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Kidney Trouble is the only episode I can think of where a character’s meanness struck me as truly deplorable. Refusing to let his dad go to the bathroom and then leaving him to die is absolutely terrible, and even though he does feel ashamed eventually, it doesn’t excuse the horrible things he did. I understand becoming nervous about donating a kidney, but running out on his father twice is just terrible behavior, and I don’t think it really fits Homer’s character either; when push comes to shove, he cares about his family, even his dad.
 

Beggs

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Kidney Trouble is the only episode I can think of where a character’s meanness struck me as truly deplorable. Refusing to let his dad go to the bathroom and then leaving him to die is absolutely terrible, and even though he does feel ashamed eventually, it doesn’t excuse the horrible things he did. I understand becoming nervous about donating a kidney, but running out on his father twice is just terrible behavior, and I don’t think it really fits Homer’s character either; when push comes to shove, he cares about his family, even his dad.

Absolutely. There's genuine dark humour, and then there's being incredibly mean-spirited and depressing, and calling it dark humour.
 

Commodus

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Pretty much how the entire family treats Ned. In the earlier episodes, Marge defends him, but nowadays she's apparently more than happy to let Homer abuse the poor guy. And it's worse when Lisa goes along with it, too, because she's still written as a compassionate character, so her helping her Dad bully their neighbour is really kind of frustrating.
 

Beggs

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Ned has demonstrated the patience of Job over the years, no doubt.

Another very obvious example came to mind...

The Boys of Bummer

Man, you want to talk about mean-spirited! While the episode is obviously satirising how insane adults can get over kids' sports, it does go overboard in the way that the whole town turns on Bart. They really don't show a lot of remorse either, which makes their attitude and treatment of Bart even nastier. I feel that there was a good story in the episode waiting to come out, and part of that would had to have involved the townsfolk being jerks, but they pushed it too far in terms of how mean-spirited they made it. An example of how meanness could've been used effectively, but was mishandled into a depressing episode that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
 

Financial Panther

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Oh, what about Co-Dependent’s Day? Homer does possibly the most despicable thing he’s ever done in framing his wife for a DUI. Realistically, there shouldn’t have been any forgiveness for that. Ever. He’s pretty much a monster here.
 

Commodus

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Can I nominate the writers for the conclusion to Lisa The Simpson? Telling a ten year old child they will be a failure due to their gender is heartless, and it's played off as normal. What was the point of that, exactly? What message were they trying to convey? Even as a child it bothered me immensely.
 

CousinMerl

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Milhouse shutting Bart out and getting him kicked out of his house in 'Marge Be Not Proud' always came off as really mean. I mean, Bart visits to play Bonestorm, Milhouse lies that it's a one player game, Bart points out it's not and Milhouse yells a lie to his mother about him ("Mom, Bart's swearing!") which gets Bart kicked out. It's a funny scene but it's still pretty hilariously wierd for Milhouse to be so petty and selfish to his best friend and for such a dumb reason (and we haven't really seen that behavior from him either before or afterwards; the only moment that can really compare, at least as far as I recall at the moment, is when he initially doesn't want to give Bart his soul back in 'Bart Sells His Soul' and is smug and gloating).
 
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Commodus

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Milhouse shutting Bart and and getting him kicked out of his house in 'Marge Be Not Proud' for no reason always came off as really mean. I mean, Bart visits to play Bonestorm, Milhouse lies that it's a one player game, Bart points out it's not and Milhouse yells a lie to his mother about him ("Mom, Bart's swearing!") which gets Bart kicked out. It's a funny scene but it's still pretty hilariously wierd for Milhouse to be so petty and selfish to his best friend and for such a dumb reason (and we haven't really seen that behavior from him either before or afterwards; the only moment that can really compare, at least as far as I recall at the moment, is when he initially doesn't want to give Bart his soul back in 'Bart Sells His Soul' and is smug and gloats).

In truth, I've noticed that there are pretty much no healthy friendships in the entire show. It's something I wish they had learned from King of the Hill, which really gave that show a lot of heart and realism.
 

Beggs

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Milhouse shutting Bart and and getting him kicked out of his house in 'Marge Be Not Proud' for no reason always came off as really mean. I mean, Bart visits to play Bonestorm, Milhouse lies that it's a one player game, Bart points out it's not and Milhouse yells a lie to his mother about him ("Mom, Bart's swearing!") which gets Bart kicked out. It's a funny scene but it's still pretty hilariously wierd for Milhouse to be so petty and selfish to his best friend and for such a dumb reason (and we haven't really seen that behavior from him either before or afterwards; the only moment that can really compare, at least as far as I recall at the moment, is when he initially doesn't want to give Bart his soul back in 'Bart Sells His Soul' and is smug and gloats).

Yeah that was odd, considering it was a two player game, and implied to be a game similar to Mortal Kombat, placing it in a genre which is arguably more fun with a friend.
 

Dr. Bill Harford

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I'd like to mention the entirety of "Make Room for Lisa". One of my absolute least favourite episodes, with a staggeringly hateful characterisation of Homer and a complete absence of funny moments. The enitre thing is agonisingly irritating and mean-spirited, and isn't enjoyable in any way.

Also, Generic discussed "The Boys of Bummer", and I actually happened to rewatch this episode recently for some inexplicable reason. The plot point about the town turning on Bart honestly doesn't bother me in and of itself. Generic mentioned the potential there for an interesting story, which I think is absolutely true. The problem with that episode is that it's just so hopelessly written, with all of the major S18 flaws magnified. Not only are the dialogue and jokes wretched, but I'm sure a major part of what holds that episode back and makes the plot point implausible for people is the amateurish plot development. Watch the episode again: Bart just suddenly goes insane for some reason with barely even a modicum of buildup, then its right back to the kerazzzy 'hilarity' of mattress subplot which is totally inappropriate for the A-story. And then that ending... honestly, the less said the better....
 

Beggs

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Oh man, "Make Room for Lisa" definitely saw some prime Jerkass Homer behaviour. Extremely callous, to say the least.

"The Boys of Bummer" definitely needed to be more subdued and serious, without wacky antics. Well, as much as the show was ever going to adopt that tone, post-classic era. As you said, there needed to be a better build to Bart's meltdown, and the plot handled more seriously. The mattress subplot could have provided some levity, but it does clash with the main plot pretty badly. It's an episode that could've done without a subplot, or at least a prominent one that took up as much of the running time.
 

Scrooge McDuck

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I forgot about the kidney episode but off the top of my head is Love is a Many Strangled Thing, which showed Bart as a sociopath which he is not and On a Clear Day I can See My Sister. Any episode that is in the future showing Bart as a bum. But the worst I can think of is Boys of Bummer. Its just a cruel episode.

Strange enough a lot of them have Bart in them looking terrible or the but of the joke. Fucking writers.
 

hughes

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Boys of Bummer for sure. As I said in another thread, for the idea to work the character going getting shat on either has to be a Milhouse-style butt-monkey or an asshole we enjoy being brought down a peg, Bart is neither and thus the episode fails.

Homer framing Marge for the DUI in Co-Dependents' Day also comes to mind. Not only is it Homer treating Marge like shit, but unlike other 'marraige crisis" episodes he does nothing to make it right and she basically takes him back because status quo. Honestly I don't mind Homer's jerkassedness being ramped up to cause the crisis if he actively works to fix the issue on the back half of the episode, but this is just him being a piece of shit and getting away with it.

On the flip side, there's that recent episode where Marge tries to beat the shit out of Homer for the high crime of....having a female friend. Maybe it's because my best friend is a married woman, but Marge just comes across as an unreasonable bitch there, especially since a few episodes later Homer's supposed to be completely fine with her wishing she could bang Smithers.
 
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