The Greatest Episode of the Simpsons
I come from a generation of people indoctrinated by The Simpsons. I say "indoctrinated" because terms like "fans of" or "influenced by" don't seem adequate. This shrewd show with its jokes-within-jokes, colourful characters and biting, incisive satire has – for the most part – aged extremely well. Episodes, characters, and quotes from show heavily inform both the politics and humour of my generation.
There's a spirited debate about the true period of quality for this (confusingly still-running) television show. Is the show still relevant? When did it start going downhill? And that quintessential debate: what is the best episode of The Simpsons? A huge majority of people will probably say it's the monorail episode (Marge vs. the Monorail) but Last Exit to Springfield and Mr. Plow are often also cited as strong contenders. I'd like to suggest a less-loved child: Trash of the Titans.
Halfway through the ninth season, a lot of Simpsons-sticklers are likely to say the show had already peaked and was on a downhill trajectory in terms of quality. That's a debate for another article (or hundreds of other articles, really). In my opinion, Trash of the Titans holds its own against the best Simpsons classics - packed full of guffawing humour and memorable one-liners - but it also has an almost-prophetic message at its core that is more relevant in this moment of history than at any point since the Emmy-winning episode aired 20 years ago (with the possible exception of the Adams Mine debate).
Like many Simpsons episodes, Trash of the Titans starts out with a seemingly one-off joke that sets the rest of the story in motion. In this case, it's the executives at a greeting card company inventing a new holiday, "Love Day", in order to sell more products. Cut to Springfield, where the loveably-gullible Simpsons have filled their home with Love Day decorations and merchandise, which they almost immediately then dispose of.
This orgy of needless consumerism of course generates a huge amount of waste, which Homer stomps into the trash bin. Concerningly, it's his kids who point out that the bin is full and should probably be taken out. However Homer procrastinates until garbage day, when he knocks the towering pile of trash over and has to heft the overflowing, leaky mess to the curb. Enraged over the minor inconvenience he's suffered, Homer shakes his fist heavenward, and ostensibly threatens the very God above: "You're pushin' me, baby!"
Homer misses the pickup, screams insults at the garbagemen, and gets his service cut off. Thus begins the second act where the Simpsons home briefly becomes a fetid trash pile. Insert jokes about packs of wild rats, a mountain of soiled diapers, and a crazy lady who lives in the pile. All of this is suffered so that Homer can engage in an imagined battle of wills with the city; a battle Homer loses when Marge gets fed up and writes an apology letter to the sanitation department.
In the ultimate act of petty pride, Homer goes to see the town's sanitation commissioner – Ray Patterson, voiced by Steve Martin – to demand the letter back. The caricature of an abiding public servant, Patterson initially actually apologizes to Homer that they weren't able to "work things out". Homer follows a typical Homer-esque, fugue-state line of dialogue – so fixated on his narrative of the little guy taking on big authority that he's unable to process what Patterson is actually saying to him. As the perplexing rhetoric of their argument escalates, the two deliver the defining exchange of the episode:
Indeed we will.
Homer's race to become sanitation commissioner begins in fits and starts. He's shunned by his own co-workers and beaten up by security guards at a U2 concert because – in a rare show of sensibility – the characters in Springfield ask simple questions that Homer can't answer: "If you're elected, what will you do differently?" and "Ray Patterson seems to be doing a good job, why should people vote for you instead?"
Homer doesn't have answers to these questions because he has neither experience in waste management nor any actual drive to improve the status quo. His campaign is based entirely upon ego: he's frustrated because something he doesn't understand has caused him minor inconvenience, and rather than examine his own behaviour or improve his own habits, he's going to make that thing pay.
We'll come back to this later.
Homer finally connects with the public when he uses his own egoism to connect with theirs, convincing the people that they're too good to do almost any cleaning work. The crowd is immediately taken in by the whiny, leading question of Homer's campaign slogan: "Can't someone else do it?"
This leads seamlessly into the town hall debate between Patterson and Homer. Patterson quickly loses his cool, frustrated by Homer's complete lack of knowledge and substance. Meanwhile, Homer's naive ignorance lends him the confidence to showboat. He cracks jokes and makes fun of Patterson, and the crowd eats it up. Patterson, defeated, says that if the crowd truly believes Homer's wild promises, "then by all means, vote for this sleazy lunatic."
Springfield elects the sleazy lunatic.
Homer gets straight to work, his concerning phonecalls heralding his imminent downfall. Homer explains his mad philosophy for public sanitation in one of the great musical numbers of the series: The Garbageman Can. By the end of the song, his department is broke, having spent their entire annual budget in a month.
Homer is initially crestfallen. Lisa starts to deliver one of her typical breath-of-fresh-air-and-sensibility monologues about how garbage management is a complicated problem before being interrupted by her father.
Homer's band-aid solution to the budget crisis is to fix his idiotic plan using another, even more idiotic plan. He sells waste disposal to other cities, who ship their garbage to be entombed in one of Springfield's abandoned mines. Again, Lisa warns her father that he can't just cram garbage underground indefinitely. Again, he dismisses her. Shortly thereafter, on cue, the garbage starts popping out of the ground everywhere. In an emergency meeting, the town agrees on two motions: have Homer horse-whipped, and reinstate Ray Patterson as sanitation commissioner.
Ray Patterson struts on-stage to a fairly obscure reference: the theme music of Sanford and Son, a 1970's sitcom about the owner of a junkyard starring comedian Redd Foxx. Sighing indulgently, he delivers one of the best rejoinders in the history of rejoinders:
Patterson walks out. The end.
It's important to end the synopsis here – because everything that has happened before this scene is uncomfortably plausible, while everything that happens after is deus ex machina concocted by the writers to reset the scenery for the next episode of a syndicated TV show. To refresh your memory in case you've forgotten, the mayor opens a sealed "Plan B" which involves shipping all of Springfield five miles down the road – a solution which would have undoubtedly bankrupted the already cash-strapped town.
So let's condense this story down to its essence:
A man with no experience in public service decides on a whim, mostly to satisfy his own fragile ego, that he ought to be entrusted an enormous amount of responsibility. He tricks people into allowing him that responsibility, by making unfeasible promises, by showboating, and by making false claims about his opponent. He causes irreparable damage to the institution he was entrusted with (because he has no idea what he's doing). Finally, he's thrown out of service.
Some of this ought to sound familiar by now.
We have entered a truly frightening era where knowledge is seen as an impediment to qualification. This is – to put it bluntly – a baffling and utterly insane contradiction. We distrust vaccines: even though a huge plurality of doctors trust in their safety, we're inclined to listen to quacks and celebrities. We distrust the science of climate change: even though a majority of scientists trust that it is caused by humans, a minority of businessmen and hacks keep denial alive. Police and spies feel that they should be able to break encryption and still keep computers secure, yet they ignore the computer scientists and infosec experts who say this is simply impossible.
Worse, we seem to distrust anyone with too much political experience. It's also important that we recognize public service – public governance – as a discipline. People like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton shouldn't just be exciting solely because of their minority statuses in politics, but also because they have devoted their entire lives to serving the public, as activists, lawyers, and elected officials (obligatory additional reference to Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders). They are experts in their field, and in an increasingly complicated world, they hold (or held) jobs that require such a level of expertise.
Nevertheless, we have Donald Trump as president of the United States, with zero political, public service, or diplomatic qualifications. He holds the office because he felt he ought to be president, and enough people (unfathomably) agreed with that feeling. He has appointed people who feel the core mandates of the various departments for which they are responsible are somehow... wrong? To them, the world is confusing, government is confusing, science is confusing, social justice and civil liberties are confusing: so they are going to make these confusing things pay for making them feel dumb.
It's like watching a young child who has become angry that the toy that won't work the way that they expect. They angrily smash the toy against a floor or wall: I will show that thing. I will punish its spiteful resistentialism. TAKE THAT.
For a free society, it's healthy to be distrustful of authority and institution – it prevents a population which is servile and suggestible to despots and tyrants. Unfortunately, at some point we made a mistake. At some point, we mistook the authority of knowledge, wisdom, experience, expertise... for the authority of power. Worse, we decided that we both distrusted knowledge and trusted power.
This is nothing short of the seeds of our own downfall.
Government is not a job for a political layperson. You wouldn't want a chauffeur flying the plane you're on. You wouldn't want a chef performing brain surgery on you. You wouldn't want a security guard handling your defence if you're falsely accused of murder. Why do we accept – or even tolerate – a total lack of qualifications in public officials?
When our economy, the peace of our world, the environment which supports all life, our democratic institutions and freedoms, the stability of everything is in the hands of idiots, we can't – as fictional Springfield did – move the town five miles down the road when those idiots irreparably fuck up. Indeed, we are just – as Ray Patterson so eloquently puts it – screwed. Perhaps because our lives have been so stable and convenient, we take the hard-won status quo for granted, forgetting the hellish times that so many humans before us had to live through.
Like Homer Simpson, the people who seek authority (power) without authority (knowledge and expertise) should be hauled out of office and horse-whipped through the streets.
Moreso, we should remember that the qualified people who were so quickly disposed of when we bored of their sensible stability aren't necessarily going to swoop in and clean up the huge messes we made by placing our fates in the hands of idiots.
While Trash of the Titans is perhaps not the funniest episode of the series, I would argue that perhaps humour isn't the best metric for judging one of the most biting satires of our time. Trash of the Titans turned 20 this year, and the people who watched this episode on TV as teens are now adults with kids of their own. Yet somehow, we've failed to parse and internalize its core message: if you put idiots in charge, they'll destroy everything. It's the episode of The Simpsons that, if we can just pay attention, will prevent us from destroying ourselves.
Hopefully there's still time.
images from The Simpsons copyright 20th Century Fox