The Simpsons: Home of the Killer Robot?

Could killer robots be sign a show's become unmoored from reality?

the simpsons

“You see, kill-bots have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my own men at them until they reached their limit and shut down.”
– Captain Zapp Brannigan

In looking at The Simpsons’ decline, what’s amazing is that of the episodes cited as real points-of-no-return (Frank Grimes, the real Seymour Skinner), one never counted amongst their inglorious number is ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’. Which is surprising, given that like those examples it sees the show’s already-elastic reality pushed to breaking point when the family fight killer robots.

This kind of complete departure from life as we know it is not wholly without precedent in the Simpsonsiverse, which from very early on was happy to exploit the fact it was, after all, a cartoon. It had even featured the occasional killer robot before then – but those had been very brief, throwaway gags, whereas Itchy And Scratchy Land’s surprisingly action-oriented turn makes up most of the third act.

Neither is the melodrama ever punctured or undercut, in the way it was in Deep Space Homer, another fairly out-there plot: when Homer gets into trouble in outer space, Lisa prays he will make it through, only for Grandpa to grumpily interject “of course he’ll make it, it’s TV!” The nearest we get when the robots attack is a couple of self-consciously action-movie quips, but the robot rampage is treated completely seriously until the moment it’s over, when they all snap back to riffing.

It’s perhaps more forgivable when you consider it’s all taking place within the heightened (and deliberately constructed) reality of ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’. Bear in mind that the episode was The Simpsons taking a king-hell swipe at Disney, the lifeless void at the centre of American media (“How were you a political prisoner?”/”I kicked a giant mouse in the butt! Do I have to draw you a diagram?”) and specifically Disneyland, the well-known theme park variously dubbed ‘the happiest place on earth’ and ‘Mousewitz’.

(Itchy And Scratchy Land proudly ordained itself ‘the violentest place on earth’, so they weren’t being remotely subtle. And its strapping, blond, sharply dressed, German-accented security team speak for themselves.)

Would Uncle Walt have thought twice about sending potentially lethal kill-bots marching down Main Street USA? Probably not. But the deranged power fantasies of history’s greatest cartoon rat magnate are themselves stretching reality somewhat, and are not a particularly good benchmark of what’s sensible in fiction. And history tells us that the secret labs beneath Buena Vista never turned out a Mickey Terminator.

Despite ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’s Jurassic Park overtones (“…one of the most popular movies of all time, sir! What were you thinking?”) it was drawing more on another, quite similar, Michael Crichton joint: Westworld, at the time a largely forgotten film but since reinvented as a popular HBO show, which did make a big feature of killer robots. And yes, granted, if the Simpsons iteration had gone with dinosaurs rather than robots I’d be nailing them to the wall even harder, though it would be to the disgust of my five-year-old self.

The killer robots did, at least, only become a pivotal plot point in the latter part of the episode, so we didn’t need to think too much about the wider implications. But the fact remains they were a pivotal plot point, not a cartoony aside or non-sequitur, and not even in one of the non-canon fantasy episodes (eg the Halloween specials). Up against a platoon of functioning battle droids – in 1994 – suddenly Armin Tamzarian assuming another man’s identity doesn’t seem so ridiculous.

So, had The Simpsons had a plot hinge on anything quite so absurd before? The nuclear power plant had threatened disaster more than once, but that was at least in the area of known science. And more frequently it was stuff exactly like that, the unlikely-but-plausible. Amazingly, at one time Season 4’s ‘Marge vs. The Monorail’, in which the town builds a monorail, was considered a bit too out-there for comfort, with Yeardley ‘Lisa’ Smith calling the episode (generally regarded as possibly their best) “truly one of our worst”.

Two seasons later, ‘The Itchy And Scratchy And Poochie Show’ used the example of a cartoon ‘swarming with magic robots’ as being the height of escapist fantasy. A little self-aware in-joke? If so, a better mea culpa than how the show would deal with the fallout of the real Skinner, passing an injunction to make everyone never mention it again.

‘The Itchy And Scratchy And Poochie Show’ landed in Season 8, by which point, as Dead Homer Society pointed out, Hollywood nonsense like a swarm of killer robots had basically become de rigeur. That season would see Homer box an ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson stand-in, the Mafia battle the Yakuza on the Simpsons’ lawn, and the local minister physically brawl with a troop of baboons – all of which were, like the killer robots, treated deadly-seriously until suddenly they weren’t.

Probably the absolute nadir of this tendency came in Season 11’s ‘Saddlesore Galactica’, which revealed that jockeys – all jockeys – were in fact a race of subterranean elves. You couldn’t blame any given jockey, or really any little person, for taking offence, although even they would likely have to admit any offence is immediately outweighed by the sheer stupidity.

By that point, killer robots weren’t even a surprise. Another Season 11 episode, ‘Grift Of The Magi’, climaxed with a knock-down fight between special guest star Gary Coleman and a half-burned ‘Funzo’ robot (that Christmas’s Furby-like must-have). As with ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’ this was presented as a straight fight scene, any potential comedy value lying purely in the wackiness of it being Gary Coleman and a not-a-Furby.

Much later, in Season 23, The Simpsons would return to this well in ‘Them, Robot’ – in the context of reusing another idea it had used much more effectively and amusingly in years past, by having Mr Burns replace the nuclear power plant’s workforce with robots. But predictably, back in ‘Last Exit To Springfield’ this was a ten-second aside rather than the basis of an entire episode. ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’ placing the robots as end-of-episode baddies was a very alarming sea change.

A lot of the contemporary negative reviews of ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’ did point to the killer robots as their point of dispute – although this isn’t the knock against the episode that it sounds like, if you browse the old Usenet reviews you’ll find people dishing out the same treatment to absolute, indisputable all-time classics. And, crucially, ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’ is not a bad episode, certainly not prone to the long expository stretches of ‘The Principal And The Pauper’, despite its use of subject matter which is on the face of it far more ridiculous. That needn’t ruin moments like Homer’s ill-fated career as a smuggler, Bart being dead (serious about going to Itchy And Scratchy Land), or the shortcut.

Anyway, we cannot lay this tendency towards absurdity entirely at the door of ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’. It’s been noted beforehand that there was a significant sea change in just how cartoony The Simpsons would get between its second and third seasons. It’s only after that season break the show started off the wonderful running gag of things exploding or bursting into flames after very gentle collisions, whereas Season 2 was parochial enough to have an episode revolve around Bart failing an exam.

So this tendency was there, in the background. ‘Itchy And Scratchy Land’ merely represents the point at which it came crashing to the fore. But it seems odd that some thirty years later, in a world in which many people communicate exclusively in Simpsons quotes, nobody noticed that this Rubicon had been crossed. Swarm of killer robots are rarely so subtle.

READ MORE: 50 Best The Simpsons Episodes of All Time

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