Saturdays of Thunder
"Saturdays of Thunder" is the ninth episode of The Simpsons' third season. It originally aired on the Fox network in the United States on November 14, 1991. In the episode, Homer takes a fatherhood quiz and realizes that he knows nothing about Bart. He strives to be a better father and learns that Bart is participating in a Soap Box Derby. Homer and Bart make a racer together; however, it is not very good. Bart decides to drive Martin's far superior racer instead, after Martin is involved in an accident where he receives a series of serious skin burns. Homer is at first devastated, but decides that he must be a good father and support Bart.
The episode was written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs, and directed by Jim Reardon. American actors Larry McKay and Phil Hartman both made guest appearances as a television announcer and Troy McClure respectively. "Saturdays of Thunder" features cultural references to films such as Ben-Hur, Lethal Weapon, and Days of Thunder. Since airing, the episode has received mostly positive reviews from television critics, who praised its sports theme. It acquired a Nielsen rating of 14.9, and was the highest-rated show on the Fox network the week it aired.
Homer takes a fatherhood quiz and discovers he knows next to nothing about his son. He signs up for therapy at the National Fatherhood Institute and after a confidence-building pep talk, offers to help Bart build his own soapbox racer, which they dub "Li'l Lightnin'", for the upcoming Soap Box Derby. Bart is reluctant to want his father to help him, concerned that he may cost him the race. However, Homer refuses to hear any of it, insisting to help him out. At the qualifying race Bart and Martin, who has built a high tech, aerodynamically superior racer, form an alliance vowing that either must somehow beat bully Nelson and his very intimidating racer, the "Roadkill 2000", "armed with every dirty trick in the book." As the race starts, Bart can barely reach any kind of noticeable speed with Li'l Lightnin' and the car falls apart before reaching the finish line.
Martin's car wins the race. but was built too aerodynamically precise and the steepness of the hill causes it to careen past the finish line and crashes. Martin suffers a fractured arm in the accident and thus cannot race against Nelson, who finished second. Martin offers Bart the seat, and even though Bart believes Homer will be devastated if he abandons the racer they built, he accepts the offer as there is no other way he can race and win.
As Bart feared, Homer is bitterly disappointed over his decision. Homer is so upset that he even refuses to go to the final race to support Bart, insulting him and Martin and acting spiteful toward Bart and the rest of the family. Troy McClure starts crying too. Marge decides that she has had enough of Homer's surly attitude and confronts him, by telling Homer that she defended him when people, including her sisters Patty and Selma, called him an incompetent father. However, she states that his latest behavior proved he is being selfish and if this is how Homer wants to act on such an important day for Bart, he really is a bad father, a statement that only makes Homer feel worse. Maggie tries to cheer Bart up but he ended up calling Los Angeles.
As Bart gets ready to race in the final match with Martin's newly tuned racer, Homer thinks to himself about how wrong he has been. After retaking the fatherhood quiz again, he realizes that Bart needs his support regardless of whose racer he is using and he rushes off to the race. At the starting line, Homer wishes Bart good luck and tells him that no matter how the race ends he will still be proud of him. The race is tough as Nelson pulls every dirty trick in his arsenal, but through his skill Bart finishes first and the team enjoys their victory.
The episode was written by Ken Levine and David Isaacs, and directed by Jim Reardon. The inspiration for it originated from a line in "Itchy & Scratchy & Marge", a previous episode in which Marge bans Bart and Lisa from watching their favorite cartoon, The Itchy & Scratchy Show, and Bart says "I'm gonna go build a soapbox racer instead." Actor Phil Hartman made his fourth guest appearance on The Simpsons in this episode as the voice of celebrity Troy McClure. The character appears at the beginning of the episode in I Can't Believe They Invented It!, a television show that Homer watches. Larry McKay guest starred as the television announcer at the Soap Box Derby.
The idea for the subplot of Homer's parenting originated from a real fatherhood test executive producer Sam Simon found and brought to the Simpsons studio. Levine later commented on writing the episode, "At the time David and I were writing this, my son, Matt, was about Bart's age. [...] So for me there was a certain amount of guilt associated, like 'Do I know my son's hobby? Do I know my son's best friend?' etc." The scene in which Bart welds on his racer resulted in an argument between the staff of the show and the Fox network's censors. The censors were concerned that children would imitate Bart by misusing welding tools; however, the staff was able to convince them that very few children have access to welding tools.
"Saturdays of Thunder" features a number of references to popular culture. The title of the episode is itself a play on the film Days of Thunder, starring American actor Tom Cruise. The song used at the end of the episode is "Wind Beneath My Wings", a song by Bette Midler. While Homer is watching television at the beginning of the episode, Marge and her sisters, Patty and Selma, go through a catalog of different hairstyles; Patty tells her sisters that she wants Mary Tyler Moore's hairstyle, referencing the American actress known for her roles in television sitcoms. When Marge and her sisters head to the beauty parlor, Homer promises Marge that he will take Lisa to the video store. When they arrive at the store, Homer watches a clip from the latest McBain film that sees McBain's partner being brutally shot in the chest, a reference to a similar scene in the film Lethal Weapon. McBain's partner is black, a reference to the fact that Dirty Harry's partner is black in the film Sudden Impact.
When Homer calls the National Fatherhood Institute, he is put on hold and Harry Chapin's song "Cat's in the Cradle" plays in the telephone while he waits. Cast member Harry Shearer based the voice of Dave, the director of the Fatherhood Institute, on actor Mason Adams. At the institute, Dave gives Homer a copy of the book Fatherhood by American actor Bill Cosby. In a subsequent episode, "Dog of Death", Homer throws the book into the fireplace as replacement for wood. When Homer and Bart build the soapbox racer, Mac Davis's song "Watching Scotty Grow", sung by Bobby Goldsboro, plays in the background. The whipping and spikes coming out of Nelson's racer are a reference to the chariot race in the film Ben-Hur. The idea of Nelson's racer being "armed with every dirty trick in the book" was based on the 1973 Soap Box Derby World Championship scandal, when a 14-year-old boy was stripped of his title two days after winning the national race for cheating. During the final race, Homer stands up in the crowd to cheer on Bart and his body is silhouetted against the sun, a reference to a scene in the film The Natural. The theme song from The Natural plays in the scene.
"Saturdays of Thunder" originally aired on the Fox network in the United States on November 14, 1991. It received high ratings due to the fact that it was immediately followed by the premiere of the music video for Michael Jackson's song "Black or White". In its original American broadcast, the episode finished 26th in the ratings for the week of November 11–17, 1991, with a Nielsen rating of 14.9, equivalent to approximately 13.7 million viewing households. It was the highest-rated show on the Fox network that week.
Since airing, the episode has received mostly positive reviews from television critics. Niel Harvey of The Roanoke Times called it a "classic bit of Simpsonia," and the Daily Record said it is "definitely one not to miss." The Orlando Sentinel's Gregory Hardy named it the sixth best episode of the show with a sports theme. Michael Coulter of The Age commented that "Saturdays of Thunder" is "one of the many excellent" The Simpsons episodes to feature a sporting theme. He went on to say: "A 'classic' Simpsons, insofar as it boasts a plot, rather than a sequence of surreal pop-culture parodies." The episode's parody of Ben-Hur, however, was named the eighth greatest film reference in the history of the show by Total Film's Nathan Ditum.
Bill Gibron of DVD Verdict looked unfavorably on the episode, writing that it "has a premise—Bart builds a soapbox racer—that frankly has very limited modern day appeal. We can't really get into the whole Martin/Nelson/Bart race dynamic and today, soapbox derby has been technologized all out of proportion to the point where very few, if any, practice it. With such a narrow target, many of the jokes just don't work." Gibron preferred the subplot of Homer's attempts to become a better father.
Nate Meyers of Digitally Obsessed was more positive about the episode, commenting that the episode's emphasis is on Homer's parenting, like many other season three episodes, and "contrary to popular opinion, Homer is actually a good father who tries to do good by his children." He thought the racing sequences featured "good animation and direction", but considered the highlight of the episode to be the clip from the film McBain that Homer watches in the video store. Meyers gave the episode a 4/5 rating. DVD Movie Guide's Colin Jacobson, who listed the episode as one of his favorites from season three, said that "on the surface, 'Saturdays of Thunder' essentially just rehashes" the theme of the previous episode, "Lisa's Pony", in which Homer tries to be a better father for Lisa. Jacobson commented that "Saturdays of Thunder", however, "simply seems funnier than 'Lisa's Pony'. The soapbox derby elements provide lots of great gags. [It] offers a great episode." Like Meyers, the authors of the book I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide thought the highlight of the episode was the McBain video.
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- Levine, Ken (2003). The Simpsons season 3 DVD commentary for the episode "Saturdays of Thunder" (DVD). 20th Century Fox.
- Reardon, Jim (2003). The Simpsons season 3 DVD commentary for the episode "Saturdays of Thunder" (DVD). 20th Century Fox.
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- Associated Press (November 20, 1991). "Nielsen Ratings /Nov. 11-17". Press-Telegram. p. C5.
- Gibron, Bill (December 15, 2003). "The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season". DVD Verdict. Retrieved 2009-06-06.
- Harvey, Niel (2003-09-04). "'The Simpsons' Is A Consistent Slam Dunk". The Roanoke Times. p. 8.
- "Movie Choice". Daily Record. March 9, 2001.
- Hardy, Gregory (February 16, 2003). "Hitting 300 - For Sporting Comedy, 'The Simpsons' Always Score". Orlando Sentinel. p. C17.
- Coulter, Michael (November 10, 2005). "Sport - Friday". The Age. p. 18.
- Ditum, Nathan (2009-06-06). "The 50 Greatest Simpsons Movie References". Total Film. Retrieved 2009-07-22.
- Meyers, Nate (June 23, 2004). "The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season". Digitally Obsessed. Retrieved 2009-06-06.
- Jacobson, Colin (August 21, 2003). "The Simpsons: The Complete Third Season (1991)". DVD Movie Guide. Retrieved 2009-08-05.
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