My fiance owns just about every Simpsons DVD ever made. A couple of years ago, we decided to start chipping away at that pile, watching each and every episode.
The first 10 seasons I had all seen before, the first five in syndication, the second five as they originally aired. But my memory was a tad fuzzy and I remembered newer material a lot better than older material.
Things were… different in the first few seasons of The Simpsons. It hadn’t embraced laugh-out-loud comedy, instead being yet another show about a dysfunctional family. For all the hand-wringing it got, The Simpsons was tame compared to contemporaries like Married With Children.
Several characters grew into (or out of) their original roles. The most prominent example (and trope namer) being Ned Flanders, who started as an overly nice next-door neighbor who had things better than the Simpson family (see also, The Rhoades in the aforementioned Married With Children, Phil Hartman in Jingle all the Way). A few short years later, he was a one-dimensional bible-thumper who was psychologically incapable of expressing anger.
But there was a much bigger and more interesting transformation going on in another character whose portrayal became one of pop culture’s biggest pre-meme memes. I’m talking, of course, about Ralph Wiggum and his trademark, uh, mental impairment.
So, when you think “Ralph Wiggum,” you think this,
But you may not remember that his humble beginnings were this:
Golden Age Ralph
It would be rather unfair to talk about first season character designs, given how everybody diverged so much. So let’s skip ahead a season, where things start looking normal, at least.
Silver Age Ralph
In the second season, when Bart still had that posse of named characters that would barely give him the time of day later, Ralph was better-formed than most characters in the show. His voice was set, he was placed in a known family and the only part of his design that wasn’t permanent was the color of his shirt.
Apart from exhibiting the same bizarrely advanced vocabulary as his fellow second-graders in Miss Hoover’s class, we know quite a bit about this Ralph.
He was a strong mini-golf player, advancing to the semifinals against Bart:
He could write reports and confidently read them aloud in front of class.
While his equipment was crappy, he performed the astonishing feat of coordination that is playing ice hockey.
And he recognises when the career counselor hands him some bullshit.
Bronze Age Ralph
But, for whatever reason, the writers decided to regress Ralph — and ONLY Ralph — to a more realistic emotional and intellectual level for a second-grader.
But even in what many choo-choo-choose as the quintessential Ralph Wiggum episode, Season 4’s “I Love Lisa,” Ralph is still a long ways away from being who we remember him as.
While the singled-out regression is used to justify Ralph getting shunned by his over-advanced peers, his reaction isn’t that far off the mark of a child on the trailing edge of a crybaby. Neither is his reaction to Lisa taking pity on him. His paltry attempts at small talk and spelling fit the role as well.
However, because of the disparity between Ralph and the other second-graders (who also make Lisa look less like a genius; everybody in that class should be a Ralph compared to her), Ralph began to develop a reputation for being mentally handicapped among the viewers.
However, it would be a while before the same perception affected the writers. For years more, Ralph was still the age-appropriate character, speaking coherently, if simply, and establishing a specific crying sound as trademark as Nelson’s laugh.
But even after years of this, Ralph II, the second-grade crybaby, still isn’t the one even long-time fans of the show remember.
Modern Age Ralph
There isn’t nearly as easy a line to draw between Crybaby Ralph and Springfield-Elementary-has-no-Special-Ed-Classes Ralph. It would have been nice if they changed his shirt color again.
I think the hand-off is best defined by when the writers stopped using Ralph as a dumping ground for childish and awkwardly constructed sentences:
And Flanderized his speech patterns into a more extreme yet far lazier version:
So please, don’t remember poor Ralph Wiggum for what he is. Remember him as he was, before he was brutally savaged into becoming a butt monkey.
For a good example of an althertinive path for Ralph, look at Neville Longbottom’s story arc in the Harry Potter series. Instead, Ralph’s experience with magic took a much darker turn…