The Simpsons first came on the air when I was in second grade. In those days, Bart Simpson was the most popular one, but he was popular for superficial reasonsbecause he was a brat, because of his catch phrases, because his shirt said hell on it. Its interesting that in these times, Bart was actually a more real and three-dimensional character than hes ever been since.
I saw many of the early Bart-themed episodes when I was Barts age, and they still evoke feelings in me the modern episodes dont. He wasnt just appealing because he was rebellious--there was more to him than that. Though Bart did things we knew wed never get away with, he was a very identifiable character and he had many of the same experiences I did. I felt drawn to Bart the same way I felt drawn to Calvin; they were both bratty kids but their childhood experiences and feelings mirrored mine. Calvin would throw anything he could find at Susie, but he cried when he failed to rescue a wounded raccoon. Bart spray-painted Skinner is a Weiner on the walls of Springfield Elementary several times, but he couldnt let a nest full of eggs die when he accidentally killed a bird.
The best Bart episodes, at least to me, are those that captured the fears and anxieties of being a kid so accurately. There are only a handful of them, as most were made in the series infancy and the eventual mold that was made had no place for these kinds of episodes. But Bart was at his best when he felt real. These are the episodes that connected with the elementary school me on a personal level. These are the Bart Classics.
BART GETS AN F
So it's October of 1990. The show has only returned to begin its second season, yet Bart has his own T-shirts, Burger King doll, and crummy Acclaim-produced NES game where he hunts for space mutants. And a library poster where he poses with a book and says "Read, man!" Any other writing team would have stuck to what they just saw working and turned Bart into the early-90's-hip, catch-phrase-spewing character he was perceived to be. The fact that the Simpsons team came back with this is a true testament to their insight.
"Bart is an underachiever," says the school counselor. "And he is....how should I put this....proud of it." But he really wasn't proud of it. Sure, Bart had a relaxed attitude toward schoolwork, but when he was suddenly faced with the threat of being held back and repeating fourth grade, he reacted in the same way I would have. One of the worst fears any kid has is of being held back, only topped by "being chased by a homicidal murderer." The latter is why I could never make it through a Sideshow Bob episode as a kid, even if said murderer had the dry wit of Kelsey Grammer.
Bart faces a race against the clock to master American history before his American history test, for to fail the test means death. Being Bart, he first tries the laziest ways out by faking an illness and getting the answers from Milhouse, but it doesn't work. Hoping the influence of the brightest kid in class will rub off on him, he turns to Martin Prince for help, but ends up influencing Prince into becoming more like Bart.
He's finally stuck on the last evening before the test, desperately trying to cram the entire textbook into his brain and praying for some kind of miracle to keep him from failing. He wakes up and gets it: it snowed overnight and Springfield Elementary is closed!
But right as Bart heads outside to party in the snow, Lisa stops him cold and reminds him of his bargain with God. "You owe him BIG," she said, and Bart has to agree. Today was for studying. But Bart can barely keep his concentration with all the fun going on outside, and even when he tries to learn, he finds that he can't. This leads to the scene that has stuck with me all these years, where Bart is slapping himself in the head over and over, trying to comprehend at least a little bit of what he's reading...and there is a sudden jump cut to the next day and the moment of the test, where he is STILL slapping his head. There are times when you just can't get something no matter how hard you try, no matter how much you mean to. I wouldn't expect a staff of Harvard graduates to understand this, but they apparently did.
And when Krabappel comes to grade his paper and casually gives it the usual marks, despite all his efforts to the contrary...Bart breaks down and cries. It might be the saddest moment in the entire series, even worse than the death of Bleeding Gums Murphy or Lisa's final meeting with her substitute teacher. And it's a place we've all been.
For all the flack The Simpsons got in the early days for "glamorizing" underachievement, this proves they were all just blowing wind. No, being educationally challenged is NOT a fun thing, and the show understood that. It made a great drama out of it...but drama isn't what The Simpsons is known for, and this kind of script could only make it through when the groove of the series hadn't set in yet.
We never saw an episode like this again. "Bart Gets an F" gets an A.
BART VS. THANKSGIVING
Okay, so Bart acts like kind of a jerk in this one, but you cant tell me you never at one point had the selfish childhood fantasy of running away from home just to make your parents sorry for punishing you. The reason none of us ever actually tried it was out of fear wed wind up where Bart doeson the street, passed out in a gutter. Or worse.
Every emotion Bart had in this episode, I could identify with. He ponders returning home, but then imagines everyone in the family attacking him instead of welcoming him back. Though a fear like that is silly in adult eyes, thats exactly how I felt whenever I had to head home and knew I was in trouble. Its this kind of insight I wish I could see more often these days from Bart.
THREE MEN AND A COMIC BOOK
It takes aging to gain the gift of patience. When youre a kid, youve got NONE, and if theres something you want that is just barely out of reach, you REALLY want it. Everybodys gone through something like this, often more than once, and Ive only seen it expertly satirized three times: with Ralphies decoder pen, with Calvins Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs Beanie arc, and with Bart in Three Men and a Comic Book.
Comic Book Guy will give Bart Radioactive Man #1 for $100, a generous feat thats really out of character for him (though this was his first appearance). Yet $100 was still a LOT of money for an eight-year-old viewer to comprehend, and it is to Bart as well. Many of the gags in this episode still make me laugh out loud, particularly the sequence where Bart works for Mrs. Glick, who despite the addition of 400-plus episodes has only appeared once. Other bonus points include the theory of Casper being the ghost of Richie Rich and the man who died from holding a grenade too long.
On the night of The Cosby Shows final episode, this was paired with Radio Bart (another all-time favorite) and aired against it as the Bart Bonanza (complete with a graphic of Bart wearing Indiana Joness fedora). My parents picked Cosby, but I couldnt pass up an hour of Bart and I hadnt seen either episode before. I watched it all in the other room, and its still one of my favorite nights of TV I ever witnessed. Right after the Wonder Years gag faded out, you know what appeared? Nikes Hare Jordan. Ay Carumba! It couldnt have gotten any better.
This hour also included a 30-second piece tacked onto the end that has never been seen again, not even on the DVD, mentioning the end of The Cosby Show. If you have an uncut taping of the Bart Bonanza, we need to talk. NOW.
BART THE MURDERER
This one goes off in a couple of wild directions, with Bart working for the Mob and by the third act accused of murdering his principal (it was unusual subject matter for a cartoon in 1991 I didnt see this kind of stuff on Rescue Rangers). But for me its about the first act, and Barts bad day.
Again, weve all been where Bart is. He steps on a toy, he misses the bus, and his pants rip in front of the ladies. The grand capper is that hes denied access to the chocolate factory field trip, and is stuck licking envelopes with Skinner while every other kid is in bliss and Milhouse is losing his glasses in the fudge mixer. In the scenes most dramatic moment, and one of my favorite cinematic techniques in Simpsons history, Bart screams for an extremely long time while the camera zips back to his signed permission slip resting on his bed, then back again. The sudden crushing realization that youve forgotten something important has never been captured better. After seeing this episode, I never forgot a permission slip again.
MARGE BE NOT PROUD
Bart is caught shoplifting. Its not every kid that dared to try this (I didnt), but the episode is written so well and with such emotional honesty, its one of the most identifiable Bart episodes ever made (only outclassed by Bart Gets an F). The towering, threatening security guard and the panic that sets in when Bart tries to keep his parents from finding out are all very well done; we can almost feel the heaviness in Barts stomach from the guilt of what he tried and weve all had incidents wed do anything to cover up.
Even more poignant is Marges reaction when she finally gets the news. Its not one of anger, but of silent disappointment and shattered innocence. It drastically changes her behavior toward Bart, but in a very realistic way. Bart was once annoyed with Marges mothering, but now he sorely misses it. The whole thing is wrapped up with one of the shows most touching endings. Its not every showor every Simpsons episodethat can have this much emotional weight and still manage to be funny. In addition to everything else, its a great satire of the mid-90s video game industry and A Krusty Kinda Kristmas still kills me. It also has one of my favorite credit-sequence endings: You have selected NO.
BART SELLS HIS SOUL
After dismissing spirituality as phony, Bart sells his soul to Milhouse for a pack of dinosaur-shaped sponges. He then has several eerie and unnatural experiences that lead him to believe he really has lost his soul, and embarks on a frantic nighttime journey across Springfield chasing it back. Compared to Marge Be Not Proud and similar episodes, this is pretty far out, but its here because it was the very last use of Sympathetic Bart I ever saw. He eventually reaches a dead end and winds up kneeling on his bed in tears, praying to God for help. Though maybe we havent sold our souls for sponges, weve all been in a desperate situation. After a period of time, the Simpsons writing staff decided which direction they wanted to go with Bart and this wasnt it.
In no subsequent Bart episode has Bart felt like a real kid. A couple seasons ago, the beginning of an episode dealt with Bart growing older and facing losing some of his childhood interests. Done the right way, that subject matter could have resulted in another classic, but instead we got a string of cornball jokes like Bart piling all his Krusty merchandise into a boat and setting it on fire a la the traditional Viking funeral. Bart is no longer built out of honest observation, but out of cardboard child stereotypes.
If The Simpsons Movie had any kind of the character depth I remember from the classic Bart, Id drop down my ten bucks right away. Barts plotline in the film is that Homer is neglecting him for a pig, so he leaves the family and adopts Ned Flanders as his new dad. Already, this has a believability obstacle in the form of an animal that most kids outside of farm communities arent going to run across in the home. And though some poor kids do get neglected, most of them love their natural parents too much to just up and replace them altogether. The honest observation just isnt there any more. I dont think Im ever getting the Bart I once connected with back.
There were a few more three-dimensional Bart episodes such as New Kid on the Block and Barts Friend Falls in Love, but love wasnt a subject a kid Barts age could identify with, and girls were still strange toxic creatures when these first appeared on my TV. Several episodes that explored the relationship between Bart and Santas Little Helper were also well-done, but Im not a dog person.
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