If you ever find yourself in an argument with someone about whether “The Simpsons” contains generally acceptable societal values, this is the episode you need to point to. (I will admit the odds of this happening are greatly reduced from decades previous.) George and Barbara Bush famously made a bunch of snide comments about the show, opining that they wished TV was more like “The Waltons” and less like, well, this thing — and I gotta say, I’m not really sure what they were getting at. Or what their point was. (I could make a bunch of snide jokes, but hey, we’ll save that for another day.) “The Telltale Head” (7G07) is basically the sort of thing that could have come from “The Waltons,” and contains themes that basically reflect just about any sitcom made in the last 40 or 50 years. It’s bland, it’s inoffensive, and exactly why anyone would think it’s not affirming is confusing.
This is, essentially, a peer-pressure parable. We see Bart’s willingness to impress people he probably shouldn’t. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done the dumb shit. That gives the scene resonance and meaning, and we’re supposed to sympathize with Bart despite the obvious wrongness of his act of vandalism. He is wracked with guilt over his decision, eventually confessing — which makes him feel better. (“The truth shall set you free,” surely.) But that confession doesn’t come without cost, and the townspeople turn against him with literal pitchforks and torches — the mob mentality. (“The truth shall set your teeth free.”) But the mob ultimately forgives, and we’re left wondering what the more important message was — is it about the redeeming power of confession, or the importance of mercy and forgiveness? Both of these are explicitly Christian concepts, but pretty inoffensive regardless of where you are on the socio-religiousness scale. You should be able to endorse these ideas regardless of who you are.
Like I said, I’m not sure who would find this particularly objectionable. There’s even a section where Rev. Lovejoy decries the evils of gambl–oh. Riiight.
Here is “The Simpsons” at its most brilliant. Start the episode off with a heaping dose of cynicism, poking fun at the hypocrisy of some of our more sacred institutions. Throw in some deeply awesome sight gags (I defy anyone to watch Lovejoy’s speech with the football soundtrack overlaid and not laugh themselves silly), and cap it off with a reductive, absurd element. The best part about it is that unless you’re reading closely — always, always, always read the signs in “The Simpsons” — it’ll zoom right past you. I’d actually forgotten about this part, which I suppose was part of the reason why people complained about the show. But to do that you have to decide to not look at it in context, and focus instead only on the parts that pissed you off.