I Will Not Waste Chalk

“This game is stoop-id.” (Bart the Genius)

The basic plot: Bart cheats on an intelligence test, which gets him labeled a genius. His behavior in school is thus apparently driven by boredom and restlessness, and so he gets transferred to a school for the gifted — which manages to hit every stereotype you might have had about those kinds of programs, and some you probably didn’t. Meanwhile, Homer tries to cope with the idea of having a son much smarter than he is.

One of the interesting things about this project is going back and seeing what the characters we would come to know and love were like in the beginning. The defining traits of everyone — Bart’s rebelliousness, Lisa’s intelligence, Homer’s doltish-but-kind-hearted nature — are all there, albeit in a rough form. It was also the dawn of the couch gag and the chalkboard gag, elements that would define the show in their own right. But everything is just a bit cruder, a bit more broadly drawn, a bit less subtle, and feels slightly weird given what we know about the future for the Simpsons and their world. Martin, Skinner, and Edna Krabbaple in particular come off as stiffer, somehow wrong given how they would be portrayed even a year later. Some stuff is kind of freaky: you can, for instance, read the entire Bart-as-genius concept as a satire of contemporary educational theory, even 20+ years later, and presages the development of the “indigo child” movement (don’t read that link if you don’t want to beat your head against the keyboard) — the prescience is shocking, really.

If I wasn’t a big fan of the plot of this episode (and I’m not), the set pieces were brilliant. Consider the Scrabble game at the beginning of the show: the Simpsons, working on small, simple words. Homer, baffled how anyone could make a word out of the letters O, X, I, D, I, Z, E. Lisa, pulling a concept out of Freudian theory and putting it in play. Bart, introducing the world to the kwijibo. Doltish, slyly brilliant, and creatively lazy, all in order; this set the trend for years to come. You’ve also got to love the rendered depiction of a math problem on the exam.

I think the really interesting part of this episode isn’t Bart’s adventures through the gifted educational system. It’s actually the way in which Homer and Marge try to cope with the idea they’re parents to an exceptionally gifted child — Homer suddenly finding reasons to try bonding with Bart (and his clear and obvious discomfort at the idea of expressing love for his son), Marge trying to find activities that “smart people” would enjoy so as to nurture Bart’s gift. It’s particularly poignant given how Lisa’s brilliance goes effectively unnoticed and neglected for so many seasons after this; Homer and Marge are more interested in the fiction of their son’s intelligence than the reality of their older daughter’s.

One thing that I’ve always wondered: since Bart stole Martin’s test, it would follow that Martin’s IQ really was 216. So why didn’t Pryor go back, find the person who really took the test, and throw him into the Enrichment Center?

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