“Take thy beak from out my heart / And take thy form from off my door.” (7F04)
This was the original Treehouse of Horror, and even if you were to accept the idea that the first two sketches aren’t much good — which is a pretty dubious proposition — the final act pushes this over into greatness. Other versions of Treehouse of Horror might be funnier, or more creative, but “The Raven,” as portrayed by “The Simpsons,” is one of those divinely inspired comedic moments, the sort of thing that changes the way you see the original work forever. I cannot now read “The Raven,” or even hear bits of it, without immediately picturing Homer as the antagonist, or Bart as the Raven. And so far as I’m concerned, the poem really does go “– here I opened wide the door — this better be good — darkness there, and nothing more.”
As far as one-off sketches go, it’s one of the best things this show has ever done.
Harvey Fierstone makes this episode. Much like Albert Brooks’ various characters over the years, Fierstone’s Karl lingers even though we never see him again. It’s the show’s first dalliance with gay culture, and it’s interesting to see how LGBTQ issues have made their way into the show over the years. Back in 1990, this was pretty much the only way you could get gay culture onto TV — you had to make it campy, you had to make it non-threatening, and it always had to exist in some kind of outside context that had nothing to do with the main characters (at least, beyond the bounds of the episode). This was the first kiss between men on network television, like, ever: the first kiss between actual, live men came a full decade later (on “Dawson’s Creek,” of all places). This shouldn’t really have surprised anyone — Matt Groening had been drawing Akbar and Jeff cartoons for years before “The Simpsons” ever came around — but it’s a sign of how far the show was willing to push the envelope at the time.
Karl himself is a fascinating character. I spent some time digging into the story of Samson to see if there’s some kind of Biblical parallel, and it turns out there isn’t, so how it is that this guy turned up in Homer’s life at exactly the right time, threw himself on the grenade, and walked off isn’t entirely clear. But his commitment to his boss, and his devotion to service, is truly remarkable — even if the things he convinces Homer to do are pretty penny ante stuff. If you look at what Homer “accomplishes” in his turn as an executive, it’s small potatoes… but I think that’s sort of the point: Homer isn’t a guy possessed of a great deal of ambition, drive, or the belief he’s capable, or even entitled to try. Viewed through the lens of contemporary life, there’s even more pathos than you expect: this is, fundamentally, a story about the tyranny of lower middle-class life, and how success can be arbitrary, capricious, and dependent on very shallow externalities — none of which have anything to do with who you are as a human being. 1990 is too far back in time for me to remember whether these kinds of anxieties were present in families back then, but today, there’s a significant number of people in the United States who feel helpless and stuck because of their economic circumstances, and it’s not entirely clear why they’re never able to get ahead. (Well, actually, that’s not totally true — but I’ll undertake liberal ranting another day.)
When you look at the cultural impact of “The Simpsons,” it helps to remember that “Bart Gets an F” aired over twenty five years ago. A lot has changed since then. Back in 1990, this was pretty much the most controversial show on television; it was crossing a lot of boundaries, attracting a lot of attention, and drawing a lot of fire from people whose views were not considered wildly out of sync with society’s. If you listen to the DVD commentaries on a lot of these episodes, you get to learn all kinds of interesting things about Fox, censors, and social pressures on the show runners. Today, of course, the idea of showing a main character failing at something so fundamental seems normal, even expected; when this episode first ran, it was shocking. James L. Brooks was apparently quoted as saying he didn’t care, because it reflected reality — kids try and fail in school all the time — and depending on TV characters to be role models was stupid. I’m amazed that this kind of thing was even up for debate, but as the saying goes, the past was a foreign country (and they did things differently there).
“Bart Gets an F” shows a lot of the elements that form the backbone of Season 2. There’s some fairly meaningful storytelling, an interesting B plot, a significant amount of highbrow material, and a fair whack of pathos. Bart’s anguish over his failures is palpable, and still feels real in a way that a lot of TV drama doesn’t (never mind comedy): we’ve all been that person who, for whatever reason, just can’t make something work. Speaking to relatively universal sentiment is something the show has done well with in the past, and here we see the beginning of the show hitting its stride with this kind of narrative arc. To me, the more interesting part is the final act — the desperation of prayer, the miracle of reward, and then the struggle to fulfil a mortal’s end of the bargain. There’s deep theological content here; Bart’s acknowledgment of God’s contribution to his D- notwithstanding, it begs the question whether divine intervention ever carries with it the burden of reciprocation. Even if you’re not into the metaphysical issues, some of the set pieces — Martin’s transformation into one of the cool kids, the interrupted Continental Congress session, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke therein (“don’t sled on me”) — are worth the price of admission.
You might remember me from a few years ago, where I embarked on a project I called “Now I Watch All the Simpsons” (archived here), which was discontinued prematurely. It turned out that Season 1 was a lot more of a slog than I remembered — there wasn’t a lot to like, and the show was very clearly trying to find its own voice. While the material was fresh and new, it suffers tremendously in comparison to later seasons (but not, mind you, in comparison to much later seasons). It didn’t seem like I was going to get around to reviewing the rest of the first season, so that brought the project to a screeching halt.
Later, I realized that hey, this is my goddamn blog, and my goddamn project, and I can start reviewing again whenever the hell I want. So that’s what I’m going to do. “Now I Watch All The Simpsons” is starting again, and I’m starting again with Season 2.