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.