The Simpsons is known for embodying, maybe even inventing, a certain kind of arch nineties irony. (Certainly, no one summed it up better than they did). The show created an anarchic world where no authority figure wasn’t at least a little corrupt, nothing was above parody, and reality itself could be warped, if not just anytime, to paraphrase Roger Rabbit, then any time it was funny.
But there’s another side to The Simpsons, one that, for all the comedy, treats its characters and their emotions deeply seriously. This side was the most prominent before the show fully embraced its gonzo surrealism, in the first three seasons. Season Two, which began in 1990, was the most heartfelt of all.
It was also my introduction in earnest to the show after only dipping my toes in with scattered episodes and YouTube clips for years. It was the only season available at my college library, and it was a surprisingly effective antidepressant through an especially dark time in my life. And those episodes that allowed these little yellow people to become real human beings with real human emotions were the ones that hit me the hardest. I came for the laughs, but I stayed for the tears.
There’s no shortage of examples from 1990. Lisa’s bout with depression “Moaning Lisa.” Homer’s suicide attempt in “Homer’s Odyssey.” Marge reassuring Homer through his hair-loss-induced self-loathing by softly singing “You Are So Beautiful to Me” in “Simpson and Delilah.” Bart tearfully telling Homer he loves him after Homer threatens to jump the Springfield Gorge “because that way, you’ll see what it’s like to witness a family member stupidly risking his life for no good reason” — that last one coexisting with one of the series’ most spectacular comic setpieces without missing a beat.
But none of these episodes land quite as hard as the Season Two premiere, “Bart Gets an ‘F.’” Comparing it to the previous season opener, “Bart the Genius,” it’s obvious how much the show had grown in just one year. Both are about Bart’s academic performance, both have nearly identical titles (I caught myself using the wrong one for the wrong episode more than once writing this). But in between, there’s a world of difference.
“Bart the Genius” is the kind of weightless, wacky cartoon/sitcom plot the Simpsons crew would get down to an art form by bringing out its latent surrealism: a character gets plucked out of their usual environment into a strange new setting, then ends up right back where they started half-an-hour later. After switching IQ tests with local nerd Martin Prince, Bart gets sent to a school for gifted kids.
”Bart Gets an ‘F’” finds richer material in a smaller, more grounded plot. We start with Bart up to his usual shenanigans in school, improvising a book report on the fly to cover up for not actually reading the book. His teacher, Mrs. Krabappel gets on him about his grades, and the stakes rise as the story goes on: if Bart fails his next test, he’ll be held back the next year. He convinces Martin to give him lessons in study skills in return for lessons in social skills. He still can’t pull it out and prays for God to give him one more day. The schools close for a snow day, but he has to spend it inside studying.
It doesn’t sound like much on paper, but the crew finds enormous emotional resonance within it. It’s an opportunity to draw on one of their favorite subjects: the cruelty of the American education system in predestining children to success or mediocrity just as their lives are beginning. It’s heavy stuff, and it’s certainly not something you’d expect from The Simpsons’ cultural footprint.
And in 1990, that footprint was bigger than Godzilla’s. Fox exploited its new stars for every penny they were worth. Bart, especially, was a budding countercultural icon, and Fox milked that image all they could with establishment-friendly antiestablishment slogans like “Eat my shorts” and “Underachiever and proud of it!” But the animated Bart always had more depth than that. Writer David F. Stern even pokes back at the commodified version of the character when Bart meets with the school psychologist.
Much of the credit for Bart’s emotional depth goes to his voice, Nancy Cartwright. She perfectly embodies the cocky bravado we associate with Bart, especially when she uses it to hide his ignorance in the opening book report. But listen closely, and you’ll hear just a hint of panic. But she also embodies the scared, sad little boy hiding behind the swagger. When Mrs. Krabappel drops the left back bomb, you really believe she’s on the edge of tears. And when Bart really does burst into tears, it’s heartbreaking.
The voice cast in general has always been The Simpsons’ secret weapon. Julie Kavner makes the most of her small role as Marge in this episode: when she finds him asleep at his desk and says, “Oh, the little tiger tries so hard,” Kavner gives that one little line more warmth and affection than most entire performances by more respectable actors.
Like the best of the Old Hollywood classics its creators loved so much and despite its cynical reputation, The Simpsons is full of love for all its characters. When Bart demonstrates Martin’s unpopularity to him by pushing down so he can hear all the other kids laugh, it’s funny, but it’s also invested with pain the creators obviously knew all too well. When Bart still fails his final test, it would have been easy to play Mrs. Krabappel as sappily sweet on the one extreme or cruelly indifferent on the other. Instead, she reacts the same as any of us would if a little boy started crying in front of us. Confused and uncomfortable, she tries to comfort him without really knowing how.
Despite the scene with the psychologist, “Bart Gets an ‘F’” holds off on explicitly diagnosing Bart. That was probably the best decision, and it’s allowed the episode to resonate with viewers with all kinds of learning disorders. Scenes like Bart hearing Mrs. Krabappel’s lecture as echoing “blah blah blah”s and furiously slapping himself to concentrate on his homework resonate because of their truthfulness.
For all its flights of fantasy, it’s the little observational moments that make The Simposns as great as it is. Bart kicking his little legs in the parent-teacher conference. Homer’s love of “Giant Ape Week” on the late-night movie show. Bart sleeping flat on his stomach, his sheets and limbs all going off in different directions, his face buried in the pillow. Mrs. Krabappel cheerlessly calling the marker she uses for wrong answers “Old Reddy” with almost audible scare quotes. The impeccable little-kid logic of lines like “Who would have thought pushing a boy into the girls’ lavatory could be such a thrill? The screams, the humiliation, the fact that it wasn’t me!” or “I’m not theologian. I don’t know who or what God is, exactly. All I know is he’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together.”
Even the episode’s moments of outright absurdity or that much better for being played with that much logical matter-of-factness, letting it slowly dawn on the viewer how hilarious they are instead of treating them as loud punchlines: Martin training Bart in reading technique and then saying, “Soon you’ll be ready to try it with a real book!” or Bart trying to get more time to study by asking Otto the bus driver “Otto man, I’ve got a big test I am not ready for. Could you please crash the bus, or something?” and Otto’s even more offhandedly bizarre reply:
The beginning of this new season was a true milestone for The Simpsons. The first season had featured a much looser, more grotesque animation style. It fit the show’s offbeat weirdness, but the writers weren’t happy with it. The Season One DVD set includes the scrapped original animation for what would have been the premiere, “Some Enchanted Evening.” When I watched it, I couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t use such rubbery, energetic animation with such unique, almost ugly line art. Then I listened to the commentary. It turns out the producers hated it, precisely because it was so rubbery and ugly.
They’d later get their wish, but to my mind, the later scenes were flatter with their consistent character designs and subtle movements. That effort started in earnest with Season Two, to the point that they had to commission a new title sequence to match the new look. The result is a kind of a happy medium between the earlier and later seasons.
I’ll admit, at first I also thought the cruddiness of these episodes was off-putting. But as I dove into it, it grew on me. The cheap animation and grotesque, inconsistent character designs fit the scrappiness and weirdness of the stories. There’s a reason DIY and punk rock turned “I could do that” from a putdown to a rallying cry. So many of our standards of quality promote the people who can afford to clean up their visions and lock out the people who can’t. The Simpsons may have been a subsidiary of the Fox corporate behemoth, but it’s easier to forget in these episodes that they obviously cared so little about funding.
Even the timing is scrappier. Later seasons would time their gags to the nanosecond for maximum laughs. But there’s something charming about episodes like this, where the actors step on each other’s lines and the lipsync doesn’t always match, like we’re watching some friends get together to put on a show for us instead of one of the biggest franchises on TV.
And that uglier, less polished animation is essential to the climax, where Bart still fails the test even after all his cramming and his face seems to melt as he tries and fails to hold back a big, ugly cry. Director David Silverman says he did what he could not to make this scene too uncomfortable, which is why Bart spends part of it hiding his face behind the paper. But it also gains so much of its power from just how uncomfortable it is, because this moment is uncomfortable. It’s a torrent of raw emotion flooding out when someone no longer has the wherewithal to keep it bottled up.
It needs to end happily, of course, and it first it seems like The Simpsons will fall into the same trap as so many of its peers and tie things up too neatly, denying all the pain that came before. That’s certainly a fair assessment of Bart comparing his plight to George Washington’s and rattling off a bunch of history facts unprompted so Mrs. Krabappel can give him a passing grade for “applied learning.”
Fortunately, the show’s smart enough to recover from this stumble. They don’t pretend this solves everything: Mrs. Krabappel reminds Bart that even though he passed, it’s “just barely.” And it’s hard to be a cynic when we see Bart kissing Mrs. Krabappel and jumping across the desks and bounding out into the halls and into the yard, shouting “I passed, I passed!” like Jimmy Stewart returning to Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life, Nancy Cartwright reading each repetition of the line in a state of pure euphoria.
And of course, The Simpsons is too cynical to let such a pure moment of sweetness go by without adding a little sour for flavor when Bart disgustedly realized that he may have passed, but he also kissed the teacher. That’s The Simpsons’ secret: sincerity and cynicism, never letting one overwhelm the other. They didn’t always get that balance right, but when they did, no one else could do it better.
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