5. Bart the General

We got a

“We are happy, we are merry/We got a rhyming dictionary.”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 4 February 1990, Sky Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 21 April 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti
  • Storyboard: Barry Caldwell, David Silverman
  • Animation director: David Silverman

By the time this episode was first shown on US television, The Simpsons had become the most-watched programme on the Fox network. It had yet to become a national craze but sections of the media had already begun trundling out the “worst family in America” tag, which in turn just drove viewing figures even higher. Bart the General did plenty to fuel contemporary prejudices about the series: bullying, violence, destruction and death all loom large right from the off. But it also features calculated pastiche, inspired fantasy and a dash of the surreal – motifs that all bear the fingerprints of the writer of the first draft John Swartzwelder, who would go on to pen more Simpsons episodes than anybody else in the history of the show.

Plot
After getting beaten up repeatedly by the school bully Nelson Muntz, Bart exacts his revenge by enlisting his grandfather, dozens of pupils and a military antiques dealer in a counterattack involving hundreds of water balloons. It’s a very slight storyline that by itself would barely justify one half of an episode. Thankfully it’s padded out in a way that enriches rather than coarsens its theme of juvenile comeuppance. 3

Characters
The slim plot allows great room for character exploration and development, and the writers make full use of it, giving us our first truly rounded portraits of Bart and Homer. Bart gets to show he cares for his sister, sticking up for her when one of Nelson’s cronies squashes her cupcakes, while Lisa is justifiably proud of her big brother. Both reactions feel plausible and not merely contrived for the sake of the story. Similarly, Bart’s fear of Nelson and his subsequent desire for revenge don’t come out of nowhere but are depicted as natural consequences of his personality. The only misstep is his abrupt transformation into a steely commander of battle, though he does have a nicely faltering line in patter when he lectures his friends: “I can’t promise you victory, I can’t promise you good times…[kids drift off, bored] Wait, I promise you victory, I promise you good times!” Homer, meanwhile, gets to do a bit more than simply be the victim of other people’s actions and instead reveals some of his own quirks and obsessions. “Bart, you’re saying ‘butt-kisser’ like it’s a bad thing!” is a pretty great opening line. He has no truck with Marge suggesting Bart report Nelson to his teacher (“What, and violate the code of the schoolyard? I’d rather Bart died!”) and seemingly has a punchbag hanging in his front room, readymade for demonstrating a few life lessons:

"Rrrrrrraaaagghhhh!"

“Rrrrrrraaaagghhhh!”

Nelson is depicted rather one-dimensionally, with two fawning cronies and a predictable hidden wimpy streak. Conversely, Herman the antiques dealer is fascinating: a seedy, articulate freak with sparkling lines like “Can I interest you in some authentic Nazi underpants?” and a stash of treaties from the Franco-Prussian War (“I’ll just change ‘Otto von Bismarck’ to ‘Bart Simpson’.”) 8

Locations and design
Two important locations make their debut in this episode: Bart’s treehouse, which instantly feels like a place you want to be; and the retirement home, which doesn’t. Both these responses are spot on and expertly evoked. You understand exactly why Bart loves hanging out in his treehouse, capacious and isolated and full of exciting maps and charts:

“The key to Springfield has always been Elm Street.”

You can also understand why he loathes hanging out at the retirement home, cramped and over-populated and empty of anything with the potential for entertainment (including its residents). These are great designs and add so much to the lucidity of the plot. Elsewhere the inside of the Simpsons’ house is starting to look a bit more realistic, barring one shot of never-ending doors, while the school is imaginatively laid out, with its giant corridors and vast, unwelcoming yards helping to frame the enormity of Bart’s plight. 7

No place to hide

No place to hide

Pardon My Zinger
Despite being the episode’s star, Bart doesn’t get that many jokes. Humorous situations evolve around him, like a witty to-and-fro with Lisa on the school bus, rather than directly from his mouth (although there is one literal exception, when he coughs up his own cap spectacularly after his second beating from Nelson). Instead it’s the rest of the characters who supply all the best gags, and here the writers hit a new peak in the show’s admittedly-short history. When Marge tells Bart to try a more diplomatic approach in handling Nelson, Homer bellows: “Well thank you very much, Mrs Maharishi Gandhi!” and offers his own solution for drying tears:

Hairdryer treatment

Hairdryer treatment

Homer’s tart advice to his son is to hit the bully “right in the family jewels – a Simpson trademark for generations!” This in turn gets a neat callback when we see Grampa sitting his “dank room” at the retirement home pounding out a letter of complaint on his typewriter, which in a stroke establishes – for here and evermore – his richly beleaguered personality:

"The following is"

“The following is a list of words I never want to hear on television again…”

…number three being “family jewels”. Other highlights are the grouchy crosstalk between Herman and Grampa (“What’s the password?” “Let me in, you idiot!”) and Herman’s half-amusing, half-unsettling penchant for extreme violence, typified by Bart asking him: “Is it OK if the [water balloons] say Happy Birthday on the side?” to which Herman murmurs: “I’d rather they say Death From Above.” 8

Special guests
There aren’t any, but as with Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire they aren’t missed and their presence would only clutter up an episode that is already over-stuffed with novelties. As such this gets a default 10.

Music
Bart the General contains the greatest amount of original music in the season so far. Richard Gibbs supplies some deliciously edgy cues when Bart is trying to slip out of school without meeting Nelson, keeps the pace up admirably during the long sequence where Bart is shown putting his fellow pupils through some mock military training, and rounds off with a stirring accompaniment to the water balloon battle and Bart’s ultimate triumph. He also weaves in some well-placed musical quotes from Jerry Goldsmith’s soundtrack to Patton. This is the first time The Simpsons overtly references another score – though admittedly this was in part because Fox already owned the rights to the film. 7

Voices
Herman gets a marvellously creepy portrayal by Harry Shearer: not too sinister so as to be utterly fanciful but disturbing enough to make him Springfield’s most interesting eccentric. The slight twang of President George Bush (senior) is inspired, giving Herman a touch of the wicked family uncle. Nelson’s voice is both menacing and haughty, the ideal combination for a playground bully. The usual problems apply with Homer and Marge, though. Julie Kavner is still too papery, while Dan Castellaneta is too fruity – though his invocations of rage while beating up the punchbag and anger at Marge’s conciliatory pep talk are reassuring glimpses of the Homer of subsequent seasons. 5

Animation direction
The flair and imagination David Silverman sprinkled through his previous two episodes as director are even more evident here. There are a couple of fantastic point-of-view sequences, one from inside’s Marge oven looking out over a tray of cupcakes, the other from inside the dustbin in which Bart is sent rolling home by Nelson – a properly breathtaking moment of animation:

Dustbin

A garbage eye’s view

Bart getting beaten up as seen from Nelson’s perspective is also pretty striking, not to say brave for a primetime cartoon:

Fist of fun

Fist of fun

Silverman’s keen eye for staging is also detectable in the framing of the treehouse, retirement home and particularly the school, typified by the moment when Bart feels his peers abandon him. 8

Wind

“Uh-oh: a cold wind.”

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
There’s a palpable sense of this episode testing and pushing all sorts of boundaries of what was, up till then, the convention for mainstream cartoons on American television. The characters, jokes and direction all stake out new and fertile territory for The Simpsons, but topping them all is the use of homage and fantasy. There are two audacious sequences. The first depicts Bart imagining himself being terrorised by a giant Nelson, which is chock-full of violence and frantic running up of staircases:

"It's lunchtime!"

“It’s lunch time!”

The second is even bolder, showing Bart imagining his own funeral, complete with Principal Skinner observing “the school nurse did a wonderful job reconstructing his face” and Nelson even punching Bart’s corpse. The image of a cupcake sitting on dead Bart’s forehead is priceless:

A buffet is provided

A buffet is provided

In the latter half of the episode, we get parodies of scenes from three films: Patton, Full Metal Jacket:

Full Metal Jacket

“Hup!”

and also The Longest Day:

The Longest Day

“Bah-bah-bah-baaaaah.”

This kind of outrageous cultural pilfering, and from such fashionable sources (Kubrick no less) must have been startling to see at the time and still feels absolutely wonderful today. 9

Emotion and tone
Here’s one of the few areas in which Bart the General falls down. The episode completely fails to maintain a consistent tone, starting off as a sweet depiction of sibling loyalty, then switching to a knockabout playground romp, then suddenly becoming a pastiche of a military campaign moving from some well-structured tension-building to a preachy and hasty finale. There’s no smooth transition between each of these moods, so whatever sympathy you feel for Bart when he is being bullied, typified by the scene of him feeling so low that all he can do is mope fully-clothed in the bathtub, is hard to sustain by the time you see him being all dumb and cocky after Nelson’s defeat. The epilogue is simply daft, with Bart sounding neither sincere nor jokey as he addresses the viewer: “There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American revolution, World War Two and the Star Wars Trilogy.” 2

Verdict: 67%
It’s the best episode so far, with some exceptional moments of direction, jokes that crackle with imagination, and a clutch of daringly twisted characters that achieve that tricky feat of being actually quite likeable. But all these strengths aren’t quite enough to make up for the wispy-thin plot and clumsy gear changes between emotion and commotion. It’s also cursed with what was becoming a recurring blot on the first season: an ending that dribbles to a close in a mush of vague sentimentality and people standing around looking pleased with themselves.

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s