8. The Telltale Head

"Ventriloquist

“The ventriloquist goes to heaven, but the dummy doesn’t.”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 25 February 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 11 April 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Matt Groening, Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Sam Simon
  • Storyboard: Barry Caldwell, Rich Moore, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

The first season of The Simpsons underwent many changes between its conception on paper and its transmission on television. In a few cases, those changes took place even after an episode was broadcast. The Telltale Head is one example, having its closing lines completely rewritten following its debut on Fox and before all subsequent reruns*. It’s also an episode that bears more than its fair share of teething troubles, and where a strong premise and an interesting dynamic between Bart and Homer get somewhat undermined by too many gimmicks jostling for our attention.

Plot
This is the first and possibly only time a Simpsons episode is told in flashback. We join the action as Bart and Homer are holding a decapitated bronze head while being chased by a mob of angry residents. Bart then proceeds to tell the mob (and us) why he cut off the head, which belongs to a statue of the town’s founder Jebediah Springfield and which he removed to impress a gang of older boys. He ends his account by explaining how a guilty conscience drove him to put the head back, a gesture which immediately pacifies the mob and turns Bart and Homer into heroes. It’s a decidedly odd and rather flippant structure, for only by retelling the story does Bart create an ending for the episode, which itself then proves to be a complete cop-out. The flashback was one of the changes made to the episode as it went from script to screen. While the image of Bart and Homer being pursued by a crowd with flaming torches undoubtedly makes for a stronger opening than what had been written originally (Homer getting angry with the sport coverage on his TV), it sets your expectations very high, which the finale fails to meet. Along the way your patience is tested with an awful lot of padding, including the family going to church and Homer salivating over a catalogue advertising bowling balls. Four writers worked on the first draft, leaving you wondering if this was a case of too many cooks. 3

Characters
Bart’s attack of conscience at decapitating the statue harks back to his similar change of heart in Bart the Genius and is nicely in keeping with what we’ve already learned about his personality. His relationship with Homer is also more rounded than in recent episodes like Moaning Lisa and The Call of the Simpsons, and you can understand why he feels the need to consult his dad about peer pressure, even if Homer’s advice (“Being popular is the most important thing in the world!”) returns to bite both of them. By contrast, Marge comes over as a harridan, moaning at everyone about not paying attention in church, then moaning at them for being distracted by stuff after church. She’s at her least likeable here, but maybe this is deliberate: you can completely understand Bart’s desire to disobey her and go to see Space Mutants 4 at the cinema, especially after she booms: “Killing innocent people and eating human flesh? You’ll just get a lot of bad ideas!”

Space Mutants 4: The Trilogy Continues

Space Mutants 4: The Trilogy Continues

The gang that Bart meets are much of a muchness, but their casual abuse and brand of teenage sarcasm has the ring of credibility. Mr Burns shows up all-too briefly, and in one scene is openly weeping at the statue’s decapitation, which is just wrong. He does get to join Smithers in a memorable exchange later, however: “I love you Smithers.” “The feeling is more than mutual, sir.” Two new characters take a bow: Reverend Lovejoy, who’s a bit too pompous and forgettable, and Apu, who barely speaks. Then there’s the mob: a splendid full-throated roar of fickleness and paranoia, rampaging about the place with fiery sticks and metal bars, whose number include TV stars (Krusty the Clown), captains of industry (Mr Burns) and, making yet another unwelcome cameo, Dr Marvin Monroe. A shame he wasn’t decapitated too. 6

Next time, Skinner would phone ahead

Skinner should have phoned ahead

Locations and design
We get to see a bit more of Springfield, and this is always a good thing. The rather pompous and ornate central square with its grotesquely over-sized statue are splendidly befitting of a town with ideas above its station. The church is a bizarre place, utterly alien to British eyes (all those angles! those colours!) but just right for the show’s fruity, garish brand of religion:

"OPEN"

Angles and demons

The inside of Moe’s bar has changed colour, but the rather plush crimson interior is no improvement on the previous powdery blue linings. The Simpsons’ garden has also changed. Amusingly, the enormous tree that was by Lisa’s bedroom in Moaning Lisa is now next to Bart’s bedroom, and for the same purpose: to allow the occupant direct access to the street in order to move along the plot – and there’s nothing wrong with that. 7

Pardon My Zinger
The Telltale Head is another episode sparing with its one-liners. Homer has a few decent jokes, the best being in church when he gets carried away while secretly listening to some sport on Bart’s personal stereo:

"IT'S GOOD..."

“IT’S GOOD! IT’S GOOD! IT’S GOOD… to see you all in church”

He also gets in a fine tizz when Bart queries the town’s hysterical reaction to the decapitation of Jebediah Springfield: “Is the Leaning Tower of Pizza [sic] just a statue?” But the choicest gags come courtesy of an unexpected source: Bart and Lisa’s beleaguered Sunday school teacher, goaded by the children into a vexed recitation on whether this or that creature or object is going to heaven (“I’m sorry but the answer is no”), culminating in a brilliantly tart outburst: “The ventriloquist goes to heaven, but the dummy doesn’t!” 4

Special guests
There aren’t any. Christopher Collins, who provided the voice for Mr Burns in Homer’s Odyssey, is absent. His replacement – possibly Harry Shearer, but the performance is too fleeting to be sure – has only a passing resemblance to the Mr Burns of later seasons. 0

Music
Aside from some suspenseful cues to accompany Bart as he tiptoes out of his house to go and decapitate the statue, including a few eerie ninja-sounding wails to match Bart’s costume, there’s not much else of note.

On the prowl

She’s watching you

Much of Richard Gibbs’ score is mixed too low, with the result that the excitingly strident music that plays while Bart and Homer are chased by the angry mob is somewhat drowned out by… the sound of the angry mob. 3

Voices
Reverend Lovejoy sounds more or less as he always will, if a touch less world-weary. Homer and Marge are their usual half-realised selves, Castellaneta and Kavner continuing their season-long grope towards a voice that is both sustainable and amusing. The three bullies all share a fittingly annoying apathetic twang, and sound pretty much interchangeable – which indeed they became, Pamela Hayden and Tress MacNeille swapping Dolph and Jimbo in future episodes. Kearney is voiced here (and forever after) by Nancy Cartwright, meaning that in the scenes between him and Bart, Cartwright is talking to herself. 5

Animation direction
This is Rich Moore’s debut for The Simpsons, and his assured use of unusual angles and imaginative set-pieces does much to rescue the episode from the mundane. Conversations and moments of exposition are framed in unexpected ways, sometimes from low on the ground or sometimes from above, like this shot, from the perspective of the statue’s head:

Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield

As seen by Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield

The whole sequence where Bart sneaks out of his house after dark, scoots to the town square and decapitates the statue is fantastic: moody and with a well-handled building of tension. The moment when the head falls off is actually done in extreme long shot, which somehow makes it even more dramatic. A few of the episode’s more routine aspects are less successful, however. The head changes size from scene to scene; sometimes it’s bigger than Bart, sometimes it fits neatly in his rucksack. The scenes of the angry mob contain some very crudely-designed characters:

Not the full Monty Burns

Not the full Monty Burns

Barney’s hair changes from brown to blond within minutes, while Sideshow Bob is almost unrecognisable:

A clown too many

A clown too many

To be fair, Moore did try to redo this design to correspond with the one that appears later in the season, but ran out of time. His other highlights include the scene when the gang are cloud-watching:

Cloud

“There’s a guy with a switchblade stuck in his back.”

There’s also a real sense of liberation in the way we see Bart escaping from his house just after church, where a continuous shot follows him along the stairs, through his bedroom, out of the window, down a tree and off along the street. 6

The plot went thataway

The plot went thataway

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
We’ve the first of The Simpsons’ many excellent Godfather parodies:

Horsing around

Horsing around

There’s also the debut appearance of the Space Mutants franchise, which is already on its fourth instalment (two seasons later we’d be up to number seven) and, like Smokin’ Joe Fission in Homer’s Odyssey, seems to exist in a world that is forever the 1950s. 6

Emotion and tone
Despite the padding and rather aimless way the story heads towards its denouement, the episode manages to sustain pretty well a sense of Bart struggling to reconcile his municipal pride with the need to appear cool. Things start to fall apart – literally – after the head has been cut off, especially when the decapitated Jebediah starts “talking” to Bart and the entire town goes into mourning. You never quite believe Bart would go so far as to commit a crime that upsets so many people; he’s too self-aware and resourceful. He’s also more entertaining and plausible as a cartoon star when he’s scheming revenge against individuals or faceless organisations. Yet again the finale sticks two fingers up at the viewer hoping for some return on their emotional investment, with the largest, fastest and most shameless switcheroo we’ve seen in the series to date. 4

Verdict: 44%
Although this is one of the few times in The Simpsons’ history that the name of an episode is displayed on screen, The Telltale Head doesn’t live up to the promise of its Poe-referencing title. The plot takes an awfully long time to get going, then an awfully short time to rustle up its own resolution. The flair in the animation and nuance in Bart’s relationship with Homer succeed despite, rather than because, of the overstretched, undercooked plot. “How long will this story take?” Barney yells at the beginning. “About 23 minutes and five seconds,” Bart replies, to which a member of the crowd shouts back: “It’s too long!” – and you can’t help but agree.

*The closing line of the episode was changed from: “Good going son; I can’t wait to get home and start punishing you” to: “Good going son; but remember, most lynch mobs aren’t this nice.”

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