14. Bart Gets an ‘F’

Wish I had

“I wish I had ‘amoria phlebitis’…”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 11 October 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 31 March 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: David M Stern
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: David Silverman, Vincenzo Trippetti
  • Animation director: David Silverman

Season two of The Simpsons opened in the same fashion as season one: with a last-minute panicked rescheduling. Bart Gets an ‘F’ was originally slated to air third in the series, but got booted up the pecking order to try and score an opening victory in what the American media had spent all summer hyping up as Bill versus Bart. The tactic failed. The Cosby Show won an 18.5 Nielsen rating while The Simpsons got 18.4*. A tiny margin, to be fair, but a symbolic defeat that suggested the young challenger was in no shape to defeat the reigning champion just yet. Viewed today, the episode also fails as a shop window for the new season, narrowing instead of broadening the show’s focus while trumpeting – rather expediently – Bart’s superficialities rather than strengths.

Plot
Bart fails a history test repeatedly and is threatened with having to retake the school year, before subconsciously remembering a historical fact during a tearful exchange with his teacher, who relents and awards him a D-minus. This was the first script written for The Simpsons by David M Stern, fresh from success as a story executive on The Wonder Years, and – coincidence or otherwise – the depiction of a youngster’s wide-eyed incomprehension of life is one of the episode’s strongest points. Less persuasive is the engine of the plot, which at times is barely substantial enough to propel the episode forwards a matter of paces. Much of act two (Bart and classmate Martin schooling each other in swotting and mischief respectively) is knockabout padding, while the arrival of an out-of-season snowfall to give Bart an extra day of revision is an outrageous deus ex machina. It’s all entertaining, just a little too dependant on spectacle rather than credibility. 6

Characters
This was conceived as a star vehicle for Bart and was promoted as such, so it’s no surprise that he dominates the action from start to finish. What is a surprise is the change in his personality. Bart is not as cunning as in season one and his intelligence is blunted for purposes of the plot. He’s outwitted by Sherri and Terri, outplayed by Milhouse and outsmarted by his entire class. As a means to an end this is pushing it somewhat, and it’s just as well his weepy breakdown packs enough of a sincere punch to feel plausible. Bart’s to-and-fro with Mrs Krabappel is much more convincing – “Is this a book report or a witch hunt?” – as is Mrs K in general, though in later years she wouldn’t fall quite so quickly for Bart’s pretend illness.

"Ha!"

“Ha!”

Martin is actually more of an interesting character, indeed he’s the first person we see, joyously subjecting his class to An Audience With Ernest Hemingway:

"To make love"

“To kill a bull! To make love to a woman!”

It’s a show-stealer, as is his reinvention as the most popular kid in school. The rest of the Simpson family are reduced to more or less supporting parts, lurking in the wings – sometimes literally:

Rare cameo from a couple of non-Bart Simpsons

Rare cameo from a couple of non-Bart Simpsons

Homer in particular is almost redundant, catching your attention only when he pastes up Lisa’s vocabulary test over Bart’s drawing of a cat (although what is Bart doing drawing cats?) and his bafflement – again – at another bout of pseudo-speak from school psychiatrist Dr J Loren Pryor. There’s one notable introduction, however: the first appearance of Mayor Quimby, without any explanation as to his job, but whose municipal bandwagon-jumping is already fully-formed: “I hereby declare this day to be Snow Day!” 5

Locations and design
With a plot as domesticated as any in the show’s history to date, there’s no need for the action to flip between anything other than the Simpsons’ house and the school. For anyone watching the episodes in sequence, the jolt between the ordered, logical realisation of locations in Bart Gets An ‘F’ and the grotty mess of Some Enchanted Evening is startling. 6

Pardon My Zinger
Martin gets the best gags. “My prize dioramas – these mean nothing to them?” he wails on learning of his lowly reputation in the playground. “Well, back to the forecastle of the Pequod,” he sighs after another failed attempt at integrating with the cool kids, in possibly the first and only ever Moby Dick zinger in an animated sitcom.

Call him Martin

Towards thee I roll…

Both are playful rather than spiteful digs at his character, and nail perfectly Martin’s articulate world-weariness and the slight comfort he takes from being a loner. This kind of insight would prove typical of Stern’s scripts for the show, helping to bring much-needed depth to some of the secondary characters (the episodes Principal Charming and Selma’s Choice are fine examples). Martin’s coaxing of Bart throws up a few good one-liners (“Pretty soon you’ll be ready to try it with a real book!”) as does his brief transformation into a ludicrous surfer dude (“Later Mrs K!”). By contrast Bart’s humour is mostly visual or derives from his suffering at the hands of others, in keeping with the episode’s slight dilution of its hero’s wit and intelligence. The Simpson family isn’t entirely a joke-free zone, however: see Homer’s reaction to the imprisonment of the eponymous star of Gorilla The Conqueror –

gorilla

“It’s so unfair! Just because he’s different!”

– plus his brilliantly fusty grumbling at Bart’s pretend illness: “I wish I had amoria phlebitis.” 6

Special guests
There aren’t any. But with even Homer struggling to get a look-in, it’s tricky to see how a guest voice would have been squeezed usefully into proceedings. Not that their presence, albeit fleeting, wouldn’t have helped spice up the sometimes rather insipid carry-on. 5

Music
Having dispensed with the services of Richard Gibbs after Some Enchanted Evening, the show’s producers needed a replacement. They hadn’t found one by the time this episode needed a score, so hired film composer Arthur B Rubinstein to scribble a few bars, most of them completely forgettable, save for an evocative arrangement of Winter Wonderland to accompany Springfield’s freak snowstorm.

Are you listening?

Are you listening?

A lot of the episode takes place without any incidental music whatsoever, and some of the silences are more memorable than the cues: not the most flattering of verdicts on Rubinstein’s efforts. 3

Voices
Homer’s still a little too imprecise and Bart’s range is pitched a couple of notes too low, but otherwise the family sounds pretty much as they should. There’s certainly a lot less inconsistency now, which is just as well given the number of episodes in this series (22 in total). Marcia Wallace has found the ideal concoction for Edna Krabappel – a sort of bombastic tartness mixed with arch self-pity – that instantly lifts every scene in which her character appears. The same cannot be said of Otto, whose slacker grunts suck the life out of proceedings with as much charm as a death-rattle. 6

Animation direction
Back in full charge for the first time since episode nine, David Silverman does an admirable job of making not very much feel like something of substance. Mouths are still flapping, Bart’s T-shirt is the wrong colour, and the basic plot is so rudimentary that only when bubbles of whimsy break the surface does the direction shift from the pleasantly functional to the unambiguously special. The sequence where Bart and Martin are tutoring each other is one example, from the face-off in the bathroom mirror:

Mon amour

Mon amour

to who can do the best graffiti:

Let us spray

Let us spray

Silverman nails one of the most tricky challenges for any animator: how to make a character cry convincingly:

Sob story

Grade expectations

(Whether you buy Bart’s display of tears is another matter.) His finest contribution, though, is the two minute-sequence beginning with Bart waking up on the morning of his test and discovering the town is covered in snow. What follows – Bart’s shift from revelation to frantic excitement to begrudging renunciation – is beautifully handled, culminating in Bart’s mental projection of a journey around the wintry Springfield. Silverman had already essayed one crack at doing snow in a cartoon; here he goes one better. 7

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
With its slightly bleached-out look, trick perspectives and cameos from the likes of Jacques, Cowboy Bob and Sideshow Bob (a fast-tracked prison release if ever there was one), the snowy interlude is halfway towards fantasy even before Patti and Selma trot past in a festive cart:

Sleighing the opposition

Sleighing the opposition

Then you’ve got Bart imagining himself still stuck in fourth grade as a pot-bellied father with a peptic ulcer and son who’s smarter than he is…

"Look, lady..."

“Look, lady…”

– plus Itchy and Scratchy at the French Revolution, the video game Escape From Grandma’s House complete with gun-toting senior citizen (“You have reached the level of UNGRATEFUL GRANDCHILD. Try again – IF YOU DARE!”), and Bart daydreaming about attending the First Continental Congress to witness the writing of the American Constitution:

Self-evident truths not pictured

Self-evident truths not pictured

This last scene is capped with one of the funniest lines in the whole story: “Hey look everyone, John Hancock’s writing his name in the snow!” All in all a fine feast, and one that foreshadows some of the commanding heights of fantasy to come in seasons three and four. 8

Emotion and tone
Despite the sincerity in Bart’s teary despair at the conclusion – “I really tried, this is as good as I can do” – there’s something about the tone of this episode that’s never quite convincing. It’s possibly to do with seeing Bart on the back foot and being a victim of events beyond his control: two things not really explored in the show before, both of which are somewhat at odds with the depiction of Bart to date as a wily scamp who can think his way out of a problem. His (in)ability to apply his intelligence is a seam that would be more fruitfully mined over the next few years. 4

Verdict: 56%
While there’s a breezy confidence to Bart Gets An ‘F’, there’s also a lot of bluster and a sense that behind the glitz there’s not a great deal of stuff being said. It’s less appealing than the first season’s curtain-raiser, and its offhand manner means you’re forever unsure whether to take any of it seriously. The sanctimonious denouement is partly undercut by a rare outburst from Lisa (“Prayer! The last refuge of a scoundrel”) but the very final line – “Part of this D-minus belongs to God” – is a return to the baked bean endings of last year. Is this meant to be touching or a joke? It’s tempting not to care either way.

*The standard Nielsen rating is based on the percentage of US households tuned to a programme, not individual viewers. Subsequent research by Nielsen suggested that around 33.6 million people watched this episode of The Simpsons, compared with 28.5 million for The Cosby Show. The official weekly ratings chart placed Bill at number seven, however, with Bart tied at number eight alongside the ABC sitcom Who’s The Boss? Bart Gets an ‘F’ remains the most-watched Simpsons episode in the show’s history, and until 1995 had the highest Nielsen rating of any programme broadcast on Fox Television.

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