20. Bart vs Thanksgiving

"It's your fault America has lost its way!"

“It’s your fault America has lost its way!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 22 November 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 24 November 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: George Meyer
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Jeff Lynch, Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: David Silverman

One consequence of The Simpsons being moved from Sundays to Thursdays was that the show now aired on the annual US holiday of Thanksgiving. For an overworked and under-inspired production team, this was an opportunity too good to miss. Someone then decided that what viewers most wanted to see at the end of a long day of patriotic revelry was America’s “most dysfunctional family” having the worst Thanksgiving ever. The result is an example of why “special” episodes of sitcoms are usually anything but.

Plot
Over the course of Thanksgiving Day afternoon and evening, Bart gets told off for destroying Lisa’s table decoration, runs away with the dog, gets interviewed on TV at a nearby refuge for down-and-outs, then comes home. It’s hardly the titanic showdown the episode title implies. Nor is it particularly interesting or fun to watch. Maybe it’s because Thanksgiving, with all its domestic rituals and Stars-and-Stripes hoopla, has next to no resonance here in the UK. Or maybe it’s because the plot is so half-hearted that, like Bart, it ends up spending the second half of the episode with nowhere to go except back where it started. 3

Characters
When you’ve a story as limp as this, strong and convincing characterisation is imperative to pick up the slack. Instead what we get are lazy and repellant caricatures of the Simpson family, shorn almost entirely of the wit and intelligence they’ve accrued since episode one. Homer is pretty hopeless, shuttling from distasteful sloth to unconvincing panic via one good joke (see below). Instead of their usual constructive moaning, Patti and Selma just moan. The first proper appearance of Marge’s mother is completely wasted on a few mock-outrageous exclamations (“I’ll just say one thing: you never do anything right”). Lisa is hard to warm to, her table decoration thunderously worthy rather than sweet, and her response to its destruction too extreme to win your sympathy.

Impending conflagration not pictured

Impending conflagration not pictured

Worst of the lot is Bart. He is thoroughly obnoxious and a charmless brat whose utter lack of concern at the heartbreak he causes Lisa (“Bitchin!”) is just horrible. There is nothing entertaining about his petulance, no sign of the roguish charm we’re used to, and not a trace of humour to dilute his rancour. “You’ve ruined Thanksgiving,” Marge yells at him, to which you can add: and this episode of The Simpsons. 1

Locations and design
The Springfield Retirement Home looks as tatty as the last time we saw it, made even more melancholy by the presence of cheap Thanksgiving decorations such as a wonderfully inappropriate cut-out face of Abraham Lincoln:

Four score nd seven years ago

Gettysburg head-dress

The sight and sound of a fax machine delivering Thanksgiving messages from as-far-away-as-possible relatives is a great touch. By contrast the homeless shelter manages to seem both rundown and welcoming:

Accomplished mission

Accomplished mission

No wonder Bart likes being there – it’s a far more intriguing location than his own home. The entire seedy side of Springfield is similarly evocative, especially the shop signs:

sign

YES! WE HAVE ROT GUT!

In short, the episode becomes a million times more interesting the moment anyone steps foot outside the Simpsons’ house. 6

Pardon My Zinger
Homer’s cry of “Operator! Give me the number for 911!” has rightly acquired revered status, but little else comes close. Grampa Simpson – in one of his very few lines – gets in a nice dig at the Retirement Home: “If I’m not back by nine, they declare me legally dead”; Kent Brockman does a ripe turn reporting from the homeless shelter, booming down the camera within earshot of the residents: “We have lots of names for these people: bums, deadbeats, losers, scums of the Earth…”; and Mr Burns enjoys a similarly brief but satisfying cameo, revelling in profligacy:

"Dispose of all this!"

“Dispose of all this!”

– before unleashing his first ever “Release the hounds!” But as far as zingers go, that’s pretty much it. Thin gruel indeed. 4

Special guests
One of the unnamed people Bart meets briefly at the homeless shelter is played by Greg Berg, an American actor who did the voices of Fozzie and Scooter in Muppet Babies. Guess you can’t have a Tony Bennett or a James Earl Jones every week. 1

Music
Let’s be generous and say someone forgot to book an orchestra for this episode. On the other hand, let’s not be generous and say the producers screwed up badly. Such a tissue-thin script was always going to need thickening up with some musical roughage. Yet this must be one of the sparsest scores in the show’s history. You can almost count the number of music cues on two hands. As for the number of memorable cues, you don’t even need one hand. Alf Clausen needn’t have bothered turning up. 1

Voices
If the gravelly-throated cacophony of Marge, Patti and Selma is tolerable only in small doses, a four-way rasp-off between Marge, Patti, Selma and their mother is close to torture. One of the writers must have been in particularly foul mood when they decided to push the pain even further and make the mother have laryngitis. Inevitably, this is not Julie Kavner’s finest hour. What with Dan Castellaneta bungling Grampa Simpson, Harry Shearer cocking up Mr Burns and endless scenes of Bart sounding like a jumped-up squirt, you’re better off watching the episode from a safe distance – say a nearby corridor. 3

Animation direction
David Silverman’s talents are wasted. There’s only so much you can do with a script where a typical scene is Marge walking silently first one way then the other across a room. Most of the episode is static enough to work as a stage play, and it’s no accident the animation perks up only when the characters leave the Simpsons’ house. Bart’s brush with Burns’ hounds is executed with flair, in particular the laser-beam forcefield around the pumpkin pie:

*Bzzz*

*Bzzz*

You share Homer’s joy when he pops out to pick up his dad from the Retirement Home. Even the scenes of Bart and Lisa up on the roof feel like a liberation. Suddenly the episode has room to breathe:

Sky

On the tiles

Then there’s the most shameless “fourth wall” moment of the series so far. While watching Macy’s Thanksgiving parade on TV, Homer cautions Bart: “You start building a balloon for every flash-in-the-pan cartoon character, you’ve turned the parade into a farce” – at which point an inflated caricature of Bart floats into shot behind them:

blow

Watching you watching us

It’s not the first time the show has referenced its own success – see Marge’s remark about T-shirts in Dancin’ Homer – but for sheer brazenness this sets a new bar. If it wasn’t so briskly animated and so chipper an in-joke (there was a genuine Bart balloon at the actual Macy’s parade in 1990) it would be hideously smug. 5

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
We get a parody of what passes for half-time entertainment at American football matches (“A salute to the greatest hemisphere on Earth: the western hemisphere!”) which is only slightly less meaningless today as it must have been for non-American viewers in 1990. More accessible is the namecheck for Bullwinkle J Moose, whose likeness bobs briefly into view during the Thanksgiving parade. Spicing up the lumpen story are a few highbrow references: one of Mr Burns’ security guards is reading Les Miserables, while the Burns mansion stands on the corner of the streets Croesus and Mammon: two references to biblical incarnations of grotesque material wealth. Lisa has books by Poe, Ginsberg and Kerouac (On The Road) on her bookshelf, and freely adapts Ginsberg’s 1955 verse Howl in the opening of her self-penned post-sulk poem: “I saw the best meals of my generation destroyed by the madness of my brother.” There’s also an effective fantasy sequence where Bart imagines being made to apologise not just for running away but also for scores of other misdemeanours. 5

Shadow

Apologise for how poor this story is! APOLOGISE!

Emotion and tone
An air of pointlessness hangs over Bart Vs Thanksgiving. Almost nothing happens in the first act, leaving you bored and distracted. To eke out the plot, things move at an incredibly slow pace (Marge deguts a turkey, Bart struggles to open a can of cranberry sauce) which further tries your patience. Then when the Thanksgiving meal finally begins, no one is especially happy to be there, which just leaves you feeling exactly the same. Bart’s subsequent selfishness makes it incredibly difficult to care about his plight. Finally, Bart and Lisa’s reconciliation is so hasty and sincere it feels like it’s arrived from a different script, one that has been bolted on in lieu of an ending. A shambles, basically. 1

Verdict: 30%
Give thanks that the show only tried this format the once.

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