23. Bart Gets Hit by a Car

Pain

“You are NOT fine! You are in CONSTANT PAIN!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 10 January 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 14 March 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: John Eng, Raymie Muzquiz, David Schwartz
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

The Simpsons entered 1991 with hoopla over Do The Bartman raging at full tilt and the media still happy to project Bart as the show’s star. The first new episode of the year chimed with this frenzied mood, bearing a title that suggested another romp with the world’s most famous 10-year-old at its heart. It’s actually nothing of the sort, and dispenses with Bart’s plight after a few scenes to concentrate on a much more rewarding collision: that of Mr Burns with Lionel Hutz.

Plot
When Bart is injured in a traffic accident, a lawyer persuades Homer to take the vehicle’s driver to court. Unfortunately for Homer, the lawyer is a gaffe-prone ambulance-chaser and the vehicle’s driver is Mr Burns. It’s a plot that unfolds in fits and starts, not finding an even pace until the court scenes begin in act two. From there the story rattles along, with Burns perpetrating a variety of schemes to cause maximum humiliation for Homer and minimum financial outlay for himself. Had the episode ended with Burns’ triumph, the impact would have been similar to the brutally effective downbeat conclusion of Simpson and Delilah. Instead a clumsily mawkish coda is tacked on, and our final impression is not of a stirring legal yarn but a tedious domestic love-spat. 5

Characters
Three characters make their debut in this episode, one sublime, one functional, one atrocious. The last of these is Dr Nick Riviera: a charmless, stupid doctor with no redeeming features whatsoever and whose facile attitude to his profession is grating, not entertaining. He joins fellow charmless stupid doctor Marvin Monroe on the list of characters whose arrival in any episode of The Simpsons immediately sucks all enjoyment out of proceedings. The functional character is Mr Burns’ unnamed blue-haired lawyer: a caricature hewn expertly with arch patter and beguiling connivance.

lkjk

Hair apparent

Best of the three newcomers by far is Lionel Hutz, amateur lawyer and professional shyster. Hutz swells Springfield’s growing roll-call of unstable grotesques, but unlike Riviera he’s someone who knows he’s incompetent yet tries to suggest otherwise, thereby making him a far more satisfying creation.

Cashing in

“You can ching, ching, ching, cash in on this tragedy!”

He also makes for a delectable counterpoint to Mr Burns, who is back to his malevolent best after his inconsistent portrayals in Dancin’ Homer and Two Cars in Every Garage. From disgust at the thought of showing Bart compassion (“Just give him a nickel and let’s get going!”) to fury at his lawyers’ handling of Homer –

ape

“Just get that big ape to my house tonight!”

– Burns’ majestic spite is never compromised. As for Homer and Marge, Homer’s boorish pursuit of money and reverse snobbery towards authority are two unwelcome traits that, in later years, would become depressingly commonplace. Marge’s piety, shown with commendable vulnerability in the previous episode, is here back to its lumpen worst. 5

Locations and design
Springfield courthouse is given a makeover by animation director Mark Kirkland, becoming a grander and more imposing location than previously. It’s rather flexible in its dimensions, appearing sometimes palatial, sometimes claustrophobic. This isn’t a bad thing, however; it suits the plot well for the judge’s dais to start off near floor-level, almost eye-to-eye with Mr Burns, then appear gigantic when Bart takes the stand:

Truth omnipotent

Truth omnipotent

Kirkland is similarly inspired in his depiction of Burns’ estate. The position of the enormous portrait in the drawing room allows Burns to loom symbolically above Homer and Marge while simultaneously spying on them through the peep-holes:

"Phoney doctors? Hellooo!"

“Phoney doctors? Hellooo!”

The grounds of the estate are also appropriately swollen in size, so that when Homer and Marge flee, it looks like they’re on a cross-country run. 7

Hounds released

Hounds released

Pardon My Zinger
This episode is based on a John Swartzwelder script, meaning the zinger-quotient is above average. Mr Burns gets the pick of the best lines, yelling at the court (“I should be able to run over as many kids as I want!”) then despairing at their fickleness (“Oh please!”). “Tangle with me and I’ll crush you like a paper cup!” he roars at Homer, before struggling to do likewise with the tiniest of vessels on his desk. “That ugly customer was the last Indonesian rhino on Earth!” he booms when entertaining Homer and Marge at his estate. He draws a smiley face on his cash offer to Homer, before declaring “Smithers, let’s go powder my nose!” and sneaking off to monitor his guests. Lionel Hutz gets the bulk of the other gags, mostly in the form of enthusiastic caterwauling (to Bart: “You are not fine! You are in constant pain!”) or nervy conjectures (on Marge pledging to tell the truth in court: “She sounded like she was taking that awful seriously!”). 7

Special guests
Phil Hartman plays Lionel Hutz with such thunderous assurance and depth you’d be forgiven for thinking the character had been in the show for years. In reality Hutz was conceived as a one-off but, like Sideshow Bob, was quickly deemed too good a concoction to throw away on just a single episode. Both characters share a conviction in the power of language to trump any kind of reason, and both are played by actors who relish unleashing a crescendo of preposterous wordplay. Hartman coaxes humour out of the least prepossessing dialogue. Sentences that look flat on the page crackle and dance in his throat: “Mr Simpson, the State Bar forbids me from promising you a big cash settlement. But just between you and me, I can promise you a BIG. CASH. SETTLEMENT.” No other cast member of The Simpsons has ever been able to match Hartman’s trick of employing misplaced panache to deliver lines in a way that, rather than dilute their impact, merely makes them funnier. His greatest contribution to the show – Troy McClure – was still a few episodes away, but the precarious vigour fuelling the core of both McClure and Hutz is already here, fully-formed and resplendent. 9

Music
Alf Clausen doesn’t get much to do. The only cues of note are in the scene when first Bart then Mr Burns give the court an account of the car accident. Bart’s version –

"It was the Luxury Car of Death..."

“It was the Luxury Car of Death…”

– is underscored with lashings of menace, as if from a straight-to-video horror film. Mr Burns’s version –

toys

“I was driving to the orphanage to pass out toys…”

– is underscored with Herb Albert’s unfailingly-joyful Tijuana Taxi. 4

Voices
Phil Hartman doesn’t give Lionel Hutz quite the full-voiced hucksterism as would become commonplace, though he’s already more than halfway there: listen to the way he defiantly bawls “Now THAT’S believable testimony!” after Bart has finished giving evidence. Dan Castellaneta sounds less sure-footed as Homer than in recent episodes; the internal monologues during the closing scenes misfire just as painfully as in Dancin’ Homer. He’s much better as Mr Burns’ lawyer, nailing now and forever the character’s nasal New York whine. A mention too for The Simpsons’ script supervisor Doris Grau, who has a small cameo as Hutz’s put-upon secretary. Her husky 50-a-day timbre – so much more appealing than the scratchy grunts of Otto – would feature regularly in the show until her death in 1995, most famously as Lunchlady Doris. 7

Animation direction
Mark Kirkland turns in a fabulous opening few minutes, sending Bart sequentially into the front of Burns’ car, up an escalator to heaven, down a vortex into hell, and finally up through various strata of the Earth’s crust into a hospital bed. The attention to detail in the depiction of hell (based on Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights) is stunning but rather wasted on a wide shot that lasts all of two seconds:

Devil in the details

Devil in the details

Kirkland’s characterisation of the devil –  a flustered middle-management pen-pusher – is also superb, and it’s a shame so many of this episode’s visual strengths are front-loaded at the beginning.

"Boy, is my face red!"

“Boy, is my face red!”

The remaining 20 minutes can’t really compete, though given these mostly comprise of people sitting in rooms and bickering, that’s no real surprise. Kirkland still manages to squeeze in a couple of other flourishes: the positioning of Burns and Smithers behind the painting, with Smithers cowering like the dog whose eyes he is spying through:

Master and servant

Master and servant

– and the newspaper headlines Burns imagines when contemplating sacking Homer. 7

And now the good news

And now the good news

Fair and balanced

Fair and balanced

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
This episode is rich with imaginative homages to US cinema. The story is loosely based on the premise of Billy Wilder’s 1966 film The Fortune Cookie, in which a cameraman is mildly hurt while filming a game of American football, but is convinced by his brother-in-law to feign injuries that are far worse in order to get a huge insurance pay-out. There’s a nod to one of cinema’s titans when Bart wakes up from his post-accident coma and paraphrases Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “I did go away… I was miles and miles and miles away! And you were there!” Bart’s escalator to heaven reworks one of the most stunning sequences in Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death:

"Do NOT spit over the side"

“Do NOT spit over the side”

Finally, Mark Kirkland used scenes from the films To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and The Verdict (1982) to inspire some the angles and framing in the courtroom. 8

Emotion and tone
This is the second episode in a row that tries to address a weighty issue through a mix of satire and slapstick. But while Itchy & Scratchy & Marge passes with flying colours, Bart Gets Hit by a Car is only partly successful. A tone of controlled mania is sustained with aplomb right up to the final five minutes, when there’s a sudden abrupt change of gear and grit is substituted with sap. Homer decides his marriage is in crisis (“I’m not sure I love you anymore”), Marge turns supercilious (“Homer, I’d like you to forgive me for doing the right thing”) and there’s a sickly confrontation in Moe’s Tavern. A rewrite imposed on the story by James Brooks, this finale is a major misstep. It swaps the clinical silliness of high farce with low-rent soap opera mush, curdling the sentiments of the story until they are rank and indigestible. 4

Verdict: 63%
A episode blessed with fine performances and sharp patter, but cursed with an impaired structure and a truly dreadful ending.

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