29. Bart’s Dog Gets An ‘F’

"...hands OFF!"

“…hands OFF!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 7 March 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 13 October 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Steven Dean Moore, David Schwartz
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

The Simpson family continued to feature in The Tracey Ullman Show even after their own series had begun on Fox Television in December 1989. But Ullman’s programme was cancelled in early 1990, just as Fox recommissioned The Simpsons for a second season – something that left Ullman with mixed feelings about her former co-stars. She eventually took up Matt Groening’s open invitation to make a guest appearance on The Simpsons. Unfortunately, the result does not do justice either to Ullman or her protégés.

Plot
The Simpsons’ dog, Santa’s Little Helper, commits a series of misdemeanours including destroying a family heirloom, and is sent to obedience school to learn how to behave. It’s a very slight, low-key story that cycles lazily through various pet-based domestic scenarios (a chewed-up newspaper, a churned-up garden) as it limps towards a predictable conclusion. As the dog’s crimes escalate from the mundane (eating Homer’s breakfast) to the mildly diverting (destroying Homer’s pair of ‘Assassin’ trainers), your interest diminishes steadily until you really don’t care if the wretched canine passes or fails its exam. It’s an elasticated bone of a plot, stretched to breaking point, that really should have stayed buried at the bottom of the producers’ brains. 2

Characters
This episode would be a complete write-off were it not for a handful of small but memorable moments of characterisation. There’s a sweet conversation over the phone between Lisa, off school with the mumps, and Homer, at work in the nuclear power plant. “Ooh, the kissing disease!” chuckles Homer when he learns of Lisa’s condition, at which Lisa giggles delightfully. The pair’s subsequent discussion about Lisa’s favourite magazines (“Teen Dream, Teen Scream and – Teen Steam Magazine?”) is also a treat. Homer’s fickle disdain for Flanders is illustrated amply when his rancour (“Well well, Mr Universe takes a walk!”) is dropped the moment he sees Flanders’ snazzy new footwear. We also get to see Dr Hibbert at home with his clan, in full-patterned Cosby jumper:

"Ho ho ho..."

“How did you get my home number? Ha ha ha…”

All of these scenes are fleeting and have little bearing on the plot, but they count for an awful lot in an episode as thin as this. 8

Locations and design
The defiantly unambitious itinerary is much like the storyline, in that it barely goes anywhere. Most of the action – such as it is – takes place in the Simpsons’ neighbourhood, where everyone seems to be at home all of the time, sitting around waiting for the plot to happen. The only locations of note are the dog obedience school, which is as unappealing as its owner (all dowdy colours and chintz):

Not for turning

Not for turning

– and the shopping mall, where all the displays are swollen to comically extreme proportions and Homer’s stomach is awoken by a cookie the size of a small Ferris wheel. 4

"Mac-a-mademia nuts!"

“Mac-a-mademia nuts!”

Pardon My Zinger
Homer gets all the episode’s good jokes. When Marge berates him for spending money on trainers without telling her, he shoots back, with lofty derision: “Well, YOU bought all those smoke alarms and we haven’t had a single fire.” The chance to get rid of the dog fills him with an almost childish glee. “Can we place this ad after the dog fails his test?” Marge pleads. “No!” barks Homer, “we have to commit ourselves!” He relishes the subterfuge necessary in offloading the canine as quickly as possible; “We’re moving to another country where dogs are forbidden!” he yells down the phone to one curious caller. The episode also has a couple of fine blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual gags: the front covers of the teen magazines in the mall –

NON-THREATENING BOYS

NON-THREATENING BOYS

– and the adverts in the paper for dog training schools. 7

jhg

C MY DOG

Monroe

E-DOG

Special guests
Tracey Ullman is wasted as the haughty, ultra-English dog trainer Emily Winthrop. The story gives her no room to show the range of her acting, and the script gives her no scope to be funny. Her Thatcher-lite roaring pales within seconds, while her swearing (“bloody twits” “pull the bloody chain” “son of a bitch”) just sounds ill-judged rather than amusingly subversive. It’s a lousy role, not to mention a poor tribute to someone who played such an important part in The Simpsons’ history. She turns up elsewhere in the episode as Mrs Winfield, Homer’s elderly neighbour, but this is just more shouting except in an American accent. Frank Welker is by far the better special guest, and all he does is make dog noises. 3

Music
In an unwelcome reminder of the spartan days of season one, big chunks of this episode have no score at all. When the orchestra does show up, Alf Clausen gives it some imaginative things to do, mostly whenever Santa’s Little Helper moves in on his next target for destruction (including a quotation of the theme from Jaws). Clausen also digs out the rather affecting cue he wrote to accompany Homer and Grampa in One Fish, Two Fish… reworked here as the background to Santa’s Little Helper frolicking in the suburbs. 5

Voices
To American ears, it’s likely Ullman sounds quirky, dotty, a bit exotic and spicily strange: the same appeal that a very broad, coarse US accent might have to British listeners. For a UK audience, Ullman just sounds crass. Hers is a very idle take on upper-class Britishness, a flat, one-note, uninspiring depiction of a cadre of society that, when portrayed well, display all sorts of shades of timbre and sentiment. There’s none of that here, only screeching prejudice. At least her other performance, as Mrs Winfield, is brief and packed with modulated fury – prompting a spirited response from Dan Castellaneta: “It is NOT my dog. I tied MY dog outside MY-self. I am looking at him right…” 4

"...D'OH!"

“…D’OH!”

Animation direction
It’s another keep-everything-ticking-over job for Jim Reardon, who at least gets to be a little creative whenever the camera cuts to the dog’s point of view:

Human

From human…

...to mongrel

…to mongrel

and the inside of Lisa’s mouth:

Tongue

“Aaaahhhhhh”

The rest of the episode is staged pretty much like a live action sitcom, and is rather forgettable because of it. 4

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
We get the now-obligatory movie pastiches, which this week are ET, referenced when Marge and Lisa touch fingers melodramatically over the quilt (and which is also echoed on the soundtrack); and National Lampoon’s Animal House, parodied in the “what happened next” captions that turn up at the end of the episode over shots of the dogs at the obedience school. Both homages are a bit lacklustre compared with recent spoofs. More fun is the pop at daytime soap operas that Lisa watches while off school. 5

"Father McGrath! I thought you were dead!" "I was!"

“Father McGrath! I thought you were dead!” “I was!”

Emotion and tone
Most of this story is so frothy and insubstantial its scenes linger in your head for no more than a few seconds, before dissolving from memory like candy floss in water. There’s one moment of emotion, when Lisa reduces Homer briefly to tears with her pleas for clemency over the dog’s future – though this is played so loosely it’s tantamount to farce, not tragedy. The rest of the time the tone is so throwaway that you just don’t feel concerned about the plight of the stupid, unloveable dog. The creature’s sudden, unexplained conversion in the dying minutes of the episode from idiot to genius is a contrivance so outrageous it can only be the product of a platoon of extremely weary writers. 2

Verdict: 44%
A tale more suited to 60 seconds than 22 minutes and which, like its guest star, would have found a more sympathetic home back on The Tracey Ullman Show.

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