39. Bart the Murderer

"BART! Have you started smoking?"

“BART! Have you started smoking?”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 10 October 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 8 December 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

If you had to pick an episode that marked the beginning of The Simpsons’ illustrious years, Bart the Murderer is a strong candidate. From here onwards the show hits a new level of comic invention, more lofty in its ambition and expansive in its scope than before. This episode is filled with moments that reflect a defiant shift towards something bolder, dafter, even darker: Principal Skinner forcing Bart to spend an entire afternoon licking envelopes; Bart subletting his bedroom to store thousands of boxes of cigarettes; Springfield Police employing a psychic to help them find Skinner’s “dead body”. You could reassign this story to any of the next five seasons and it would not feel the least bit out of place.

Plot
A Bart-themed episode of The Simpsons used to begin with him heading off to school, getting into some bother then coming home. This episode begins with Bart heading off to school, getting into some bother then being put on trial for slaying his headteacher. “It’s all true,” blubs Homer from the witness box, “all the pieces fit!” The plot vaults comfortably over almost every storyline the show has tried so far, and sustains itself through numerous forays into the bizarre by a mixture of sheer momentum and the strength of its gags. Anyone the slightest bit interested in taking this episode at face value (a 10-year-old accidentally joining the Mafia? A teacher spending a week trapped under a pile of newspapers?) shouldn’t be watching The Simpsons in the first place. 9

Today's homework assignment

Today’s homework assignment

Characters
Intelligent, witty, resourceful, able to mix the perfect Manhattan cocktail on his first attempt: Bart is at the peak of his powers here, and is easily a hundred times more interesting than the stroppy tearaway of last week. He’s very much the grown-up amid all the guns, mayhem and cigarette boxes swirling around; taking a job at the Mafia den seems second nature to him and soon he’s grumbling about being late for work and chastising Marge for almost putting his pay through the washing machine. This is the Bart you’re happy to spend time with, not the one who spray-paints graffiti and puts mothballs in the beef stew. The episode also takes great strides in firming up the characters of Chief Wiggum (“I’m not going to rest until one of us is behind bars”) and Principal Skinner (“Some large men to see you, sir.” “I don’t have an appointment with any large men!”) while deftly ushering in the town mobsters Fat Tony, Legs, and Louie. Marge and Lisa barely appear, but they’re not missed. 9

Locations and design
Judged purely on the number of giant factories that line its streets, Springfield must have one of the highest rates of GDP in the United States. Duff beer, cardboard boxes, crackers, fake turds – future episodes will reveal that each of these items has its own vast production complex, usually involving enormous conveyor belts and lots of levers with knobs on. Here it’s the turn of the chocolate factory to take a bow, and it looks (and sounds) absolutely fantastic:

AH FUDGE!

AH FUDGE!

Fudging the figures

Workers’ playtime

Who wouldn’t want to work in, let alone go on a school trip to, such a lip-smacking palace of sweet treats? 8

Pardon My Zinger
Simpsons’ absurdist-in-residence John Swartzwelder wrote the first draft of this episode and you can tell. “Fat Tony is a cancer on this fair city,” booms Chief Wiggum at a press conference, “and I am the… [whispers to assistant] what cures cancer?” When Marge worries that the pizza delivery truck parked outside for two weeks might not be all it seems, the vehicle promptly speeds off – to be replaced by:

bart11

When learning of Bart’s trial, Mr Burns cackles deliciously: “Thank God we live in a country so hysterical over crime that a 10-year-old boy can be tried as an adult!” And when Homer discovers Bart sitting casually among the stash of Laramies, he wails: “Bart – have you started smoking? I’m going to stand here and watch you smoke every one of these cigarettes! THEN MAYBE YOU’LL LEARN.” 8

Special guests
It’s Joe Mantegna’s debut as Fat Tony. He doesn’t have to do much save alternate between sounding mildly menacing and extremely harassed, and is better at the former than the latter.

"Don't Have a Cow"

“Don’t Have a Cow in the third – put a deuce on him!”

His flat delivery and sandpapery tones work best when juxtaposed with Bart’s yelping and Homer’s mewling. “TV’s Doogie Howser – Neil Patrick Harris!” turns up at the very end, when the Simpson family (not for the last time) are watching a cheap dramatisation of the very events we ourselves have watched over the preceding 20 minutes. Harris is “playing” Bart and for a few seconds we’re treated to one of America’s second division of teen stars making merry fun of one of its premier league. 7

Music
The frenetic plot, laced with references to just about every Mafia film ever made, inspires Alf Clausen to turn in one of his sharpest scores. Mere seconds after tumbling into Fat Tony’s lair, Clausen gives us the the first of many pastiches of Nino Rota’s music for The Godfather. At the chocolate factory it’s all whirling strings and honking brass; when Bart has a nightmare about murdering Skinner, Clausen flips smartly through his Big Book of Movie Soundalikes to the section marked Bernard Herrmann Does Alfred Hitchcock. Then there’s the pounding version of The Chiffons’ One Fine Day that plays over the Scorsese-esque montage of Bart going about his business in the bar (“Thanks doll!”) and later Bart crooning Frank Sinatra’s Witchcraft while idling in the kitchen (“Give me three fingers of milk, ma!”). There’s an album’s worth of material here and scarcely a bum note to be heard. 9

Voices
Phil Hartman is now fully settled into every nook and crevice of Troy McClure: “You may remember me from such films as ‘The Revenge of Abe Lincoln’ and ‘The Wackiest Covered-Wagon in the West!'” Joe Mantegna’s performance is pretty much all on one note – “I wonder if he is lucky also” – but it’s pitched at just about the right level, a sort of unyieldingly monotonous threat. Giving both Hartman and Mantegna a run for their money is Nancy Cartwright, whether singing Witchcraft or talking through a swollen tongue after licking Skinner’s pantheon of envelopes. 8

"CAN - I - GO - NOW?"

“CAN – I – GO – NOW?”

Animation direction
You never get bored watching this episode. Rich Moore ensures every scene contains something to catch and entertain your eye. The very first shot is of a beautiful sunrise through Bart’s window:

Sun comes up

Sun goes up

Later on we see almost exactly the same shot at night:

Sun goes down

Sun goes down

Bart’s accident-prone journey to school is full of attention to detail, right down to the puddles and the rainbow:

Wetness

*splosh*

Dryness

*drip*

There are more fast pans and swooping angles in this story than the whole of the previous season, giving the plot an appropriately cinematic feel. At one point the camera flies all the way from Bart’s classroom to his bedroom and back again, climaxing with an almighty thump:

Bookbound

Bookbound

Even those moments when hardly anything happens – the clock in Skinner’s office appearing to tick backwards – are sublime. 9

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
In a rare example of The Simpsons anticipating a hit film rather than parodying it later, most of this episode was scripted before Goodfellas was released. Some hasty rewriting then took place to insert a clutch of spoofs, including the One Fine Day sequence and the scene at the end of act one when Bart topples down a stairwell to land outside the Mafia den, whereupon his face is prodded by a dozen handguns.

"Uh-oh"

“Uh-oh”

This is actually quite a “violent” story, with plenty of weapons being stuck in plenty of places, an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon that ends in a mass shooting, and Bart having a nightmare that ends with him being electrocuted.

Tough love

Tough love

"You killed me, Bart!"

“You killed me, Bart!”

Blood and gore lurk in the corners of every frame. Yet it’s all done (yes, there’s no other phrase for it) in the best possible taste. 10

Emotion and tone
You know full well that Bart isn’t going to be found guilty of murder, just as you know full well Skinner isn’t really dead or that Homer really thinks his son is the boss of a vast crime syndicate. But like any other expertly-crafted fictional romp (especially those happy to give away the key plot twist in the title), none of this matters. The fun lies in seeing how Bart gets to be accused of being a murderer and why Skinner is presumed to be dead – and then how, in this case, Skinner escapes from under a pile of newspapers thanks to some baking soda, some lemon juice and a vacuum cleaner. MacGyver himself would be proud. 9

Verdict: 86%
Comic capering of an impeccable standard and the best episode of The Simpsons to date.

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