51. Bart the Lover

"Come back, zinc! COME BACK!"

“Come back, zinc! COME BACK!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 13 February 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 26 January 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Raymie Muzquiz
  • Animation director: Carlos Baeza

Who is the best female character in The Simpsons? Not Marge or Lisa, that’s for sure. Despite their countless entertaining scenes and high-quality zingers, neither of them makes you inwardly shout Yes! whenever they appear on screen. Patty and Selma are definitely in contention, though it’s hard to rate one above the other, especially given how they tend to deliver their greatest lines as a double act. Some of the “wives” always give good value – Mrs Lovejoy, Mrs Flanders – and Principal Skinner’s mother has her moments. But in truth there is only one woman who tops the lot: Mrs Krabappel. And here is the proof. 

Plot
The love life of Bart’s teacher would become one of The Simpsons’ least remunerative cash cows, and had been milked pretty much bone dry by the time the character was “retired” in 2013 following the death of voice actor Marcia Wallace. But here, and for the next few years at least, the amorous exploits of Edna K are the seed for some of the show’s sharpest stories. The idea of her placing an ad in a lonely hearts’ column is sweet but hardly original; having Bart discover the ad, then decide to create a fictitious suitor, is a masterstroke. It sets up all sorts of openings for humour at the expense of both characters – Mrs K’s penchant for lust, Bart’s penchant for mischief – while simultaneously forging a brilliantly offbeat, unlikely bond between the two. They go from taunting each other about yo-yos to Mrs K pouring out her heart, telling Bart: “You’re the closest to a man in my life, and that’s so depressing I think I’m gonna cry.” Meanwhile bubbling alongside is a subplot that, quite rightly, doesn’t bother trying to compete on any sort of emotional level, contenting itself merely with the Flanders’ getting pissed off by Homer’s potty mouth. Nothing more is needed; nothing needs to be taken away. A sublime 10.

Characters
Before this episode, Krabappel was always a fun character but largely peripheral, her appearances brief and her gags throwaway. Here she’s given depth and becomes for the first time truly great. She’s got an ex-husband who puts sugar in her petrol tank but she’s so desperate for a date she’ll even give old man Jasper a spin. She sits at the back of school assembly, puffing away under a NO SMOKING sign, but is happy for the kids to watch a yo-yo display, reasoning: “It’ll be one of their few pleasant memories when they’re pumping gas for a living.” She seems to pity Skinner rather than dislike him (“Mummy won’t let him out to play”), which tees things up nicely for the pair’s future romance. Above all deep down she’s quite fond of Bart, a feeling that – rather wonderfully – is reciprocated once Bart realises how much damage his bogus “lover” has done. The final shot of the episode has the pair of them walking out of the classroom hand in hand, and it’s one of the most satisfying endings. 10

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Locations and design
This story takes place in winter but despite decorations in the classroom and cards pinned to the school noticeboard, there’s no mention of Christmas whatsoever.

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This actually works quite well, giving the episode a seasonal feel without overdoing the festivities, plus it’s a nice change to see snow on the ground and characters wearing jumpers and coats.

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Mrs K’s apartment is just the sort of place you’d imagine her living: compact but a bit untidy, lots of reassuring clutter, and a cat for company. 8

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Pardon My Zinger
Among the many highlights: Lisa taunting Bart over rumours that he has a girlfriend (“Is it that girl with the lazy eye patch?”); Groundskeeper Willie disposing of the school goldfish (“They’re going to a better place” [sound of toilet flushing]); Flanders unknowingly trotting out a string of filthy innuendo while talking to Homer (“All of us pull a few boners now and then, go off half-cock, make asses of ourselves…”); and the entire sequence when the family help Bart write a “farewell” letter from his fictional lover to Mrs K. “Three simple words,” suggests Homer: “I am gay.” “For the last time,” sighs Marge, “I am not putting that in.” 9

Special guests
There aren’t any, but they certainly aren’t missed and would only be superfluous in such an immensely satisfying story. So by default this gets a 10.

Music
Whenever Bart picks up his pen to write another letter to Edna in the guise of her “lover”, the soundtrack dissolves into the sound of feverish Flamenco guitars and vaguely suggestive strumming: the ideal accompaniment to the sight of Mrs K moping ecstatically around her bedroom.

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The impact is just as potent even when Bart is paraphrasing Homer’s drunken ramblings to Marge about her having “a butt that won’t quit”. 8

Voices
Harry Shearer supplies the voice of ‘Woodrow’, the fictional paramour of Bart’s letters. There’s no subtlety to Shearer’s performance – an outrageously over-the-top Mexican croon – but seeing as Woodrow is meant to be outrageous and over-the-top for the purposes of Bart’s prank, none of it matters. Shearer also gets to have a conversation with himself, when Ned Flanders, in a tizz over his son’s potty mouth, rings Reverend Lovejoy for advice. “Direct them to the bible,” is Lovejoy’s brush-off. “Where in the bible?” Ned persists. “Page 900,” Lovejoy snaps, then hangs up before muttering: “Damn Flanders.” 9

Animation direction
The heart of this episode is Bart’s unlikely comradeship with Mrs K, and this is also where the animation is at its most evocative. One scene is staged in such a way as to turn pupil and teacher into barman and customer:

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When Mrs K admits she feels as if Woodrow is watching her every move, right on cue we see Bart gazing intently across the classroom.

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Some of the most inspired touches are also the smallest: the pages of Mrs K’s magazine, or the photo of Jasper as a young man.

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By way of a contrast, the screen swells up with colour and noise when the school is visited by the yo-yo wielding Twirl Kings:

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And it’s always nice to see another example of Homer’s drawing skills.

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Homages, spoofs, fantasies
If an episode of The Simpsons ever looked like running short during seasons three and four, the writers usually shoved in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, a pop culture pastiche, or – best of all – a spoof public information film. And that’s what we get here, courtesy of a searing insight into the multi-purpose indispensability of zinc.

zinc

“But I promised Betty I’d pick her up by six!”

We are invited to consider a nightmare world without this most vital of metals. No car batteries! No telephones! No handguns with which to commit suicide! Luckily it was all a dream, and both us and the film’s tormented hero Jimmy (“Come back zinc!”) learn a valuable lesson about diamagnetic elements. All of this alone is enough to score full marks, but for good measure we also get an utterly superfluous dig at the botched colourisation of black-and-white films…

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…AND a reference to masturbation, when Bart dubs his yo-yo trick Plucking the Pickle. The easiest 10 so far.

Emotion and tone
A good episode of The Simpsons keeps you constantly interested in what its characters are up to. A great one makes you care about them as well. You really feel for Mrs K all the way through this story, which is some feat seeing as prior to this episode all she’d existed solely as the punchbag for Bart’s jokes. You also end up just as concerned about Bart, and wondering how he’ll wriggle out of his predicament without breaking his teacher’s heart. Meanwhile all of the parallel hoo-ha involving the Flanderses is timed to perfection, popping up whenever the episode threatens to get a little too rinsed in schmaltz (Todd: “I said I don’t want any damn vegetables!” Ned: “No bible stories for you!”). The same goes for Homer’s attempts at self-censorship (“Oh, f…iddle-de-dee”). Basically, anyone who doesn’t like this episode can *puts money in swear jar*. 10

Verdict: 92%
More fun than plucking the pickle.

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