88. Bart’s Inner Child

“If this were a cartoon, the cliff would break off now.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 11 November 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 12 October 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: George Meyer
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, David Richardson, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Gerry Richardson, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Bob Anderson

Part one of Bart’s Inner Child is stunning. Packed into its seven minutes are some of the funniest jokes, sharpest ideas and most unforgettable images in the whole history of The Simpsons. The rest of the episode – well, that’s another story. Literally. You could very easily, and happily, detach part one of Bart’s Inner Child from parts two and three, pop it for safe-keeping in a box somewhere along with other exceptional part ones (Whacking Day, Homer Goes to College), and not bother with the rest. If parts two and three of this story happened to get lost in a fire, or buried in a vat of nuclear waste inside a mutated tree, they really wouldn’t be missed.

Not that they’re dreadful. There’s decent stuff to be found. The sight of Skinner tearing with his teeth at a dummy of his mother is a treat; likewise the sound of Homer whooping with glee as he reads his newspaper and spots: “For free! Surplus drums of mayonnaise from Operation Desert Storm!” Albert Brooks is great as self-help guru Brad Goodman (“There’s no trick to it; it’s just a simple trick!”) and Phil Hartman excels as Troy McClure, who you may remember from such self-help videos as Smoke Yourself Thin and Get Confident, Stupid!. This would get 10 for special guests were it not for the stunt casting of James Brown: a real look-who-we’ve-managed-to-get-this-week moment, and who adds little to the episode other than a few squawks (8).

But all of this is completely overshadowed by the towering accomplishment that is part one, and its account of Homer’s brief, tempestuous relationship with a piece of garden furniture. “OH MY GOD!” he cries during another flick through the newspaper. “Tram-mampoline! Trambompaline!” What follows, in which we see Homer’s sequential attempts to enjoy, profit from and finally destroy the tram-mampoline, is television of the highest order. Even Marge is funny (“Please, don’t bring home any more old crutches!”). Some of the details in the animation are simply superb: the look on Homer’s face as he plays with Krusty’s novelty doorbell; the look on Krusty’s face as he glances nervously through his window after Homer drives off; the undiluted joy of Homer, Bart and Lisa as they bounce up and down. Homer’s “big plans” for the trampoline are exactly what you’d hope and expect, while the thousands of trampoline victims, sprawling away into infinity in the Simpsons’ back garden, is targeted silliness at its best.

Homer’s first attempt to destroy the trampoline, via a Looney Tunes style encounter with a cliff, is one of the finest pastiches the programme has ever done. Even the music (10) is spot on. His second attempt (“You win for now – but some day you’ll RUST! RUST, I TELL YOU!”) is show-stopping.

And therein lies the problem. If only the show actually did stop, right at that very moment. Instead it fumbles onwards, linking into the main storyline via one of the flimsiest of segues (“At least I’m out there trying new things”). The sound of gears changing downwards is deafening. It’d be nice to be able to rate just part one of this episode and give 10s across the board. Instead the plot (7), characterisation (6) and jokes (7) all get points shaved off thanks to the inconsistent and unfocused way parts two and three unfold. Making fun of vacuous self-help gurus is a good thing; running out of ideas of how to make fun of vacuous self-help gurus is not. And the writers seem not just to run out of ideas but also of patience. Goodman is a character with a lot of grisly potential (in the words of McClure, “The man who will put the You in Impro-you-vement!”):

Goodman: We can all learn a lot from this young man here, this…
Bart: Rudiger.
Goodman: Rudiger. And if we can all be like little Rudiger…
Marge: His name is Bart.
Goodman: His name isn’t important!

But Goodman/Brooks disappears from the episode after part two and without him to anchor the action, everything and everyone starts to drift – including your concentration. There’s not enough to keep you in the here and now; your mind slips back to Homer and trampoline and you wish you were still there. The episode ends with the entire town holding a Do What You Feel Festival which turns into a massive brawl and finally – the last refuge of a Simpsons producer – a rampaging mob. All the taut writing and precise humour of part one has vanished; in its place, a sprawling pantomime of noise and spectacle. Even here there’s still the occasional great line (Skinner on seeing Homer and Bart escaping inside a carnival float: “Damn! They’re very slowly getting away!”), and there’s a polish to the animation (8) and design (9) that keeps the eye engaged if not the brain. It’s not in the same league as part one, however. Nowhere near. There isn’t even a proper ending. Things just come to a halt. Could nobody think of a decent closing gag? Not even involving one of those surplus drums of mayonnaise from Operation Desert Storm? Even the vocal performances (6) sound tired.

It’s all rather dispiriting. The tone (5) is so inconsistent it’s like watching a supporting feature followed by an unrelated and ill-chosen main picture, with the support winning hands down. They should have left Homer up there on the cliff. 76%

2 thoughts on “88. Bart’s Inner Child

  1. Great analysis. I do think I liked the second and third acts more than you did but I have to agree the shift is very jarring and it does seem strange so little is done with the great Albert Brooks (though of course he’ll be back for meatier fare.)

    I could be wrong but I think the trampoline ‘wounded’ scene is a homage to a famous scene in ‘Gone With the Wind.’

    Like

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