98. Bart Gets an Elephant

“Stop remembering TV and get back to work”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 31 March 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Wednesday 23 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: John Swartzwelder
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

This is an episode cut from the same cloth as Deep Space Homer, with spectacle and gimmick well to the fore. Clever ideas and finely-crafted storytelling don’t get much of a look-in. Instead, the story riffs on a single theme, relying on ever grander, ever sillier variations to pad out its running time. It has none of Deep Space Homer’s epic aspiration – it doesn’t travel much beyond the confines of Springfield, let alone into the galaxy – nor does it plump up its credentials with special guests (0), much pastiche (2) or evocative music (2). But it shares with that story a coarse daftness, where things happen in order to create the sense of something funny going on, rather than to drive a storyline or crescendo some humour.

The plot (2) circles around and around the four-word premise of the episode’s title, giving the impression that a lot is happening when in reality things advance almost nowhere.  What if Bart got an elephant, someone seems to have wondered out loud, followed by a quick brainstorm about elephants (They eat peanuts! They have a long trunk!) and then a list on a flipchart (tourist attraction/ivory tusks/endangered species/stamps a lot). Normally the architecture of a Simpsons episode is decorated with enough wit and invention to disguise any load-bearing walls or unsightly fittings. Here the decoration is in short supply. Construction work on the episode feels like it came to a premature halt; the thing has the air of being unfinished, or in need of a couple more polishes.

The writer John Swartzwelder does his best to fashion something solid out of these materials, but even the script seems to run out of patience by the end, Homer bringing things to a halt with a terse: “We’ll give the stupid elephant to the stupid animal refuge”. Homer is in ‘loud idiot’ mode once again, becoming more thoughtless as time goes on. He starts the episode with his wits about him, using guile to try and dodge the housework while moaning about having to throw away his collection of old TV guides (“So many memories!”). By the end all his wits have deserted him and he walks into a tar pit. None of the characters (3) are particularly likeable in this story, nor the performances (4) memorable, but then it’s not really about character or personality. The tone (3) is chilly and cynical. This is an exercise in milking a four-word idea for all it is worth. There’s nothing organic here, just a rather calculating assembly of sensations. You can admire the animation (9) of the elephant and of Patty and Selma sitting on top of a tornado, or jokes (6) such as the three-line gag “D’oh!” “A deer!” “A female deer!”, but in a detached manner rather than as a viewer involved and invested in the story.

In this way Bart Gets an Elephant is perfect for an age where micro-clips of seconds-long footage can enjoy a much greater reach and impact than something asking you to sit still for 20 or so minutes. Marge ordering Homer to “stop remembering TV and get back to work” is a nice line in itself, but works just as well, if not better, in isolation and deployed – much like Homer walking through a hedge – as a punctuation mark in someone else’s conversation. Season five of The Simpsons contains several stories that aren’t narratives as such but more a sequence of happenings, sharing little else except a theme (space, elephants, gambling, college) and the same cast of characters. None are masterpieces but some hang together better than others. This is one of the less cohesive of the bunch and also one where the moments that have the most impact are those furthest away from the theme. All the best stuff in Bart Gets an Elephant doesn’t feature a real elephant: Homer’s hallucination on sniffing the cleaning fluid; the unshakeable naivety of the radio DJs (“Nobody takes the gag prize!”); Homer talking about “price structures” with Milhouse and his parents; the cardboard elephant Homer buys to attract more tourists; and Principal Skinner’s cameo at the radio station:

DJ: What if we use the $10,000 to surgically transform Skinner here into some kind of a lobster-like creature?
Skinner: Now wait just one minute, that wasn’t discussed me.

There’s also a tiny detail in the background of this scene that stands out because, not in spite, of its subtlety: Homer taking himself off into the studio next door and doing something with some headphones. It’s not clear what he is up to and it isn’t referred to; instead it’s just left for you to spot and for your imagination to do the rest. The animation design (9) here is inspired – likewise the detail that goes into making the kitchen look so untidy and the hallucinatory creatures so menacing. In an episode short on details, indeed short on anything that requires close attention, these nuggets are very welcome.

The point when an episode of The Simpsons has no redeeming features whatsoever is still some way off. Things will get better before they get worse. But the seeds of the show’s future decline are scattered across stories like these, where craft is valued less than commotion. 40%

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