89. Boy-Scoutz ‘n the Hood

“Oh Bart, cartoons don’t have to be 100% realistic.”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 18 November 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television:¬†Wednesday 30 December 1998,¬†BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Dan McGrath
  • 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: Jeff Lynch

For the second week running, here’s an episode where the preliminaries outrank the main event. Everything up to the point Bart becomes a boy scout is faultless; beyond it, things become steadily more tedious. Once again it’s as if the production team have used up the bulk of their imagination winding the clock, then found themselves with barely any energy to shake the tree.

The peak comes two minutes in, when Bart and Milhouse gorge themselves on a Squishee made from 100% syrup and “go crazy, Broadway style!” If only Leonard Bernstein had lived long enough to see his wonderful score for On The Town paid an equally wonderful tribute by The Simpsons. The song Springfield, Springfield is pretty much a note for note pastiche of New York, New York, but if you’re going to plunder Broadway, plunder from the best. Alf Clausen’s arrangement – a mini-overture all in itself – is dazzling (10) and matches beat for beat the ambition and flair of the animation; this is one of the finest homages (10) the show has ever done. And all as a means of getting Bart to sign up for the Junior Campers. That’s some set-up. Bart is right to be horrified at what he has done; there’s a lovely bit of animation when he scuffles in horror up his own bed at the mere sight of the scouting uniform. Lisa in turn is right to be amused (“The remorse of the sugar junkie!”). It’s pretty much her only line in the episode, but at least it’s a good one.

Homer is at his best in this opening section too. His total and sincere delight at having time to himself to read the ingredients on a packet of honey-roasted peanuts is sublimely played by Dan Castellaneta (“Pressed peanut sweepings!”), as is his conversation with himself about why money can enhance his enjoyment further (“20 dollars can buy many peanuts!” “Explain how.” “Money can be exchanged for goods and services!”). But this is the last you see in this episode of affable Homer. It’s also the point at which the vocal performances (5) tip from the nuanced and witty to the flat and clunky. Don’t watch this episode if you dislike the sound of people shouting, or Homer being stubbornly thoughtless, or both. The way Homer taunts Bart about being in the Junior Campers starts off moderately amusing (“The leader of the weiner patrol, boning up on his nerd lessons!”) but gets more irksome the longer and louder it continues (“How was jerk practice, boy? Did they teach you how to sing to trees?”). Homer’s foolishness also becomes steadily less entertaining. The nadir comes during part three of the episode, when he and Bart, along with Ned and Rod Flanders, are stranded in a dinghy on the sea. There’s nothing likeable about Homer in these scenes. He wastes drinking water to wash his socks, tries drinking sea water, eats all the rations and shoots a rescue plane with a flare gun. Here is an early prototype of the stupid Homer from decades to come, and it is not a pleasant sight. The best Simpsons episodes are where you feel warmly towards Homer, even when he is acting unwisely. Here you recoil from him. A lowly (3) for characterisation.

It would be even lower, save for the way Flanders is depicted in this episode. Casting him as the chief of the Junior Campers is the most inspired element of an otherwise unremarkable plot (5) and it means the writers get to have a bit of fun by teaming him up with Bart: a relationship prickly at the outset but pleasant enough by the end to get agreeably on Homer’s nerves:

Flanders: I guess now we know why they call them rapids, not slow-pids, huh?
[Bart chuckles]
Homer: You are not my son!

Flanders is the catalyst for one of the best jokes (7) when, early in the story, he invites Bart to join his fellow campers for ‘Spongebath The Old Folks Day’. “Help yourself, but stay above the equator,” growls Jasper from within his bathtub, at which Bart faints clean away. He comes round to hear Flanders telling another boy to perform emergency respiration. “Make sure you form a tight seal around his mouth!” Cue another blood-curdling scream from Bart.

When Flanders’ face, a blob of suncream on his nose, looms out of nowhere to fill the entire screen, it is one of the episode’s less appealing but undoubtedly memorable moments. It happens at the start of the river-rafting sequence, which quickly becomes the least enjoyable slice of the story, with relief coming only from sporadic flourishes of animation (7) that make the most of the desolate location (8).

It’s telling that Homer is at his most bearable during this sequence only when he is starring in his own fantasy: jiving along with some ice cream cones to the sound of Sugar Sugar.

The only thing that gives the entire episode any sort of consistent tone (5) is this kind of dissonance and the feeling nothing quite fits together as it should. Special guest Ernest Borgnine is utterly wasted in the story; every single one of his lines is forgettable and his performance – for such a famously gregarious personality – is totally underwhelming (0). There is a sequence of gags about the fetishisation of knives that, despite the whiff of irony, can’t dispel the feeling of bad taste. “It seems like everywhere I look, people are enjoying knives,” Bart sighs. It’s like a door has opened from the future and a dollop of season nine has seeped into season five. It makes you all the more appreciative of those moments of slapstick (“Hmm, floor pie!”) that hark back to when it was enough simply to see Bart play pranks on his dad. (60%)