58. Bart’s Friend Falls in Love

“You might remember me from Here Comes The Metric System”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 7 May 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 2 March 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Kevin O’Brien
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

Season three of The Simpsons came to an end with a phut rather than a ker-pow. There’s every chance this episode wasn’t supposed to be the finale, and that the honour should have gone to one of the stories ultimately held over until the start of season four. Either way, something like Black Widower would have filled the role better than what we get here: a low-key, humdrum tale that slips from the memory as quickly as the closing credits slip from the screen.

Plot
The friend in the episode’s title is Milhouse, and he falls in love with a brand new character inserted into the Simpsons’ world purely for this purpose. Her name is Samantha and she is completely forgettable, which is just as well as by the end of the story she is completely forgotten. Along the way there’s some kissing, some grumbling from Bart, a brief fight and then it’s all back to normal. To turn this into 22 minutes of television there’s a huge amount of padding, and these are actually the best bits of the episode, including a pastiche of a 1970s sex education instructional video, and Homer accidentally learning to speak like a linguistics professor. Maybe if the love story had been tried a few years later, something more interesting would have emerged. Instead it’s a bit insipid and could have been wrapped up in half the time. 5

Characters
“It’s recess everywhere but in his heart,” Ralph observes of Milhouse.

It’s a sweet line, but it’s odd to have it come from Ralph, by this point pretty much established as the least articulate pupil at Springfield Elementary. It’s also something of a shock to see Milhouse react quite so profoundly and, later, so stoically to – in Bart’s words – a bit of lip-wrestling. It is never nice to see him and Bart fall out, and thankfully the script ensures there is a full (if perfunctory) reconciliation by the end. The subplot involving Homer is based on his least appealing character trait: his gluttony. The notion of Homer as food monster is never a funny thing to see when a) stretched over an entire episode or b) when there is no point to it. Luckily there is a point here, because he gets sent the wrong subliminal cassette for listening while asleep, receiving Vocabulary Builder instead of Weight Loss. The way he just accepts without question his new-found erudition (“Now there’s a Machiavellian countenance. Ooh, a sextet of ale!”) more than offsets the scenes of him slavering boringly over another burger. 6

Locations and design
After two episodes of ambitious scale that ranged across everything from an exploding motel to a rock stadium, we’re back to a very domestic setting with little taking place outside an axis of school and home. Lots of characters do a lot of sitting in a lot of interiors. The only novelty is the school to which Samantha is sent at the end of the episode by way of a “punishment” for her dalliance with Milhouse: all gaunt architecture and enforced jollity. 5

Pardon My Zinger
At the heart of this episode lies not a plaintive account of pre-pubescent lust or the inspirational quest of a middle-aged man to lose a few pounds. It is instead a sex education lesson in Springfield Elementary primary school, involving a half-titillating instructional video made in 1971 starring Troy McClure, who we might remember from such other educational films as Lead Paint: Delicious But Deadly, and Here Comes The Metric System. Bart and his fellow classmates watch as Troy narrates an animated short called Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide To You Know What: a breezily unsubtle attempt to warn viewers off pre-marital sex, ending with two rabbits copulating vigorously, to the pupils’ absolute horror.

“She’s faking it,” announces Mrs Krabappel. Fuzzy Bunny and wife then give birth to “14 beautiful babies – eight survived” and Troy delivers his coup de grace: “Now that you know how it’s done, DON’T DO IT.” Afterwards Mrs K tries to console her traumatised class: “Most of you will never fall in love and you’ll marry out of fear of dying alone.” Bart asks: “How would I go about creating a half-man, half-monkey type creature?” “I’m sorry,” Mrs K replies, “that would be playing God.” “God schmod,” declares Bart, “I want my monkey man!” This entire sequence has nothing whatsoever to do with the plot or subplot, but without it the episode would have a hole where the jokes are meant to be, down which everything else would have fallen in chaste silence. 9

Special guests
Phil Hartman as Troy McClure we already know about. Kimmy Robertson does a nice job of making Samantha sound sad even when she’s happy, which is exactly how anyone would feel if caught in a relationship with Milhouse. She also ensures her character speaks always with a voice that has a tinge of the effortlessly shallow. It might not make for very pleasant listening, but at least chimes with the overall tone of the script. 8

Music
Another bit of padding comes at the very start of this episode, in the shape of a 90-second nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark, where Harrison Ford is substituted with Bart, a fertility idol with a jar of loose change, and a giant rolling rock/angry tribe of natives with Homer.

It only works as well it does because the homage is bedecked with whole chunks of John Williams’ original score, recreated, with permission and aplomb, by Alf Clausen. Listen also for the music cues whenever Bart gets exasperated at Milhouse’s smooching with Samantha. They get more and more bombastic and over-the-top, until the scene when Bart and Milhouse come to blows and – in a nice bit of continuity – we hear the “fight” music from Three Men and a Comic Book. 8

Voices
Dr Marvin Monroe, owner of the second-worst voice in Springfield, turns up on Homer’s subliminal cassette tape. We haven’t heard from him for ages – not a complaint – and his reappearance here is like treading on glass while running along a beach. Harry Shearer is far better served by Principal Skinner, especially in the scene where he lapses without prompting into a bitter reverie about his military past (“They told me I’d get a big parade when I got back from ‘Nam. Instead they spat on me. I can still feel it searing!”) 6

Animation direction
The thin plot gives director Jim Reardon plenty of room to show off, and to good effect. When Kent Brockman stages a dramatisation of Father Christmas’ death, Reardon makes sure even the reindeer are upset:

Bart pulls a superbly withering expression when listening to Samantha reel off the names of her favourite girls’ comics, including Lonely Socks and Bonnie Crane: Girl Attorney.

Lisa reads a magazine which predicts that, far into the future, people will have five fingers:

There’s another visual joke involving made-up film titles:

When Bart, feeling rejected by Milhouse, goes round to Martin’s house to hang out, we see Martin strike up a lament on his lute and – the camera panning round – Bart fleeing for his life.

And there is nothing, repeat nothing, that is not to like about this image:

It’s for everyone’s benefit that Homer fails in his attempt to lose weight. 7

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The nods to Indiana Jones and 1970s public information films are already enough to win this episode a full 10 points. For good measure we also get a fantasy sequence where Marge imagines a morbidly obese Homer being buried inside a crate the size of a Steinway grand piano, and another one where Marge imagines Homer getting shot while attempting to be a hostage negotiator. Full of life, this story.

Emotion and tone
The mood of the episode never really resolves itself into anything substantial. Yes, Milhouse gets a bit insufferable and Bart gets a bit annoying and Homer gets a bit absurd and Marge a bit irrelevant. But none of them get particularly worked up about anything. Even when Bart and Milhouse have a fight, it’s over in about 10 seconds. With plot and subplot both based on things that are by definition very trivial – a childhood crush, an erroneous cassette tape – you’re left with a feeling of having watched something that couldn’t make up its mind whether to be interesting or not. 4

Verdict: 68%
And there season three ends*, with a less than hearty farewell. A finale needs to be the equivalent of a stage filled with flags, not a garage half-filled with old newspapers. Ironically just such an episode was in production around this time, one that included not just an actual stage but songs and dances too. But hold-ups and wrangles meant it got bumped until later in the year, along with a couple of other episodes that were stuck on the shelf. So instead of a binding contract to meet again in the autumn, we get only a handshake agreement and a sense that the best is possibly yet to come.

*Sort of. It’ll become clear in August.