Season 1: Episode 2. Original air date: January 14, 1990
Before The Simpsons took on the challenge of satirizing nearly every aspect of 20th century life, it had a much simpler goal. It was still ambitious in a sense, but it was very much a show about the average nuclear family. Of course, even the “nuclear” idea was played with, given Homer’s place of work and the bizarre, semi-radioactive look of the characters. But as was evident from the earliest Tracey Ullman shorts, the Simpson family was grounded in a reality that didn’t become heightened until much later (I’d guess somewhere around season 4’s “Marge vs. the Monorail”). The first season, accordingly, is filled with twists on stories told in countless other sitcoms. The ease at which The Simpsons skewers these common sitcom tropes is especially evident in today’s episode.
“Bart the Genius” is, in my mind, the first regular episode of The Simpsons, far more telling of what the show would become than the Christmas special. It includes many firsts for the show, including the introduction of the opening sequence and Danny Elfman’s score. I know I’ll be praising the intro and the numerous couch gags a lot on this blog, but I’m truly blown away by how efficient the opening is at introducing every member of the Simpson family and characterizing them succinctly. In fact, Lisa’s saxophone bit reveals more about her character than the first two episodes combined, showing off her overachieving and intellectual nature in a way that the stories haven’t quite nailed yet. I’ll have far more time to rave over the intro in other pieces, though—let’s talk about the episode.
The episode also marks our inaugural visit to Springfield Elementary, focusing this time on Edna Krabappel’s fourth-grade class. Bart is immediately colored as the troublemaker he is now famous as, but his antics here are tame, especially compared to his contemporaries like Eric Cartman and Stewie Griffin. He tags the school’s wall with graffiti of Principal Skinner saying “I am a weiner[sic],” but even as I try to put myself in a late-80s-watchdog-parent mindset, I can’t fathom why activists got so flustered over Bart. As we go on, I’ll take deeper looks at American society of the time, but for now I’m baffled at why The Simpsons had so many parents (including, I suspect, my own) concerned.
Bart’s class is set to take an aptitude test, at which point we’re truly introduced to Martin Prince. Instead of being played as a rival of sorts to Lisa, he is utilized here as a foil to Bart, the intellectual who stymies all of Bart’s attempts to have fun. Martin is the bourgeois to Bart’s proletariat, a metaphor that can be applied repeatedly in this episode. Bart, overwhelmed by the test, snatches Martin’s paper and writes his name instead. Unsurprisingly, the scores are outstanding, and a disciplinary meeting with the Simpson parents is interrupted by the school counselor, who recommends Bart be sent to a more intellectually-stimulating school.
It’s here where I noticed how personal these early Simpsons episodes are. While the later stuff has emotional resonance, too, this first season exists before the writers’ room was dominated by Harvard alums (although this episode is credited to Harvard’s Jon Vitti)—it was still Matt Groening and James Brooks’ baby. The school that Bart is sent to is transparently a riff on The Evergreen State College, Groening’s alma mater, which he has said was “a hippie college…which drew every weirdo in the Northwest.” Bart’s new school is one without grades, where 8-year olds can have an intellectual milieu comparable to the most pretentious universities. It’s nauseating, but Bart’s outsider status is among the funniest aspects of the episode.
What’s even more funny are Bart’s attempts to fit in. His classmates all speak unique languages of learning, all of which are foreign to Bart. When his teacher asks him for an example of a paradox, he replies, “well, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.” Though it is technically correct, proving Bart doesn’t necessarily need more than his simple knowledge, it gives a subtext that although wasn’t happy in a structured, traditional school, he certainly isn’t going to fit in anywhere else, even if the new school encourages him to do whatever he pleases.
Even worse than being isolated by his classmates are his family’s reactions to his newfound genius. Marge arranges for the family to go to the opera, as a stimulus for Bart that television wouldn’t provide. The scene at the opera is a fantastic one to show the camaraderie of the Simpson family, and despite their inability to fit in at the opera, they have each other’s love unconditionally. While that’s a schmaltzy message, it doesn’t play as overtly sentimental as a scene between Homer and Bart playing catch. Yes, playing catch. The two share a moment that makes Bart feel even more guilty for deceiving his parents.
When a chemistry experiment blows up the new, progressive school, Bart meets with his counselor at Springfield to confess his cheating. While he is disciplined by the school, his fate is far worse at home. After taking so much pride in his son (including giving him a kiss before school), Homer’s reaction to the cheating overwhelms Bart’s tactics of persuasion, and the episode ends on father chasing son through the house, no doubt ending in strangulation.
It’s a classic ending to a classic episode. The seeds have been planted for the satire that will eventually pervade the series. This episode isn’t particularly biting in its parody of the education system, but what it lacks in bite it makes up for in honest emotional interactions between characters. Those characters will be filled in greatly in later episodes, though. Those at Springfield Elementary are written in broad strokes, and the animation is still working itself out, like Milhouse being depicted with black hair. Along with the animators, the voice actors are figuring their characters out. Dan Castellaneta still plays Homer as a Walter Matthau impersonator, but really, I can’t complain about much else. This is The Simpsons— it’s allowed to have a few tiny growing pains.