Season 1: Episode 5. Original airdate: February 4, 1990.
The first season of The Simpsons is more focused in its themes and storytelling than likely any other in the show’s run. The first four episodes were practically obsessed with the class structure and socioeconomics of 20th-century America, but “Bart the General” is the first real departure from those ideas. In moving away from the same themes, the show reveals its versatility, and is the first episode to really dabble in the surreal. While “Bart the Genius” was also school-based, that episode was more a criticism of intellectualism and higher education than an exploration of the difficulties of childhood. In episodes like tonights, the show is already showing an impressive confidence in its ability to tell stories about kids.
The Simpsons would eventually cover every foreseeable subject, but there’s an sort of innocence to the way these early episodes keep themselves grounded, even when the plot zigs and zags into bizarre situations. Tonight’s story starts in a simple place— Bart being bullied by Nelson Muntz— and in true Simpsons fashion, gets more characters with distinct ideologies involved, until the episode becomes one gigantic pop-culture reference. That shouldn’t be interpreted as a criticism. This is The Simpsons absolutely nailing the heart and going heavy on the laughs, a hallmark that defines the entire first season.
Bart’s woes in this episode are familiar to any kid. Simply by defending his sister, (and for making Muntz “bleed his own blood”) Bart sets him up for the kind of ritual torment that can only be found on elementary-school playgrounds. Even the adults are aware of the rules of childhood— Principal Skinner reminds Bart that Muntz won’t beat him up during school, but afterward; Homer is appalled by Marge’s insistence that Bart talk to an authority figure about his bullying. Instead of teaching pacifism, Homer begins teaching Bart how to fight, primarily through the Simpson family’s ancestral weapon: kicking the “family jewels.”
The term “family jewels” caused The Simpsons’ first battle with the FOX censors, who deemed the phrase too risqué for primetime. Today, we often complain about the FCC’s restrictions and censorship, but the world in which a common innuendo was fought harshly over is only 20 years behind us. As I write this blog, I’ll often look at the changing perceptions of morality in America, because conveniently, The Simpsons can almost serve as a cultural barometer. It’s been at the forefront of the changing values of Americans since its beginning, and like many of its censorship battles, came out victorious in this instance. In fact, the show makes an in-reference to the problem during its introduction of Grampa Simpson who, in a complaint about the depiction of the elderly on television, lists off “family jewels” as a phrase he demands be banned.
On that note, this episode’s debut of Grampa is a wonderful one. He is far more lucid than I recall from previous episodes I’ve seen, but it’s a welcome characterization. Bart visits his grandfather for advice on fighting Muntz, and Grampa guides him to another recurring character, Herman, who was allegedly based on the writer of this and many episodes, John Swartzwelder. Herman is a veteran who lost his arm, not in war but in a hand-out-the-bus-window accident (a clever callback to “Bart the Genius”). Bart asks Herman for assistance in defeating Muntz, but Herman’s methods turn Bart into the leader of his own battalion, composed of Milhouse, an unnamed Ralph Wiggum, and the rest of the oppressed masses of Springfield Elementary.
The episode then transforms into an elaborate parody of Patton, with Bart serving as the titular general. The episode’s best gag comes during a training montage, when Bart slaps one of his soldiers. Grampa scolds him, and tells him that a general can send his men to their death, but one thing he cannot do is slap one of them. It’s a sly reference to a scene in Patton, one that only those who had seen the film would truly appreciate. Even if a viewer didn’t catch the reference, it still serves as a provocative satire of the military mindset. In 2012, a time when a reference expects a laugh simply referring to the name of a movie or character, it’s beyond refreshing for a show to expect more of its audience, not less.
Bart emerges victorious from battle, but this is far from the end of Nelson Muntz. He will become one of the show’s most recurring characters, and a personal favorite of mine. It’s so gratifying to watch The Simpsons slowly build its world, as I often take for granted that these character’s haven’t always existed. They had to be developed from scratch, and done so in a manner that has made them relevant for 23 (and counting!) years. We’ve already met Muntz, Skinner, Milhouse, Martin, and Barney, but Springfield is ever-growing. We’ve got a long ways to go before the true scope of the series’ world is revealed.
I can’t say I expected the hilarious coda to tonight’s episode. In a nod to the talking-heads at the end of historical documentaries, Bart reminds his audience that war is not something to be made light of, and it is by no means fun. He informs us of the only great wars in history: the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy, which was still very much a trilogy when this episode was aired. Sometimes I forget that I’m watching something 23 years old, something that was nearly 5 years old when I was born. The Simpsons is such an institution that I’ve never lived in a world without it. Even so, an episode like this one, full of references and very much grounded in the world of the early-90s, can still feel fresh and clever today. It’s honest and true to its depiction of all aspects of life, whether it’s focusing on the adults and work, or the children and school. It’s truly timeless, but the same can’t be said of most shows, or even some Simpsons seasons. In its simplicity, and maybe because of its simplicity, Season 1 of The Simpsons is shaping up to be a masterpiece unlike anything until, well, Season 2.