Season 1: Episode 8. Original airdate: February 25, 1990.
There are few things better than a great mob scene. An angry group triggers some of our most basic human instincts of community and belonging, albeit on a volatile and potentially-violent level. The Simpsons recognized early on the sociocultural intrigue surrounding mob mentality, and has commonly used the device as not merely a punchline, but a statement on the nature of living in a small town. That bigger philosophical questions pervades the bookending segments of “The Telltale Head,” the most ambitious and artistically impressive episode of The Simpsons so far.
The episode begins in media res, or in the middle of the action for non-dead-language speakers. Bart and Homer are carrying the titular head, that of Jebediah Springfield, through a dark downtown street when they run across an angry mob. This of course happens just as Homer tells his son that usually people are very understanding about childhood mischief. The pair are caught by the townsfolk at the base of Jebediah’s statue, from which Bart cut off the head. As a final attempt to save himself, Bart offers to tell the story of how he stole the head.
His story begins with another sort of mob scene, that of a church meeting. It’s there that we’re introduced to Reverend Lovejoy, the first of many, many characters to debut in this episode. The Simpsons will go on to discuss religion on a much grander scale, but what we get here is a mere taste of what’s to come. The scope of the first season has been modest overall, but I attribute that to the uncertainty of the creative team at the time. They had no clue how the show would be received, and more importantly, what they could get away with without alienating that audience. Before The Simpsons was allowed to take on the world, it had to give its audience faith in its basic premise and its core cast of characters.
Compared to the rest of the first season thus far, “The Telltale Head” is almost dizzying in its ambition. While the first episodes have been largely about the Simpson family, and a few have teased at the scope of the town the family inhabits, this episode is far more about Springfield than anything else. It’s a showcase for the vast array of characters that live in Springfield, culminating in those outstanding mob scenes. The church scenes mainly serve as a framing device for Bart’s integrity and moral code, and aren’t entirely necessary, even if the questions posed to the Sunday School teacher are hilarious (particularly Bart’s pathological fear of not being reunited with his arm in heaven, should it be lost to gangrene after a fight).
What’s more critical is the ride home from church, when Bart sees that a movie he wants to see is playing in town. Despite Marge’s insistence that he not go, Homer gives him the money to see the movie. Outside the theatre, we meet Kearny, Jimbo, and later, Dolph, the trio of punks that will become fairly major recurring characters. They take to Bart, and serve as his guides on a Pinocchio-esque journey as his morals continue to be tested by sneaking into the theatre, stealing candy from the Kwik-E Mart (where we also see Apu for the first time), eventually leading to them talking about how awesome it would be for someone to cut the head from Jebediah’s statue.
In recognizing the moral gray area he now stands on, Bart asks for the advice of the man he trusts most—his father. When he asks, “How important is being popular?,” Homer replies that it’s the most important thing in the world. Putting his blind faith in the advice, Bart sneaks out to steal the head from himself. It’s not a mere act of malice, territory some of Bart’s later pranks would wade into, but instead a desperate grab for attention from the kids he thinks are cool. It’s another classic childhood story, and the writing absolutely nails the angst that stems from doing something you know is wrong to attain that omniscient specter that is being “popular.”
Immediately after cutting off the head, Bart regrets his action and runs home with the evidence. When he wakes up in the morning, the town is in a frenzy over the vandalism, even amounting to a rerun of the Jebediah Springfield story on TV as a memorial. What’s fascinating about the uproar is that the episode constantly reminds us of the falseness of many of Jebediah’s exploits. In fact, he may not have even defeated a bear with his bare hands, but rather been killed by the same bear. It’s a satire of the kind of folk tales that Americans love to put upon their heroes. We may not even know why our legends exist, but we will defend them and exalt them beyond any sense of reason.
I’ve yet to even mention the title of the episode’s role in the story. As a hallucination of sorts, the head begins to speak to Bart, furthering his guilt in a parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” Even Kearney, Jimbo, and Dolph are affronted by the vandalization of Springfield’s hero, claiming that joking about the act is fine, but actually doing it is an outrage. Bart’s remorse eventually overcomes him, and when he presents his guilt to his parents, Homer nearly strangles him in rage. However, upon Marge asking Bart why he’d do such a thing, he reiterates what Homer told him about popularity, joining father and son in sorrowful guilt.
The episode then joins with its opening, in which the angry mob demands an explanation from Bart. This scene is marvelously animated, especially when compared to the rest of Season 1’s episodes. In “Homer’s Odyssey,” the crowd scenes were muddied and filled with random extras. This time, nearly everyone in the crowd is someone recognizable from the past seven episodes. It already shows how rapidly The Simpsons is developing not only a family, but its entire world. The crowd finds sympathy in Bart’s story, and lets him go free. Even though he escaped this crisis free, in a revealing insight from the future of The Simpsons, Homer warns, “remember, son, not all lynch mobs are this nice.” It’s something each Simpson will have to remember as the world around them becomes ever-bigger and increasingly-volatile.