Season 1: Episode 11. Original airdate: April 15, 1990.
“The Crepes of Wrath” doesn’t fit in with the rest of Season 1. On some level, it’s thematically similar in its focus on character over laughs, but on a macro level it’s go-for-broke satire, and for the first time in the run, on a global level. In its next 22 seasons, The Simpsons will explore every corner of the world, as a recent interactive map shows (thanks to J.S. Lewis for finding this one). It’s a natural step for the show to slowly inch out of Springfield, but even being the first foreign trip, “Crepes” is about as good an overseas episode as the show will ever do.
Bart finds himself in trouble when Principal Skinner’s mother, Agnes visits the school. Now, this isn’t the terrifying Agnes Skinner that will recur throughout the series, but instead a more typical elderly mother character. She refers to the kids as if they were Seymour’s friends, and incessantly refers to her son as “Spanky.” It’s a cute play on motherly tropes, but it’s disarming to see Agnes not berating and tormenting her son. Bart’s prank for the day is a cherry bomb in the boys’ bathroom, which explodes in the plumbing system while Agnes is in the ladies’ room, causing both a professional and personal crisis for the principal.
Skinner shows up at the Simpson home with an final solution: deportation. He has deemed Bart “beyond incorrigable,” and is willing to make a major exception to the school’s foreign exchange program’s usual standards. Homer, having had his trick back hurt by Bart’s messiness, leaps at the opportunity to get rid of the kid for a few months. To subsidize the costs for the family, an Albanian child will stay with the Simpsons while Bart’s gone. The decision is made quickly—Bart heads to France, and an adorable little guy named Adil comes to Springfield.
I’ll take care of the Adil story first because, while it’s good, it doesn’t resonate with me nearly as much as Bart’s plot. Adil is the kind of kid I hated back in high school, the foreign exchange student that captured the hearts of everyone simply because they’re foreign (sidebar: my parents host foreign exchange students, and I haven’t hated any of them yet, so it’s not like I’m prejudiced or anything). He’s the model student, kind, generous, and genuinely interested in American culture—perhaps too interested in American culture.
Homer immediately takes to Adil, despite a flash of remorse as he saw Bart off at the airport. It doesn’t take long for him to seriously propose that the family just keep Adil around and let Bart stay in France. The kid is a massive annoyance, a brown-nosing twerp whose charms overwhelm his peers. It’s an insightful bit of satire towards the way Americans revere foreigners when they come on exchange programs. Of course, Adil is far more malicious than he lets on, and Homer’s fascination with him gives the perfect opportunity to have Homer bring him nuclear codes. Finally satisfied in having a (surrogate) son’s attention, Homer gleefully gives Adil the intel, only to discover a SWAT team outside the house.
The innocent exchange student has been a spy all along, much to the disappointment of the Simpsons. It’s almost a shame The Simpsons began when it did, because it likely would have had a hilarious perspective on the Cold War, as is evidenced by this episode, particularly when Adil is sent home, only to be exchanged for an American spying in his home country. It’s the most overtly funny episode of the first season, but it balances its pathos and laughs well, especially in the French scenes.
Bart’s story in the episode has become iconic as one of the most memorable of Season 1, and for good reason. If Adil represented how Americans respond to foreigners, Bart’s journey in France represents a horrifying exaggeration of how Europeans see us. His trip begins well enough, with him being transported by motorcycle through a variety of sceneries and art styles. The horror sets in when he reaches the “Chateau Maison” and meets his caretakers, César and Ugolin. In a clever subversion of expectations, these Frenchmen are not portrayed as snobby upper-crusters. Instead, they’re rural, dirty creatures, easily the nastiest creations The Simpsons has had so far.
They expect the boy to be, basically, an indentured servant on their farm. Bart is treated worse than their mule, being starved, overworked, and forced to sleep on the dirt floor of the house. It’s pretty harrowing to see a little boy treated as a slave, but as a juxtaposition to his easy life at home, it works for me. It’s meant to give Bart perspective on how lazy and selfish he has been when refusing to do chores like cleaning his room. With his captors in France, he doesn’t have the familial love that got him out of doing any real work, and is instead forced into servitude.
César and Ugolin catch Bart peering into their cellar while they mix antifreeze into their wine (“too much can be poison, but the right amount gives the wine just the right kick”). Instead of torturing Bart further, they send him into Paris to get more antifreeze. While there, he tries to cry out for help, but to no avail. Miraculously, he realizes that he has learned French, and notifies a policeman of the atrocities at the farm. Of course, the policeman is much more concerned about the antifreeze wine than the boy’s well-being, but Bart is nonetheless saved from his prison.
The Simpson family is reunited having learned a lesson about taking each other for granted. Bart brings back souvenirs in what Lisa estimates as his first unselfish act ever, and when asked about his adventure, says “I basically met one nice French person.” I love the episode’s play on our fears about Europeans, especially the French, and their reaction to Americans. Bart went to France without those preconceived notions, yet was subjected to a horror worse than any European travel story. “Crepes” is a famously classic episode of The Simpsons, but not necessarily on its own merits. While I think it’s a hilarious episode, it’s a preview of sorts for the kind of ambition we’ll begin to see more of soon. It’s not my favorite of Season 1, but it’s not far behind the very best.