Season 2: Episode 1. Original airdate: October 11, 1990.
With its first season behind it, the team of writers and artists behind The Simpsons had a much larger challenge ahead of them. That first season existed, for all intents and purposes, in a vacuum. Most episodes were produced before the Christmas special went to air, so there was no telling what the audience and critics thought until it was too late to make any changes. The second season had massive expectations, primarily because of the transcendent quality of the previous batch of episodes. Simpson-mania had hit America in the summer of 1990, with the characters already household names and exploding merchandise sales, not to mention public schools that were already fighting to get the already-ubiquitous Bart t-shirts banned from their halls.
To capitalize on the sudden popularity of the show, especially in Bart, its breakout character, the producers flipped the episode order around again. Instead of “Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish” as the season premiere, they chose “Bart Gets an F,” a more crowd-pleasing episode that featured the nation’s most infamous hellraiser. I’m sure more this episode garnered a few eyeballs from the relentless (or as relentless as it could be in 1990) news coverage deeming The Simpsons the death of American family values.
Wait, what? I understand that standards and practices on TV were different 22 years ago, but what were these people thinking? The first season of The Simpsons is perfectly innocuous, a thoughtful and moving family sitcom that happened to feature some rebellious attitudes and ideas. Considering that the late 1980s were the boom period for sterile, horrible family shows like Full House, ALF, and *shudders* Silver Spoons, it’s not a stretch to believe that The Simpsons’ more grounded take on family life was a shock to audiences. Nonwithstanding that, were parents and educators so dim to believe that simply because the show was animated, it meant that it was for kids?
It had been almost 30 years since The Flintstones aired in primetime. America must have forgotten that animation was not just for kids in that period, a crazy thought to audiences in 2012. We’re nearly beseiged by animation in our lives, with most productions being as much for adults as children. It’s difficult to grasp a time when such was not the case, but after the seeming-death of Disney’s feature production and the onslaught of mass-produced Saturday morning dreck, animation was at a low point in the late 1980s. Maybe “Bart Gets an F” didn’t singlehandedly prove that The Simpsons wasn’t about brainwashing the nation’s youth into renegades, but it had to have changed at least a few minds.
Bart, unsurprisingly, isn’t pulling his weight at school. He’s not studying, leading to his inability to pass tests. Eventually, after faking temporary blindness, is forced to take a monster of a history test. Ms. Krabappel fails him, but notices an unsettling trend in Bart’s work—while every other student is improving, his scores aren’t just stagnating, they’re declining. She calls a meeting with the Simpson parents to discuss their son’s seeming incompetence, but what begins as a simple parent-teacher conference becomes one of the more moving moments I can recall from this series.
In a moment of startling self-deprecation, Bart demands that his teacher stop condemning his work, because he knows he’s stupid. It’s profoundly sad to see Bart so conscious of his failures, and it visibly pains Homer and Marge as well. Likely seeing the honest depression in his outburst, Ms. Krabappel gives Bart one more chance: pass the next test, or be forced to repeat the fourth grade.
Desperate to avoid the embarrassment of being held back, Bart goes to his class’ resident intellectual, Martin Prince. We met Martin back in “Bart the Genius,” but he was painted in rather broad strokes in that episode. I’ve always considered Martin one of the most fascinating, as well as underserved, characters in The Simpsons’ roster. He’s an intellectual, but one devoid of any self-awareness. He’s not pretentious like Bart’s classmates at the private school in Season 1. Martin fits a very specific type of nerd, a role that the series’ many other nerds can’t fill.
Bart offers to train Martin in being cool if he can be educated for class in return. This is a fairly typical Sitcom 101 plot device, but it works here because of the hilarious changes that take place in Martin from his newfound popularity. For a kid that had no idea he was unpopular, he manages to fit in well with Bart’s gang. The tables turn on Bart, though, when Martin gets too caught up in his new lifestyle to help with Bart’s homework. Needing a miracle at this point, Bart asks for one—from a higher power.
While religion played a small role last season, this is the first episode that truly uses spirituality as a plot device. Ironically for the media watchdog groups, those spiritual themes come directly from their point of hatred, Bart himself. He prays for a miracle to give him another day to study, and in a seeming answer to his prayers, a snowstorm overtakes Springfield, canceling school. Lisa overheard her brother’s prayers, though, and reminds him of his promise to God the next morning as he runs outside to play in the snow. Sobered, Bart honors his prayer and studies for the day, despite having to watch the (beautifully animated) snow day unfold outside his window, with Mayor Quimby declaring it “the funnest day in Springfield history.”
The next day, Bart takes his test, and fails once again. In another emotional meltdown, he bawls and begs Ms. Krabappel to give him another chance. In his delirious sobbing, he accidentally references accurate historical events, and she mercifully gives him a point of extra credit, pushing him to a D-. In one of the most touching moments of The Simpsons so far, Bart rushes home, ecstatic by his passing grade. His family joins him in celebration, hanging his D- on the fridge next to Lisa’s A papers. It may not be a major victory, but for the modest ambitions of the Simpson family, it’s good enough.