#21: Bart the Daredevil

Season 2: Episode 8. Original airdate: December 6, 1990.

In its early goings, The Simpsons seemed to focus on its father/son dynamic more than any other, and the relationship between Homer and Bart has been the centerpiece of more than a handful of these so far. I don’t blame the show for returning to this so often; stories about fathers and sons are a fundamental part of television history, and the history of storytelling as a whole. So far, though, most of these stories have been about approval, be it Homer seeking the respect of Bart or vice versa. In “Bart the Daredevil,” that particular story beat gets a nice twist that makes for an incredibly memorable episode.

For the first time, Homer and Bart have a common ground—their feverish anticipation for a monster truck rally about to hit Springfield. I grew up in Idaho, so I’m by no means immune to the charms of a TV announcer screaming “SATURDAY SATURDAY SATURDAY!” In fact, I related to the Simpson men’s excitement over Truckasaurus more than I should be willing to admit. Maybe it’s just indicative of the fact that no man can deny the awesomeness of trucks destroying each other in a giant pool of mud. Monster truck rallies are the kind of unabashedly American idea that The Simpsons was born to celebrate.

Of course, the only thing that could ruin a perfect evening of blue-collared excitement is a classical music recital courtesy of Lisa, who plays her role as tonight’s buzzkill with panache. The nearly three hour-long recital is an ordeal, a seemingly endless diversion from the breakneck pace of the rest of the episode, which obviously is the point. When the family finally escapes the school, Bart and Homer are about to share a paternal connection beyond any before when they can’t find a parking spot at the stadium. While trying to find a parking spot, the car somehow ends up…in the clutches of…Truckasaurus.

Why? I honestly don’t know. There’s no thematic reason for the family to be attacked by the jurassic monster truck, nor does it move the plot. It’s just there, which is why I think I find it, and the aftermath with a free half-empty bottle of champagne, even funnier. In a meandering episode like “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” or “Dancin’ Homer,” this kind of vignette would have seemed like an eternity, but here, it comes and goes so quickly that it just functions as a big joke. While I do love the slower-paced episodes, there’s something irreplaceable about a moment like Truckasaurus, the feeling that the writers adored the idea so much that they put it in despite its irrelevance to the story.

The monster truck rally serves as the catalyst for the real plot, though. Bart is infatuated by Lance Murdock, an Evel Knievel type that performs a ludicrously dangerous stunt at the show. I was surprised to see Murdock survive his stunt, only to ACTUALLY do a spit take when he fell in the pool of death anyway. That kind of subversion is simply brilliant comedy, and thankfully its not the last moment of its kind in this episode. Bart decides that he’ll be a stuntman, but after a minor accident is warned by Dr. Hibbert not to engage in any more of the activity.

The scene in the hospital ward for daredevil children has some truly incredible writing, particularly in the discussion about the dangers of watching TV. Marge is baffled that television could cause any harm, and Dr. Hibbert acknowledges the harms of children being too tied to their TV sets. Homer, in a moment of comedic beauty, writes off the notion entirely. The Simpsons‘ relationship to TV culture is one of my favorite aspects of the show so far, like in “There’s No Disgrace Like Home.” Even in small moments like this, I appreciate the importance of TV in the upbringing of the last few generations of Americans, be it a good or bad influence. Who am I kidding—it’s an awesome influence.

Even after the hospital incident, Bart is desperate to find a challenge worthy of his talents. A field trip to Springfield Gorge sparks an idea eerily similar to Evel Knievel’s Snake River Gorge stunt. Otto, as the only adult around on the field trip, gives him the honest opinion that it would be rad for Bart to make the attempt. Lisa begs him not to, but Bart is far from an age at which he’ll listen to reason, so he takes the piss-poor advice of a hospitalized Lance Murdock. He just wants to be cool, but he is ratted out by his sister, and is forced to promise Homer he’ll never do another stunt. When Bart predictably escapes through his bedroom window, Homer must race to the gorge to stop him, which leads to one of the most iconic moments in Simpsons history.

Homer knocks Bart off his skateboard at the last moment, and proceeds to show his son what it is like to watch a family member risk his life. He grabs the skateboard and prepares to clear the gorge, but Bart stops him and says he’ll never do another stunt, ever. Homer feels that Bart is being honest, but is mostly relieved that he won’t have to attempt the jump. As father and son share a poignant moment of understanding, the skateboard begins to slide and Homer careens down the ramp, flying across the gorge. For a brief moment, he believes he might actually make it, only to jinx himself and fall down the cliff. Beaten and bruised, he is carried into an ambulance, which instantly crashes into a tree, sending Homer back down the cliff (I told you Murdock’s crash wasn’t the last bit of subverted expectations).

I came into this episode expecting nothing to live up to the final scene and Homer’s iconic jump. However, I was surprised by the speedy pace of this episode, a nice departure from the more grounded approach of the last few. It’s an episode that allows Homer and Bart to be equals, even if it’s for the first act, and their shared love of monster trucks and pro wrestling is an important common ground for the two characters. I don’t necessarily want every episode to be this zany and fast-paced, but if they can guarantee the laughs and heart of this one, I’m very open to the idea.

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