Season 2: Episode 16. Original airdate: March 7, 1991.
There are a lot of people who don’t include Season 2 in the “golden years” of this show. I came into this project believing that to some extent, but this season is fairly close to the highs of the next few years, and often reaches those peaks of excellence. I’d taken that for granted as I watched classic after classic this week, but it took an episode like “Bart’s Dog Gets an F” to make me realize just how incredible the rest have been.
Now, this one isn’t a bad episode. I don’t think there’s been one so far that I could classify as that, but that doesn’t mean it hits the highs of the last few. It’s a decent episode, and it has some funny moments, but that’s all. In a season full of outstanding episodes, there are bound to be a few that settle for being good. That’s fine, but it makes it infinitely harder for me to write about an episode I don’t love or loathe. Indifference is toxic on this blog.
“Bart’s Dog” is somewhat limited from the start in its focus on Santa’s Little Helper. I like SLH and all, but in 20+ years, to my knowledge there hasn’t been a classic episode dedicated to the family dog. There are those who consider the Season 1 Christmas special an all-timer featuring SLH, but he doesn’t show up until the third act, so I don’t consider it relevant here. The problem with building stories around him isn’t the fact that he’s a dog—cartoon dogs have a long and storied history of greatness. Rather, the problem lies in his inherent dog-ness. He doesn’t talk, he doesn’t have a hyper-intelligent alter ego. SLH is just a dog, and a dumb one at that. It’s true to life, which I love, but that realism doesn’t make for the most riveting stories.
This episode is a fairly standard “bad dog” story. SLH is out of control, escaping from his leash, destroying the house, and being an all-around nightmare. This leads to some funny scenes, like Homer’s insistence to an angry neighbor that the dog’s in the backyard, which leads to my favorite “D’oh!” moment so far in the series. There are plotlines that hang around the dog trouble, such as Homer’s envy of Flanders’ fancy new shoes. However, the shoe thread is a plot device that exists solely to get SLH to chew up the expensive shoes. It adds nothing to Homer, and Flanders’ idea of spoiling himself feels counterintuitive to his character. It all occupies less than two minutes of screentime, though, so I can live with some lazy plotting.
What works better is Lisa’s mumps B-story. She and Marge get quality time working on the Bouvier family quilt, which has a patch added to it each generation. Those additions are pretty hilarious, from the King Tobacco propaganda to Marge’s own contribution, a memento of a time when “keep on truckin'” was actually a relevant phrase. There are some nice moments here, and I’m starting to feel like Lisa brings out a softer side in the family, as is apparent when she’s on the phone with Homer in this episode. In the end, the quilting subplot is just another means for SLH to destroy something, but it’s less transparent than the shoe bit, so I don’t mind it much.
The real meat of the episode comes when the family gets fed up and sends SLH to obedience school. The instructor is played by Tracey Ullman, who deserves a far more interesting character than this. After all, were it not for Ullman, The Simpsons wouldn’t exist at all. Perhaps it’s just the post-Herb blues, but her performance is a little underwhelming given her immense talents. SLH proves himself an underwhelming student, as well, frustrating Bart and continuing to cause trouble at home. Homer finally issues an ultimatum: if the dog fails obedience school, they’ll get rid of him. Bart is desperate to avoid losing his dog, but SLH shows no signs of improvement.
We’re given brief glimpses into SLH’s head when the human characters are talking to him, but it comes out entirely as gibberish. It’s a clever joke, and I like the black-and-white fisheye effect they use to convey his worldview, but it felt like I’d seen the gag done before. (UPDATE: I have seen the joke before, from the same animation house no less. A similar effect was used in a Rugrats episode, also produced by Klasky-Csupo. Childhood memories, eh?) Eventually, Bart breaks down and begs SLH to understand some sort of command. Magically, the dog hears certain command words in the cloud of gibberish, and SLH shows off his new skills at the obedience exam.
It’s a happy ending, and family is kept a whole. It’s made clear that they all do love the dog, from Lisa’s argument in favor of keeping him, even to Homer’s collapse into applause at the obedience school graduation. Like I said, this episode is not a bad one. It has some nice emotional moments between Bart and his dog, and it all hangs together quite nicely. That said, it just doesn’t compare to the rest of the season, so while it’s not an outright failure, it may be a relative one.