Season 3: Episode 9. Original airdate: November 14, 1991.
It’s safe to say that the Simpsons writing staff are much more like Lisa or Marge than they are Bart or Homer. The Simpson women are strong, intellectual women, one of whom gave up on her aspirations, the other still mostly in control of her destiny. On the other hand, the men are boorish, juvenile, and content to live out their lower-middle class lives without any upward mobility. The writers of the early seasons were largely a Harvard bunch (no secret there), and their comic sensibilities are firmly rooted in their educated nature. More importantly than that, their backgrounds represent that they are largely winners, guys who may have had great trials, but had a solid batting average in life.
There’s a moment in tonight’s episode after Bart claims victory in a soap box derby when he says that it could be the last time he wins something. It’s a stark realization for a 10-year old to be making, but it very well could be true. Unlike Lisa, Bart doesn’t have wild ambitions or even the ability to achieve whatever his dreams are. While his sister is directly a product of their mother, he is a true Simpson man, whether he wants to be or not. This likely hits home with a large percentage of middle Americans, who are also destined to circle the drain of eternity. Their shared mediocrity brings them together tonight, when they set their minds on two intersecting goals: Bart to win the derby, and Homer to be a better father.
Now, Homer trying to be a better dad was on full display in “Lisa’s Pony,” but his character here is much more cognizant of his shortcomings from the outset, perhaps a sign that he did learn something from past events (maybe). Where in the former episode he started out playing a game of catchup, trying to win his daughter over with spoils as an attempt to make up for lost ground, here he is actively working to better himself as a dad. When Marge quizzes him about his son’s hobbies, the names of his friends, and his hero, I’m sure many average dads could relate to his inability to answer. We take for granted how little we know about those we think we are close to, but Homer actually mounts the effort to do better.
Bart’s side of this story is one of disappointment, for even though his dad is incompetent at building, he’s still better than Bart would be by himself. That’s so true of most of these early seasons—even when the Simpsons put their heads together, their best efforts still come out…totally average. Even though the two bond over building Bart’s racer, when the time comes to race Nelson and Martin, Bart falls woefully short, but he comes out better than Martin, who injures himself in a fiery crash due to a parachute malfunction.
Desperate to win, Bart allies himself with Martin once the latter is unable to race. Homer is infuriated, and seeks vengeance on Martin for stealing his son away. Bart’s chance for victory comes at the climactic race, but Homer is not there to cheer him on. While wallowing in self-pity at home, Homer realizes that his experience with Bart has taught him all the things from the fathering quiz, and he rushes to the track, validated as a perfect father (but not before half-assing a conversation about parenting with Flanders, just to nail that perfect score).
The race itself is predictable—Nelson plays dirty, Bart keeps his head on his shoulders, and Mayor Quimby hits on a buxom woman in the crowd. When Bart emerges victorious, he sees his dad and not only thanks Homer, but gives him some credit too. It’s an ending that comes dangerously close to sappiness, but the bittersweet undertone of Bart’s win makes it a lot easier to take. Bart, also predictably, is a sore winner, and his insults to Muntz feel completely appropriate, given this actually could be the last win of his life. Sometimes, and always when you’re a Simpson man, the best you can do will always be the best you’re going to get, even if your best is barely passable by everyone else’s standards. Such is life.