Season 3: Episode 13. Original airdate: January 9, 1992.
Is there anything more idyllic than the memory of a childhood birthday? I’m sure there are hundreds, even dozens of things that are, but while watching “Radio Bart,” I was hit with a whole bunch of memories from birthdays past. Perhaps I’m getting misty-eyed because I’ve been off at school and recently returned to my hometown, but this episode really nails those small moments, birthday-related and otherwise, that make growing up so remarkably unremarkable.
When Bart’s perpetually-tenth birthday comes around, he, like any child, is overjoyed to celebrate. For Bart, that celebration involves redeeming the coupons for free birthday benefits he’s collected over the past year. Some, like tango lessons, live up to his expectations, but the freebie that really struck me was a free ice cream sundae. Behind the counter is a picture of a massive sundae, which contrasts wonderfully with the bite-sized dessert given to Bart. That moment reveals multitudes about childhood expectations and perceptions. While we are disappointed along with Bart, the inherent appeal of free ice cream (of any size) is still a victory for any kid, a small reprieve from the series of sugar-coated letdowns that make up childhood.
While Bart celebrates his birthday around Springfield, Homer prides himself with his self-declared genius idea to give Bart a toy radio (as seen on TV!) as a birthday gift. In a clever nod to TV-advertised scams, Homer rushes to order the radio before its “limited time only” release ends. On the other end of the phone line, a warehouse worker is dwarfed by thousands of the toys, giving Homer his own victory for getting one while “a couple” still remain. At Bart’s birthday party, held at the nightmarish Wall E. Weasel’s, Homer eagerly offers his son the birthday present. True to form, Bart is nonplussed by the gift and tosses it aside. As birthdays are the most exciting days of childhood, the actual reveal of birthday presents can make for the largest disappointments on the inverse.
With father and son both disappointed, it seems we’re in for an episode of even more unfortunate occurrences. However, Marge shows Bart the true potential of his radio, and the ensuing series of pranks is of a legendary nature for Bart. He recreates an alien invasion to frighten Homer, makes Ms. Krabappel fart, and tricks the Flanders boys into believing they’ve spoken with God. Bart’s pièce de résistance, though, is a scheme to make all of Springfield believe that Timmy O’Toole, a young orphan, has fallen down a well. This being Springfield, two things play out as expected—
1 . an extended homage to a film, this time an oft-referenced, little-known Billy Wilder movie called Ace in the Hole,
2. the town goes bananas.
In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t seen Ace in the Hole. I know it’s about a newspaperman who cons a town into believing there’s a kid in a well, which is a story acknowledged very often in modern TV. I can’t imagine there’s another instance that nails the duality of people’s actions in a time of crisis quite as well as “Radio Bart,” though. As I said, it’s expected that Springfield will go nuts when something is amiss, but this episode doesn’t so much explore the usual mob mentality as it does our responses to tragedy.
Much has been written about the “cult of the hero,” including in writings about this episode. In our culture (but by no means exclusively), we consider someone a hero for doing…nothing in particular beyond being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Homer crystallizes this concept when Bart asks what makes Timmy O’Toole a hero, with Homer explaining that “he fell down a well—and couldn’t get out.” This kind of story is the stuff heroes are made of in modern society, and The Simpsons goes wild with the way people react.
There are those who genuinely care about Timmy’s welfare, but those people are juxtaposed by those seeking to make a quick buck off the story. Situated in the middle, a beacon of amorality (as he should be), is Krusty, who organizes a “We Are the World”-like benefit song called “We’re Sending Our Thoughts Down the Well,” featuring the vocal talents of Sting and Sideshow Mel. Whether virtuous, self-interested or Krusty, the pervading sentiments about little Timmy O’Toole begin to wear down Bart’s morality—that, or Lisa’s warning that the police would find his radio sooner or later sends him on a quest to fix his wrongdoing. Unsurprisingly, Bart’s attempt to retrieve his radio lead to him falling down the well after all.
Yes, Bart’s falling down the well should be the natural karmic resolution of the story, but Homer and Marge end up suffering more here than their son. Bart, while not nearly as beloved as his fictional creation Timmy, is still offered help and supplies by some townsfolk, while his parents are chastised by the police and the media. It’s cruelly unfair, but Homer’s resilience as a parent becomes the triumphant resolution of the episode, as he begins to dig the way into the well himself. Soon, the rest of the town joins him and, with the help of Sting, free Bart from his prison in the well.
This is an episode that resolves itself tidily, but doesn’t suffer from any sort of over-sentimentality. If anything, it’s a celebration of the way children operate in a small-town surrounding, which can be said of many Bart episodes. For all its clever asides about birthday celebrations and toy radios, this episode shines when it’s examining the way a town operates in a crisis, as even Springfield has more shades than a typical angry mob. Even more than that, “Radio Bart” is an episode about that remarkable unremarkable-ness I mentioned at the top. Childhood is full of that same sort of banality, but a simple prank like Bart’s here can bring out the best (and worst)— not just Springfield, but all of us.