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The Simpsons

The Simpsons is an animated comedy about a family in the fictional town of Springfield. The family is made up of selfish father Homer, fretting mother Marge, precocious daughter Lisa, rebellious son Bart and silent daughter Maggie. FOX 1989-???

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Episode 5 - Bart the General

27 March 2012

Synopsis: Bart protects Lisa in the playground and falls foul of school bully Nelson Muntz. As Bart’s daily beatings get worse he seeks advice from his Grandfather. Abe takes him to see Herman, the owner of a military antiques store. Bart recruits all the other oppressed children together and they follow Herman’s water balloon strategy to bring Nelson to justice.

The Good: A really fun take on the traditional bully storyline. What sets The Simpsons apart from other shows is their ability to showcase all the “wrong” views on a subject.

As you might expect Bart doesn’t want to “tell” on Nelson because he himself has been in trouble at school so many times. So he seeks Homer’s advice and Homer confirms where some of the bad advice originates – “always pick on those different to you” Homer says, trying to remember the code of the school yard that got him where he is today. He also encourages Bart to bribe his teachers and fight dirty. The great thing about this storytelling is that Homer can say all the stupid things he likes because the Simpsons universe doesn’t endorse his actions. We saw in the previous episode that Homer’s attempts to suck up to his boss failed miserably and so his bad advice to Bart comes across as naturally inadequate. Homer also dries Bart’s tears with a hair dryer which was a fun visual.

It’s a good story for Bart because it establishes his character as being similar to Homer’s. He is a greedy and selfish child, as he claws at Lisa to give him a cup cake. But once she is threatened he stands up for her. Like Homer he has a familial affection which is important to him. We also meet Nelson Muntz who is characterised well by Marge and she hasn’t even met him yet. The use of two dream sequences is an effective and entertaining way to show us Bart’s state of mind.

So Homer’s advice having failed, Bart turns to Grandpa Simpson who gets, possibly, the most apt character introduction of any Simpsons character (see Best Joke). Grandpa takes Bart to see Herman and we begin a long stretch of parody jokes about the military and war films. The writers do a good job of throwing in jokes which will go over the heads of children to keep adults entertained. You can see there the evolution of the show as its appeal begins to stretch generationally. So Herman claims that the Greeks and Carthaginians knew the key to Springfield’s defences and grabs a Franco-Prussian peace treaty to begin Bart’s war with Nelson.

The army training and battle scenes are a fun way to take Nelson down. Once more the writers indulge in a joke about crowd psychology when all the kids leave after Bart says “I can’t promise you victory.” And another bureaucracy dig when Nelson’s lackey claims that he has “four other beatings scheduled for this afternoon.”

The Bad: The “talking to camera” wrap up seemed a little unnecessary. But it’s a hangover from The Simpsons being pitched as a children’s cartoon.

Best Joke: In hindsight you can see how clearly the character of Grandpa had been written. His whole introduction tells you everything you need to know about him and is hilarious. Lisa tells Bart that Grandpa is the toughest Simpson there is: “Remember the fight he put up when we put him in the home?” It’s a really cutting line, particularly when delivered by Lisa.

So we cut to the Springfield Retirement Home where Grandpa is typing a letter. Just like Homer giving bad advice, the writers immediately cast Grandpa in exactly the light that older people are not supposed to be seen on TV. In fact he opens his mouth echoing that exact thought: “Dear Advertisers, I am disgusted with the way old people are depicted on television. We are not all vibrant, fun loving, sex maniacs. Many of us are bitter, resentful individuals who remember the good old days…”

It’s the start of a beautiful friendship between The Simpsons and its viewers. Where the counter intuitive and un-politically correct will be cherished for their hilarity.

The Bottom Line: A terrific episode for such an early stage of the show’s development. The writers are determined to deliver the moral of the story in their own unique fashion. Playing with viewers expectations to comic effect.

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