So it came to my attention that, around the time I started doing my “Simpsons” write-ups, Onion AV Club writer Nathan Rabin has been doing his own reviews. This was kind of discouraging, since one of the reasons I do pop culture write-ups is to make a desperate shot in the dark toward getting a paid writing gig. And while I’m just some random person on the Internet, he gets paid for writing for a major website, which in the light of the Internet’s hierarchy means that I’m a groveling peasant and he’s a bejeweled archbishop.
I honestly did think about giving up this series before I even really began it, but it occurred to me that I’m not writing these as strictly reviews but as a reflection on a show that I literally grew up with. Also I said that I would try to generate more substantial content in this space to try to get you all to throw some change my way, and so here we are.
At least most of the first two seasons of “The Simpsons” are built around Bart’s perspective, so it’s no surprise that the earliest big target of Simpsonian satire is the American public school system, if not the entire modern concept of education. If the entire city of Springfield is an American dystopia, then Springfield Elementary is a greater dystopia within dystopia. The teachers have been broken down and drained bone-dry of any idealism they started off with, the administrators are more concerned with appeasing the almighty budget or enforcing arbitrary rules than with pedagogy, a budding genius like Lisa is at best left perpetually underengaged or at worst is encouraged to become a careerist and view her education as little more than a series of hurdles, and a problem student like Bart is just treated like a nuisance who has to be ignored for the sake of the “smart” kids. Now, in what is the first post-pilot episode to hit the air, little of this is evident just yet, but the grim and all too real portrait of Springfield Elementary does start to surface here.
After being ratted out by Martin Prince, in his gloriously fey debut, Bart gets into trouble for spraypainting a caricature of Principal Skinner (leading to the first uttering of the immortal line, “Eat my shorts”, against Martin). The day only goes downhill when in class Bart has to take an aptitude test, which Mrs. Krabappel describes in a line that is just so depressingly true: “Now I don’t want you to worry, class. These tests will have no effect on your grades. They merely determine your future social status and financial success…if any.” For some mysterious reason, the letters S, A, and T immediately sprang to mind when I heard that line. I have no recollection of how my much younger self reacted to this depiction of school life, but I know got another sense of deja vu and a chill as Bart struggled with one of those horrendous and purely evil math word-problems. His earnest try at solving the problem through visualization (after Mrs. Krabappel silences his attempt to working through it by running through the question aloud) only results in chaotic frustration and jumbled imaginary numbers. A lesser show would have all but spelled out that Bart’s class clown persona is because he is overwhelmed by school, but here the screenwriters take the chance to show without outside comment Bart’s genuine struggles with schoolwork. It’s something that gets much further developed later in “Bart Gets A F,” but it’s something else that injects an uncomfortable piece of realism into the proceedings. Back to the plot, seizing an opportunity to kill two birds with one slingshot, Bart gets his revenge on Martin by switching his test with Martin’s.
This triggers a series of events that sees Bart mistakenly identified as a child genius and sent (with the help of Principlal Skinner who one suspects must know something is up but just wants to get rid of someone who has always made his already barely bearable job even worse)to a special school for geniuses. I think here we have the first real sign that “The Simpsons” is a cut above other satires; it’s easy enough to mock the public school system, especially at a time when it was fashionable to do so among both conservatives and liberals, but it really shows commitment to “take no prisoners” satire to also skew well-meaning and suburban liberal-approved alternatives to traditional education. At the “genius school” Bart finds himself in, the students are blessed with free rein and are not even told to “Take a seat” but to “Discover your desks.” It is a step above the spirit-chewing system that is Springfield Elementary, but it also becomes clear that the students are not really challenged, but instead are just allowed to wallow in the fact that they already belong to a precocious aristocracy of the mind (the kids are even made to see comic books as a relic of the unwashed masses, which Bart learns when he comes across a Radioactive Man comic that the class used “as a prop in a film about illiteracy”). In a way, it mocks the all too easily mockable “unschooling” movement before it even exists, kind of like how “Homer Badman” was disturbingly prescient about the contemporary state of the American media.
Bart quickly finds that his situation at the “genius school” is even worse than the one at his old school. The other students quickly figure out that he’s no genius and start right away to take petty advantage of the discovery while his old friends (even Milhouse!) reject him for being an uncloseted nerd. At home Marge, who has not quite evolved yet past her persona as the quiet housefrau, feels guilty that she never noticed Bart’s “gifts” before and makes a bid for lost time by subjecting the entire family to opera and arthouse cinema. There is one bright spot for Bart; Homer, beaming with pride, is actually connecting with Bart, who wants to fess up but knows that after he does his relationship with his father goes back to its dysfunctional and borderline abusive normality. It’s not hammered in by the plot really, but watching this again I was a bit depressed by the implication that a ten year old boy is fully aware that his father’s love for him is totally conditional. Even more depressing is that Bart is absolutely correct. Once he inevitably confesses out of guilt driven how Homer has been doting over him, Homer curses him and chases him through the house, causing Lisa to grimly comment to Marge that things really are back to normal. Who knew that the “reset the status quo” nature of the sitcom could be used to put a bit of tragedy into the proceedings?