Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart’s Comet

[Perfectly Cromulent Analysis is a series in which I comprehensively analyze especially memorable Simpsons episodes. To see the rest, look here.]

Starting with a simple schoolyard prank and building its way up to a powerful climax wherein the citizens of Springfield sing together in solidarity, “Bart’s Comet” is an example of the Simpsons‘ staff at their very best. In just over 20 minutes, they cram in a full disaster movie’s worth of plot paired with endlessly biting political satire, plus a number of character-building moments and subtle but hilarious gags. It’s well-written to a tee, both in its broader structure (every moment adds to the plot) and in its little snippets of dialogue. Tucked into the corners of this episode are fantastic lines and savage gibes, universally well-delivered by the voice actors.

In short, it’s a great episode. But why just utter praise? Let’s delve into what makes “Bart’s Comet” such an unremitting masterwork, one of the most brilliant pieces of animated satire ever created. It all starts as poor, beleaguered Principal Seymour Skinner is attempting to instill his pupils with a love of science by launching a weather balloon. Little does he know that his actions will inadvertently lead an angry mob to burn down the Springfield observatory. It’s just one glimmering irony out of the dozens overflowing from this bountiful episode, and naturally – since it’s a brutal irony in Skinner’s sad provincial life – it comes courtesy of Bart Simpson.

As revenge for Bart’s sabotaging of the balloon (adding a mock-up of Skinner’s face and the words “Hi, I’m Big Butt Skinner”), Skinner forces him to wake up at 4am and assist in Skinner’s amateur astronomy. Amidst scenes full of dead-on observational humor, both about the perils of waking up before sunrise and the tedium of the scientific method, Bart does assist him – only to sabotage him yet again by accidentally discovering a comet. This results in one of my favorite Skinner movements, as he cries “NO!” three times in succession – his inarticulate equivalent of “Curses, foiled again!”

Thus, with the discovery of the comet and the transition to Act 2, the episode’s plot begins in earnest. No more Skinner/Bart hijinks, as amusing as those are; now, events shift to a broader city-wide platform, as Bart and the nerdy Super Friends alert the proper authorities that the comet is headed straight for Springfield. The “doomsday whistle,” as Grandpa calls it, is used to instigate a town meeting, and during that meeting we learn what the episode is really about: it’s an inquiry into whether the people of Springfield have “grace under pressure,” to quote Ernest Hemingway. The answer is an unambiguous “no,” but it’s delivered probably the funniest, most intelligent way possible over the following 10 minutes.

As if to complement Skinner’s schoolboyish enthusiasm, the episode is not just about the town’s instant panic (“Quit stalling! What’s the plan?!”), but also about how science, as the abstract pursuit of knowledge, tries to coexist or interact with more tangible political realities, often (as here) with disastrous results. To that end, we’ve got Professor Frink, go-to brainiac, who offers what looks like a miracle solution, conceived of by himself in tandem with old government/military officials: just send a rocket to blow up “Mr. Comet.” The frazzled populace is instantly relieved, especially Homer, who compares the crisis to “that rainforest scare,” which he assumes has been fully resolved.

Just as in “Marge vs. the Monorail,” Homer is the very model of political apathy and complacency, relinquishing all civic decision making to anyone who isn’t him. (Or per “Trash of the Titans”: “Can’t somebody else do it?”) He has complete faith that the people in charge will make the right choices to keep him and his family safe – even after he’s seen Quimby mispronounce the city’s name. He comes up with a half-assed escape plan that he can barely describe because he’s so easily distracted, and even when all hope seems last, he carries on with naïve optimism, assuming that the comet will probably burn up. I like how the episode revolves gently around Homer, who accidentally saves the day with his self-imposed blindness and layered hypocrisies.

When the rocket fails and the only bridge out of town is destroyed, “Bart’s Comet” takes on a decidedly apocalyptic tone. But even within this atmosphere of suspense and desperation, the episode still finds time for one little joke after another. It’s black comedy at its finest, for example, when helicopter-riding newsman Arnie Pie watches one car after another try and fail to jump over Springfield Gorge, and describes it as “a silent testament to the never-give-up and never-think-things-out spirit of our citizens.” Or when Congress’s bureaucratic loopholes make an emergency evacuation bill fail, prompting Kent Brockman to remark that “democracy simply doesn’t work.”

Under pressure, it appears, all of Springfield – including political, media, and religious authorities – abandon their logic or values, and turn to pure hysteria. The final showdown, when the townsfolk must prove who they really are, comes when Homer leads his family into Flanders’ bomb “shelterini.” After a brief non-confrontation, Ned lets everyone else in, from Moe to Otto to Krusty to over a dozen of the show’s other peripheral characters. Then, shoved together in the tiny space so that they form a ridiculous human collage, they must kick out one person so the door can remain fully close. And, of course, Homer is selfish to the last and insists that it be Flanders, even as he murmurs, “I’m terribly sorry!” to Flanders’ wife and children.

This climax really exemplifies what’s so great about this episode: it’s visually absurd but gets at some very deep truths. It’s a set of jokes that flows organically from the plot and characters while satirizing the self-serving tendencies people employ in moments of crisis. Flanders may be an effeminate, boring fundamentalist and a frequent (deserving) target of the show’s humor, but he’s still willing to sacrifice himself when the others cling to life. The townsfolk engage in a hilarious “barnyard noise guessing game” to distract themselves from their questionably ethical decision, but Homer suddenly becomes their conscience and reprimands them all before joining Flanders.

This leads to the episode’s incredible resolution, which is a feat of versatile, economical writing yoked together with gorgeous animation and skilled voice acting. Everyone follows Homer out of the shelter, and they join Flanders in a rousing chorus of “Que Sera, Sera,” as they sing, “What will be, will be.” It’s a serene, heartwarming moment; it says that while they may be panicky, ignorant, and self-interested, the people of Springfield are still good at heart. Or, at the very least, that they’re willing to face death as a single unit, with all boundaries erased – which has to count for something. It’s the usual Simpsons trick of hiding the sweet in the sour, and vice versa.

Then, with dizzying speed, the ending arrives: the comet tears into the atmosphere and burns up into a rock “no bigger than a chihuahua’s head,” just as Homer said. Between the comet burning up and the end of the episode – that’s less than a minute of screen time – we get countless layers of dense irony thrown at us (let’s count!): 1) the comet destroys the weather balloon that started all this in the first place; 2) it destroys the bomb shelter, meaning that anyone still inside would’ve been killed; 3) Patty and Selma remark on “the preciousness of life” as they take a drag on their cigarettes; 4) Moe leads a mob to go burn down the observatory “so this will never happen again”; 5) Lisa realizes that the air pollution she’s opposed saved the city; and 6) the kids realize that Homer, somehow, was right.

What a denouement! It not only wraps up every single plot point, but also uses its conclusions to mock the shallowness and short-sightedness of its characters; it then tilts the balance at the very last moment by positioning Homer’s correct prediction as a source of renewed anxiety. The comet has burned up, the threat is gone, and we’re back to the status quo… but that status quo is built on forgetting any of the valuable lessons from the recent crisis, or else brutally misapplying them. Scientists move carefully and learn from their mistakes. The people (in the sense of “we the people”) do not. “Bart’s Comet” gets across this and other satirical points with uncompromising swiftness and an extraordinary range of emotion. And to put the cherry on top, it ends on a note of quavering fear. Genius.

Just for fun, here are a few of my absolute favorite moments from “Bart’s Comet”:

  • Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney pelting Skinner’s car with rocks.
  • “You get all the fun of sitting still, being quiet, writing down numbers, paying attention… science has it all.”
  • “Warren, we’ve talked about you hogging the eyepiece.”
  • Moe: “Oh, dear God, no!”
  • Todd weeping as he loads the rifle.
  • “It was a baby ox!”

What are your feelings on “Bart’s Comet”? Please share in the comment box below!

2 Comments

Filed under Media, Politics

2 responses to “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart’s Comet

  1. Charlie Sweatpants

    “Then, with dizzying speed, the ending arrives: the comet tears into the atmosphere and burns up into a rock “no bigger than a chihuahua’s head,” just as Homer said. Between the comet burning up and the end of the episode – that’s less than a minute of screen time – we get countless layers of dense irony thrown at us”

    That is a fantastic ending. It manages to wrap up everything (even the weather balloon, which at this point you’ve basically forgotten about) and remain funny without giving into pointless suspense or undermining the gravity of the situation.

    And I’ve always been fond of Skinner’s dark muttering against Principal Kohoutek and “that little boy of his”.

    • The “little boy of his” comment is great; Skinner gets a lot of awesome screen time in the first act, letting him display his incompetence, nerdiness, anal retentiveness, AND his sinister side (sometimes all at once).

      And the ending just blows me away. Whereas lesser episodes will often give up and abandon story logic at the end, or just sort of fizzle out, everything here just wraps up perfectly like a well-oiled Rube Goldberg machine. And they never give up the chance to fit in just one more joke – it’s a Groucho-style laugh-upon-laugh-upon-laugh assault.

      Thanks for reading & commenting!

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