Tag Archives: black comedy

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!

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Link Dump: #13

Inspired by today’s Kindertrauma Funhouse, the above picture comes from Roger Corman’s early black comedy A Bucket of Blood (1959), something of a companion piece to Little Shop of Horrors (1960). In it, Dick Miller plays Walter Paisley (a character he would play many more times), a busboy who wants to be a beatnik artist. He gets the chance when he accidentally stabs his landlady’s poor kitty, Frankie, and turns the corpse into a sculpture. What follows is Corman’s usual Faustian drama wrapped in dark humor, all filmed on recycled sets with a budget of pocket change. And yet another horror movie kitty bites the dust (or, I guess, bites the clay).

And now, to celebrate our lucky 13th Link Dump, I’ve got a ginormous parade of links that runs the gamut from depressing to hilarious to fascinating and back again. The Internet was pretty talkative this week, and now you get to reap the fruits of my copy-and-paste labor. Enjoy!

  • As you’ve probably heard, actor/comedian extraordinaire Leslie Nielsen died last Sunday at age 84. The Internet is full of remembrances; here are a few from Paracinema, My Life, at 24 Frames Per Second, True Classics, and Roger Ebert. Also, here are my own Twitter-bound reminiscences.
  • Here are two awesome LGBTQ lists: one of comic book characters and one of 2010 books.
  • Empire has a fun time-waster: a poster quiz featuring individual letters from movie posters. I got 16/46, including Showgirls. (Who could forget that typography?) What score can you get?
  • Over at Splitsider, former Simpsons writer/producer (and Mission Hill co-creator) has been writing about the Simpsons writing process; most recently, he’s done a detailed look at the evolution of “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Baadasssss Song.”
  • The Criterion Collection! Female filmmakers!
  • Leo McCarey’s hard-to-find My Son John (1952) is on Netflix Instant! Let’s all go watch it, quick! [Thanks to the Self-Styled Siren for the tip-off.]
  • Artforum has 2010 Top 10 movie lists from John Waters and Mark Webber. The latter’s list is mostly avant-garde, while Waters’ is predictably wild and eclectic. Alas, out of all 20, I’ve only seen Dogtooth and Life During Wartime. Better get watching! (And more: Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw’s best of 2010.)
  • From a Vanity Fair interview: Johnny Depp on his characters’ sexualities and his desire to play Hamlet.
  • Terence Malick’s making a movie immediately after The Tree of Life!! Has anyone checked to make sure this is the same Malick we’re talking about? His new project (potentially titled The Burial) will – according to the TheWrap.com article linked above – feature Rachel McAdams and Javier Bardem.
  • Hey, it’s that time again! Censorship Time! Thanks to the Catholic League and Speaker of the House John Boehner, a David Wojnarowicz video piece has been removed from an exhibit in the National Portrait Gallery. Don’t you just love the abuse of political power to supplant the artistic expression of a man who’s been dead since 1992? JESUS. (Literally – the piece was about Jesus.) [GLAAD has another article about the censorship.]
  • As a pick-me-up, how about some terrible but still funny typography jokes?
  • Matt Mazur of PopMatters wrote a long, in-depth essay on one of my favorite movies, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. I love it when people do that.
  • Speaking of long, in-depth essays on movies I love, Ed Howard at Only the Cinema has one on Edward Dmytryk’s disturbing, underrated film noir The Sniper! “Stop me. Find me and stop me. I’m going to do it again.” Arthur Franz is terrifying.
  • We all love Criterion’s gorgeous DVD cover designs, but some genius decided to make fake Criterion-style covers for movies like The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) and Bio-Dome (1996). Delightful.
  • This just in! Sarah Dopp wants to make a marketplace for genderplayful clothing! It’s a super-cool idea, and you should totally show your support! Yeah!

We’re running tragically low on funny/weird search terms because of how WordPress has reformatted their system, but I still have some porntastic treats for you. For example, “the horny lady in the caravan” is a pretty enigmatic search, as is the horrendously spelled “sex pusy bleak girlls.” One of those four words is not like the others. (It’s “bleak.”) Someone sought out “xander berkeley + sexuality,” which I applaud. (Berkeley, for what it’s worth, is an underappreciated character actor in films, TV, and animation; he played insensitive husbands in two of my favorite films of the ’90s, Candyman and [Safe].) And finally, we had that old classic, “pussy om nom nom.” And a merry pussy om nom nom to you too, dear reader!

[Note from Ashley:  Andreas is no longer allowed to pick the pictures for the link dumps. He picks too many disturbing pictures of kitties and it upsets me greatly.]

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One Hour Mark: Kind Hearts and Coronets

This is an image from 1:00:00 into Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a deliciously black, happily morbid comedy from England’s Ealing Studios. Dennis Price plays Louis Mazzini, who schemes to kill off all eight members of the D’Ascoyne family standing between him and his rightful inheritance. Alec Guinness plays every one of the D’Ascoynes, flawlessly imitating eight different varieties of blue-blooded pomposity – from the long-winded clergyman down to the august banker who unwittingly employs his would-be murderer. In the middle of the film, as Mazzini’s systematically hacking apart the D’Ascoyne family tree, we’re treated to a series of homicidal vignettes as three aristocrats in a row shuffle off this mortal coil… and that’s where this image comes in.

The Guinness guise pictured above is that of General Lord Rufus D’Ascoyne, whom Mazzini sends an explosive pot of caviar, considering it a fittingly bombastic finale for a lifelong soldier. The General embodies the spirit of Victorian imperialism, as he gloats tediously about his part in the Boer War: “I pretended to be deceived by the feint and sent our horse to meet it. At that moment, the concealed enemy emerged from behind the kopje…” etc., etc., all in the same raspy monotone. Even his last words are filled with unthinking ethnocentrism, as he refers to caviar as the “one thing the Russkies do really well.” He’s boring and self-absorbed, and as with most of the D’Ascoynes, his death evokes a chuckle instead of a tear – especially since he goes up in an absurd puff of smoke right out of Roadrunner and Coyote.

This whole scene is surrounded by Price’s impeccably dry voiceover narration, as he details his methods and underscores the little ironies of his refined killing spree. The contrast between the witty, industrious Mazzini and the stuffy old warhorse he’s hunting makes his crime seem all the more justified; after all, he’s only leveling the playing field. His murders are like a controlled burn in a forest, getting rid of the decrepit trees that have outstayed their welcome so that new life can grow in its place. While Mazzini rapidly advances through the social hierarchy, the General stays rooted in his chair, shifting only to dig into the caviar. He’s the proverbial sitting duck, an easy target for both Mazzini and the film itself.

Both the General and the club around him look so stately and sessile, so grounded in revered British traditions, that they ought to be mounted in a museum. Mazzini says nothing about the General’s surroundings, but he doesn’t need to, as the film’s set design says it all. The ritzy decor, obsequious waiters, and clusters of well-dressed old men are all hallmarks of the gentlemen’s clubs popular in Victorian England – establishments with class- and usually gender-restricted clientele. If it’s not obvious already, Kind Hearts and Coronets isn’t just about the killing off a single family, but about the slow death of an entire social system – a change which began around the turn of the 20th century, when the film is set, and is continuing even today.

This frame contains a caricature of social class and a historical moment, rendered comical through Guinness’s narcissistic monologue and silly-looking bald cap. Just like the General, Kind Hearts and Coronets is part of a long British tradition, one that runs from Punch to Monty Python and beyond: that of scathing satire. For beneath its veneer of sly dark comedy, it’s really a movie about violent sociopolitical revolution, and Louis Mazzini is really a lovable, self-motivated terrorist. It’s a funnier, transatlantic version of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. And it couldn’t have happened without the understated genius of Alec Guinness.

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This Ain’t No Party

Todd Solondz’s latest film, Life During Wartime (2010), feels more like a shaggy dog story or a postscript than a full-fledged movie. (The same could probably be said for his last effort, Palindromes [2004].) That doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie, but it’s still disappointing, as it dollops out hints of Solondz’s genius for awkward, sometimes icky black comedy without ever giving the audience a full serving. It also has the disadvantage of sitting in the shadow of Solondz’s controversial and razor-sharp Happiness (1998), as it revisits the same traumatized sisters and their families years later. Since it’s about the fallout of the earlier film’s events, it’s understandable that Life During Wartime would be more somber and pensive, but it’s also soppy and aimless. Which sucks, because I love Solondz’s stuff.

In Life During Wartime, the jittery pedophile psychiatrist once played by Dylan Baker has become a ghostlike ex-con played by Ciarán Hinds. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s phone-abusing sex addict is now a tearful Michael Kenneth Williams, Lara Flynn Boyle’s narcissistic go-getter is now a distraught Ally Sheedy, and so forth for the rest of Happiness‘s unhappy ensemble. Recasting every character might seem gimmicky, but fear not; it pays off, if with wildly varying returns. The most rewarding of the newcomers is probably the least expected: Paul Reubens (yes, Pee-Wee Herman) replacing Jon Lovitz as Andy, the nerdy loser who commits suicide after being romantically rejected.

Reubens, then, is Andy’s ghost, occasionally popping up to haunt the ironically named Joy (Shirley Henderson, who sounds like Carol Kane on helium). As I’ve always said, he’s a truly gifted actor, investing Andy with a potent mix of longing, self-loathing, and undirected anger, which boils and periodically bursts. His first appearance, confronting Joy in an empty diner late at night, is actually haunting – and the underlying similarities that emerge between the cherubic Lovitz and the pale, slim Reubens are revelatory. This is Life During Wartime at its best, where the screenplay’s overwrought emotion and credibility-straining conceits are smoothed out by the fine performances.

Alas, most of the movie is too episodic and too reliant on Happiness‘s hard-won success to work this well. The subplot that gets the most screen time, in which the pedophile’s ex-wife (Allison Janney) tries to rebuild her life as her younger son approaches his bar mitzvah, feels largely like a warmed-over rehash of the uncomfortable father/son relationship from Happiness. That film’s disturbing conversations about masturbation are replayed in all possible permutations as little Timmy, who’s almost a man, asks his mother and her beau (Michael Lerner, who’s excellent) about the nuances of pederasty. Worse yet, Solondz aims for political topicality with shoehorned-in mentions of terrorism that only make the film feel like it’s trying too hard to be of-its-time.

Perhaps even worse than Solondz’s misguided attempt to harness the post-9/11 zeitgeist is the parallel and equally unsubtle emphasis on forgiveness. I appreciate that Happiness‘s characters – especially Bill the pedophile, Allen the sex addict, Andy, and Joy – want to unburden their souls and find some sense of spiritual ease. I just wish it flowed easier, instead of being squeezed into every corner of the movie, complete with repeated keywords like “redemption” and, yes, “forgiveness.” This tendency to shove the main themes into the viewer’s face infects most of the scenes about Bill, his ex-wife, and their children, and makes the film feel more like a single-minded tract than a well-rounded story.

Even sadder, Life During Wartime provides its own counterexample through an early, fantastic scene between the slow-burning Hinds and an acid-tongued bar patron named Jacqueline, played by the great Charlotte Rampling. He tries to make small talk, but she cuts through his bullshit with her bile. She tells him about how her children treat her after her divorce, and Rampling’s delivery helps turn the scene into a mini-allegory for Bill’s overarching dilemma:

Jacqueline: They’ve decided I’m a villain. I’m a monster.

Bill: Why do they think that?

Jacqueline: Because I am a monster.

Bill: People… can’t help it… if they’re monsters.

Jacqueline: They can’t be forgiven either.

I wish every scene in the movie could’ve been that incisive and well-written. Instead, I had to settle for one vignette after another that devolved into mushy sobbing as characters averted each other’s gazes. And in the end, the movie just felt like the world’s heaviest trifle. None of the storylines were fleshed out as much as they deserved, but instead rambled on to an unsatisfying, pretentious end. I’m just grateful that Solondz brought back Mark Wiener (Rich Pecci), the nihilistic, computer-fixated brother of Dawn from Welcome to the Dollhouse who also showed up in Palindromes. In each film, he’s both a victim of the cruel jokes that pervade Solondz’s universe, and the only one hopeless enough to understand them; in short, he’s a fascinating recurring character.

So yes, Life During Wartime is a disappointment and wastes much of its potential. But I still recommend seeing it. Even a mediocre Solondz movie is better than none at all, and Life During Wartime has more than enough moments of wit, tragedy, and dark humor to justify its 96 minutes. See it, if only for Reubens’ breakdowns and Charlotte Rampling’s contorted face. Now, we just have to wait another year for Solondz’s next film, Dark Horse, which is going to star Christopher Walken and Mia Farrow. (Can you say “WIN”?) And maybe after that, he’ll get started on Happiness 3, and give his characters the fully realized endings they deserve.

[P.S. – Sorry about the Talking Heads reference in the title. I couldn’t resist.]

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Bart Sells His Soul

Just before the month ends, here’s July’s analysis of The Simpsons‘ brilliant, multifaceted artistry. (All previous entries can be viewed here.) Perhaps The Simpsons‘ most dazzling feat was its ability to emanate such crusty cynicism while retaining a core of profound sincerity. And I’m not referring to the saccharine sincerity of sitcom “very special episodes,” either; I’m talking about moments that disclosed what the show’s writers really believed in. They were moments of vulnerability suggesting that the Simpsons weren’t just cartoonish punching bags, but real people with real beliefs, desires, and fears. “Bart Sells His Soul,” which hails from the beginning of the seventh season (and with it, the Oakley/Weinstein era), is 20 full minutes suffused with this same vulnerability. It’s about a young boy’s spiritual self-discovery through “suffering and thought and prayer,” as Lisa puts it. Even for a show as adventurous and groundbreaking as The Simpsons, that’s pretty heavy stuff.

The show, however, acquits itself impressively with an unflinching gaze into the essence of Bart. Yes, Bart: he of the chalkboard gags, the skateboard, and the mouthy t-shirt slogans, the envy of every kid alive in the 1990s. But, of course, beneath the too-cool-for-school posturing, Bart has always been just another 10-year-old, and “Bart Sells His Soul” even-handedly interrogates the disparity between image and reality. The episode opens with a brazen prank as Bart hands First Church of Springfield parishioners the lyrics to a “hymn” entitled “In the Garden of Eden” – really Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” a 17-minute relic of psychedelic rock. The disarming audacity with which he deceives the congregation epitomizes, as the French would say, the “Bartesque.” He tricks the churchgoers into eating his shorts, and then tells them not to have a cow, man.

Reverend Timothy Lovejoy, however, does nothing but have a cow. He’s Springfield’s envoy of tradition-bound organized religion and therefore a major figure of patriarchal authority. He’s also, in keeping with the show’s anti-authoritarian satirical outlook, ridiculously incompetent. From the outset, he’s gullible and out of touch. “Wait a minute,” he opines to himself, an eyebrow raised, “this sounds like rock and/or roll!” After his flock has been humiliated and exhausted, he takes the church’s youngsters aside and feeds them a Mad Libs-style script of fire and brimstone so as to force a confession.1 But Bart repeats the lines right back with an air of blasé disinterest. To Bart, Lovejoy’s threats of eternal damnation are just as impotent as Principal Skinner’s threats of detention, and it’s both because he’s an untamable rebel, à la Brando in The Wild One, and because these patriarchs are so neurotic and hypocritical.

As voiced by Harry Shearer, Lovejoy is a model of Middle American self-righteousness. His every sentence has the same pompous intonations, rendered ineffectual by his slight lisp, and his face is usually furrowed in the same disapproving frown. He mechanically advocates an impersonal brand of Christianity; it’s not hard to see why Bart dismisses his sermons and, with them, the adult world’s belief in the soul. Bart, a veteran trickster, is too sharp to be so easily duped.2 Milhouse, however, is just sheepish enough to give in, and Bart is outraged when he lets faith trump friendship. The two of them have an argument that brings questions of personal identity down to a 10-year-old’s level – to hell with the mind/body divide; what if you die while in a submarine? Incensed at his friend’s willingness to swallow adult lies, Bart exclaims, “Listen: you don’t have a soul, I don’t have a soul, there’s no such thing as a soul!” And to demonstrate his prioritization of money, a pragmatic, real-world concern, over religious dogma, which he regards as nothing but a collection of fairy tales,3 Bart strikes the titular bargain.

The first challenge to Bart’s cynical materialism comes from his sagacious sister. Unlike Lovejoy, Lisa doesn’t have any hypocritical motivations to espouse the concept of the soul, and unlike Milhouse, she doesn’t confront him with a mess of folk beliefs and fear-driven superstitions. Instead, she has her faith in the soul’s symbolic value, which is deeply rooted in her sense of self rather than any specific belief system. Bart and Lisa’s conversation in the driveway is really the kernel of the episode’s deepest philosophical exploration: here are two children in the America of the ’90s, where all traditional authorities (government, businesses, media, schools, churches)4 have been thoroughly discredited. So what do they put their faith in, and how do they define themselves as human beings? Whereas Lisa has her own simple, functional theory of the self,5 Bart has pranks and cold hard cash – his is a reactive ethos, as he prefers to beat society within its own system rather than formulate one of his own. He comes to regret his hubris, however, after the rest of the episode delivers a concussive wallop of spiritual horror.

Ashley told me that she once thought “Bart Sells His Soul” was a Treehouse of Horror episode, and it’s understandable given the events that round off the first act. Santa’s Little Helper and Snowball II growl and hiss at Bart, respectively, with no apparent motivation; the Kwik-E-Mart’s automatic door admits the pious Rod and Tod Flanders, but not him; and he can’t even fog up glass with his breath. It all plays out very ambiguously, with only the subtle, subjective implication that these are the consequences of selling one’s soul. Its primary effect isn’t outright fear, but more a feeling of unsettledness. As Bart grumbles when his face smacks against the door, “This is getting weird.” The final, unsettling straw is when Bart loses his ability to enjoy Itchy and Scratchy. Lisa quotes Pablo Neruda: “Laughter is the language of the soul.” I love Lisa’s role in this episode: she’s at once the precocious, argumentative little sister and the voice of reason, sincerely worried about her brother’s well-being.

She tests Bart’s capacity for laughter by making Homer trip and get his head caught in the stairs. While Bart would normally be the one causing such mischief, he’s now incapable of enjoying it, and Lisa concludes, “I think you really did lose your soul.” As before, in Lisa’s reckoning it doesn’t matter if the soul is “physically real,” or if Bart’s sense of humor is merely a psychological (and therefore not “real”) casualty of his exchange. The point is that Bart’s mistake, in giving up a part of himself, has left him unable to properly interact with the outside world. He returns to Milhouse, who’s undergoing no such tribulation but is instead carrying on with his childhood; unsympathetic to Bart’s angst, he offers to sell the soul back only at a wildly inflated price. Facing a potentially permanent existential quandary, Bart can now see beyond the petty, childish dealings that were once his métier.

In a scene that’s at once touching and disturbing, Marge detects something “off” about Bart’s hug. She considers the usual diagnoses for a troubled 10-year-old – “it’s not fear of nuclear war… it’s not swim test anxiety…” – but when Bart suggests a missing soul, she blindly dismisses it: “Aw, honey, you’re not a monster.” These dead-on mother/son interactions are some of those vulnerable moments I was speaking of: Marge does her best to assuage her son’s very palpable fears, but inadvertently exacerbates the situation. Here, The Simpsons is speaking to a very critical youth/adult disconnect. It’s not the jaded mistrust that characterizes Bart’s relationship with Lovejoy or Skinner; it’s a painful breakdown within the core of the family. And it has none of the mawkish sentiment that abounds in some of the weaker family-centric episodes. It’s just a moment of very real emotion and very dark humor, as Bart’s mother implicitly but unintentionally calls him a soulless monster and turns out the light.

Then we get one of the series’ great dream sequences, complete with pink, Seussian landscapes, green skies, and eerily sweet music. All the other children are playing with their souls, as represented by phantasmal blue outlines of themselves; they jump into rowboats and head toward an Oz-like emerald city on the horizon. Bart, however, is left alone – so here, the loss of a soul becomes the loss of a friend, and Bart is condemned to be left behind. This dream really crystallizes the episode’s child’s-eye-view of the soul. It’s not about what adult authorities think the soul is; it’s what Bart learns for himself, through his anguish. His long nightmare lends him insight into the soul’s true meaning: it’s about identity, belonging, humor, companionship. As the third act confirms, “Bart Sells His Soul” is really about how Bart earns his soul.

Like “Homer’s Enemy,” this episode has a much, much lighter subplot to complement the main story’s existential heft. In it, Moe converts his once-dank tavern into a tacky family restaurant. The two storylines intersect when Homer takes the family to Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag. Lisa says a spiteful grace in which she emphasizes the word soul, prompting Bart to run off into the night, and he enters the final stage of his grueling spiritual odyssey. There’s little real analysis to be done on the Moe subplot; suffice it to say that it’s a much more expected sitcom story, and its easy jokes definitely alleviate some of the episode’s overall bleakness. As it approaches its climax, it gets very bleak: Bart faces one terrifying anomaly after another as he descends into Springfield’s desolate urban depths,6 from an exterminator clad in a Vader-like suit to a cackling street cleaner. Finally, he runs into Ralph Wiggum and begs desperately for Ralph’s soul. It’s so bizarre, albeit strangely plausible, that it’s easy to miss the frighteningly real portrayal of a babbling schizophrenic in the same scene.

Bart’s attempt to track down Milhouse proves pointless, however, as Milhouse has already resold Bart’s soul so as to purchase the most ephemeral, meaningless toys of all – ALF pogs. Bart visits the buyer, Comic Book Guy, who reports that an unnamed party bought it, and that they “were most interested in having possession of little boy’s soul.” Here, the languages of preteen consumerism and spiritual self-identification are oddly but seamlessly mixed. Rather than being just the product of obsolete superstitions, Bart learns that the soul is surprisingly relevant even in a world where the al-ighty ollar7 is the end goal of all transactions. Finally, he resorts to a long, earnest prayer: “I just want it back. Please? I hope you can hear this…” and with that, Lisa gives him back his soul. Note that I don’t say “gives him back his sheet of paper.” By this point, that paper has been so imbued with meaning that, as far as the viewer’s concerned, it is his soul. The episode ends with Bart dreaming again – but this time, he has his soul as a rowing companion, and they ram Martin’s boat. Bart has fought and prayed, and now he has his self back, prankish and rebellious as ever.

“Bart Sells His Soul” is both a child’s fable of loss and retrieval and a mature rumination on postmodern spiritual bankruptcy. With Bart, we see adult hypocrisies as ripe for skewering, but we also endure an episode’s worth of self-inflicted suffering, culminating in a newfound humility, and a gratitude for one’s own identity. It’s cathartic without being melodramatic, instead attaining its considerable emotional pull in the traditional Simpsons way: through nonstop jokes, which are sometimes brutal and dark, but still spot-on. The episode is also a tour de force for Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart, who shows impressive range and accuracy in capturing the scope and detail of a 10-year-old’s worldview. “Bart Sells His Soul” is unequaled in the rest of the series for its fearlessness in stripping away the façade and revealing to us who Bart truly is, soul and all. And that ain’t not bad.

So, what do you think of this episode? And which one should I tackle next? Leave any suggestions in the comment box below.

1 I especially liked the “murderers and single mothers” line as a jab at Lovejoy’s outdated but indignant worldview.

2 Unless, of course, the religious authorities lower themselves to his level, as with the Li’l Bastard Brainwashing Kit in “The Joy of Sect.”

3 They’re lies and fairy tales, however, with very pragmatic, real-world rewards, as the episode bitingly demonstrates when Milhouse asks, “What would [religions] have to gain?” and we cut to Lovejoy dumping collection baskets into a coin-sorting machine.

4 Read: Quimby, Burns, Brockman, Skinner, and Lovejoy.

5 This presages her conversion to Buddhism, but her beliefs are stated so much more elegantly (and less stridently) here than they would be “She of Little Faith” and subsequent episodes.

6 The episode’s writer, Greg Daniels, says that Bart’s nocturnal trials were partially inspired by Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, and it shows, including just a touch of the same manically black comedy.

7 See “Team Homer.” I couldn’t resist.

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Perfectly Cromulent Analysis: Homer’s Enemy

Here, at last, is the long-delayed June entry in the “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis” series. The episode comes from late in season 8, toward the end of The Simpsons‘ golden era, but I feel that it stands among the classics, if only for its deconstructive audacity. I like my comedy black, and “Homer’s Enemy” is about as black as they come; it’s a conceptually extreme episode and a departure from any of the usual The Simpsons storylines. But it also gave the show’s writers and producers a unique opportunity to expose the dark underbelly of the show’s premise. Although the show had gone dark before, this was basically the Simpsons equivalent of Jimmy Stewart’s performance in Vertigo, as it briefly granted the public a harrowing glimpse into the hidden evils of an American institution.

The Simpsons is, after all, a sitcom about an average American family’s wacky misadventures. We’re meant to see ourselves, our friends, and our families in Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa; we’re supposed to identify with them through all their follies and confusions. “Homer’s Enemy” toys with these built-up sympathies as the starting point of its bleak satire. Everybody, after all, loves Homer. He’s the show’s heart – not despite the fact that he’s an incompetent fool, but because of it and the everyman/everydad status it grants him. So we’re inherently biased against this episode’s titular intruder: who would ever want to be Homer’s enemy, and what would they be doing in Springfield? The answer, we learn, is that he’s suffering.

As the episode opens, we’re immediately introduced to Frank Grimes through Kent Brockman’s human interest series “Kent’s People.” It’s fitting that Grimes is initially mediated through television. He’s the type of hard-luck case whom we normal Americans prefer to view from afar, pitying him for a few seconds rather than dealing with him on an everyday basis. Mr. Burns, typically, has just such a low attention span; he admires Grimes just long enough to hire him, but has a new hero he wants for executive vice president the next day (in this case, a baby-rescuing dog). The TV-suckled populace is a harsh mistress, Burns included, as Grimes learns through experience.

Burns’ caprices set the episode in motion, as he has Smithers deposit Grimes in Sector 7G. There, he must coexist with characters we know and love – Homer, Lenny (“I’m Lenny!”), and Carl – and share in their workaday sitcom lives. Except Grimes doesn’t want to be on a sitcom. He just wants to work and get paid. Homer’s slip-ups, which are normally fodder for the show’s straightforward humor, become grievances to fuel Grimes’ indignation. As he’s forced to endure Homer’s vices, from everyday rudeness (calling Grimes by demeaning nicknames, eating his special dietetic lunch) to life-endangering incompetence, we’re drawn further into his rapid psychic collapse, which is heralded by increasingly menacing musical cues.

After Homer’s stupidity nearly costs Grimes his job, the tension between them mounts and Grimes declares himself Homer’s enemy. But Homer, never one to take an interpersonal confrontation at face value (see: Flanders, Ned), continues his plight to win Grimes over. While ruminating on this development at Moe’s, Homer refers to himself as “the most beloved man in Springfield,” a line that perhaps too bluntly digs at the show’s Capra-derived paradigm of small-town life. In order to retain this supposed status, Homer plans a surprise lobster dinner for Grimes, before which he insists that every family member be “perfect.” But it’s just this perfection that launches Grimes into a tirade about how Homer is “what’s wrong with America.”

The rest of the episode proceeds along two courses: Homer’s childlike delusion that Grimes will like him if he acts professional vs. Grimes’ obsessive plotting to expose Homer for the fraud he is. But when Homer is applauded for receiving first prize in a children’s model-building contest, Grimes descends into an appropriately cartoonish breakdown with the refrain “…because I’m Homer Simpson.” The plant employees stare on in confusion as Grimes trades in his discipline for a scathing parody of Homer’s gluttony and sloth; the rampage concludes with Grimes grabbing high-voltage wires and dying before his coworkers’ eyes. This scene is followed directly by Grimes’ funeral, at which Homer literally gets the last laugh by falling asleep and yelling, “Change the channel, Marge!” Fittingly, an episode that began with a TV program about Grimes’ life ends with Homer trying to channel-surf past his death.

The episode is devilishly written and executed, as it’s intended to pull viewers simultaneously in two directions. Do we sympathize with our familiar protagonists, or with this anguished outsider? Grimes’ argument against Homer is faultless and self-evident, after all; his rants could be recitations from The Simpsons‘ show bible. But as Grimes tries to cope with Homer’s formula of ignorance yielding success, as he vainly pleads his case to those around him, he traces out an absurdist choice: either love Homer, or go mad and die. Grimes, with his Dickensian background and built-in work ethic, can only do the latter. The show’s recurring characters (like its viewers) have learned to do the former, turning Springfield into a dystopia worthy of The Twilight Zone‘s “It’s a Good Life.”

A quick anatomy of the man who would be Grimey: he’s plain and business-oriented, a mix of Michael Douglas’s psychotic D-Fens from Falling Down and the pathetic losers played by William H. Macy, like Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard. Voice actor Hank Azaria masterfully incorporates elements of both into his performance, emanating a hard-edged professionalism that soon devolves into a mess of disbelieving sighs and exasperated sputters. Azaria’s voice gives the episode momentum, mapping out the tragic arc of Grimes’ short career, and the animation complements this by making Grimes all straight lines and eyebrows opposite Homer’s sumptuous curves.

Ultimately, Grimes is not only Homer’s enemy, but his antithesis. Homer is the baby boomer poster boy, blindly coasting along on his unearned privilege while good fortune falls into his lap. (This good fortune is, of course, the show’s status quo, and hence can never be taken away.) Grimes, meanwhile, puts his situation like this: “I’ve had to work hard every day of my life, and what do I have to show for it? This briefcase, and this haircut!” Sic transit Horatio Alger; being the “self-made man” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. While Homer is a creature of boundless good will, Grimes’ difficult life has made him fidgety, aggressive, and self-righteous. Their disparate environments have divided them both economically and emotionally, and these circumstances have doomed Grimes’ irate legacy to be buried under Homer’s boorish clowning.

I should also touch on the episode’s B plot, in which Bart buys an abandoned factory for $1 and screws around in it with Milhouse until it collapses. While it’s certainly much lighter than the rest of the episode, as it focuses on how an uninhibited 10-year-old would behave in an adult situation (namely, by throwing typewriters into barrels of industrial waste), it nonetheless contains some ironic echoes to Grimes’ storyline. As he first gazes up at his property, Bart quips, “Looks like my years of hard work have finally paid off,” (a sarcastic line which would no doubt make Grimes apoplectic) and the subplot’s real pay-off arrives during the failed dinner party, as Grimes is angrily listing Homer’s undeserved luxuries: “A dream house! Two cars! A beautiful wife! A son who owns a factory!” What seemed like a frivolous side story is recontextualized as an especially infuriating piece of Homer’s American dream.

Granted, this was and is a divisive episode among fans. To some, it’s too mean-spirited, while others view Homer’s behavior as symptomatic of his gradual infantilization. Both claims certainly have some credence, but unlike later episodes – which take Homer’s selfish idiocy for granted, and revel in it – “Homer’s Enemy” regards it self-consciously as a source of humor and as an ugly blight on the face of Springfield. Yes, Grimes’ death is played for laughs, and this is exceptionally dark, but the uneasy laughter it elicits is the point of the episode. Above all, this episode remains controversial because it’s a new and unpleasant perspective on the Simpson family.

“Homer’s Enemy” calls to mind the work of Luis Buñuel, in how it inverts right and wrong, punishments and rewards, with bleakly funny consequences. Through Frank Grimes’ eyes, perhaps the Casa de Simpson could be the site of a uniquely American Exterminating Angel. Most fundamentally, though, it’s about skewing the show’s preexisting satire by introducing a human being with a “real world” mentality to the madness of Springfield. As fans of The Simpsons, after all, we’re not too different from Frank Grimes – educated, rational adults living in the real world. We may laugh along with Homer & co.’s weekly exploits, but this episode shows what would happen if we too had four fingers and yellow skin, if we too tried to live alongside the cultural monolith that is Homer Simpson. It would destroy us.

So there’s my take on one of the thornier episodes in Simpsons history. Are you a fan of “Homer’s Enemy,” or are you put off by its painful resolution? Also, what episode should I hit for July: “Bart Sells His Soul,” or “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer“? Another episode altogether? Comment and let me know your preference.

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