2. Bart the Genius

(originally aired January 14, 1990)
So in our first “normal” episode, we get a better look at Bart, the miscreant of the Simpson clan. From infuriating his father during a game of Scrabble to spray painting an unflattering caricature of his principal on school grounds, he’s perfectly portrayed as a fun-loving wiseass, not motivated by any kind of malice, but just a kid-like desire for crudity. When know-it-all classmate Martin Prince rats him out for his graffiti, he exacts revenge by switching their aptitude tests. Bart is soon after declared a genius, and is sent off to a school better suited for his supposed intellectual gifts.

The Enriched Gifted Center for Learned Children is just as pretentious and snobby as the name suggests. Full of students who speak in complex anagrams and engage in existential debates and a teacher who encourages her class to “discover their desks,” Bart finds himself a stranger in a strange land. He was penalized for his outbursts and breaking the rules at Springfield Elementary, but there he at least had a troupe of friends to cheer him on for it. Here, he’s stuck with a bunch of asshole smart kids who use intellectual queries to swindle him out of his lunch.

In the midst of all this is the reactions of the family. Feeling she hasn’t be properly nurturing her son’s gifts, Marge has the family attend more high-class events like the opera and film festivals. United by a mutual disdain for these things, Bart forms a greater bond with his father, who is extremely proud of his son’s alleged accomplishments. Eventually in his attempt to return back to his normal school, Bart is exposed as a fraud and comes clean to Homer about it. Whereas a normal sitcom father would warmly forgive his son, Homer goes into a rage and chases his naked son throughout the house and pounds on his bedroom door with reckless abandon.

These last two episodes were directed by David Silverman, who has worked with the Simpsons from the early Tracy Ullman shorts all the way up to directing the movie, and he knows how to animate these characters better than anyone. Utilizing a style that’s not incredibly visually interesting, he manages to not only create a great deal of interest in the animation itself, but make it a part of the story. One scene sticks out with me, and I’m still dissecting why: Bart is in Skinner’s office, in trouble of course, when Marge and Homer arrive. The frame cuts right at their necks, so right when they come in, you think of them not as their whole characters, but as Bart’s parents. First in is Marge, who walks in with a very slow dainty walk, turning the corner slightly to find her seat with a cordial greeting to Principal Skinner. Then comes Homer, who has a quick lumber with his large frame, fist clenched ready at the accuse with Bart. Small bits like that really stick with me, and it clearly, verbally and visually, sets up the dynamic of the scene and the views of these two characters to it. The rest of that sequence is great too; when the psychiatrist shows up and starts rattling on about Bart’s supposed genius, there’s a lot of wrapping shots of him speaking around the three Simpsons, who blankly follow along, still processing the information.

Bart has been painted many shades of the stereotypical “bad boy” over the years, but in this first episode showcasing it, he’s shown as just a fun-loving kid goofing around, something even most of the rest of his family appreciates. The family at the opera is a classic scene, where Homer and Lisa are very much amused by Bart’s joke lyrics and fart noises. As explored in many a future episode, the Simpsons, as much as they may be mystified or tempted by high class pursuits, have their feet firmly planted in the middle of the road, and that’s just the way they like it.

Tidbits and Quotes
The opening scene is such a perfect way to start the episode. You get the impression that the family bought a game of Scrabble as a way to raise their intelligence, but are stuck playing words no longer than three letters. Lisa displays her budding intelligence with “id,” Bart of course bestows on us the immortal definition of a “kwijibo,” and Maggie is first hinted at being a baby savant by spelling “EMCSQU” with her blocks.
– “I don’t want you to worry, class. This test will have no effect on your grades. It will merely determine your future social status and financial success… if any.” That last bit was targeted at Bart, obviously.
– The dream sequence… what an amazing piece of animation. Firstly, it’s a fantastic mockery of those overly complicated “two trains leaving a station, x passengers get off and on” problems we had to slog through in school. As Bart thinks through the problem, things get more and more frantic, with numbers swirling around his head, and appearing in the background as armrests, train handles, and even the passengers. The energy just keeps building as Bart becomes more and more frustrated with the problem, with more and more quick, frantic cuts with wild animated takes until the two trains collide and Bart falls backward, literally, back to reality. It really is spectacular.
– A great exchange featuring Homer’s slow thinking.
[Skinner] I caught your son defacing school property this morning. We estimate the damage is $75, and frankly, we think it’s terribly unfair that other taxpayers should foot the bill.
[Homer] Yeah, it’s a crummy system, but what are you going to do? [Marge whispers to him] Oh no, he can’t mean that. My wife thinks you want me to pay for it.
[Skinner] That was the idea.
– A great quick joke when Homer shows Bart how to put on a tie: just clip it on.
Bart’s Krusty lunchbox is greatly contrasted by one of the genius kid’s Anatoly Karpov lunchbox, who apparently is a famous champion chess player.
Homer learns he has to go to the opera with Bart: “But I’m not a genius! Why should I suffer?”
– The ending bit with Homer banging and scratching against Bart’s door is unbelievable. The raw fury of the animation and Dan Castellaneta’s voice acting completely sells Homer’s blind rage.

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7 responses to “2. Bart the Genius

  1. This past Spring I attempted to do a modified version of what you have begun here. I wanted to revisit the Simpsons, episode by episode (though I had no plans of writing upon it). I made it to the end of S8 before flagging in S9 and struggling through S10. Good luck to you, sir!

  2. Hey Mike, what does this mean… “Utilizing a style that’s not incredibly visually interesting, he manages to not only create a great deal of interest in the animation itself, but make it a part of the story.”

    I think I’m reading it right, but I’m still confused by that sentence. Are you saying that his style of directing is pretty straightforward which works perfectly and becomes interesting by NOT being show-offy? Or..

    • I meant Groening’s drawing style isn’t the most interesting for animation. The Life in Hell comics? Wonderfully crude. But the Simpsons is not what I first think of when I think great animation, it’s more about the writing and the characters. But despite that, Silverman, as well as many others, through great poses and direction, have managed to create some memorable and funny visual moments and scenes.

  3. “The Enriched Gifted Center for Learned Children is just as pretentious and snobby as the name suggests. Full of students who speak in complex anagrams and engage in existential debates and a teacher who encourages her class to “discover their desks,” Bart finds himself a stranger in a strange land. He was penalized for his outbursts and breaking the rules at Springfield Elementary, but there he at least had a troupe of friends to cheer him on for it. Here, he’s stuck with a bunch of asshole smart kids who use intellectual queries to swindle him out of his lunch.”

    Is it wrong that I actually like Ms Mellon a lot? (Well, she is kinda hot…)

    Have to agree that the other students are jerks, though.

    Worth pointing out, too, that not only are OFF seemingly unable to play long words in Scrabble, but they’re also unable to score themselves correctly: Marge says “he” is worth two points when it’s actually worth five, and if “kwyjibo” were a word, it would be worth 26 points (and not 22 as Bart claims) before bonuses were considered.

    Finally, I can’t resist pointing out a contradiction in the “two trains” problem:

    “At 7:30am, the local train carrying 40 passengers leaves Phoenix bound for Santa Fe. It’s eight cars long and always carries the same number of passengers in each car. [Bart correctly visualizes 40 / 8 = 5.] An hour later, a number of passengers equal to half the number of minutes past the hour get off, and three times as many plus six get on.”

    The train stops at 8:30am; therefore 15 passengers get off and 51 get on, so there are now 76 passengers on the train. But 76 isn’t divisible by 8 – therefore, the train cannot carry the same number of passengers in each car…

    Unless, of course, Bart’s increasing frustration is causing him to misread the question.

  4. So I’m starting to watch the series over from the beginning and am going to reread your reviews on each episode after I have watched them. I don’t think I ever really read everything to the first several seasons since you were on like Season 13 when I discovered this site and skimmed through most of those bits.

    Anyway, this episode is pretty good. I love the red handed joke and that Bart has his own file cabinet. On the other hand, I totally agree with those little shits at the smart school. God I had pretentious people, but pretentious children are even worse because kids already have an issue with morals, these little bastards are nothing but entitled brats.

  5. Another good joke you didn’t mention:
    “My son… a genius? How did it happen?”
    “Genius-level intelligence is usually the result of heredity and environment… although in some cases, it’s a total mystery.”

    Bart’s forged signature is funny too.

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