8. The Telltale Head

(originally aired February 25, 1990)
Over this season we see a lot of early shinings of what the Simpsons would eventually become, in content, tone and scope. In this episode, we get a better impression of the actual town of Springfield. This is the first show that really looks outside the Simpson family and features the reactions of the few denizens we’ve met so far, and some we have just been introduced to. In this context, the episode starts out with a perfect representation of the town of Springfield as we will come to know it: a ravenous angry mob that chases Homer and Bart through town. Springfieldians are an impulsive lot, who can turn from calm to raging to relief with a mere heart-felt speech.

The mob in question is in response to the decapitation of the statue of town founder Jebediah Springfield, and our dear old Bart is responsible. The story is interestingly told as a flashback, leaving the viewer in the dark like the townspeople, and creating more sense of drama. The impetus of Bart’s misdeed is pretty simple: his attempt to impress some older bullies, Jimbo, Dolph and Kearney in their first appearance. It’s interesting in hearing how parents and various groups were upset at how Bart was such a bad influence, but his behavior in the first season barely even registers as devious. He’s mischievous at best, but he takes a neutral stance at his new friends’ shoplifting and defacement of property. Bart seeks his father’s advice, where Homer instills another classic misguided moral: “Being popular is the most important thing in the world.” Homer’s questionable advice sends Bart off to commit the deed: cutting through a bronze statue with an ordinary hacksaw. Don’t ask me how, it’s a cartoon, for God’s sake.

Bart and the bullies’ day about town gave Springfield a sense of scale, but the reactions of the townspeople after the statue defacement is really what gives Springfield character. We get a better sense of Moe’s bar, Grampa’s retirement home, the Kwik-E-Mart and Apu, and the first look at the Krusty the Klown show (and a mute, off-model Sideshow Bob), all of whom are out for the blood of the hoodlum responsible for the heinous act. Even the bullies are offended, much to Bart’s shock. In keeping with the title’s namesake, Bart’s conscious and guilt is given voice by Jebediah’s head, “Telltale Heart” style, eventually leading to his admission to his family, leading to the wraparound back to the beginning. Homer acknowledges he is partially to blame for his advice, and Bart is forgiven by the townspeople and returns the head to the neck from whence it came.

I glossed over most of the beginning, the Simpsons visit to Sunday mass; it’s not so important story-wise but it sets up the role of religion in the Simpsons universe. The people of Springfield are mostly God-fearing and devout, albeit some with more reluctance than others. Everything is mocked on the show, religion included, but there is always a sense of positivity to the spirituality, like in Marge believing church to be good for the family. A character like Reverend Lovejoy (another first appearance) would be the subject of mockery and defilement on another show, but is treated as a real character, with a few quirks as we’d see down the road. There’s a lot of funny stuff in the beginning, with Homer listening to a football broadcast on a walkman during church and Bart’s ever-insistent questions to his Sunday school teacher. There’s a lot to love in this episode, a town-wide story with great character-stuff, good jokes and an emotional core: a fore-bearer of things to come.

Tidbits and Quotes
I built the Reverend up in my last paragraph, now I tear him down. Before his more respectful debut in the show proper, I love how the beginning of the show shows him in the mob, torch in hand, with no qualms of hunting down and killing a young boy.
– The show’s first meta-joke, in Bart claiming his story will take “about 23 minutes and 5 seconds.”
– I love the family’s Sunday best outfits, especially Lisa and Maggie’s bonnets and Marge’s pillbox hat atop her hair. What era are we in?
– The sportscaster’s proclamation “This could be the most remarkable comeback since Lazarus rose from the dead!” followed by Homer’s “Laza-who?” right as they pull in front of the church makes it doubly blasphemous.
– The Sunday school teacher’s exasperation at Bart’s questions is great, followed by a fantastic skewering line, “All these questions… Is a little blind faith too much to ask?”
– A subtle but great exchange:
[Bart] But sneaking into movies is practically stealing, man.
[Jimbo] It is stealing.
[Bart] Well, okay. I just wanted to make sure we aren’t deluding ourselves.
– Dolph refers to their shoplifting as a “five-finger discount,” while they all have four fingers. Huh.
– I love the Candy Most Dandy shop owner. I really don’t know why, he has such a sophisticated voice and is so irritated by the bullies, and seemingly by life in general, meanwhile he owns a jolly-looking candy store. He may be my favorite Simpsons character with eight seconds of screen time.
– The bullies’ about-face in their sudden disapproval of the statue’s beheading seems kind of silly, but I love their response when Bart asks why they previously thought it would be a cool idea: “That was just cloud talk.”
– The Jebediah Springfield news report is fantastic: “Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield came west in 1838, along the way, he met a ferocious bear. Jebediah discards his axe and wrestles the bear and killed him with his bare hands.  That’s B-A-R-E hands. Though recently uncovered evidence that the bear, in fact, probably killed him.” I love that gloss over of evidence that discredits his great accomplishment, but also a great illustration of how we tend to romanticize figures of the past and embellish, or just plain lie, about their accomplishments, not exactly for what they did, but what they stood for. (see also: “Lisa the Iconoclast.”)

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4 responses to “8. The Telltale Head

  1. A sign that I almost missed:
    Space Mutants 4: The trilogy continues.

  2. The FOX version of this has a part during Bart’s speech where Bart tells the crowd that they lost their sense of town pride and citizenship and that’s what turns them around. The versions on DVD and on FXX don’t have this. Why was it cut? Because FOX asked Groening to shoehorn that “town pride” speech near the end because the episode didn’t have a moral to it.

    Now, call me crazy, but I think it did have a moral to it — several, in fact. “Don’t give in to peer pressure,” “Take personal responsibility for your actions,” but they were so subtle that the pinhead producers didn’t see it.

  3. One of the funniest bits from the first season is Homer listening to the Walkman during church and Lovejoy’s mouth somehow syncing with the radio. I also love Homer’s lame coverup to his outburst. “IT’S GOOD! IT’S GOOD!… Uh… to see you all…”

  4. This may be my favorite episode from Season 1. I just love how the story is told as a flashback and as you said, it really develops the citizens of Springfield. The animation during the night scenes is also really nice.

    The Sunday school teacher getting frustrated from all of the questions is hilarious as is the bit with the walkman in churrch. Although, I did not realize ear buds existed in 1990.

    Cloud talk is also a great line.

    Canais, I don’t remember there ever being any dialog about town pride. Although, outside of catching the episode maybe once on TV, I always watched it from the VHS tapes or DVDs, so that could be why.

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