(originally aired April 15, 1990)
The show has slowly been evolving from a show about an upper-lower-middle class family, to a show about the offbeat town of Springfield. This episode features our first look outside the city limits, and the United States as well. The Simpsons would make many family outings overseas in the future to mock, deride and parody other elements and customs in foreign lands, but in this first international outing, only one Simpson makes the trip. This is an episode that has some interesting ideas, but ultimately felt quite sour to me.
We start in familiar territory: Bart causing the school toilets to explode with a cherry bomb, one occupied at the time by Agnes, Principal Skinner’s mother (in an odd first appearance where she is quite kindly, compared to the overly critical hag she is now). This latest incident results in Skinner approaching Homer and Marge about allowing Bart into a foreign exchange program to get the boy out of their hair for a bit. With that, Bart is sent off to France, and the Simpsons welcome a seemingly sweet Albanian named Adil. This side story has a lot of great stuff in it, with very Simpsons-y lines about clashing cultures, such as when Homer breaks up an argument between Lisa and Adil (“Maybe Lisa’s right about America being the land of opportunity, and maybe Adil’s got a point about the machinery of capitalism being oiled with the blood of the workers.”) Homer getting played by Adil to retrieve confidential nuclear power blueprints and photographs for his native land is an interesting, slightly dark storyline, but Homer’s naivety throughout the entire episode, even up toward the boy’s arrest, gives it humor.
The main story, however, isn’t much fun: Bart finds that he has been placed in the care of two grungy, self-serving farmers in the French countryside, who essentially use Bart as their slave, working the fields in place of their much more beloved mule. They steal his belongings, make him sleep on the floor, and have him test out potentially life-threatening wine laced with anti-freeze. First off, this storyline bothers me from a logical level: what kind of foreign exchange program is this that these two scoundrels can get away with being in charge of a ten-year-old? They just blindly send Bart off to their care, and it’s just assumed it’s fine? But beyond that, it’s just kind of sad to see Bart basically being tortured through most of the show. There are a few good lines here and there, but it’s kind of a bummer seeing a kid used and abused like this, especially when it reminds you of real-life stories of this kind of horrendous activity going on.
Bart is saved when he miraculously manages to wrangle the French language and alert a policeman to his caregivers and their criminal ways (he later comments, “So basically, I met one nice French person”) and Adil ends up being exchanged out once more for a captured American boy in Albania. It’s an episode that feels like it could have been more poignant and pointed toward presenting other cultures and then tearing at them, but it gets too muddled down in the dourness of Bart’s unfortunate situation. There’s not much commentary on France other than they are winemakers. The B-story is a lot better, but it also feels a bit dark. I guess with four credited writers on this one, a little bit of mish-mashing was bound to happen.
Tidbits and Quotes
– The beginning of the episode is brilliant, with Homer falling down the stairs and unable to move because of his trick back. Santa’s Little Helper and Maggie falling asleep next to him, and the talking Krusty doll’s fading batteries are amazing, as is Homer’s weakened shudder when Marge and Lisa find him (“The boy… Bring me the boy.”)
– “Mr. and Mrs. Simpson, we have transcended incorrigible. I don’t think suspension or expulsion will do the trick. I think it behooves us all to consider… deportation.”
– [Marge] Bart doesn’t speak French.
[Skinner] Oh, when he’s fully immersed in a foreign language, the average child can become fluent in weeks!
[Homer] Yeah, but what about Bart?
[Skinner] I’m sure he’ll pick up enough to get by.
– Homer’s send-off to his son is funny and sweet: “Always remember that you’re representing your country. I guess what I’m saying is… Don’t mess up France the way you messed up your room.”
– Skinner’s assembly introduction to Adil is a brilliant parody of American relations and how we view radically different cultures: “You might find his accent peculiar. Certain aspects of his culture may seem absurd, perhaps even offensive. But I urge you all to give little Adil the benefit of the doubt. This way, and only in this way, do we hope to better understand our backward neighbors throughout the world.”
– The only real funny bit in the France stuff is the two brothers’ plan in putting anti-freeze in their wine (“Too much can be poison, but the right amount gives wine just the right kick.”)
– It always struck me as odd that when Bart, visibly poor and starving, tells the policeman all the horrible things Cesar and Uglion had done to him, the policeman reacts in shock about the anti-freeze scheme. I guess that was supposed to be the joke, but it didn’t feel much like one to me.