(originally aired November 21, 2004)
Next up on the roster of characters the show is intent on ruining is school bully Nelson. We’ve slowly seen glimmers of him being poor and his troubled family life, but this is where it really comes to a head, where Nelson is now a poor little urchin boy. The show wants to have it both ways and keep him a threat to Bart, but when you push him so far in the pathetically needy direction, any intimidation he might have had just dissolves. Following a particularly lame party she threw for Bart, and distance from Lisa concerning a B-plot we’ll get into later, Marge feels unappreciated by her children. Enter Nelson, who we first see fishing for tadpoles in a pond to eat them for lunch. Marge offers him a sandwich, which he hesitates for and quickly grabs like some kind of wounded animal. She begins to take a shine towards the boy, who seems to appreciate her kindness, and gets him to do chores around the house. Not long after that, Nelson’s mother leaves him home alone, so he’s given residence at the Simpson house, much to Bart’s chagrin.
We get a better sense of Nelson’s sad home life in this episode. We already know his father abandoned him long ago, but here we get our first good look at his disheveled, uncaring mother. The joke here is that she’s a whore: she openly talks about who she’s slept with and wanting to take her top off, and her panties drop in public. And it’s funny because she’s a dancer, but she’s haggard and old. That’s all the thought that was put into her character. Everything in this show with Nelson is treated so deadly seriously, but last season we had a show that began with him being poor and pathetic being a big gag. You’re either going to mock him for being destitute or make us feel sorry for him, you can’t do both. Or you could, if this show was written better. This series used to champion itself with having its cake and eating it too, garnering sympathy while getting laughs at the same time. Now you can literally hear the gears violently shift between a cloying and forced scene and a stupid gag.
As for the B-story, it’s another instance of writing the kids older as eight-year-old Lisa becomes conscious of her weight, and proceeds to over-exercise and not eat. It’s not really much of a plot, just this thing that’s set up at the beginning and is left running in the background. At the very least they address in the end that this kind of story about female body issues can’t be resolved in twenty minutes, but ultimately makes it feel like an exercise in futility since the story didn’t illuminate anything about the issue at all. Lisa gets teased, stresses about getting thinner, then snaps and engulfs herself inside a cake. I guess going on insane diets can turn you into a maniac? Maybe, but it just doesn’t work. I’m sure at this point there are grade school girls who are worried about them being fat, which is horrifying to think about, but this story just doesn’t work for someone as young as Lisa. So nothing in the episode really works too well. I’m definitely more annoyed with this show than “Oven War” for tearing Nelson down, but in the end, it’s just another whatever episode.
Tidbits and Quotes
– A gag where Homer illustrates “the Simpson butt” turns into a weird “how-to-draw” lesson where he sketches a perfect drawing of himself. Then he proceeds to talk to himself in a different high-pitched persona and eat a gigantic sandwich he pulls from nowhere. The man needs to be put in a clinic.
– Here we have the first of many instances where we see Skinner and Krabappel together again: they’re fucking, but Krabappel asserts it means nothing. And it doesn’t. The connection they had way back in “Grade School Confidential” was kind of sweet and endearing; now Krabappel is an uncaring, miserable harlot and Skinner a spineless wuss. The march of characterization goes on…
– A sick Milhouse appearing at the party via speaker phone, complete with a framed photo of him beside it, is an alright gag. The call quickly begins to break up (“I told him to use a LAN line!”) The rest of the party is just bizarre though, with Martin apparently being an expert artist (maybe he took lessons from Homer), and Ralph repeatedly saying “duck” in Duck, Duck, Goose, a gag the writers seemed to think was so funny they used it as the first act break, a joke that goes on far, far, faaaaaaaaaaaarrr too long.
– “Ha-ha! You’re nocturnal!” “You don’t have to impress me by making fun of others. I already like you.” “Ha-ha! I’m starting to let down my guard! Ha-ha!” I feel at some point with running gags you need to learn how to pack it in. “Ha-ha!” may be Nelson’s catchphrase, but it just feels so overplayed and overdone at this point. In the classic years we had him calling Bart on the phone to laugh at him, and greater than that, see him have an out-of-body experience so he could appear in someone’s thoughts to laugh at their misery. That’s really pushing it to a wonderfully ridiculous place, and that was a decade ago.
– This is the last episode directed by Lauren MacMullen, and she brings her usual visual flairs: panning across the Bowlarama logo to fade into a ball going down the lanes, an upshot over the frying pan of pancakes… visual flairs like these are much appreciated in such a boring show.
– “I get the feeling Bart isn’t everything he could be in the son department.” That’s a quote from Nelson. What kid, let alone Nelson, talks like that? My mind reeled after hearing that, I had to pause the episode to process exactly what I had just listened to.
– Given the episode title, the conceit of Bart’s life being made miserable living with Nelson isn’t really explored at all. We see he finds his father in the end because he wants to get rid of him, but we really don’t get much of why. It also hurts that Nelson’s been such a sad, pathetic character up to that point, that it’s jarring when he flips back into bully-mode. And then flips back when he starts singing fucking Yentl. I had to fast-forward that part, I just couldn’t take it.
– The sequence showing where Mr. Muntz had been all this time is so insulting and crazy… I barely even want to describe it. He’s at the Kwik-E-Mart and eats a candy bar, which he claims he didn’t know had peanuts in it, even though we see it’s a “Nut-Nutt.” His entire face puffs up, downgrading his speech to incoherent garbles, and he runs into a traveling circus outside. Cut to him in a burlap sack as the star circus attraction. So what, was he stuck at the circus for years as a prisoner? I guess they try to explain how he stayed in his sickly state by the audience chucking peanuts at him, but the swelling never went down even at night to the point he could talk and possibly escape? And people were chucking peanuts at him at every single show, every single day of the year? Maybe the barker told them to, like it was part of the act. In that case, maybe he knew that the peanuts would aggravate his condition and he did it on purpose. Where is this evil barker and how can he get away with this? Are there other members of his freak show that he’s kidnapped and forced to work for him? What the fuck is happening? Oh, who gives a shit…