The Simpsons: S01E05 “Bart The General”


A recurring kind of plot throughout The Simpsons is the semi-ironic children’s adventure, with Bart and/or Lisa going on an actual adventure, with triumph and fear infused with the show’s typical cynicism and self-awareness. This episode is a primitive example of that, showing Bart’s troubles at the hands of Nelson being solved when he turns to his Grampa, who teaches him war strategy. As is usual for the show at this point, the plot is a little sloppy, with the training sequence in particular taking forever to finish; but the basic building blocks are all there, and the foundation of some key elements of Bart’s personality would be laid here.

Firstly, there’s Bart as shameless huckster. The episode begins with Lisa having made cupcakes for her teacher’s birthday, and Bart practically turns into a used car salesman trying to convince her to give him one, though we’re a little far off from a young man convincing his best friend he never had a goldfish.

Secondly, there’s Bart as the Archetypical Kid. From time to time, the show would treat Bart (and occasionally Lisa) as a representation of all children, not a specific person in his own right but as a symbol for kids everywhere who felt downtrodden and powerless; he would usually yell something like “kid power!” and “kids rule!” while this happened. I think that’s the underlying thing of what’s going on in this episode, as Bart faces up to that archetypical Kid Problem, the bully.

Bart, in defending Lisa from smaller bullies, accidentally provokes Nelson, the biggest and toughest kid on the block. After a few days in which he’s mercilessly beaten (not helped at all by Homer’s advice to fight dirty), Bart turns to his Grampa, who in turn leads him to Herman. With Herman and Grampa’s advice, Bart rounds up his friends and trains them as soldiers, in a war against Nelson. The payoff is weak – Bart essentially wins out of sheer numbers rather than any cleverness, making it vaguely unsatisfying – but the underlying tone, in which Bart finds an absurd solution to a kid problem, is there.

The episode ends with Bart and Nelson signing a peace treaty, in which Nelson retains the title of bully while wielding no real power, and Marge brings out delicious cupcakes for everyone. It’s more of a clever idea than a laugh-out-loud funny one.

Couch Gag: None! No chalkboard gag either. The title sequence skips over starting from the school.
First appearances: Nelson, Marge calling Bart her “special little guy” in one of his dream sequences, Springfield Retirement Home, Jasper, Herman, Bart’s treehouse

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by David Silverman. Swartzwelder’s (primitive, not-quite-honed) absurdism and Silverman’s borderline-surreal animation combine to make the most visually spectacular episode so far.

Let’s talk about Swartzwelder, one of the few TV writers to be something of a household name despite never being much more than a staff writer. He’s well-known for his eccentricities (my favourite: he only ever wrote in a booth in a restaurant while drinking copious amounts of coffee and smoking copious amounts of cigarettes; when California banned public smoking, he simply bought the booth and installed it in his house); but for our purposes, we’re more interested in his genius at writing absurdism, and for following a plot to its own ridiculous-yet-logical conclusion. It’s not hugely present yet, but there’s definitely a Swartzweldian feel over the whole thing – see my Biggest Laugh this week, as well as Bart’s imaginary version of Homer watching in horror as Bart is beat up.

Censors asked the producers to take out “family jewels”, and the producers responded by putting in Grampa’s old man letter complaining about the use of dirty words on television. On the commentary, Matt Groening notes that the episode was controversial at the time and looks harmless today; he’s completely correct, because I’m baffled as to how the episode could look controversial to anyone.

Grampa’s old man letter brings him closer to his iconic characterisation as an irritable old coot. Skinner and Nelson are both fairly one-note (the former is square, the latter is dumb and angry), but those notes will be integral parts of their characters and will be the basis of many funny jokes later.

The training sequence contains references to the films Patton, Full Metal Jacket, and The Longest Day, as well as the famous picture of the sailor kissing the nurse.

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