The Simpsons, Season Two, Episode One, “Bart Gets An F”

 

Already, season two gets back to familiar territory. This feels like a redo of “Bart The Genius”, where Bart contends with an incompetent and indifferent school system that he simply doesn’t fit into. This time, however, the show has absolute confidence in itself and its characters, and this episode is a powerhouse of comedy, pathos, and satire.

We begin by seeing Bart bullshit his way through a book report on Treasure Island. It’s always great seeing Bart in huckster mode, and Nancy Cartwright practically turns him into PT Barnum as he tries improvising his way through it by simply describing the cover. Mrs Krabappel is a seasoned teacher, though, and undoes him by asking him the pirate’s name. AfterBart fails a followup test, she calls in Homer and Marge for a parent-teacher meeting, and she and the school psychologist agree that if Bart can’t shape up, he’ll have to be held back. Bart finds the prospect of that humiliating and begs for a second chance.

Here, the satire is clearer – firstly, Bart has so many distractions around the house that even when he sincerely says he’s going to study, he ends up finding himself at the end of the day having done nothing. I’m sure many college students can recognise how easy it is for Bart to fall into bad habits, let alone ten year olds. Secondly, neither Mrs Krabappel nor the school psychologist understand why Bart is doing so badly, and Bart believes, due to the fact that he tests so badly, he’s just dumb. Instead of working with him to figure out what’s going on, they berate him before finally agreeing. He doesn’t fit into the system, so they just give up and reject him.

Bart decides to turn to Martin Prince to help him shape up and avoid repeating the fourth grade. Having been someone’s Martin in high school, I recognise the emotional arc of this section all too well – Martin trains Bart in how to approach studying, and Bart teaches Martin how to do mild schoolyard pranks. Unfortunately, he teaches Martin too well, and he’s abandoned before Martin can actually teach him how to study. Bart is reduced to praying for a miracle, and gets it in the form of a snow day.

At first, Bart starts to go play, but then Lisa, in an early example of acting as moral guidance, reminds Bart that he prayed for help, and he’d better not throw away his second chance. He agrees, in a big display of maturity, and tries to ignore the increasingly wonderful scene outside and study. We cut quite suddenly from Bart desperately trying to concentrate to Bart already having completed the test, which gives us (and him) no time to emotionally prepare and no idea how well he did.

It turns out Bart failed by one point, and Mrs Krabappel’s cynicism is broken at the sight of Bart bursting into tears. He really, genuinely tried his best, and he still failed. In the process, he inadvertently reveals some obscure bit of knowledge he picked up, and Mrs K uses that to give him just enough to pull of a D-Minus. Overjoyed, he celebrates. It was important to

Chalkboard Gag: “I will not encourage others to fly”
Couch Gag: The Simpsons fall through the floor on the couch.

This episode was written by David Stern and directed by David Silverman. Silverman’s whimsical direction is crucial to multiple parts of this episode – most obviously, the spectacular Snow Day sequence, which he says was the most difficult thing he’s had to animate, but also the two dream sequences Bart has; the first showing his potential future, forever in the fourth grade, the second showing him trying to study the Declaration of Independence. I also like the way he draws Martin increasingly wildly.

This episode has the highest original broadcast rating of any episode of The Simpsons.

Martin references Moby Dick in conversation. During the Snow Day sequence, the characters sing “Winter Wonderland”, and the way they sing it is a reference to How The Grinch Stole Christmas”. “Hallelujah” plays when it starts snowing. Also, the psychologist references t-shirts sold when the first season aired, which showed Bart with the slogan “Underachiever and proud of it!”.

First Appearances: Mayor Quimby
Biggest laugh:

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