Immediately after a “Homer is a bumbling dad to Lisa” story, we get a “Homer is a bumbling dad to Bart” one! Structurally, there are a few similarities – Act One is about Homer coming to realise he’s a bad father, with the rest of the episode being his attempt to make up for it – but any accusations of rote copying fall away pretty quickly, because Bart is a very different character to Lisa and Homer’s relationship with him is equally different. I would argue that, where Homer is too different from Lisa to be a perfect parent, he’s far too similar to Bart with the same effect, and this episode lays that out pretty neatly.
The basic problem with the both of them is that they’re too self-absorbed to develop their relationship; this is laid out pretty neatly in the opening when Bart is puttering about looking for power tools and Homer irritably directs him to them without asking what his son is doing with a drill while he goes back to television. Once again, it falls on Marge to direct Homer’s energy, though in this case it’s much less insufferable than it could have been because she’s inspired to do so by a “fatherhood test” she gets out of a magazine – it’s both specific to who Marge is as a person, and a fairly universal thing that mothers do.
(Floating around this part of the episode are pitch-perfect parodies of pop culture – it opens with an infomercial and leads into a McBain movie, and what’s delightful isn’t just the specific parody, but the way Homer reacts to them and their place in the story. Not only is Homer strangely enthusiastic about a cleaning product, it’s what he’s watching when he’s ignoring Bart; Homer sees a trailer for a McBain movie when he accidentally gets himself caught into spending time with Lisa, and blows off actually seeing it because “I just saw the best part!”. The Simpsons never wastes a second.)
As always, what makes Homer a sympathetic character is that he’s merely stupid, not actively malicious, and once he realises he’s a bad father, he immediately sets out to make it right. His first stop is to call the magazine that printed the fatherhood quiz (as beloved commentor Ruck Cohlchez observed in “Stark Raving Dad”, one of many “ironic hold music” gags this season when they play “Cat’s In The Cradle”), and he’s given an impromptu tour of their facility and some advice: spend time with Bart.
(One of my favourite things the show does is what I call “offscreen narrative jokes”, where the show does a a gag and then implies even greater absurdity offscreen; my definitive example being Burns responding to his trap door failing with “Oh, it’s doing that thing again!”. This scene has a wonderful early example, when the “underwater fathering” test starts going horribly wrong when a shark gets involved and Dave Jr cries out “Not again!”, implying a shark attack wasn’t enough to shut it down in the first place.)
And what makes this episode so great is that Bart’s reaction is so Bart; he’s all business building his racer, and he’s not so much reluctant to take on Homer’s help as he’s simply puzzled. When they start working together, though, we see everything wonderful and awful (in a hilarious way) about their shared worldview – they have a lot of fun working together, mainly because both of them are sloppy and careless. Probably the best summary of their relationship is the two of them welding, both masks up, while Homer smokes a cigar; genuinely heartwarming as well as stupid.
Even if it didn’t factor into the plot, I really like that Bart has personal stakes outside Homer for competing in the race – it really helps the theme to have Bart already immersed in a world independent of Homer, and of course it makes the emotional journey of the episode more complicated. Competing against Bart are both of his two rivals at this point: Martin and Nelson. The show knows them both so well at this point that both their jokes and their function in the plot are perfectly judged – Martin’s racer is a ridiculously powerful futuristic spacecraft thing, and he shifts from cocky rival to helpful sidekick. Nelson, meanwhile, builds cruel and dangerous weapons into his boxcar, and remains a villain the entire way.
Where the episode resembles “Lisa’s Pony” again is in the third act twist, in which the child recognises Homer’s sacrifice and must decide between their personal desires and their relationship with him. In Bart’s case, Martin crashes his boxcar and injures himself badly enough that he can’t race, so he repairs it and offers it to Bart. To Bart’s credit, he realises how badly this would hurt Homer’s feelings, and ultimately reluctantly takes it on so that one of them (or, if you prefer, both of them) could beat Nelson.
As you might expect, Homer is crushed, but this leads up to an incredibly mature conclusion. Distraught, Homer stumbles upon the fatherhood test from earlier, and quickly realises he can accurately answer every question on the test (once he briefly stops over at Flanderseseses to talk parenting with him). It wasn’t about the boxcar, and it was never about the boxcar; it was about spending time with Bart and getting to know him as a person. The other day, we had a thread about favourite Simpsons episodes, and I observed that as much as I love episodes like “And Maggie Makes Three”, I have no idea if they’d hit more if/when I become a father, and was assured that yes, it gets worse, and I wonder if episodes like this also hit even harder; the separation of personal ego and love for your child that a parent has to have.
The ending is a triumphant parody of every sports movie ever made, and when Bart handily wins the race, we end on both a typically cynical Simpsons note, and a final sign of how similar Bart and Homer are, when they make fun of Nelson for losing.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not fake rabies.
Couch Gag: The couch cushions are missing, and the Simpsons all fall in.
This episode was written by Ken Levine and David Issacsand directed by Jim Reardon. The plot was inspired by two things: an offhand line about Bart building a boxcar in “Itchy & Scratchy And Marge”, and a real fatherhood test Sam Simon found.
The title is a reference to Days Of Thunder. “Wind Beneath My Wings” plays over the climax. Patty gets a Mary Tyler Moore haircut. The McBain film combines Lethal Weapon and Sudden Impact. Harry Shearer based Dave’s voice on Mason Adams. In a moment of cringe, Bill Cosby’s book Fatherhood is referenced several times throughout the episode. Nelson’s boxcar tactics reference Ben-Hur. The shot of Homer cheering on Bart references The Natural.
First Appearances: N/A