At some point, I suggested that Simpsons episodes can be divided into three groups: pure comedy, heartwarming, and satire. This episode falls under satire, bringing in a mockery of sensationalist news. Not only is this perhaps the most major satirical element of the show – it’s the attitude that spawned the most iconic non-family-member related element of the show, the angry mobs – it’s also an idea that has remained relevant in 2017. I’ve been using social media for seven years now (I’ve been on forums since I was a teenager, but I think we all see a difference between those and, like, Twitter), and I cannot count the number of times the unwashed masses went out of control and left me thinking “Jesus, it’s like a Simpsons episode”. The tools might change, but the mob mentality remains the same.
The premise of this episode is that Bart tricks the town into believing that there’s a boy named Timmy trapped in a well, only to get himself trapped in the well and facing mass apathy after everyone finds out they were fooled. Of course, I don’t think each episode neatly and discretely divides into those three categories; the first act of this episode sets up the premise with some good character humour. It’s Bart’s tenth birthday, and Homer, glutton for capitalism that he is, is convinced by an ad to buy him a microphone that can transmit radio signals. This sequence works for me on two levels: firstly, an excellent comical take on bumbling parents (I totally saw my dad in Homer this episode), secondly, an excellent comical take on children unexpectedly finding strange uses for toys.
(Favourite gag in this section: Bart uses his label maker to mark a beer, which causes Homer to sadly remark “Oh, there’s only one beer left, and it’s Bart’s!”)
It’s when Bart gets the idea for a prank by throwing a radio down a well and pretending to be a boy named Timmy who fell down it that the episode really kicks into gear. While there are a few sincere rescuers (Willie, the cops, Sting), and of course people presumably care about, you know, a child in danger, a lot of this sequence feels like grifters and cynics taking a sincere but vague desire to do something helpful and channeling it into their bank accounts – the most obvious being the crappy single thrown together that Krusty openly admits will mainly fund its own production, but I also like the “I survived Timmy falling down the well” shirts. What we have is a mixture of genuine sincerity, a few savvy business people, and a whole lot of willingness to go along with the crowd that all piles up into a media circus.
(Favourite joke from this section: the trainer’s hawk flying away and never coming back)
Unfortunately for Bart, his actions come back to bite him when he realises going nuts with his labelmaker means he’ll eventually get caught (smart writing there, turning a joke into a plot point), and when he tries to cover up his actions, he ends up falling into the well and being forced to reveal his prank, which pisses everyone off enough that they don’t want to rescue him. I don’t think it intentionally coheres into a point, but I like to read this as revealing how hollow the towns’ worry for Timmy was; they were willing to pretend to care about Timmy because he was a cute story that could flatter their image of themselves, while the much less flattering Bart leaves them willing to leave a child in a well.
(Favourite joke from this section: “Hey! Don’t make me come down there!” “Like to see you fit!”)
It’s something I’ve genuinely kept in mind when caught up in moral outrages – am I publicly condoning/condemning this because I believe in it, or am I trying to be part of a mob? Or am I being sold a flattering image of myself? If I do believe in it, am I willing to stick to it even when it’s unfashionable or unflattering? I’m not saying watching The Simpsons makes you a freethinker (I, personally, have been caught up in mob rule before, though I hope I’m getting better), but I do believe having the show so deeply embedded in my brain has lead to me to asking these questions, and I believe they’re more important questions than ever in the internet age.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not carve gods.
Couch Gag: The family bounce around the couch until they’re in reverse order to normal.
This episode was written by Jon Vitti and directed by Carlos Baeza, though the whole story came from Matt Groening. Originally, Bruce Springsteen was supposed to guest star, but after he declined the producers turned to Sting. The microphone was based on commercials for the Ronco Mr Microphone from the 70’s.
Homer watches Soul Train. The restaurant Bart has his birthday at is inspired by Chuck E Cheese. “We’re Sending Our Love Down The Well” is a parody of “We Are The World”. Funky See, Funky Do are a parody of Milli Vanilli. One suggestion for rescuing Timmy parodies Jaws.
In September 2017, an earthquake devastated Mexico City and a news story popped up on Televisia about a little girl trapped in debris, only for it to come out that she never existed. In retaliation, rival network TV Azteca aired “Radio Bart”, which is fucking awesome.
First Appearances: Willie’s rippling muscles.
Biggest Laugh: “This is Kent Brockman with a special bulletin: the Lincoln squirrel has been assassinated.”
(Hell, I was laughing when I reminded myself of it sitting down to write this. It’s both a perfect bait-and-switch, coming in the middle of a montage of everyone saving Bart, and a perfect mixture of logical – ‘of course’ someone would assassinate Lincoln (“If Lincoln was not dead, we would have to assassinate him”) – and absurd – someone assassinated a squirrel.)