The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Seven, “Bart’s Inner Child”

The show has long known the difference between superficial pleasure and genuine emotional or spiritual fulfillment for a very long time, and it’s always known the power of the angry mob; this is one of its best combinations of both, by tapping into the self-help industry. As Lisa points out at the end, self-improvement is a long, slow process, and people as a rule want to take the fastest path between two points, even if they have to move the second point a little closer to get there. What’s great is that, once again, for making such a simple point, the episode never feels like a lecture – it doesn’t feel like we’re Learning A Lesson, it feels like we’re seeing the truth, because as always this is the characters – people we’ve known for five seasons now – reacting to something exactly the way they would. This kind of thing is the real advantage of Marge and Homer’s marriage perpetually skating on thin ice – this is a genuinely new variation on that theme that still feels plausibly like the kind of thing the characters would do, and it just happens to articulate a fundamental part of human nature.

It is almost kind of sweet to watch Homer and Marge sit down and watch Brad Goodman’s tape together; as time passes, their body language becomes more intimate and attentive. They sincerely love each other, they sincerely want to make each other happy, and they sincerely believe Goodman’s jargon can help them improve their marriage, but what it really does is give the characters immediate emotional gratification without actually fixing any of their underlying problems – the whole scene of Homer and Marge not-fighting over him having eaten the brownies is their basic issue (Homer does something thoughtless, Marge lets him off the hook) with a better vocabulary. The structure of the story – beginning with Marge and Homer specifically and zooming out to Goodman’s effect on the town in general – has the effect of making the Simpsons into one particular iteration of a mass problem.

A minor part of these essays I’d like to expand on is The Simpsons as a specifically American product; it’s definitely had a massive influence on my view of American culture, and I happen to live in a country (*comptroller voice* Australia) that has had to reconcile with American culture’s absolute domination of our own, in ways both negative and positive (e.g. the influence of American groups like Black Lives Matter has lead Australian progressives to look at our own rather horrific history of racism). There are some things that cross over, some things that don’t, and some things that have their own flavour. I think most people are looking for easy answers, and most people are especially looking for a self-flattering worldview; Brad Goodman feels, to me, like an especially American take on someone providing those kinds of answers.

Obviously, he lifts from a long history of self-help gurus, with his videotapes and seminars, but I’m especially struck by his line “I may not have a lot of ‘credentials’ and ‘training’”, putting an edge of disgust on the words. One fairly consistent part of the American character, at least as I have seen it, is a distrust of experts (think anti-vaxxers who made a whole philosophy out of simplified high school biology from thirty years ago; think also of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which has been found to be more common in Northern Americans than in Japanese people). Brad Goodman presents himself as the ultimate easy answer – someone who skipped over all that useless ‘hard work’ that ‘experts’ did to get their ‘qualifications’ to get straight to his answers; he’s everything a Springfielder wants to be, successful without hard work.

The really interesting thing to me is that Goodman actually does start the town off on a good note – I think looking within yourself and deciding how you feel about things and what you want is a necessary part of being a good human being – it’s just Goodman doesn’t tell them that the next step is figuring out how to compromise with the world around you (for example: Homer and Marge would probably both feel a lot better if he didn’t eat a whole goddamned pan of brownies), and so the entire town falls apart when everyone’s more concerned about their individual feelings than, you know, Ferris Wheels working (interestingly, also the overall arc of Mad Men, another very American show that speaks to the universal).

After all that talk we’ve had about the work the Simpsons crew put into the process, the rewrites and research and needlessly detailed animation, perhaps there’s no better group of people to tell stories about hard work and the people who avoid it. I always get a huge kick out of storytellers whose very process proves their own point; these are people who’ve never settled for easy answers and always chosen the more difficult, more rewarding path, and it’s given us one of the greatest sitcoms ever made.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: A very fat man is already sitting on the couch, and the family shove up next to him.

This episode was written by George Meyer and directed by Bob Anderson. Albert Brooks makes his third guest appearance as Brad Goodman, and David Mirkin describes him as weird to direct because of his strong improv approach – it’s hard to choose from his many takes. James Brown also guest stars; Mirkin says the writers always enjoy giving big names like him lines that sound funny coming out of their mouths, like “This bandstand wasn’t double-bolted!”.

The crew occasionally toyed with the idea that Marge sleeps nude and Homer doesn’t, which appears here.

“And how!” is another one of those Simpsons phrases that’s seeped into the vernacular.

Goodman is a reference to self-help author John Bradshaw, who popularised the ‘inner child’ concept. The shot of children injured from the tramampoline trabampoline trampoline is lifted from Gone With The Wind. The sequence of Homer trying to dispose of the trampoline by throwing it off a cliff is a clear riff on Road Runner cartoons. Reverend Lovejoy tries playing “The Entertainer” by Scott Joplin on the church organ.

Iconic Moments: 6. “TRAMAMPOLINE! TRABAMPOLINE!” | “It smells funny in there.” / “No it doesn’t.” | “What an odd thing to say.” | “Food goes in here.” | “WE LIKE ROY!” | “IT MEANS HE GETS RESULTS, YOU STUPID CHIEF!”

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