The Simpsons, Season Five, Episode Twenty, “The Boy Who Knew Too Much”

Last week, we watched an episode where Skinner’s sense of authority made him an empathetic figure, a weak man trying vainly to make sense of the world. This episode completely flips it over and turns him into a non… giving up… school guy! The Simpsons trades in symbolism and iconography; characters are as much abstractions as they are people, representations of an idea. It’s like they’re nouns in a language the show speaks – “Skinner” means authority and education, and that can mean a lot of different things emotionally depending on the context. It’s very rare that this flexibility is so starkly shown, though it’s not as severe when watching each episode weekly as it is going straight from one episode to the next on DVD. To put it another way, the show has simply shifted Skinner from a protagonist to an an. It even has the chance to put him in the context of an Odd Couple; it might shut down the comparison in a joke, but their one scene in which Skinner thrown by Homer not understanding as basic conjunction but still politely explains it, is some classical comedy.

The meat of the episode, and the reason for Skinner’s shift, is a classic moral conundrum: should Bart condemn a bad person to prison even though he’s innocent of this particular crime, even at the cost of Bart’s own freedom? I suspect these kind of ethical questions are one of the reasons the show is remembered for being so smart, because it’s a genuinely interesting question, and the show uses its iconographic thought process to make it both interesting and funny. The guilty man in question is Freddy Quimby, nephew to Mayor Quimby, so the show is drawing on both the general idea of rich, overly privileged douchebags who never had to work a day in their life, and its specific history with Mayor Quimby to round out very quickly that this is not a guy we should be sympathising with, while also getting in cheap, hilarious potshots at rich, overly privileged douchebags who never worked a day in their etc. And the show uses fairly traditional sitcom plotting to let that moral conundrum play out and see where it goes.

(On top of that, I really enjoy that clever trick of hiding what really happened from us until the climax)

The final act of the episode lets us delve into some classic Simpsons themes; courtroom scenes have gone back all the way to the first season, of course, but I also love the appearance of a character seeing something on TV that relates to their problem of the week. Having Homer get caught in jury duty is a great way to shake up the show’s take on courtrooms; lazy assholes trying to bullshit their way through jury duty is kind of a trite sitcom plot now, but the episode stays fresh by having Homer go about ten steps further than most people would. The story’s wrap, with Bart finally revealing the truth, is another example of the show’s ability to cynically subvert sentimentality (I remember “… Four months detention,” making me laugh myself sick when I was a kid); I often wonder how much effect this show had on my cynical mentality, feeding me the belief that the worst thing would always happen every time, and that this was the price one paid for goodness.

Chalkboard Gag: There are plenty of businesses like show business.
Couch Gag: The family sits on David Letterman’s couch.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jeffrey Lynch. A shot is recycled from “Kamp Krusty”. Yeardley Smith plays Lisa at her most adorable when being subjected to good cop/bad cop. I always get a kick out of the sheer brass balls the writers display to get through some ridiculous plot points, and the line highlighting the grossly unconstitutional act of reopening the trial is one of my favourites, one that sets up Futurama‘s later “I’m going to allow this!”

Kent Brockman mentions being shouted down for wanting to call the incident “Waitergate”. They were right to do so. I feel like Lionel Hutz just keeps getting funnier and funnier (“From now on, you tell me everything!”).

Bart daydreams about himself, Huck Finn, and Abraham Lincoln. Bart’s escape from Skinner lifts heavily from the film Westworld, and Mirkin took pains to make sure everyone lifted straight from the film in a perfect example of the show’s dedication to craft. Bart’s scene with Rainier Wolfcastle has references to Arnold Shwarzenegger’s latest film, Last Action Hero, as well as his current wife at the time, Maria Shriver. Matt Groening appears as the courtroom sketch artist. The jury duty scenes parody 12 Angry Men. Homer sings the Meow Mix theme, and the gag is the perfect example of good reference humour not requiring you to get the reference (it’s another thing eight year old me laughed himself sick at). Jasper drops the only reference to seaQuest DSV that has survived the test of time, along with Frasier. Homer watches a director’s cut of Free Willy. Skinner references The Odd Couple. McGarnagle is a reference to Dirty Harry.

Iconic Moments: 4. “Am I so out of touch? No. It’s the children who are wrong.” | “It’s chow-DAH!” | “I know you can read MY thoughts, boy.” | “I’ll kill you! I’ll kill all of you! Especially those of you in the jury!”
Biggest Laugh: