The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode One, “Bart Of Darkness”

As always, this episode was a holdover from the previous season’s batch of episodes – in this case, because production was held up by an earthquake, and this gave the crew extra time to polish the episode. So, in a way, this is really the apotheosis of what this season is trying to achieve. The season technically ended with a look in on Homer and Marge and their dysfunctional marriage, and this pulls apart the kid that at least used to be the protagonist of the show. Bart is a man of action, the archetypal kid adventurer updated for his present day, and the worst thing you could do to him is lock him alone in a room where he can barely move, especially in the middle of summer, when television’s mindlessness reaches a level even children can’t handle – I always got a kick out of the precision of words used in the Klassic Krusty klip*, with “collective bargaining agreements” being a) a real term referring to something that’s actually important, b) sounding Important and Grown-Up to a kid and c) being totally meaningless and uninteresting to a kid, making a somewhat predictable joke land even harder. This is the kind of thing that makes a show last two decades; that sincerity of emotion makes the jokes funnier.

(*”KKK?! Oh, that’s not good!”)

Pulling back a bit, the entire first act delves into how it feels to be a kid in summer, pushed forward by examples from the crew’s collective childhoods that never happened to me but feel like they could have – we have a community pool where I grew up, but a big truck full of water seems like the kind of thing that a local council would order in on a hot day (the flipside of this is that we did have a pool much like the ones the Simpsons have in this episode, and the show’s experience is barely an exaggeration). I think if there’s any one thing tying together the show’s sense of childhood, it’s that of powerlessness – there’s no ice cream, only chili, and fuck you if you want anything else. As the story lays out, whining is the only negotiating tactic kids have.

Anyway, leaving Bart in his own head is just about the worst thing to do for him, forcing his weirder impulses to the surface, like his inexplicable obsession with Cockney England (speaking of going the extra mile, it was hilarious to discover that St Swithin’s Day is actually a real holiday and not a product of a Simpsons writer’s deranged imagination). Bart can barely handle sitting still in school, completely immobilising him drives him out of his mind (even his laugh is weird and kind of forced); he reminds me of those kids in school who constantly seemed overstimulated, but were in fact understimulated. The flipside of this is that of course he would end up in some kind of Rear Window parody, so desperate for any kind of stimulation that he turns to voyeurism to fill his day, and solving a murder is exactly the kind of #relatable story Bart gets caught up in all the time.

This is simply another aspect to the show’s vision, in how it sees the world as a springboard for pop culture references; I actually like it as a way of achieving diversity of ideas without B-plots, in that it being a logical next step in the sequences of consequences ‘makes up’ for the fact that it’s totally tonally out of step with everything that built up to it. If the first two acts caricatured how the world actually is for children, this act captures how kids wish it could be, a wacky murder mystery adventure. I love the Treehouse-style touch in how jokes are used to push the plot forward, as Bart’s quite reasonable first attempt to call the police hits Springfield incompetence (“You have selected regicide!”). This fast movement from one idea to the next is what brings us back to this show, year after year.

Chalkboard Gag: Beans are neither fruit nor musical.
Couch Gag: The family sit on thin air and the couch comes in to sit on them.

This episode was written by Dan McGrath and directed by Jim Reardon. The fridge tent gag came from something McGrath did as a kid, and the Pool-Mobile came from Dave Mirkin’s childhood. Reardon considers this episode truest to what he had been trying to achieve for the five years he’d been working on the show. Krusty’s mispronounciation of Ravi Shankar’s name was an adlib; I loved it as an example of Krusty chasing fads so hard that he barely bothered to keep up with what they were.

I didn’t talk about Lisa at all this essay, but I love her rise-and-fall mini-arc, something every iconoclast kid like her must go through at some point or another. Stamp The Ticket Guy shows up to punch a hippy singing an ironic song, further endearing himself to the masses.

The title is a reference to Heart Of Darkness. As said, act three is a parody of Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart’s character cameoing. The barn building scene is a parody of Witness. The Itchy & Scratchy episode title parodies The Planet of The Apes while the Itchy aliens reference the pilot episode of Star Trek. Martin sings Frank Sinatra’s “Summer Wind”. The pool scene references the routines of Esther Williams. Bart’s play is very similar to those of Anton Chekhov.

Iconic Moments: “Don’t worry, boy. When you get a job like me, you’ll miss every summer.” | “Let me be blunt: is there a labour crisis in America today?” | “Then everything is wrapped up in a neat little pack-age!”
Biggest Laugh: “Alright, Lou, open fire.”