The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode Fourteen, “Bart’s Comet”

If you wanted to make a collection of Simpsons episodes themed around the town of Springfield as protagonist, this would absolutely have to be part of it. Bart is our initial window into the problem of the week, but technically all he did was notice the comet first, and then he’s not even our main point of view on the true subject of this episode’s interest: the behaviour of the town in response to the comet. We’ve seen the town turn into a single angry mob dozens of times at this point; this time, they’re not a response to, like, Bart stealing a statue’s head, they’re a protagonist in themselves, acting, seeing a response, and responding to that response. And the recurring thing we’re seeing here is that when presented with a problem, most people will choose the solution that requires the least effort, either physically, intellectually, or emotionally. The town driving their cars off a broken bridge is the most obvious example of not thinking something through (in that Arnie literally says that out loud), but I’ve always been struck by the town collectively laughing at the comet when a solution appears to be on hand.

The easiest stance to take is one of smug superiority, because it doesn’t require you to do any actual work, as if the seemingly obvious solution will definitely work and anyone who thinks otherwise (even an inanimate object) is a fool. And there’s the sheer absurdity of the ending, where I have absolutely no idea what to conclude about what happens – everyone walking out of the bomb shelter to support Ned Flanders is simultaneously coming together to support their most neighbourly neighbour and mindlessly walking to their deaths (as far as they know) because Homer made it look good. Perhaps it’s best not to look at it as a good/bad scenario, but as a different spin on where mob mentality can go – Homer, unwittingly or otherwise, made a seemingly difficult action look easy. Strike a path, and others will follow.

(Oddly enough, it makes me think of trigger warnings. PTSD is a complex problem; trigger warnings don’t fix everything but they do serve a simple, clear purpose and require basically no effort to do, and nothing else related to PTSD has entered the public consciousness as thoroughly, surviving the initial response of mockery and rejection in a way that, say, the word ‘problematic’ hasn’t)

Zigging away from that, the first act of the episode is some prime Skinner characterisation that is, as you might expect, also some prime humour about boredom. I get a real kick out of how the show gets to have its cake and eat it too, in how we laugh at Skinner for being a fuddy-duddy (I love the line “Because you have impeded science, you will now aid science,” because it sounds like something a particularly dorky Redditor would write unironically) while also taking his enthusiasm for his interests seriously enough that we can recognise common humanity with him – I’ve never done astronomy, but I have done things like computer programming and video editing that are engrossing and fascinating but completely boring to watch. I can laugh at Skinner because I’m really laughing at myself. It also helps that this is the best of Bart’s pranks yet, adding a strong edge of sympathy for Skinner’s humiliation at his hands.

Chalkboard Gag: Cursive writing does not mean what I think it does.
Couch Gag: The family are animated in the style of Fleischer Studios.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Bob Anderson. The episode was inspired by a Time magazine cover showing comets hitting the Earth, making this the least personal episode of the series and perhaps contributing to that sense of this being more about the town than any individual character. Brockman’s list of gay people consists of the production staff, who had to sign agreements not to sue. Mirkin considers this a perfect Simpsons episode.

The Three Wise Men are the Three Stooges. The townspeople yanking their collars in nervousness is a reference to The Ghost & Mrs Muir. Waldo shows up in the image of the townspeople crammed together (though in Australia he’s called Wally). The bomb shelter scene is based on the Twilight Zone episodes “The Shelter” and “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street”. Frink burning the model of the town is a reference to Back To The Future. The Super Friends named themselves after the show of the same name. The town sings “Que Sera Sera” with Flanders.

Iconic Moments: Shockingly, for such a great episode, just the one: “I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – democracy simply doesn’t work.”
Biggest Laugh: