The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Four, “Bart Sells His Soul”

I’m always willing to admit when I’m wrong and handsome. I kicked off this season suggesting that the show was done being as philosophical and would become more traditionally sitcommy, but if anything that traditional sitcom plotting is only letting it get even weirder and more philosophical. It’s hard to convey philosophy in such a sensory medium like television, because trying to break down meaning and bounce different meanings off each other is not particularly visually striking. Viewers of television and cinema demand action, which I mean in the sense of both ‘stuff that’s interesting to look at’ and ‘people doing things’, and more often than not the only real way to convey that is through two talking heads disagreeing. The Matrix makes philosophy interesting by having characters discuss it in visually striking ways (see especially the tour-de-force of Morpheus laying out the history of the Matrix, which uses cool camera angles, editing tricks, and spectacular effects to underline his points). The Sopranos makes it interesting by contextualising the talking heads within a larger world – the weird action of Tony’s life is what he and Melfi philosophise about in his therapy. Fast, Cheap, And Out Of Control brilliantly conveys what philosophy feels like, cutting between four completely unrelated talking heads and footage of their topic of interest in such a way as to spot connections between their various ideas – but then it’s a documentary, not a work of fiction. What “Bart Sells His Soul” does is very similar to Sopranos, in that it kicks off traditional sitcom plotting with two people having a philosophical discussion, with one of them backing up his point of view by committing to a decision that spins completely out of his control. I especially love how kid-like Bart and Milhouse’s discussion is, too, as both of them spring either stuff that they clearly picked up off someone else or just emerged from their imagination (“What if you die in a submarine at the bottom of the ocean? / “Oh, it can swim. It’s even got wheels in case you die in the desert and have to drive to the cemetery.”). The philosophy comes down to asking “What would be the consequences to getting rid of your soul?”

Meanwhile, Moe’s Family Friendly Feedbag is one of my all-time favourite Simpsons subplots. Aside from it just being really funny, I get a real kick out of how it shows how people – and especially businesses – think they can jump on a fad for a quick buck. Moe sees people getting rich off of one particular set of actions and thinks he can just do the exact same thing to the exact same result. Now, to be fair, he’s genuinely put a lot of work into revamping his business; if it’s an empty recreation of something he saw somewhere else (“If you like good food, good fun, and a whole bunch of crazy crap on the wall…”), then it’s at least a very detailed, carefully researched one. Where this all falls down is the same place it’s fallen down for every rip-off artist who tried copying something that worked before and failed: you gotta get up and do the work every day. Moe doesn’t like people and he really doesn’t like kids, and he doesn’t seem to have even considered those facts before jumping into the whole ‘family restaurant’ deal. It’s common to say that you have to love what you do to be good at it, and this is a perfect demonstration of why – I suspect if Moe was in this for love, he’d at least be able to power through the whole ‘having to talk to kids’ bit, and his anger wouldn’t keep building up and up until it explodes all over the restaurant. This is another example of the show grasping so well how people can simply not think things through enough, and it’s great that it manages ot do so while having Moe apparently make the right moves every step of the way.

It’s a fun question. Last week, there was discussion on how television in general takes an agnostic stance, not out of sincere belief but out of a desire not to offend anybody. I believe The Simpsons presents a genuine agnostic view, one where a divine being might be listening and might be responsible for a few miracles, and here it turns it into something just on the border of magic realism, where Bart selling a sheet of paper with ‘Bart Simpson’s Soul’ has a few strange real-world effects. I really love the precision of the effects it has, too; there’s something so weird about losing the ability to fog up glass with your breath. It’s as if Bart has been emptied, that losing his soul has lost him basic human pleasures and moments, and he’s driven to madness trying to get those feelings back. The Simpsons always stresses the need for deeper substance over superficial pleasures, and this feels like it’s suggesting that even the smaller things in life are worth noticing and considering. I especially love the combo of Bart’s dream of other kids and their souls as buddies, and Lisa’s observation that perhaps Bart never had a soul in the first place, and only earned one this episode through suffering, thought, and prayer.

I’m an atheist, so for me ‘soul’ has always been a convenient shorthand for the impulses, experiences, psychology, talents, moods, and beliefs of an individual, and the strange magic that happens as they all bounce off one another – a charisma unique to each individual. There are bits of me that are common – there are many men, many white people, many pretentious overthinkers, many Simpsons fans, many Tasmanians, many atheists, many introverts, many bisexuals, but only I have my specific combination of things. That combination might have been put there by God, and if it was, maybe God put in an extra divine thing. Regardless, I think a good life involves putting your soul in order. Understanding yourself and organising your thoughts into something consistent and coherent, so you can take that idea of yourself out into the world. I think that’s why Bart’s dream appeals to me, because once you’ve done that, it does feel like there’s someone constantly beside you; a healthy self-image constantly whispering help into your ear. And I think that’s why Lisa’s observation appeals to me too, because it means a soul is something you constantly develop, feed, and nurture; if Moe had developed his soul, he might have known that talking to children just isn’t in his nature. Bart’s misadventure was the first step in a lifelong journey with his soul.

Chalkboard Gag: I am not a lean mean spitting machine.
Couch Gag: The family drive in on little cars and fezzes.

This episode was written by Greg Daniels and directed by Wes Archer. It was based on an incident in Daniels’ life where he purchased a bully’s soul. Archer was deeply disappointed with his work this episode, citing several missed opportunities and a fight over Moe’s design re: his missing tooth. This episode is a favourite of Matt Groening, Nancy Cartwright, and Yeardley Smith.

I love that the sound is mixed so you can hear Bart getting into “In The Garden Of Eden”. Bart overestimating the abilities of a dinosaur sponge is VERY kid-like, and Lisa’s comment “Where did you get five bucks? I want five bucks,” is frequently cited as a favourite amongst people who find it hilarious when she is suddenly an average eight year old. Marge benefits from being pushed into the background; her ability to read Bart based on a hug is adorable and her Momness in how she’s genuinely delighted by Moe’s kitschy design is hilarious.

I cannot believe Americans allowed a restaurant called Fuddruckers to come into existence. Speaking of which, is there anything more American than the sentence “Forty seconds?! But I want it noooooow!” A mere four seasons has passed between Michael Jackson appearing on the show and becoming the butt of a joke here. 

The aesthetic of the Family Feedbag drew heavily on the restaurant Chili’s. Much of Bart’s night-time trek to Milhouse’s is riffing on After Hours. Comic Book Guy assumes Bart is in for the Hi And Lois signing. Bart begins his prayer with “Are you there, God? It’s me, Bart Simpson,” in a reference to Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Iconic Moments: The whole I Ron Butterfly sequence, but especially “Wait a minute, this sounds like rock and/or roll!” | “But every religion says there’s a soul, Bart. Why would they lie? What would they have to gain?” Cue Lovejoy sorting change from the collection plate. | “I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.” |  “Remember Alf? He’s back! In Pog form.”
Biggest Laugh: I am always a sucker for gags about characters distracted from people’s suffering because they’re too concerned with the dramatic plot.


Donate to my Ko-Fi so I can continue buying up little boy’s souls!