This is one of a small handful of Simpsons episodes that has been collectively filed under Too Real, alongside “$pringfield”, “Scenes From The Class Struggle In Springfield”, and “Miracle On Evergreen Terrace”, where people genuinely find the emotional pain presented too difficult to watch. And you know, I’d never noticed until now that three quarters of these stories are centered around Marge. Bart and Homer have a powerful hedonism driving their stories, and Lisa has moral righteousness that makes her operatic. How much do you suppose Marge’s reputation as a wet blanket comes from her stories dealing with grimy, unpleasant emotions? Certainly, the thing that consistently comes up in discussion of this episode is how hard it is to watch a story about a boy disappointing his mother. The show consistently manages to play these characters as both particular individuals with particular quirks and viewpoints, and archetypal Kids and Parents and such. Bart and I may have been almost nothing alike as kids, but his shameful “I don’t want you to see this!” certainly hits a particular part of me.
In terms of particularity, this is another episode demonstrating Bart’s insistence that he isn’t a criminal, he’s a petty thug. I remember as a kid that there definitely felt like a difference between the smartasses and the kids who would regularly steal and break shit, and it definitely feels like Bart falls in the former category. He doesn’t always think about the consequences for his actions, but he does care about them, and he cares about the effect he has on the feelings of others. He at least ostensibly has limits on the distance he’s willing to go to pull pranks and cause chaos; that makes him sympathetic to the audience and it makes him sympathetic to the people who love him (perhaps another way of wording why Jerkass Homer doesn’t work is because he too, is supposed to have limitations that he loses). The great thing about the Barts of the world is that they make life a little more interesting, but there’s such thing as being too interesting.
In terms of the broad idea of children/parent relationships, perhaps this is the story of a child breaking their parent’s image of them. It’s common to want our parents to think the best of us; perhaps the ideal parent/child relationship is the child wanting to be the best version of themselves, and the parent seeing that best version of their child and encouraging it. Of course, Marge tends to lie to herself about what kind of kid Bart is and doesn’t seem to fully grasp his particular talents, and fails to nourish them about as much as the school system does. She has that old-fashioned parent problem of having this image in her head of what a person is ‘supposed’ to look like. From that perspective, I actually admire how she seems to genuinely reconsider what she does to Bart and tries to shake up her behaviour; as flawed as it is, it’s an attempt to shake up what doesn’t seem to be working.
And that idea plays into the ending. The best apology is changed behaviour, and I really love that Bart genuinely considered what would make his mother happy and worked to deliver it. It almost feels like his head for elaborate pranks turned towards a goal he wouldn’t ordinarily consider. I also find something incredibly morally sophisticated about the way it’s set up, where we’re initially lead to believe that Bart is giving into people’s perception of him as a rotten kid; he’s simultaneously acknowledging the effect his actions have wrought while shaking off its ability to control his actions. Ignoring the effect your actions have on the feelings of others entirely is vile, but letting the feelings of others dictate your every action is vile too, and Bart manages to find the perfect balance, becoming personally responsible for creating joy in the world.
Chalkboard Gag: I will stop talking about the twelve inch pianist.
Couch Gag: Homer pulls a plug in the floor and everything gets sucked into it.
This episode was written by Mike Scully and directed by Steven Dean Moore. Scully based the episode on an incident from his own childhood when a bunch of guys pressured him into shoplifting, only for him to get caught almost immediately. This is the first Christmas episode since the pilot, which is kind of shocking to realise, actually. Lawrence Tierney guest stars as Don Brodka, and this is one of the most famous incidents of the actor terrifying everybody he worked with (though the most famous would be his appearance on Seinfeld). I agree with Oakley and Weinstein in thinking his performance was pretty great, though.
One way in which the episode fails to live up to actual childhood is the idea that Milhouse wouldn’t want to play a co-op game. I love Gavin, who genuinely feels like every spoiled asshole kid I ever met. I love Lisa’s use of the bathroom rug as a metaphor for Marge, and I love her childish outrage at not getting a present early.
Mario, Luigi, Donkey Kong, and Sonic The Hedgehog all appear in Bart’s mind to convince him to steal the game. Lee Carvallo is a reference to Lee Trevino. Bart refers to the photographer as Ansel Adams.
Iconic Moments: 4. THRILLHO | Homer’s whole “stealing” rant at Bart, which has at least three different phrases people riff on: “Captain Whatsisname?”, “Why do you think I took you to all those Police Academy movies?”, and “Where was I? Oh yeah! Stay outta my booze!”
Biggest Laugh: Fine, I’m a sucker for jokes at the expense of Police Academy.