The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Seven, “Bart Star”

This is the first episode of the show I’ve gone through that felt like they wrote the plot around good lines they came up with rather than letting lines evolve from the plot. Something I’ve been saying since about midway through season two is how The Simpsons can cover a broad swath of thematic and comedic ground because its sense of self and sense of plotting is so clear that it can shift from one point to another as it burns through them, and this provides a perfect way to clarify how that works by not working in the slightest. This is some prime Jerkass Homer, where he feels pointlessly childish and cruel despite, if anything, being better than he was in “Boy-Scoutz ‘N The Hood”. In this, he’s genuinely motivated by a desire to make things better for his son, but his behaviour is so overbearing and grating. I think it comes down not to the quality of the emotion Homer is feeling, but the depth. My standard line for Homer is that he’s sympathetic because he genuinely wants the best for his family and he’s funny because he has zero idea how to deliver it, and this episode feels like it doesn’t fully square the balance. Homer’s shift to wanting to support Bart in his football career feels impulsive in the wrong way, like he’s suddenly fully committing to something he’d normally spend more time considering, and the stupid way he expresses it feels slightly too obvious; the thing about comedic laziness is that it’s funniest when it’s sweated out, and this just doesn’t feel like it has been.

I don’t know. The longer I think about this, the harder it becomes to articulate why this episode bothers me, because on paper a lot of the little details that bother me are no different to things we’ve been seeing for nine seasons now and there’s no big explanation for why these details in this order were less satisfying to watch than even something as low-stakes as “Mountain Of Madness”. It’s that the rhythm and pacing of things is off, and that there’s a lack of story holding the thing together. “Boy-Scoutz ‘N The Hood” is the story of a boy discovering a new passion and finding his father interfering with it out of laziness and cruelty; “Mountain Of Madness” is about the uselessness of corporate team-building exercises. “Bart Star” doesn’t have some kind of emotional throughline holding it together, and aside from the genuinely clever insight into how children’s sports teams can be dominated by the one kid who’s actually good at the game, this episode lacks anything like that, and so its turns feel less like logical extensions of the plot and more impulses. We gotta have some kind of conflict, so let’s have Homer suddenly want to encourage Bart in playing football. We gotta have Bart try and get out of it, so let’s have him fail by having Homer choose to forfeit instead of keep playing. Admittedly, there are a few moments of inspiration – “This thing only takes dollars,” is such an inspired line, sweet without being saccharine, and the ending is a perfect old-fashioned example of Simpsons cynicism-enriched sweetness. But overall this feels sloppy and mean-spirited in a way I don’t like, and in which I suspect we’ll see more of moving forward.

Chalkboard Gag: I did not invent Irish dancing.
Couch Gag: The Simpsons run in, only to be crushed into a cube like a car.

This episode was written by Donick Cary and directed by Dominic Polcino. It was inspired by both Cary and Mike Scully’s experiences as children on teams where the coach clearly favoured their sons. George Meyer contributed an idea for the opening sequence after seeing Arnold Schwazenegger taunting his children on a nature walk. Joe Namath, Roy Firestone, and Mike Judge all cameo. Firestone appeared in place of Marv Albert, who was embroiled in a sexual assault charge at the time. 

Old Jewish Man shaking his fist as he pointlessly says “You can’t tell me what to do!” is certainly a mood, and so is a flabby Bart casually saying “I’m comfortable with who I am.” There’s a joke about Lisa wanting to join the football team, only to discover there are already girls on the team, and I’m of two minds about it; on the one hand, it’s an amusing parody of the character up until now, and on the other, the cruelty behind the gag would come to define how the character was treated moving forward. I will concede that there are a few Jerkass Homer jokes that got a laugh out of me; Homer taunting Flanders is always funny, “From now on I’m gonna be kinder to my son and meaner to my Dad,” is a favourite line, and the running gag of him constantly and joyfully cutting kids from the team is a cruel joke that makes me laugh every time, all the way up to the punchline of the credits cutting.

Homer dresses in homage to Dallas Cowboys player and coach Tom Landry, having gotten his hat back in “You Only Move Twice”. Hank Hill and his family and friends cameo.

Iconic Moments: “You know, Homer, it’s very easy to criticise.” / “Fun, too.” | Skittlebrau, Homer’s imaginary beer.
Biggest Laugh: