A consistent theme in these essays over season nine is how well it continues to capture the mindset of children, which is something that The Simpsons has always done. The weakest element of the season is how it seems to have lost the show’s thoughtfulness and insight, and it’s as if childhood is something too simple and universal to mess up. What’s especially great is how it dives into a specific, peculiar relationship – that between the edgy bad boy and the weirdo baby. Everything about Bart and Ralph’s relationship is great; it’s conception is completely believable, because I could totally see Marge, square dork as she is, taking a shine to Ralph and using Bart to help him make friends, and I could see Ralph being more annoying because of how oblivious he is. There isn’t a malicious bone in his body, but he’s so poorly socialised that he isn’t aware of the boundaries he’s crossing, so Bart can’t bring himself to be mean to him to his face, and I can totally see situations I was in as a kid. I laughed at Bart getting the idea to play hide and seek to buy a few hours because I definitely did that a few times with kids I found annoying.
It builds on that so wonderfully too. The frustrating thing about trying to make friends as an adult is that you have to, like, purposefully cultivate relationships when your whole childhood was spent being shoved in a room with other people for eight hours a day; the episode shows the way familiarity can breed tolerance, until Bart discovers Ralph has a utility, like a kid using another kid for his Xbox. Like many Bart stories, this is about him chasing an impulse and discovering he doesn’t like all the consequences, and if the basic structure is old hat for this show, it has two things going for it. Firstly, it’s filled with vivid and emotionally sincere imagery; the montage of Bart and Ralph playing in some kind of a store is a joyful experience successfully contrasted with the sad one of Ralph crying in the mud, and everything Ralph says is so perfect. Secondly, the episode powers through it fast enough to find something more interesting and unique after it. The rise, fall, and restoration of Bart and Ralph’s friendship is covered in the first two acts, and the entire final act almost seems to cover the real friendship they’ll presumably have from now on, one in which Bart is exasperated with Ralph’s faults but works to include him and make him happy, and it makes something already ludicrous and funny into something sweet.
Chalkboard Gag: I was not told to do this.
Couch Gag: Bart spray-paints the family onto the couch.
This episode was written by Dan Greaney and directed by Neil Affleck. Mike Scully conceived the idea of Marge forcing Bart to be Ralph’s friend and passed it to Greaney due to his affection and skill with Ralph. Greaney based the robot in the first act on a robot he saw at a baseball game, where both robot and operator were harassed in much the same way. Affleck worked hard to animate this episode, physically acting out the scene in which Wiggum was flailing on the floor – I was already gonna bring that up for being great!
Speaking of great recreation of childhood experiences, the Knowledgeum is actually a pretty good simulation of how cool science places were like when I was a kid, even if none of them had sperm guns. Homer once again becomes even larger when pushed to the background; there’s his spectacular overstimulation, of course, but also the whole ‘funny answering machine messages’ scene.
I love the little detail of Bart being more clever in his ideas for the master key than the ostensible cool kids. I don’t know if that was deliberate but it does feel like he’s trying to impress people he’s already better than.
Iconic Moments: “My legs don’t know how to be as long as yours!” | “What is your obsession with my forbidden closet of mystery?” | “Well, I’m an idiot.”
Biggest Laugh: Really close call between “Attention children!” And this: