OTH: The Simpsons- "Bart the Genius"/"Homer's Odyssey"
Two earlier episodes display the series still finding its footing
Aired January 14, 1990
Directed by David Silverman
Written by Jon Vitti
It’s funny to watch an episode like this over 30 years removed, where there’s no B-plot to speak of. Basically everything we see in this episode relates to the main plot, which seems practically unheard of in a half hour comedy produced nowadays. While this was the norm for a lengthy period of television, even by this point there had been pushes to add additional stories into an average episode, to give most if not every character something significant to add to this week’s adventure. We’ll see The Simpsons push towards more multifaceted storytelling soon enough, but we’re also bound to see more one-plot episodes in the near future.
Plenty of sitcoms, before or since, have been able to do single narrative episodes with great success, but at the same time, I can see how an episode of All in the Family or the earlier run of Cheers, both of which spent multiple episodes in one general location, seem slow by the standards of today. I’d disagree, but can at least attempt to understand their viewpoint. Writing your sitcom like theatre can certainly work if you find the right story to fit your characters, and give them the best material possible.
But then you have episodes like “Bart the Genius”, which is by no means offensive, but is hardly a classic beyond the loosest possible stretch. There are bits and pieces I could see be charming for its time, but the whole comes off as borderline tiresome today, at least compared to what comes later ahead.
What I do like about this episode is that it doesn’t mock teaching methods for gifted students, and stays mostly reverent towards Ms. Mellon’s principals. Her students are another story, but I have no objections against ribbing some bratty know-it-alls when they deserve it. They’re not wrong about Bart not fitting in, but at no point do the kids make a positive case towards nerds.
If anything, I think this could have been a better chance to explore different methods of teaching than what we ended up with, where the school is just kind of there. Bart only wants to return to Springfield Elementary because it’s closer to his comfort level, as this isn’t for him. The neutral stance is refreshing for the context, but Bart’s indifference makes it harder to find stakes. It’s similarly unfortunate that this doesn’t take more of a chance to call out standardized testing, which has its own series of setbacks.
This works a little better as a test of Bart’s mischievous ways, as we see that he isn’t above switching test papers. Between this and his poor graffiti work of Skinner, it’s easy to see how the little hellion started to sell T-shirts en masse. I also like seeing Homer and Bart further bond as a father and son, bouncing off from the classic Christmas premiere. Their game of catch is cute, but it’s especially fun to see the two crack each other (and Lisa, shockingly enough) up at the opera. These little moments again help to build the idea up of this being a family worth caring about, even when Homer attempts to strangle Bart.
A couple of cute moments aside, there just isn’t much to write home about in “Bart the Genius”. There are some clever ideas asking to be explored which don’t amount to much more than a passable second episode. I’ll write about plenty of average second episodes on this blog, and this is a good place to start as any, I guess.
Aired January 21, 1990
Directed by Wes Archer
Written by Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
First things first, let’s get it out of the way- nuclear power isn’t all that dangerous. At least from multiple sources I’ve read- if you have credible evidence to prove otherwise, please share. I like learning about science, but I’m no scientist.
As for the episode itself, I consider it a slight improvement from the previous episode, but while that had a weak plot with decent plotting, I think this one means well but has poor pacing.
I like the idea of Homer being a safety guide for Springfield, but despite being the motivating force for a solid stretch of the episode, it doesn’t really stick the landing. Writers Kogan & Wolodarksy spend a lengthy amount of time getting to it, focusing most of the first half on Homer’s termination, and then resolve his conflict of unemployment quickly in the end. Doing any one of these isn’t bad on its own, but usually having an extended first act followed by rushing the last two, the narrative more often than not comes off as underdeveloped.
In some cases, a strong first act can build up a weaker ending, but I do think the episode spends too much time on build up, teasing us with another Bart themed episode in the field trip material before turning to Homer and his meatier material. Granted, there is good material sprinkled throughout, and the episode does start to drag when Homer loses his job. While I give the show credit for aiming for and succeeding at using genuine pathos for Homer’s misgivings, this just isn’t very fun to watch. Not to mention that it becomes downright embarrassing to see Marge go back to roller skating at a burger joint.
When we get to Homer becoming the sign man, things do pick up a little, but then it becomes somewhat suspicious that he’d be so well received at pushing for signs in every square foot of the park. At least in this point of the show, which is one step closer to reality.
But when it really loses me is the quick resolve of the end. Homer becomes a beacon of safety in Springfield by pushing for a handful of signs around town, enough to successfully call a mob over? Definitely sus, but I’ll give credit for a nice ending with Homer and Mr. Burns, even if it’s not 100% deserved.
This episode does a good job of explaining Homer’s place in the power plant, in that he’s totally expendable and barely competent. We’ve learned that he’s pretty dumb already by this point, but Homer’s stupidity should be of no further doubt to the audience. It’s still mighty funny at this point, too.
Still, this comes off as average at best. A step-up from the previous episode, with some good gags splattered throughout, but not the best The Simpsons is capable of by any stretch. Going through these earlier episodes is fun to see where the show came up from, but we’re not swimming in gold yet.
It’s funny to see the first season intro, as some elements don’t last, like Bart removing the bus stop sign, or Lisa riding a bike full of books. They’re cute gags, but I can see them be a little excessive in the grand scheme of things. They work much better than the cameo heavy HD intro, though.
Favorite chalkboard gag- “I will not waste chalk” vs “I will not skateboard in the halls”: Both are pretty basic, all things considered, but I’ll go with the OG chalk gag, since it’s a little more appropriately meta.
Favorite couch gag- Bart popping and flying off the couch vs the couch breaking off: Again, I have to side with the first. It’s funny to see Bart fall back into the ground when the “created by” credits land.
Points for a good joke- Maggie spelling out Einstein’s theory of relativity right out the gate. A potential hint towards a future genius in her own right?
It’s interesting to hear Marcia Wallace voice both Mrs. Krabappel and Ms. Mellon, as they’re so clearly on the opposite spectrums. The dearly departed, eternally awesome Mrs. Wallace did an excellent job of separating both roles, even if her turn as Edna wasn’t as well-defined yet. She’s a little bouncier as Edna, but also colder. The character’s dry sense of humor isn’t fully there- she comes off as meaner to Bart than as exasperated as we’ll later know her.
The also recently departed Russi Taylor’s take as Martin is closer to his later self, albeit slightly less bouncy. He more than serves his purpose in the episode though. Don’t you want to give that little brown-noser a swirlie?
Was the scene in which Bart meets up with Milhouse and friends a dream sequence, or did the editors make an awkward wipe for no real reason?
“Oh. You know, you misspelled confession.”
“Not until you’re fourteen, my little friend.” Well Otto, you obviously missed the Christmas ep.
Ah yes, Black Smithers. The character will soon be whitewashed when the crew decided that they didn’t want to have a subservient Black character. Which is a fair enough cause… except they didn’t add too many more Black characters to balance it out.
It’s weird to see a PSA video in the series that doesn’t feature Troy McClure. In due time, friends.
The first prank call to Moe’s. “I.P. Freely”, huh? Heh, cute.
And also the first time Mr. Burns forgets Homer. It recurs over the years and culminates in a notable way in a good while from now.