This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 30 Episode 1
“As someone who’s fallen off of cliffs multiple times, the best thing we can do is teach him how to fall off a cliff,” Homer Simpson tells Marge as their son Bart, AKA El Barto, lies in a hospital bed because he took a dive into concrete on a dare. Homer ought to know. Over the course of thirty seasons, he’s probably tied with Wile E. Coyote by now as far as animated pratfalls. The Simpsons season 30 premiere takes the show to the edge of a precipice of a leap of faith only to recant at the last minute.
Homer’s best known fall is in the “Bart the Daredevil” episode from season 2. He did it to teach Bart a lesson. A very hard and bumpy lesson, which the boy and all the kids in the neighborhood got to watch twice as Homer repeated the trip because someone didn’t close an ambulance door all the way. In “Bart’s Not Dead,” the boy is once again taking moral direction from his dad, the immoral center of both the Simpson family and the town of Springfield. Homer is a deeply spiritual man. He once founded his own church, based on the divine principle that people should sleep in on Sunday mornings, and perhaps eat waffles with whole sticks of butter in them. The church failed to set the world on fire, but it did unite people of all faiths in one room.
Bart unites the school against him after not taking a dare which would have embarrassed his sister. It’s not that Bart doesn’t want to embarrass his sister, but it has to be on his terms. Papa Homer is learned, pronounced with one syllable when the syllabus is schoolyard behavior. After convincing Bart to take a dare which lands him in a hospital, Homer breaks down and prays for a miracle. He doesn’t pray for Bart’s life, because as the title of the episode proclaims, “Bart’s Not Dead.” Homer prays the boy comes up with a good enough lie to distract Marge from his part in it. This is absolutely consistent with his character and the subversive nature of The Simpsons. The series’ atheistic streak leads them into the temptation of questioning anything about faith. Something the faithful try not to do.
Bart says he went to heaven after the fall. We have to believe him. No one who goes to heaven would lie about a thing like that. He also says he met Jesus and his own late grandfather. When asked for a sign, for something only Marge would know, Bart says Homer is a loser, which sounds so much like her father Marge can almost feel him in the room. Marge Simpson is nothing if not the most enabling housewife and mother in the history of television. But even she is at wit’s end with her sweet little boy. Marge accepts the lie as a way to cling to any shred of hope her son is not beyond redemption, all the while denying this might be one of the biggest fibs her son will ever have to redeem.
“Little lies lead to big lies and big lies get found out,” Lisa warns Bart. He’s not scared of course. He went to heaven and has nothing to fear. So the Simpson family conscience goes for the sight gag, pulling her face until it is contorted in a way that harkens back to the frighteningly coarse early days of the series. All the way back to one of the shorts that were shown on The Tracey Ullman Show, where Marge warns the kids that if an angel passes over while they are making faces at each other, their faces will stay that way, which, you have to admit, is pretty cool. But Lisa gets into her brother’s head. Ultimately she is the reason he recants. That and because even Jesus Himself is uncharacteristically having trouble forgiving the kid. This reviewer admits it is a little out of character for the man renowned for his cheek-turning to give in to the vibe of the show.
During a second visit to heaven, Bart runs into Homer, who is only putting up the appearance of feeling blessed. He’s actually bored out of his yellow skull and retreats to Hindu Heaven for reincarnation. Jesus tries very hard to forgive Bart, but finally gives up in a scourge of sandal bashings. All the taunts at Christianity are good clean sacrilegious fun, but the funniest, and most soul-searching, comes when the family faith is truly being tested. “Our father who art in heaven, holler out your name. Thy kingdom come, I’m almost done,” Homer prays while the producers sit with Ned Flanders, soaking in the spirit. Homer passes the surprise quiz of his moral dilemma by flubbing both. The prayer explains exactly how he sees faith and the importance he gives it. At the same time, he really does believe in the money he and the boy can make by believing in the believers.
Perhaps an unintentional bit of subversion comes from the Christian movie producers’ faith in the kid from Springfield in the first place. Bart famously cried wolf far too many times. He’s already exposed himself as a fake faith healer. He once found infamy by falling down a well while pranking the town about a beloved kid who fell down a well. The Christian movie makers are not the brightest bulbs in the pack. Most of them went to school at the Academy of Arts and Antisciences. But the producers did learn enough to turn out to be just as corrupt as anyone, mumbling incoherently when Bart asks if they kick back the profits, which are huge, back to the church.
The episode is filled with sight gags. The earliest and best is when Groundskeeper Willie tries to vacuum the sound of Martin Prince’s cello solo from his ears. Bart’s hospital room is decorated by get-well cards, one of which reads “We dare you to get better, the bullies.” The ever mirthful school bully Nelson is getting more self-revelatory and heartbreaking with each taunt. His father went out for cigarettes when he was very young, and his mom fits in parenting in between stripper jobs. First Nelson haw haws that Bart has a dad, something the boy will deny to his death. Then he taunts Marge for being the kind of mom who wears a seat belt.
“Bart’s Not Dead” isn’t quite a classic episode, but it has all the classical elements. At the center of the piece is a fight over Bart’s soul. He may worship the devil in public, but when no one is looking, or in this case when everyone is looking, Bart will always side with his mother and sister. And the Fox network brass because they couldn’t have him going entirely over to the dark side. That’s Homer territory.
The film-within-the-episode skewers the righteous tinkering of facts, while raising the suspense on why Bart and Homer shouldn’t get away with this. Bart, played by Jonathan Groff in the Christian film, doth protest too much, and far too specifically. It sounds like the movie is already a whitewashed version of something in need of fresh paint.
The episode bodes fairly well for season 30 because, even though The Simpsons has covered this subject a few times, they show they are not going to ease up on casual blasphemy. After thirty years, the series has become the authority. Newer shows are taking on new ground, but The Simpsons are still shooting for something less than redemption. Bart begins the episode as the boy who refused to take a dare and ends it by taking it one step too far, but sadly takes a step backward.
“Bart’s Not Dead” was written by Stephanie Gillis, and directed by Bob Anderson.
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Guest voices by Dave Attell as Luke, Emily Deschanel as herself, Gal Gadot as herself, Jonathan Groff as Bart, and Pete Holmes as Matthew.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.