Oh man, this is it. I might have my wires crossed on this one, but if memory serves me correctly, this is one of the Simpsons’ episodes regarded as truly legendary among the fan base. If nothing else, though I’ve got five more to go in Season One, it might be safe to say that this one sticks out as the Season One episode, and for good reason. There’s a lot to love about this particular episode: it has one of the best openings I remember, there’s a lot of great gags, and though the plot takes it’s time to get rolling it’s one of the better ones of the season, especially when compared to the last episode that I had some major plot problems with. My only real complaint is one we’ll probably keep hearing for a long time – we’ve had how many episodes now that focus on Homer or Bart? Lisa’s had all of one, Maggie’s had one subplot (though episodes where she’s the driving force are admittedly few and far between), and Marge is at a grand total of zero. A little character development for your last principal character might’ve been a good idea, writers. Just saying.
Time to dive into The Simpsons, Season One Episode Eight – The Telltale Head.
We open with what I truly believe is one of the best scenes in Simpsons’ history – Homer and Bart are walking around the town at night, and suddenly they’re being chased by a lynch mob. Cornered at the statue of town fonder Jebidiah Springfield, Bart begs for a chance to tell his side of the story before the mob claims justice. One flashback later, and we’re at the Simpson house on a Sunday, with Marge corralling the clan for church. Shenanigans ensue (we’ll come back to this later, since there’s amazing stuff here), and eventually we run into the episode’s main plot. Bart falls in with a trio of bullies who we’ll see recur throughout the series, and he’s desperate to impress them, especially after being teased and laughed away from their circle for expressing admiration for their town’s founder. Distraught but determined, Bart decides to go the extra mile for popularity and acceptance. The extra mile?
Why, cutting off the head of Jebidiah Springfield’s statue, of course.
Bart’s plan backfires, as it turns out that cutting off the head of the town’s beloved founder makes him public enemy number one in the eyes of everyone, including the bully trio. Feeling the pressure mounting on him and unsure of what to do, he begins to hallucinate that the head is speaking to him, driving him slowly mad – shades of The Telltale Heart, the story from which this episode takes its name. Eventually, he cracks under the pressure and confesses to his family. Homer reveals that he put the ‘popularity is super important’ idea into Bart’s head, and the two are tasked with making things right, leading straight back to our opening. After explaining himself and replacing the head atop the statue, the mob is placated and the two are free to go, with Homer offering the life lesson that not all lynch mobs are this forgiving.
There’s so much to love in this episode, so I’ll start at the top. The introductory scenes? They work fantastically well. Flashback-framed episodes are something I don’t really remember seeing done often outside of this one, but the image of Bart and Homer being chased by a big unruly mob does a damn good job of sucking you into the story. Sometimes stories done in flashback can seem contrived and annoying, but I don’t get that from this one. Admittedly this is one of the first big exposures to flashback as a mode of storytelling that I can remember, so it might be getting a pass from that. Still, I think it’s awesome, and I stick by that.
Also awesome? Everything after the opening scene. I know, I’m not always the biggest fan of an episode that takes a while to get rolling, but this one gets a pass. Why? It’s goddamn hilarious, that’s why! The Simpsons’ can get into some of their funniest shenanigans doing something as simple as going to church. First, there’s Bart having to get what we can only assume is a weekly frisking to catch the crap he tries to bring in with him. From there we go to the entire Sunday school class pestering their teacher with hypotheticals about who and who won’t get into heaven, driving her to the brink of madness. Meanwhile, Homer’s stolen Bart’s portable radio to listen to the football game in church, and the dubbing of the game commentary over Reverend Lovejoy’s sermon is hysterical, culminating in Homer screaming in joy when his team wins at the last second. It’s absolutely brilliant.
The rest of the episode is more heart than hilarity, but it’s not without funny moments. That said, something just occurred to me. We’re less than a season in and we’ve already had two episodes that revolve around Bart interacting with the bullies of the show – and I know there’s a lot more where this came from. I get that bullying’s a big issue now – if this episode or Bart the General were made today, they’d seem pretty topical. I’m not trying to say that bullying wasn’t an issue then either – I’m only surprised because I don’t remember it being such a big issue. From a kid’s standpoint, it sure as hell didn’t seem like it was all over the news like it is today. So were they really just trying to make the episodes true to life? Bullying is an everyday occurrence in schools. I suppose a drive for realism is possible, if we overlook trips into the surreal like Call of the Simpsons. Then again, the focus is more on the peer pressure exerted on Bart, and less on the fact that these kids are technically bullies. Either way, I suppose it’s just interesting that we’ll see this pop up time and time again but I suspect it won’t feel played out for quite some time.
I could spend more time talking about everything I love from this episode, but the fact of the matter is that I love this episode from start to finish. So since I’m over my word count already, I’ll close by talking about something with this episode that isn’t bad, but that absolutely baffles me – the conflict between church and football. The first Sunday football games start at what, 1:00 EST? Is it really common for churches to have services that start so late? None of the ones I’ve ever been to had their main services that late in the day. Is it a denominational thing? There’s also the issue of time zones – 1:00 PM EST is what, 10:00 AM PST? It’s not that unusual for a service to be starting then, but then again, the game is close to ending as the Simpsons set out for church. That would put the time closer to at least 3:00 PM EST, which translates to noon PST. I guess it’s still not that unusual for a service to start around 12:00 or 12:30, but it still strikes me as somewhat uncommon. Is it? I don’t know, maybe I’m just nuts. Also, before I forget, FIRST APPEARANCE OF SIDESHOW BOB!
At any rate, I hope everyone reading this has a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, a… uh… Festive Festivus? If you celebrate a holiday, enjoy it! If you don’t, have a great weekend, and hopefully I’ll have something for everyone one more time before the new year!