“Bart Of Darkness” (season six, episode one; originally aired 9/4/1994)
In which no one seems to pull their blinds—or restrict access to their pool—during a hot spell like this…
There’s no established number of seasons to determine whether or not a TV show has “made it.” Plenty of crappy shows have run for close to a decade; some of the television medium’s finest offerings only got a handful of episodes to air. For years, there was a concrete milestone of TV success in the 100-episode barrier to syndication, but an increasing number of channels with a greater amount of airtime to fill has brought that count down nearer to the the 80-episode mark. (Though cases have been made for certain landmark series that aired even fewer installments, with cable outlets like IFC and Bravo ponying up for shows like Freaks And Geeks and Twin Peaks following abbreviated network runs.)
But if you wanted to quantify TV success in seasons, a show’s sixth go-round would be a good place to start. With the average American network series producing 20-some episodes per year, a show’s sixth season is often its first to air alongside syndicated reruns. That will be the case when Parks And Recreation returns with new episodes in the fall of 2013, and it was the case when The Simpsons debuted “Bart Of Darkness” 19 years prior. It’s a curious position for a show to be in, continuing its evolution in primetime while its awkward baby photos run after the 11 o’clock news. It’s easy to forget in a time of DVRs, streaming services, and full-season DVD sets, but for Simpsons fans who hadn’t had to foresight to tape-record every episode from “The Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” to “Secrets Of A Successful Marriage,” this was the first opportunity to see the show in its primordial stages, to have their fond memories of The One with Blinky or The One with Dustin Hoffman reinforced (or proven wrong). It was also the first chance to voice that now-familiar refrain: “The early seasons were better.”
This game of compare-and-contrast is inevitable. By the time a show is working on its sixth season, it’s part of the TV establishment. In 1994, The Simpsons was no longer a groundbreaking, school-board-shaking, president-quaking cultural force challenging the rest of the broadcast schedule to eat its shorts. But as “Bart Of Darkness” demonstrates, it wasn’t the easy target losing those shorts to bullies in the community pool, either.
By the time of its sixth season, The Simpsons had been around long enough to institute its own tropes, traits, and conventions, but the première episode of that sixth-season still displays a rebel streak. “Bart Of Darkness” is a hilarious episode that restricts a Simpsons’ go-to—Bart as hell-raiser—and mines much of its humor from the cruelties of childhood. Later seasons would see the show devolve into less elegant forms of pop-culture parody; “Bart Of Darkness”’ riff on Rear Window, however, is the type of parody that makes the enterprise seems so simple, even hacks like Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer can do it.
Among the many TV conventions The Simpsons flouts, it’s never taken as a given that the children of Springfield are fundamentally good. The show doesn’t blanch in the face of adolescent pain, and “Bart Of Darkness”’ opening acts acknowledge that kids can be just as cruel and conniving as grown-ups. Bart ends up losing his entire summer due to the high of a newfound popularity, but he’s wise to his “friends”’ true intentions by the time they’re written all over his leg cast. Leave it to Sherri and Terri to spell it out in obliquely nasty, humorously cutting terms: “Isn’t it amazing that the same day you got a pool is the same day we realized we liked you? The timing worked out great, don’t you think?”
Even while Lisa is basking in the newly uncovered admiration of her classmates, that admiration is insincere—its emptiness expertly illustrated by the falling water levels caused by her fairweather friends’ escape to Martin’s backyard. The pool at 742 Evergreen Terrace is one of those Simpsons plot devices that’s introduced with great fanfare and never seen again, but it provided the show’s writers and animators with some fruitful raw materials. The swiftly draining pool is a fun visual gag, and the Esther Williams-Busby Berkeley fantasia that pours the salt into Bart’s summer-ruining wound is a credit to Jim Reardon’s direction. A looser production schedule was the silver lining of the earthquake that pushed “Bart Of Darkness” off the season-five production schedule and into season six’s pole position, and the added time for attending to the details greatly benefits Reardon’s cinematic choices for the episode, as well as little flourishes like the background kids, the period details of the [Shudders.] “Klassic Krusty” clips, and the garbage that accumulates during Bart’s time in the role of an elementary-aged L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies.
Such direct parody wasn’t anything new for The Simpsons: The fifth season produced “Cape Feare” and “Rosebud,” and season four’s “Marge Vs. The Monorail” lifted its grinning shyster straight from The Music Man. But “Bart Of Darkness” blurs the line between parody and homage even more than Sideshow Bob’s turn as Robert De Niro-by-way-of-Robert-Mitchum. Once Lisa gifts Bart with the telescope she picked up at the optic festival (prompting one of the episode’s endlessly quotable one-liners: “There was an optic festival and I wasn’t informed?”), Bart’s A-plot hews closely to Rear Window’s most well-known beats: The hobbled hero witnesses what he thinks is a murder; he dispatches a female accomplice (Lisa, standing in for Grace Kelly) to investigate; then the suspense ratchets as our window-peeping protagonist watches, powerless, as the suspected baddie closes in.
It would all seem to come out of nowhere if it weren’t for some sly foreshadowing that feints toward Rear Window before the Jimmy Stewart lookalike—calling to an off-screen “Grace”—shows up. “Bart Of Darkness” announces itself by interpolating the Simpsons theme and a Bernard Hermann-esque orchestral sting; the heat wave that sends the Simpsons to Pool Sharks (“Where the buyer is our chum”) echoes the meteorological extremes that give Rear Window its signature, sticky sheen. The episode is candid in its inspirations, but it doesn’t reach out for the viewer’s hand. When Bart is portrayed as an unresponsive silhouette in a bedroom window, you just might feel foolish for missing the pile of Hitchcockian cues that’s piled up under your nose.
But “Bart Of Darkness” isn’t a pat on the back for those in the know. The episode digs up its cinematic roots to plug them into an effectively farcical plot—albeit it one that requires some strain. We’re never meant to go all the way along with Bart’s conclusion that Ned Flanders murdered his wife and buried her in the backyard—while Dan McGrath’s script nods toward a backlot Greenwich Village, it’s also busy dropping hints about that plot’s true nature. (Of course, through the lens of season eight’s “Hurricane Neddy,” it’s more feasible that Flanders is capable of such heinous actions.) The poolside dandy who charms Lisa by inviting her to a weekend in the country makes the promise of “romantic misunderstandings,” and the play that Bart writes during his convalescence probably ends with a drawing-room scene not unlike the one that concludes the sixth-season première. It’s not an intricately constructed puzzle box like Arrested Development’s most highwire farces, but “Heart Of Darkness” is a prime example of The Simpsons dropping its characters into familiar scenarios and rhythms without losing its distinctive creative voice. It even manages to neatly marry one of Alfred Hitchcock’s pet themes—voyeurism—with one of The Simpsons’ favorite motifs—corruption at Springfield’s highest levels—when Chief Wiggum and the boys spy on Homer and Marge’s late-night skinny dipping.
“Bart Of Darkness” starts The Simpsons’ sixth season off on the right foot with a full-bodied embrace of its source material and a comedic core that challenges traditional TV logic. The episode may have marked the show’s induction into the television establishment, but it would be many more years before any of its well-honed edges would be blunted by complacency. There are clips in the show’s future that would cause Krusty The Clown to wretch, but none to be found here.
- Welcome back to TV Club Classic’s coverage of The Simpsons. It’s a distinct honor to co-review (along with Kyle Ryan, whose byline you’ll find in this space next week) the show, without which I don’t believe The A.V. Club could exist. We hope to continue the feature in the fine tradition established by our former colleague, Nathan Rabin (and occasional guest reviewer Todd VanDerWerff)—and if we don’t, we’re sure you’ll let us know all about it in the comments.
- There are lots of fun details in the animation and direction of “Bart Of Darkness,” but the script and performances are given some room to goof around, too. I love how the guy in the chili truck lets off one last “Texas!” as he drives out of frame. Krusty’s mispronunciation of Ravi Shankar’s last name, meanwhile, was an honest-to-goodness flub on Dan Castellaneta’s part that was kept in by the producers—wisely, as it’s so perfectly in-character for the clown.
- With most of the action being driven by the kids, Homer’s in prime position to let it rip with the one-liners. I can’t decide if I prefer “I got the idea when I noticed the refrigerator was cold” or “Let us celebrate our arrangement with the adding of chocolate to milk.” And then there’s his all-time great cover for calling Maude Flanders a “fox”: “I mean ‘What’s on Fox tonight?’ Something ribald, no doubt.”
- We should add this Bart quote as the motto to the TV Club Classic family crest: “I’ll just spend the summer getting better acquainted with an old friend called television.”
- Bart’s instant boredom with the endless wonders of outer space is such a great, succinct summation of his character.
- Oh, what I would pay to see a full staging of Bart’s play—or to just spend a few more moments chuckling at the antics of Viceroy Fizzlebottom, “a hearty cherub of a man.”
- Next up, Kyle’s thoughts on “Lisa’s Rival.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.