Remember way back when Bart was unquestionably intended as the star of the show? Back when Bill Cosby and others were holding Bart out as the nadir of television role models, The Simpsons was essentially Bart-centered, with everyone’s favorite rapscallion getting all the glory and blame, and most of the merchandising dollars. Over the years, as the show’s comedy became more sophisticated, the other characters have elbowed Bart aside to make room for themselves, and The Simpsons became better for it—honestly, there’s just less to Bart than the three other major Simpsons (sorry Maggie), and after a while, his conflicts and lessons (and catchphrases) wore pretty thin.
Mostly, it’s because the ongoing adventures of a mischievous little scamp who learns the occasional, transitory life lesson are less prone to growth and change. Sure, little on The Simpsons really changes—that’s the nature of the beast—but Bart, to remain a viable presence and plot engine on the show, has to seem to learn the least. When he was instrumental in episodes where heart was essential, his epiphanies had to be less monumental, and less lasting. When Lisa (I admit to a bias here) has a hard life lesson or joyous surprise happen to her, it’s more resonant, because there’s more heart built into her from the start. Bart has to break out his li’l bastard kit at a moment’s notice. All that’s to say that “Diggs,” built as it is on Bart befriending the new kid in school and finding out his new pal has mental health issues, is undermined by Bart’s very presence. Nancy Cartwright continues to wring as much depth as possible from Bart but, well, he’s Bart.
Look at the beginning where Bart, bored stiff as usual by Reverend Lovejoy’s sermon (“And it’s for all these reasons and more that the kingdom of Moab is the least interesting in the Bible”), is so moved by a visiting missionary’s tale of a probably fictitious little boy’s troubles that he begs Homer for some money to put in the supplemental collection plate. There’s little precedent, no followup, and no in-episode justification for Bart’s sudden selflessness—it’s just what needs to happen so Homer’s incessant badgering about repayment will make Bart willing to eat a formaldehyde-infused frog so he’ll become an outcast so he can be befriended by the new kid who happens to be both a falconry enthusiast and a paranoid schizophrenic. And yes, that sentence ran on, but that’s how the episode feels—packed full of plot with little basis in character.
Which isn’t to say that Bart’s friendship with the eccentric Diggs (voiced by Daniel Radcliffe) isn’t pleasant enough, with the older boy introducing Bart to not only his pet falcon Freedom, but also Springfield Elementary’s suspiciously long-forgotten falconry clubhouse. (Skinner muses excitedly: “Can the Esperanto society be far behind!”) Radcliffe brings some subtle shades and a little snap to Diggs, especially when his loner’s eccentricity edges into something more troubling. (Hatching a scheme to free all the birds at the falconry competition, Bart asks Diggs if he’s going to do it with his mind, to which Diggs replies, “I’m a messed-up kid. I’m not Magneto.”) And Bart, ostracized by plot contrivance, is fond enough of Diggs, too, and his confusion when Diggs’ shocking leap from a high tree branch lands him first in the hospital, and then what Marge unhelpfully refers to as “an Arkham Asylum-type hospital” is suitably affecting, as far as it goes.
It’s just that it’s Bart, and Bart doesn’t fit these sorts of stories as well as, say, Lisa does—his character’s just not built for “affecting,” at least not any more. There’s no connection made between his initial generosity toward the kid in the church story and his willingness to remain loyal to his new friend. And so “Diggs” fades in the memory. You know, just as Diggs himself will once Bart breaks out the slingshot again next week.
- Another guest animator couch gag, this time a rather more pointed grotesque than usual from The Triplets Of Belleville director Sylvain Chomet. With his cartoon Simpsons both embodying French stereotypes of Americans and American stereotypes of the French, it’s both imaginative and unsettling. Bravo.
- The use of the Sandpipers’ drippy “Come Saturday Morning” makes a certain amount of sense in context, since it was written for the “troubled teen” movie The Sterile Cuckoo. Still a terrible song.
- The breakfast place is called The Waffle Truth.
- “If God needs money, why doesn’t he just write another Bible?”
- Nelson: “Herbivore!” Lisa: “That means someone who only eats plants.” Nelson: “I named the frog Herb.”
- “I did it, he did it, we did it!” “Well done, Bart, that’s the way to conjugate the verb ‘to do’.”
- “Say something so I know you’re not hurt.” “I’m really hurt.” “That’s a relief.”
- “He’s just riding the thermals from dad’s butt.” “At least someone is using them.”
- I did appreciate Bart’s half-acceptance of Lisa’s sweet offer of a hug. First she hugs a bedpost, then he hugs the same bedpost. No cooties that way.
- Homer continues to forget Milhouse’s name, to our benefit. “Dweebler” makes me laugh just writing it down.
We’ll always have Bob Terwilliger.
By IMDb’s count, this is Kelsey Grammer’s 16th appearance as Sideshow Bob, and he’s never unwelcome, despite (or indeed because of) his fluctuating levels of evil. For one thing, his presence signals the fact that the episode in question will have a strong, straightforward narrative—no matter what scheme he’s got going, viewers know what they’re going to get. In a series grown infamous for tottering, half-realized premises, the security that a Bob episode is going to jump right in and get things done is like a breath of fresh air. As is Bob himself, who always hearkens back to a shinier, happier time when all anyone knew was that The Simpsons equals great, innovative comedy. (It remains shocking and disheartening whenever I am brought up short by the fact that, for a lot of younger viewers, that’s simply never been true.)
But the greatest reward of any Sideshow Bob episode is Kelsey Grammer who, some 24 years after his first appearance as the fright-wigged, intermittently homicidal, incongruously cultured Robert Underdunk Terwilliger, can make the character as vitally funny and menacing as ever. In a career of stunning highs and ignominious lows (Hank? Anyone?), Sideshow Bob lives on as a creation as indelible as Frasier Crane. Essentially, Bob’s machinations bump this episode up an entire grade.
That’s a good thing, as, without him, “The Man Who Grew Too Much” has some of the latter-day Simpsons’ signature deficiencies. The main story is Lisa’s, which is always a plus for me, especially when she’s allowed to get all worked up over a social issue. The moral center of a wacky animated sitcom might be seen as a deadly role, but I’ve always appreciated the way the show’s writers filter broader themes through Lisa. Her heart ever in the right place, poor Lisa usually ends up learning that the world is a lot more complicated and compromised than the good heart of a precocious 8-year-old girl would have it be. Unfortunately here Lisa, outraged at the fact that Springfield Elementary’s never-eaten veggie supply remains viable due to genetic manipulation, forces the issue on the PTA. (I love the running gag that Lisa functions as a sort of Springfield shadow government. Skinner: “One of our brightest and most meddlesome students has called this meeting. Somehow.”)
What’s less satisfying is how Lisa (and the show) comes to the conclusion that GMOs aren’t so bad. (Please start your angry rants on both sides in the comments section.) It’s not that The Simpsons should take a stand on the issue one definitive way or another, it’s that it doesn’t have Lisa do so—that’s a violation of the character. While it’s funny to have Skinner present as evidence “the first video that came up when I googled GMO + danger + question mark” and that said video is approved of by noted former celebrity non-expert Jenny McCarthy (“I endorse this tirade”), it’s distressing that Lisa’s only objection to GMOs and the Orwellian litigiousness of the conglomerates who make them is that the Monsanto stand-in in the episode has turned its product development over to a psychotic would-be murderer. (Sure, they make their scientists stay late to change the world “three molecules at a time” rather than just one, but that’s just a pretty good joke.) Again—not saying that The Simpsons needs to take a side or spell out every facet of a complex issue. It’s that Lisa Simpson would have. Having her be so easily satisfied is a betrayal of the character.
That all being said, the episode hits its stride when Bob is revealed as said psychotic, would-be murderer, given day passes from prison in thanks for the thousands of patented GMOs he’s brought in to Monsarno. (Lazy parody names continue to be a latter day Simpsons trademark.) Even here, there are some quibbles—Bob has no qualifications established (apart from being repeatedly shocked by monkeys), and his experimentation is cartoonish, even for The Simpsons. (It, and Bob’s later transformation, may have worked in the anything-goes sci-fi universe of Futurama, but here, it’s just unimaginatively lazy.)
But once Bob and Lisa start to bond, there’s some classic Sideshow Bobbery to be enjoyed. Bob and Lisa are a natural pairing. Not only are they the only people in town with any appreciation of culture, but they both have been driven to extremes in order to try and force Springfield to open a damned book for a change. Sure, Lisa never tried to nuke anyone, but they’re still two legumes in a pod, and very lonely in their cultural pursuits. Convinced of Bob’s reformation, Lisa finds a companion with whom she can appreciate the finer things (they initially bond over Walt Whitman), and it’s actually sort of touching. You know, before Bob goes nuts again and tries to eat a teenager with his genetically modified python jaw, but it’s a nice character choice while it lasts. Grammer is never better than when, even with new pal Lisa, he can’t prevent his highest-brow tendencies from coming out, calling the Impressionists “the boy bands of the art world” and slagging on jazz. (Pretty sure no one but he could make me laugh with the line “I shall face the Renoir with sangfroid.”)
Naturally, Bob’s got ulterior motives in mind, having secretly been splicing the hell out of himself with animal DNA and plotting to steal that of historical figures in order to essentially transform himself into a supervillain. Here again, the episode (credited to Jeff Westbrook) stretches the show’s elastic reality too far, but even so, Grammer’s Bob continues to do yeoman’s work, elevating the laugh level with his delicious delivery of lines like “Lisa, you always were the one rose petal floating atop the cesspool that is the Simpsons.” Plus, his delivery of “zombie ant fungus!” is one for the Sideshow Bob highlight reel.
In the end, Bob tries to kill himself in grief over what he’s become, thanks to Lisa quoting Whitman’s never-more appropriate line (considering what his cultural pretensions are up against in Springfield), “This is what you shall do—love the earth and sun and animals. Despise riches, stand up for the stupid and crazy.” Indeed, Lisa. Luckily, Bob’s implanted himself with gills and steps on a discarded underwater rake, meaning he’ll be back again to brighten up the place—and try to kill Bart.
- There’s a B-story, with Marge dragooned into teaching an abstinence-only sex ed class to the town’s rowdiest, horniest teens. Not much comes of it, but my wife laughed out loud when Homer accuses them of not being able to appreciate the thought of his and Marge’s “naked bodies in the tender act of aoooga”, so that’s something.
- Marge, attempting to rally the sex ed kids: “I’ll release you from your pledge and teach you other fun ways not to get pregnant.” Teen girl: “I think I might be pregnant already.” Marge: “Well, that’s one of ‘em.”
- The key to Homer being a funny insensitive boob rather than a jerk is him not realizing he’s being insensitive. Like so. Marge: “Are you saying I’m wasting my time?” Homer: “Noo, I’m saying that you’re wasting everyone’s time. But it’s a church thing, so that’s a given.”
- Sign at the PTA meeting: “Genetically Modified Organisms: Modestly Beneficial or Ultra-Catastrophic?”
- Sign at the museum: “Art we stole from Greece.”
- Sign under the picture of Florence Nightingale: “Fun facts: none.”
- Bart’s thrilled to discover the term “homo erectus.” “Where have you been all my life?”
- “Don’t worry, Lisa—your friend will always be a part of our drinking water.”
- The extended Calder joke among the workmen at the museum is one of my all-time favorite Simpsons gags. Like Homer’s long-ago Rashomon joke, it’s only going to work for about a third of the audience, which is why I appreciate it so much. Maybe I am Sideshow Bob.
- Or maybe the Simpsons writers are—Gerard Manley Hopkins gets a shout out in the first episode tonight, and now a whole bunch o’ Whitman.
- Both episodes tonight make reference to a taco night/day, which—yeah, I don’t think that means anything.
- Ned’s memory of Mrs. Krabappel after the credits is lovely and heartbreaking. Even Nelson thinks so. It’s the first time the show’s addressed her absence in-world as far as I can tell, with Ned reminiscing about them going dancing and saying that he misses her, so presumably her ultimate fate will be addressed in the future. If the writers handle it as well as they did here, it’ll be a fine goodbye indeed.