For the first 10 minutes of “A Totally Fun Thing Bart Will Never Do Again,” The Simpsons was as good as it’s ever been. The couch gag is fast and clever, immediately segueing into a montage of Bart’s daily drudgery. First there’s Monday, with Bart going through his normal schedule, being bored and bullied. Then Tuesday shows up, shoves Monday to the side. Then Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, all on the same screen, all showing similar but slightly different forms of Bart’s world-weariness. It’s audacious as well as visually dense; The Simpsons has, if anything, increased and improved its visual gags.
What follows is just as good. Bart sees a commercial for a cruise ship and, in classic Simpsons style, falls for its pitch immediately, trying to bring the family along. But they’re not interested, pushing an increasingly desperate Bart to sell all his possessions to make the money for the cruise.
The malleability of The Simpsons’ characters is often held up for (usually loving) mockery—for example, Lisa is a strident anti-consumerist one episode, then a television-watching zombie the next. It can also be a strength, though, since it allows the show the opportunity to tell stories that wouldn’t fit with more consistent characterization. If Bart having ennui goes against his consistent depiction as a hedonistic rapscallion, then so be it. Why? Because it leads to an interesting episode!
The episode is titled “A Totally Fun Thing Bart Will Never Do Again,” which gives the first act some strength, as it seems to set the family up for an adventure based on David Foster Wallace’s classic essay on cruises. It’s perfectly poised to do that by the time the Simpsons arrive on the ship, as their hopes are set up to be crushed by what Wallace describes as the expectations of constant enjoyment and comfort.
This “Totally Fun Thing” doesn’t go in that direction, though. In fact, it depicts the cruise as everything the family could hope for: Bart gets all the fun he wants. Lisa meets fellow smart, engaged children in Kidz Zone Elite. Homer and Marge rekindle their love with the kids away. And Maggie, well, okay, Maggie gets ignored by the narrative. This does make a certain kind of sense: Wallace didn’t write like someone who has the same interests as the Simpson family, after all.
The core tension of the episode, then, isn’t that the family’s expectations are dashed, but rather, that Bart wants to make it last forever. Here’s a side of Bart that we rarely see: someone living outside the moment. Imagining himself on his deathbed and thinking of how his whole life outside of the cruise was wasted is the sort of device typically reserved for the Simpson women, particularly Lisa. I don’t mind this, though. Episodes that give Bart extra depth (“Bart Sells His Soul” especially) are among my favorite Simpsons half-hours.
In order to maintain this perfect level of fun, Bart decides to deceive his fellow passengers and tell them that they’re the last survivors of humanity, using a scene from a direct-to-video movie. This turns the cruise ship into a post-apocalyptic wasteland of fun, something that doesn’t turn out to be as entertaining as the description makes it sound (although Homer in Mad Max costuming is a delight).
At the end, with Bart’s prank exposed, the family is dropped off at Antarctica with a bunch of penguins. The Simpsons jerks into full metaphor mode here, with Bart cynically seeing the penguins as wasting their lives on repetition, but his family convinces him that the penguins take their fun when they can find it. It’s an odd scene—too short for such big life lessons; unclear on whether the show was directly riffing on March Of The Penguins—butI ended up liking it because it was just so out there. It’s good to see The Simpsons try an ambitious episode, and great to see those ambitions largely fulfilled.
- “There is no Mrs. Steak! Who could stay married to such a man?”
- “I sold some of my rare jazz records. After a while they all start to sound the same.” Gauntlet thrown!
- It’s less funny on the ship after the apocalypse, but “I think I ate people meat!” made me laugh.