“Bart’s Comet” (season 6, episode 14; originally aired 2/5/1995)
For an episode about the threat of an asteroid smashing into Springfield and destroying everything it holds dear (including, for sure, Moe’s Tavern), “Bart’s Comet” is a surprisingly grounded, heartfelt episode that manages to run the humor gamut from completely wacky to completely lovely without ever seeming forced. I guess that’s not surprising since it’s a season six episode written by John Swartzwelder and those tend to be instant classics, but still, there’s so much to appreciate here.
Seymour Skinner is one of my favorites in the Simpsons ensemble: He doesn’t have enough episodes centering around him, and “Bart’s Comet” really only focuses on him in the first act, but I love how he’s deeply square, but still draws from a passionate well of love for knowledge and teaching. Mocked by a weather balloon of Bart’s creation called “Big Butt” Skinner (“curse the man who invented helium! Curse Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen!”), he decides to punish the boy by having Bart accompany him on his early-morning astrological observation jaunts. Years of searching the sky have proven fruitless for Skinner (he almost discovered the Kohoutek comet, but was beaten by a rival principal), and it’s only fitting that Bart should find his own comet after once glance through the telescope. The moment is hilarious and over-the-top while simultaneously tragic and personal—it’s beautiful comedy that only The Simpsons can provide, especially the newspaper headline that’s thrown in front of Skinner to punctuate his anguish.
Skinner recedes from view after this, as the episode takes its typical Simpsons turn and becomes about something completely different—the impending destruction of the city. Mayor Quimby catches the next plane to “Springfeld. Field.” and presents a plan to destroy Bart’s comet with a missile (although even then, Moe’s Tavern will sadly be burned down in the aftermath).
The episode hurtles from the vaguely implausible (Bart is somehow the first to detect a comet hurtling towards the earth) to the very implausible (Congress rejects evacuating Springfield because of a rider granting $30 million “to the perverted arts”) to the totally implausible (the comet is burned up and shrinks to the size of a Chihuahua’s head) without missing a beat and it’s just fine. It somehow races through all this plot and manages to end on a soaring emotional high. In short, “Bart’s Comet” is a tremendous episode of television. Pretty much every episode of The Simpsons from around this time sees the show working at the height of its powers, and this is no exception.
The moment where it all goes wrong is a particularly poetic Twilight Zone moment—the missile zips right past the comet and smashes into the only bridge in town (helpfully labeled) that’s nicely punctuated by Homer’s attempts to explain his backup plan to get out of town. It mostly involves him mocking the rest of the townspeople for twiddling their thumbs, and it’s not quite as brilliant a quiet, drawn-out gag as Sideshow Bob stepping on the rakes, but it’s pretty close.
The episode then sinks into an end-of-the-world parody, with the Congressional inaction a terrific 10-second joke that also easily explains away any questions of plausibility and prompts an immortal Kent Brockman line: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Democracy simply doesn’t work.” He also reveals a list of celebrities who are gay, made up (I believe) entirely of Simpsons writers and producers. Other bits of humor are surprisingly dark—the image of people driving their cars off the bridge to their certain death is something out of a Treehouse Of Horror episode, but it’s undoubtedly hilarious.
The final turn of the episode is the most surprising, and again comes out of nowhere, but works because the show has such a phenomenal grip on its characters. Homer directs the family to his bomb shelter, which is Ned Flanders’ bomb shelter, and his friendly neighborino has anticipated such a move and built enough space for both of them. “No deal. Out.” Homer commands, but wiser heads prevail.
Flanders’ good-neighbor attitude gets the better of him, of course, as he invites everyone in town into the shelter, which can apparently fit everyone in town minus one person. Debate over everyone’s value to Springfield (Reverend Lovejoy will provide religious guidance and his wife can provide gossip, for example) leads Homer to the obvious conclusion: A left-handed store owner like Flanders deserves to die.
Homer is such a beautiful monster in these scenes (as he is in pretty much any scene with Flanders). He hectors Ned in front of his children while simultaneously apologizing to them under his breath; later he calls the whole town monsters for letting Ned die alone, saying he’s disgusted by all of them. “Especially his children!”
The final scene is a lovely one: Ned’s sole voice singing “Que Sera, Sera” is joined by the town, who link arms to face their doom together, as is only right. The comet burns up in the pollution to the exact size Homer predicts, knocks out the Skinner balloon and the shelter in one fell swoop, and the viewer gets that orgasmic sense of satisfaction when a perfect TV episode ties up every loose end without feeling remotely forced. I could watch “Bart’s Comic” every day and never get tired of it.
- This week in Simpsons signage: the missile is labeled “AIM AWAY FROM FACE.”
- I also love the two Springfield Shopper headlines “PREZ SEZ: ‘SCHOOL IS FOR LOSERS’” and “MAYOR VISITS CITY”
- The fighter jets mistaking Groundskeeper Willie for an Iraqi fighter jet is a great absurd joke that’d be funny without their fistfight over healthcare funding. With it, it’s like a brilliant short film.
- At 4:30 in the morning there’s no news on the radio. “Everybody’s still asleep in their comfy, comfy beds.”
- Marge won’t even rise to make Bart breakfast. “There’s a stuffed pepper in the trash from last night. Just rinse it good.”
- Skinner dealt with Principal Kohoutek. “I got back at him, though. Him and that little boy of his.”
- This episode introduces stock nerd Database, apparently Matt Groening’s least favorite character.
- “It’s going to be destroyed, didn’t you hear what the guy in the building said?” “Lisa, the whole reason we have elected officials is so we don’t have to think all the time.”
- The guessing game over Moe’s animal noise is incredible. Apparently, according to Homer, it was a baby ox. And also, both Patty and Dr. Hibbert think female goats are sheep.
- “Let’s go burn down the observatory so that this never happens again!”