"Bart's Friend Falls In Love" (season 3, episode 23; original airdate May 7, 1992)
When it comes to supporting characters on The Simpsons, the brilliance often lies in the details. No character has been blessed with as many tragicomic details as Milhouse. The tragicomedy begins with being named after Richard Milhouse Nixon, our most tragic, comic, and tragicomic President. Beyond Milhouse (which sounds like the name of a nerd-rights documentary), the two share a certain messy humanity. We can’t help but identify with Nixon and Milhouse and their travails, even if we would prefer not to.
Milhouse is not a geek. There is a dignity, even a nobility, to being a geek. Geeks are smart. Geeks are eccentric. Geeks make the world a better place through their intelligence and ingenuity. Martin Prince is a geek. Martin Prince chooses to separate himself from the flock by virtue of his self-conscious intellectualism and eccentricity. Milhouse makes no such choice. Nothing would please him more than being one of the crowd, but that is forever beyond his grasp.
Milhouse is a nerd. Nerds have all the shortcomings of geeks—social awkwardness, low self-esteem, all-consuming jealousy of the popular crowd, a fatal inability to throw or hit a decent curveball—with none of their redeeming facets. Milhouse's nerd status relegates him to a lifetime of being on the submissive side of an eternally one-sided friendship with Bart.
Within the context of their relationship, Bart is the star. Milhouse is generally content to bask in the reflected glow of his best friend’s glory, but every once in while, Milhouse experiences something before Bart. The laws of the universe are thrown into disarray by this reversal of the normal order, and it generally falls upon Bart to sabotage his friend to ensure that he remains in a subordinate position for perpetuity. Such is the nature of friendship within the Simpsons universe.
The supplementary nature of Milhouse’s existence is alluded to in the title of “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love.” Homer apparently isn’t the only person who sees Milhouse exclusively as that annoying kid that hangs around with Bart. In “Love,” Milhouse is attacked by hormones before Bart, and Bart, not unlike Fuzzy Bunny, struggles to understand the changes wracking his body and the bodies of his contemporaries.
“Bart’s Friend Falls In Love” opens with a loving beat-by-beat Indiana Jones homage that would feel a little familiar, even if UHF hadn’t parodied the same sequence a few years earlier. We then join Milhouse on the bus, where we learn that his dad took him to the “Circus of Values” the night before and promised him he could have anything he wanted, so he chose an “oversized novelty billiard bill” with prophetic capabilities. Even when Milhouse’s family splurges, it’s in the most dispiritingly mundane fashion imaginable. That oversized novelty billiard bill, incidentally, is more commonly known as a Magic Eight Ball, though it’s much funnier to think of a little boy taking the time to call something by its full, rather than brand, name.
The oversized novelty billiard ball is the bearer of bad news: Bart and Milhouse’s friendship will not survive the day. The culprit? A dame. In this case, the femme fatale in question is a doe-eyed transfer student who overcame an unfortunate bed-wetting problem to become a perfectly awkward young woman with the even more unfortunate surname Stankey.
The tragically named Samantha Stankey has a wonderful introduction scene where Skinner alternates between being an unusually suspicious, if cheerful and officious, principal and a bitter, vengeful veteran still raging against a world that greeted his return from the jungles of 'Nam with gobs of spit and vitriol, rather than flowers and chocolates. Skinner seems to turn into another man entirely as his face morphs into a scowl and he bitterly looks out a window that instantly seems to transport his mind, if not his body, back to the tiger cages of Vietnam.
We then segue from one form of torture to another, from Skinner discussing his 18 months in hell to the hell of Samantha having to introduce herself to a new class socialized to see outsiders and transfer students as unwelcome intruders who must be put in their place, via wedgies if necessary. Like Milhouse, Samantha does not belong; she speaks clammily of Springfield having a “weird smell” she’ll need to get used to and otherwise broadcasts her status as a misfit.
Then Milhouse gets hit with a big rubber ball by Samantha, and his whole world changes. As is often the case, The Simpsons uses a plot point as an excuse to parody instructional films. I suspect that by now more people have experienced instructional films through parodies on The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live than firsthand.
There’s a good reason for that. As you might know from such previous Troy McClure-narrated instructional films as Lead Paint: Delicious But Deadly and Here Comes The Metric System, instructional films lend themselves unusually well to parody with their singular combination of hysterical melodrama and thudding earnestness.
“Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide To You Know What” nails the details of instructional films: the cornball narrator, the ridiculous over-simplification of complex issues, and more than anything, the preposterous 1970s of it all, from the bell bottom fashions to background music that sounds like porno funk, even as it aims to scare kids away from pre-marital sex.
“Fuzzy Bunny’s Guide To You Know What” does nothing to quell the hormonal storm raging within Samantha. Samantha digs Milhouse, and soon, the twosome of Milhouse and Samantha has completely usurped the formerly dependable duo of Bart and Milhouse.
Homer, meanwhile, sets out to lose weight through subliminal messages but ends up receiving a tape that subliminally catapults his vocabulary from “monosyllabic” to “David Foster Wallace-like.” As the title suggests, “Bart’s Friend Falls In Love” is unusually focused on it’s A-story, but the show gets big laughs every time Homer uses a plethora of college words when a scant few simple ones would do. Big, fancy words coming out of Homer’s mouth are almost always funny for some reason.
Bart feels left out, so he fucks over Milhouse by letting Samantha’s protective and jealous father know that his daughter has been making out with Milhouse. It’s the ultimate betrayal from a friend apoplectic that Milhouse has entered what the last episode of Louie refers to as the forest of adolescence before him. Bart can’t understand Milhouse’s feelings for Samantha, so he destroys their relationship without incurring much blowback.
“Bart’s Friend Falls In Love” ends as all schoolyard romances must: with heartbreak, sadness, and, if both parties are lucky, something being learned in the most painful possible fashion. The most heartbreaking part of it all is the knowledge that for these two young lovers the romantic pain has only just begun.
- “She’s faking it”
- “Eight survived”
- “That may not sound impressive, but bear in mind it is a very big canyon”
- “Now that you know how it’s done. Don’t do it!”
- “Don’t worry! Most of you will never fall in love and marry out of fear of dying alone!”
- “I’m sure this is a little scary for you dear. So why don’t you stand up in front of the class and tell us all about yourself. I’ll be grading on grammar and poise.”
- “Hezekiel and Ishmael, in accordance with your parents wishes, you may step out into the hall and pray for our souls
- “God Schmod. I want my monkey man!”
- At least his reindeer were there for Santa at the very end.
- There’s something inherently queasy-making about the idea of Milhouse making out. As Marge conveys, kids kissing=adorable, kids french-kissing=disturbing, unsanitary
- “Lose weight and listen to New Age music? Wow!”
- “My gastronomic capacity knows no satiety!”