“Bart’s Girlfriend” (season six, episode ; originally aired 11/6/1994)
Even a television show as vital and innovative as The Simpsons in its prime was bound to start repeating itself. That the show made it to six seasons and 100-plus episodes without inadvertently recycling plot threads is a testament to that vitality. And while the show had returned to the outlines of previous episodes prior to “Bart’s Girlfriend”—even at this early stage, “Homer and Marge’s marriage is in trouble” had been treated to multiple variations—it feels to me like the first episode of The Simpsons where the main action isn’t wholly original. That said, this is still season-six Simpsons we’re talking about, and at least part of the episode works toward getting right what a previous installment got wrong.
One facet of “Bart’s Girlfriend” calls back to the fifth season’s “Burns’ Heir,” pondering the distinctions between “bad” and “evil” raised by that episode (and Nathan Rabin’s review thereof). That episode weighs Bart’s youthful mischievousness against Montgomery Burns’ willful malevolence; “Bart’s Girlfriend” presents the boy with a similarly wicked foil, but she’s one who boasts a certain allure that Burns only holds in the eyes of Waylon Smithers. Jessica Lovejoy (voiced by guest star Meryl Streep) is Bart Simpson flipped inside out: Whereas everyone in Springfield sees Bart as Lucifer with a skateboard—and only his family pauses to consider the warm-and-fuzzy vulnerability hidden beneath the spiky hair—Jessica Lovejoy is a hellion with the squeaky-clean exterior and reputation of a preacher’s daughter. It’d be off-base to call either character “evil,” but “Bart’s Girlfriend” does its homework to show each character’s distinct reason for doing the bad things they do. For Bart, it’s the only effective way of blowing off steam in a world of droning Sunday sermons, church clothes, and overbearing elementary-school administrators. Jessica, on the other hand, acts out because her parents don’t see her true self—they’d rather brag about the fantasy version of their daughter that exists while the real-life Jessica is miles away at boarding school.
As such, it’s fitting that the final third of “Bart’s Girlfriend” hinges on reputation. There are enough instances of Bart’s misbehavior in the first two acts of the episode—playing into Principal Skinner’s “Scotchtoberfest” sting; getting booted from the Lovejoys’ dinner table for “gratuitous use of the word butt”—that when the First Church Of Springfield’s collection plate goes missing, no one in the congregation thinks twice to finger Bart for the crime. They wouldn’t know that the boy thinks stealing from the church is a bridge too far; they didn’t hear him sum up his M.O. to Jessica: “You’re turning me into a criminal, when all I want to be is a petty thug.” It’s a fine line Bart Simpson walks, but angry mobs tend to overlook such things, and so he takes the fall for Jessica’s misdeed, opening himself to the derision of the congregation, his neighbors, and random automobile passengers voiced by Hank Azaria.
“Fall” is a crucial verb for “Bart’s Girlfriend”: He’s got a thing for the preacher’s daughter, and he’s got it bad, an emotional state brilliantly illustrated by the gauntlet the episode stages for its protagonist. He’s a patsy for her, he risks serious cranial injury for her, he even takes one of Nelson’s fists to the gut for his playground love. (Cue one of the bully’s weirdly chivalrous one-liners: “That’s for besmirching an innocent girl’s name!”) It’s in touches like this that “Bart’s Girlfriend” bests the similarly themed “New Kid On The Block”—in that episode, Bart’s feelings are treated as an afterthought, only coming into play as the motivation for his plot against Jimbo Jones. This week’s Simpsons installment doesn’t just symbolically tear Bart’s heart out—it smears his guts all over the screen in ways comedic and poignant. This is a personal, heartfelt story, and Jonathan Collier’s script treats it as such, maintaining an intimate, Bart-and-Jessica-centric focus until momentum dictates the inclusion of Springfield at large. Once the townspeople are involved, the story loses some of its power, but the focus returns to the ill-suited lovebirds as the end credits prepare to roll—eventually narrowing to capture just Bart, alone on the church steps, no lessons learned or morals gleaned.
Per DVD commentary from showrunner David Mirkin, he and the writers aimed to keep such learning out of “Bart’s Girlfriend”—and that extends beyond the episode’s main characters. Lovejoy exits the episode with hands cupped over his ears, and even Lisa can’t commit to the whole “judge not lest ye be judged” trip she holds over the reverend’s head. When classic-era Simpsons episode is in danger of repeating itself, there’s always another angle for appreciation.
In the case of “Bart’s Girlfriend,” that means some whip-smart jokes that includes goofy one-liners (the Sea Captain’s immortal “Yarrr, I hate the sea and everything in it”; Marge’s disapproval of a troll doll and its “bizarre hair”) as well as barbs aimed at organized religion (“I don’t think God’s words have ever sounded so plausible”). It also means some spectacular work on the part of director Susie Dietter and the animators. The Simpsons has so affected the cultural lexicon and the way TV comedy is written that it’s sometimes easy to overlook the visual mastery of the series. The show is set in a cartoon world—albeit one with a grounded sense of reality not unlike our own—and that helped fundamentally change the way a TV comedy could look, opening the form up to the type of cinematic sequences like the Planet Of The Apes homage that opens “Bart’s Girlfriend.”
The episode’s visual inventiveness even gives “Bart’s Girlfriend” one of the best expressions of its main theme. Atop one of Springfield’s steepest hills, Jessica tells Bart “you can’t trust your perception at this altitude”—before giving her boy toy a little shove. With Alf Clausen’s score hitting some especially Bernard Herrmann-esque notes, Dietter tosses an Acme warehouse’s worth of obstacles at our rocketing protagonist: oil, ball bearings, but not glue, as that’s the one substance the hill’s treacherous slope hasn’t managed to break free of its container. The sequence plays in a classically cartoonish rhythm—the only that manages to halt Bart’s momentum is an ant carrying an sunflower seed—but I just love the way it translates the terrifying rush of falling in love into a slapstick ballet that ends with Bart engulfed in a wave of goo. As far as Simpsons action sequences go, it’s perfect—made all the better by what it’s actually illustrating.
So, yes, “Bart’s Girlfriend” comes off as a retread in spots. But any Simpsons episode from the show’s heyday is packed with so much quality in different areas that when a story might lack for originality, the jokes, the animation, or an Oscar-winning guest star can step up to keep the whole enterprise afloat. Deep down inside, “Bart’s Girlfriend” is a good episode—but like its protagonist, you just have to look beyond the surface to find what makes it good.
- Well, it appears I’ve gone more than 1,000 words without praising the vocal performance of Meryl Streep, who’s nearly unrecognizable as the voice of Jessica. (It’s only in the moments where Jessica’s pitch drops to a flirtatious low that it’s obvious she’s Streep.) As if there needed to be any further evidence that Streep is a pro without peer, just listen to the chemistry she managed to find with Nancy Cartwright, with whom Streep opted (wisely) to record her vocals in the same session.
- Until Bart and Jessica’s capers end up involving the whole town, the episode truly is laser focused on their relationship. I wonder if this had anything to do with the producers wanting to get the most out of Streep’s time on the show. The small scale of the first two acts has some interesting effects on the Simpson-family dynamic, with Marge and Homer playing Greek chorus to Bart’s first relationship—though a Greek chorus that can only guess at what’s gotten under Bart’s skin. (I can only speak from Bart’s perspective in this dynamic, but it feels pretty true to life.)
- Another great one-liner from Nelson, responding to his violation of cowboys-and-Indians’ historical accuracy: “Hey, records from that era are spotty—at best.” The bully’s definitely having trouble keeping his sensitivity and latent interest in book-learning in check this week.
- Next week: David Sims has scribbled multiple notes about “Lisa On Ice” into his Apple Newton, but they each came out as “Eat up Martha.”