For all its transgressive naughtiness and impish satire, there’s something unmistakably old-fashioned, all-American and borderline wholesome about The Simpsons. Bart really is his generation’s Dennis the Menace: a puckish bad boy with both mischief and innocence in his heart.
“Radio Bart” is steeped in affection for our nation’s cultural past. The premise is borrowed loosely from the great Billy Wilder film noir Ace In The Hole, an evisceratingly dark comedy/melodrama about an amoral newspaperman (Kirk Douglas) who milks the story of a man trapped in a well for everything its worth, even if it means ultimately imperiling the life of the man he’s writing about.
The episode similarly uses the story of a boy trapped in a well to show us how tragedy brings out the best and the worst in us, how it unleashes our inner angels and our most shameless opportunists to the point where it can be difficult to tell them apart. Also, it's really fucking funny.
“Radio Bart” begins with Homer spying an ad for the perfect birthday present for Bart: a radio-style toy microphone. Bart indifferently tosses the present aside before discovering that his father’s gift isn’t just good for singing “Convoy,” firing people, and hitting on women from the 1970s: It also opens up a whole new world of pranks.
Bart starts slowly, but it isn’t long until he’s got the whole town convinced that a little boy named Timmy O’Toole (which coincidentally is also the name of an Irish pub I eat at some times) is trapped down a well. “Radio Bart” brilliantly satirizes the cult of the victim, the idea that if you suffer for whatever reason that makes you noble and heroic and not just somebody with shitty luck.
For me, the key exchange in the episode is Homer explaining that Timmy is a hero because, well, he fell down a well and couldn’t get out. There’s nothing inherently heroic about the plight of a boy down a well; if anything, the heroism exists on the side of the folks trying to get him out and, more importantly, celebrities.
As Timmy O’Toole’s tragic tale becomes a major news story, it attracts the attention of the most important and relevant people in the world: the celebrities who lend their voices and time, but only their voices and time, to record the maudlin “We Are the World”-style ballad “We’re Sending Our Love Down the Well.”
“Radio Bart” has a lot of fun with the carnivalesque sideshow that develops around Timmy O’Toole’s fall, but it ultimately coalesces into morality play in which Bart is forced to suffer for his sins by taking the place of the fictional Timmy O’Toole after he stumbles down the well accidentally.
The Simpsons has proven a gateway drug to all kinds of great cinema; as the writers and producers have acknowledged, at this point they’ve pretty much paid homage to every single scene in Citizen Kane. Of course, everyone knows Citizen Kane, but when “Radio Bart” aired, Ace in the Hole had been out of circulation for decades. So I suspect a lot of people discovered the film through The Simpsons. I know I certainly did. Incidentally, if you haven't seen the film, you should. It's absolutely brilliant.
If Ace in the Hole is timeless, “Radio Bart” is unusually chockablock with instantly dated cultural detritus that would mark it indelibly as a product of its time. There is, of course, Homer drooling in lascivious appreciation of the spandex-clad asses on a Club MTV-like dance show, a Color Me Badd-like R&B act and most embarrassingly for the show and Lisa alike, a reference to Lisa’s two Coreys. For someone with such discerning taste in art and ideas, Lisa tends to go for the low-hanging fruit when it comes to teen idols, doesn’t she?
By the time “Radio Bart” aired, The Simpsons had entered its golden age. There’s a breathtaking comic density to the writing. It was informing the comic sensibility of an entire generation. It was changing the way we saw the world and our place in it. After “Radio Bart,” I suspect no Simpsons fan could think about a well outside the context of Timmy O’Toole. For that matter, I can’t hear a benefit song without “We’re Sending Our Love Down a Well” ricocheting through my mind.
“Radio Bart” illustrates what The Simpsons was capable at its peak; over the course of 23 eventful minutes, the show smartly and consistently satirizes a huge swath of our culture, both present and past.
- "He's in for some lovin'!"
- "I'll buy his love yet!"
- That Larry the Looter game dates the show terribly as well, doesn't it? That's maybe the one gag in the episode that fell completely flat to me.
- "I don't think he's coming back."
- What little boy doesn't want to hear about eight satin petticoats?
- I am traveling, so I will be taking next week off, but I will return in two weeks time with a vengeance. And also another write-up.