In its first season, The Simpsons evolved slowly but surely from being a show about the travails of an eccentric working class family, a sort of absurdist, satirical twist on socially conscious 1970s Norman Lear sitcoms, to being a show about Springfield.
The Simpsons began with a relatively modest focus that expanded until it became a show about everything: faith, family, politics, crime, show-business, nostalgia, the whole panoramic kit n’ kaboodle.
In that respect, “The Telltale Head”, today’s episode, represents a key moment in the show’s evolution. It’s perhaps the single most ambitious episode of the show so far and the first episode where the denizens of Springfield play as big a role as the Simpsons. It’s also the show’s first exploration of mob mentality.
Mobs are ubiquitous in The Simpsons: it only takes a tiny catalyst to transform a crowd from a band of angels to a bloodthirsty lynch mob and back again. In that respect, the show echoes the similarly crowd-obsessed oeuvres of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, or for that matter, the films of Adam Sandler.
Accordingly, “The Telltale Head” opens with both the show’s most ambitious narrative device and its first angry mob braying for blood and/or vengeance. We open with an uncharacteristically noble and self-sacrificing Homer trying and failing to console a terrified Bart with words of wisdom like, “No matter how tempting it may be, I can’t let my only boy get ripped limb from limb by a bloodthirsty mob” and “We’ll die together, like a father and son should.”
“The Telltale Head” also marks the first appearance of Reverend Lovejoy. Considering the show’s violently irreverent take on all social institutions, it’s fitting that the spiritual leader of Springfield and personification of dishwater-dull religious dogma is introduced carrying a torch and leading a lynch mob intent on murdering a small child.
The Simpsons holds the strange distinction of being both reverent and irreverent in its treatment of religion; religion plays a huge role in Springfield. The show takes religion seriously; it foreground questions of faith in a manner unimaginable on most television comedies; yet it also nurses few illusions about the very human, very flawed souls called upon to serve as the Lord’s representatives on Earth.
We initially don’t know why Reverend Lovejoy, Krusty the Klown and an enraged populace wants to kill Homer and Bart but we learn via flashback that they’re apoplectic upon discovering that Bart is the party responsible for removing the head from a statue of the town’s beloved founder, Jebediah Springfield.
“The Telltale Head” introduces a theme that pervades the series: that American mythology is largely based on a series of socially acceptable lies. In this case, newscaster Kent Brockman casually mentions that while Jebediah was famous for killing a bear, “further evidence suggests the bear probably killed him.” That’s but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the fraudulent self-mythologizing of Jebediah Springfield but from the very beginning he was a fraud and a con, like so many men venerated not for what they actually did but what they stood for.
Bart, it turns out, saws the head off of the Jebediah Springfield in a desperate failed attempt to impress a trio of bullies whose approval and validation he seeks. In one of the series’ key lines, Homer responds to a tormented Bart’s question about the importance of being liked with a serene, “Being popular is the most important thing in the world.”
Homer inadvertently sends his son on a path to humiliation and disgrace. For all their bad-boy posturing, the bullies need to believe in Jebediah’s righteousness just as much as the rest of the town; while they gush about the awesomeness of cutting off the head of the statue in theory, in reality it enrages them.
“The Telltale Head” has an awful lot of plot to unpack; I haven’t even gotten to Jebediah’s head haunting Bart, “The Telltale Heart” style. It’s not one of the funnier episodes of the first season, though it’s full of clever gags like Bart mercilessly grilling his Sunday school teacher about whether or not a ventriloquist’s dummy can go to heaven. But it’s a thrilling, refreshingly ambitious preview of what the show would become in its heyday. This is especially true in a concluding scene where Homer tells Bart, who has just barely talked his way out of death-by-lynch-mob, that they’ll run into countless other lynch mobs in his life and, “Most lynch mobs aren’t this nice.” So very true.
—Does the exchange where a member of the mob asks how long Bart’s story will take and he replies, “About twenty-three minutes and five seconds” the show’s first meta-textual gag?
—“This may be the most remarkable comeback since Lazarus rose from the dead.”
—“The ventriloquist goes to heaven but the dummy doesn’t.”
—Next week’s episode doesn’t offer entirely what you would get from an episode about breakfast or an episode about lunch but you get an episode about a good meal and and a slice of cantaloupe at the end.