The kids of Springfield Elementary have long been one of The Simpsons’ most fertile subgenres. Take some combination of Bart and Lisa, Nelson and Milhouse, Sheri and Terri, and Skinner and Krabappel, shake ‘em up, and good episodes come out. “Das Bus” may be one of the best examples—here, in the middle of the relatively uneven and clearly-declining ninth season, is an episode with some of the most memorable moments in the show’s entire run. The stars of Springfield Elementary are stranded on a desert island following a Model U.N. field trip gone wrong, and the kids re-enact Lord of the Flies.
So what is it about Springfield’s children that works so well? There are a few reasons that The Simpsons’ humor works brilliantly with its children. First of all, the show is built on bullshit—both in terms of producing it and calling it out. As “Das Bus” begins at Springfield Elementary, the bullshit is thick and luxurious. In large part this is because, in the world of The Simpsons, one of the defining features of childhood is bullshit, and learning to see through it, or deploy it, is a pure sign of growing up (Remember Homer’s best advice to Bart as he thinks he’s dying—pure undiluted joyous bullshit).
Nowhere is The Simpsons’ glee while wallowing in bullshit more evident than in the most quotable scene of “Das Bus” – the Model U.N. introduction. Bart Simpson is never a better student than when he dumps his report on Libya in front of Skinner.
Here is Bart at his most mature: gaming the system. Not only is this one of the series’ most quotable bits, especially when summarizing one’s own bullshit, but it also provides a decent model for reading about other countries. If a headline or book title is something like “China At The Crossroads” or “Egypt: Land Of Contrasts” you can be pretty certain of the bullshit level. (And to think Ray Bradbury said I’d never learn anything from watching The Simpsons.)
As the Model U.N. Club is sent on its ill-fated journey, we get the second great moment of bullshit. Skinner gives Otto his parting words: “Remember Otto, we’re trusting you with our greatest natural resource—the school bus.” This is a different form of bullshit-based humor—instead of using the children as metaphors, it’s slicing directly into viewers’ expectations about what society is supposed to find precious. (The show is quite fond of dipping into this particular well.)
Focusing on bullshit isn’t a surefire guarantee of success, however, as the b-plot of this episode demonstrates. The internet is indeed built on BS, but Homer’s attempts to build an internet company on superficial bullshit—“What exactly is it your company does again?” “Eh, this industry moves so fast, it’s really hard to tell.”—just isn’t given enough room to breathe. Some of the gags are good (“Internet, eh?”) but overall it feels less like a fully-formed plot and more like an excuse to keep Homer and Marge in the episode—probably holding “Das Bus” back from being one of the (dozen or so) episodes in my Top 5 list.
The second reason that The Simpsons is often best when focused on its kids is that the show is, in a sense, built on childishness. In Springfield, almost every character is caught in a timeless battle between base instincts toward laziness and selfishness and the horrifying threat of adult responsibility. “But I’m hungry now!” Milhouse whines as Lisa declares that the castaways need to save food. (Lisa’s shift the next morning from “food” to “Who wants rations?” is telling.) It’s a battle fought every time Homer comes up with a harebrained scheme to get out of work, or every time a Springfield mob doesn’t realize that their demands are ridiculously contradictory.
Applied to actual children, this gets even better. We know these kids, despite Lisa’s entreaties, are going to fail at creating a functioning society. But their attempts make it special—during their trial, Nelson Muntz, as pure a childish id as there is in Springfield represents the prosecution. He’s animated in a way where he puts on the demeanor of a television lawyer, scribbling notes, and pacing back and forth in from the the stand, nose held at a patrician angle for fullest intellectual intimidation…before collapsing into sharp, hilarious violence.He puts on the clothes of adulthood, just as Bart thinks he does when he utters the great line: ”We’re gonna live like kings! Damn hell ass kings!”
Finally, The Simpsons loves mining power relationships for humor. So many of its storylines (including every one with Mr. Burns) depend on exploring authority and power, and how those get used and abused for comic effect, which is not unrelated to its gleeful wallowing in bullshit. This is a show that loves its con-men and actors, especially every character voiced by Phil Hartman. This is especially prevalent for children, who see the world through these power relationships: child-parent, student-teacher, younger sister-older brother, and nerd-bully.
It’s the last of those that drives the Lord Of The Flies component of “Das Bus,” although it takes a little time. Initially, the kids are willing to listen to Bart, then Lisa, as the new authority figures on the island. But they swiftly turn on Milhouse, a convenient (and, to be fair, moderately deserving) scapegoat, culminates in the “KILL THE DORKS!” chant.
While the nerd-bully power relationship drives the episode’s plot, there’s also a deeply cynical one woven into the premise of “Das Bus.” This is an episode that consistently takes advantage of every chance it can to throw shade at the U.N., even including a shot in the climax of the Model U.N. Charter being trampled by fleeing children.
These are cheap jokes at the U.N.’s expense, yes, but they’re not just that. Skinner’s a victim as well, when he tries to calm the children by unironically saying “Order, order! Do you kids want to be like the real U.N. or do you just want to squabble and waste time?” Even the adults of The Simpsons are swayed by childish bullshit appeals to authority.
Then in the end, The Simpsons makes certain the viewers are complicit as well. Out of nowhere, they go out and grab the most authoritative voice actor of all time, Darth Vader and CNN’s James Earl Jones. And they have him bullshit the show out of having to even bother with an ending as anyone with an idea of storytelling or television episode construction would require. “So the children learned to function as a society. And eventually they were rescued by, oh, let’s say, Moe.” And we’ll put up with it, because it’s earned that authority, and because in the end, we’re all no different than the children of Springfield Elementary.
- This week in Simpsons signage: Not a great episode for signs, given that it takes place mostly on a deserted island. But let’s look at how perfect a signifier that island is.
- “Wow, cool. God is so in-your-face!” “Yeah. He’s my favorite fictional character.”
- “Zepplin ruuuulllleeeesss!” What a way to go out, Otto.
- “I remind you, we are not here to debate the existence of monsters.” Definitely would have rather seen the kids do a U.N.-style debate in this way than the internet b-plot.
- God, Milhouse really is the worst here. “I can’t go on. You two go ahead…..and carry me with you!”
Next time: Alex McCown goes for a joyride with Krusty the Clown in a brand-new Canyonerooooo *crack*.