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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Simpsons returns to the unbearable lightness of being Ralph Wiggum

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This Little Wiggy” (season nine, episode 18; originally aired 3/22/1998)

In which that’s where we saw the leprechaun, and he told us to burn things…

The Simpsons has produced so many memorable quotes over the years that it’s grown into its own independent language, and few characters have made as many lasting contributions to that language as Ralph Wiggum. His eight-year-old mind operates from such a place of blissful obliviousness that it distills the world to its simplest form, and his expression of what he sees and feels is so straightforward it becomes inspired. Ask any casual viewer their favorite Ralph-ism, and there’s countless candidates: “I bent my Wookie.” “My cat’s breath smells like cat food.” “They taste like burning.” “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!” “Super Nintendo Chalmers!” “I’m Idaho!” “Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner were in the closet making babies and I saw one of the babies and the baby looked at me!”


Yet Ralph has an existence independent of his catchphrases, and it’s an existence that’s occasionally glimpsed as a deeply lonely one. Few installments in the entire run of the show are more devastating than season four’s “I Love Lisa,” where Ralph thinks he’s formed a connection with Lisa and it goes to an unbearably tragic place where you’re able to actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half. As Nathan Rabin put it in his review, “Ralph sometimes appears to be a magically demented sprite who has assumed the form of a boy, but he’s never been more poignantly, nakedly, movingly human than he is here.” It breaks your heart in a way you wouldn’t expect a boy who’s always eating paste to do.

The emotional impact of “I Love Lisa” is so tremendous that it’s surprising it took The Simpsons creative team an additional five years to do a Ralph-centric episode again. “This Little Wiggy” tweaks the original format by pairing Ralph with another Simpson sibling, as ever-empathetic Marge takes pity on the bullied and friendless Ralph and decides to schedule a play-date between him and Bart. It’s a smart move to change up the pairings rather than try to replicate “I Love Lisa,” as it produces a far different dynamic. Lisa tiptoed around Ralph because she was so afraid of hurting him, and only screamed at him when pushed to the breaking point. Bart’s restraint is far more limited, and he has no qualms about sending Ralph to a closet for two hours or shoving him in a bush. (“Bushes are nice ‘cause they don’t have prickers! Unless they do. This one did. Ow.”)

Interestingly, what makes “This Little Wiggy” work so well is that despite being introduced as a Ralph episode, this is a story that’s largely about Bart. Bart’s pretty terrible to Ralph in the early goings, but that reluctance is driven less by his finding Ralph off-putting than it is his fears about what hanging out with him will do to his popularity. As we’ve seen in episodes like “The Last Temptation Of Homer,” Bart considers himself at the top of Springfield Elementary’s social strata, and he’s ultra-protective of that position. (You’d think being best friends with Milhouse would kill that, but evidently Milhouse is so sycophantic and downtrodden he barely counts.) It’s not meanness that drives his actions, just adolescent selfishness that neither well-meaning Marge or oblivious Ralph can understand.


It makes sense then that away from the prying eyes of others, Bart could allow himself to find some common ground with Ralph. It’s motivated at first by his natural urge to seek out Chief Wiggum’s various treasures—bullets, dead body photos, the police master key—but once he gets access to those things, his uses for those treasures are largely childish ones that Ralph would be on board with. Harmless sparring with riot gear, sneaking into a toy store and eating an entire wedding cake (and a whole pan of funeral fudge), all the sort of things you’d expect a kid to do. “Oh, to be eight again,” Bart chuckles early on as Ralph’s enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see how contagious said enthusiasm is.

Bart and Ralph’s bonding only makes Bart’s treatment of Ralph all the more heartbreaking once the bullies are back on the scene. It’s a heartbreaking direction, but it’s fully in keeping with Bart’s behavior all the way back to “The Telltale Head.” Despite the fact that he’s overall a good kid his projection of himself is as a bad boy who wants nothing more than to be one of the “cool kids,” so much so he’ll abuse Ralph’s trust and take everyone to the abandoned Morningwood Penitentiary… or the Stoney Lonesome, the Thug Jug, Mobster Trap, Pen State, or any of the umpteen nicknames he probably could have come up with. Nancy Cartwright, who’s in top form all episode voicing Bart and Ralph, is particularly strong in the moment where Bart finally takes the key from around Ralph’s neck. He might not be ripping Ralph’s heart in half on live television, but he’s coming damn close.


Of course, the other part of Bart’s longstanding quest for popularity is that can’t bring himself to be truly malicious, and he winds up in the same muddy puddle as Ralph. (Nelson’s “I hope the irony is not lost on you, Simpson” is a great line and another excellent delivery from Cartwright.) Indeed, after Bart steers the ship for the bulk of the episode, it’s Ralph who keeps things moving in the final scenes: Ralph who’s got the courage to go into the prison, Ralph who notices how to turn on the chair, and Ralph who realizes later that Lisa’s the only one smart enough to come up with a way out of this mess and save the mayor’s life. No wonder Bart feels so comfortable giving him the credit at the very end of the episode—after all, he earned it.

Despite all those positive beats, there’s a couple things that keep “This Little Wiggy” from crossing into classic territory. While the pacing of Bart and Ralph’s burgeoning friendship is by and large excellent (helped by the lack of a b-story), the third act stumbles a bit as it tries to find a way to make the joke of the live electric chair pay off by the end of the episode. All of the beats—Mayor Quimby continually stating why no one should do anything while he’s being electrocuted and only being indirectly saved by Burns’s greed—have a ragged, almost clumsy quality to them, as if the writers had a pool of ideas for how to end the story and picked one at random. It’s a crisis introduced for the sake of crisis, as opposed to one that’s a purely organic growth out of the boys’ actions.


The other issue the episode has is that while between heroism and heartbreak Ralph is still more well-rounded than he’s been in previous installments, he doesn’t reach the extra dimensions that “I Love Lisa” proved were there. Many of its attempts to do something with the character are unfortunately in keeping with the more mean-spirited humor of latter-day Simpsons, between Wiggum proudly proclaiming how many “special schools” are interested in Ralph and Ralph’s blithely cheerful admission that a leprechaun is driving him to pyromania. It turns the subtext about Ralph’s mental state into text, and makes laughing at him a bit more uncomfortable than it’s been before.


That discomfort is perfectly summed up by the closing moment of the episode. Much like last week’s episode, what could be a great moment—the entire Simpson family pulling around Ralph to give him a win—is tainted by the appearance of the leprechaun offering similar praise: “Ah, you’ve done grand, laddie. Now you know what you have to do burn the house down! Burn ‘em all!” Ralph’s unblinking smiling nod and the orchestral sting is funny in and of itself, to be sure, but for an episode that’s been all about how decent and innocent a boy Ralph is, it’s another sour note to end on.

Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:
  • Chalkboard gag: I was not told to do this.
  • You might remember me from: Such automated information kiosks as “Welcome to Springfield Airport” and “Where’s Nordstrom?”
  • Speaking of the Knowledgeum, the whole museum is excellently designed and paced by director Neil Affleck. It’s a non-stop array of sight gags between the Velcro/Superball room, the Millennium Falcon-style fertilization simulator, Frink’s invisible computer catching fire, Marge being swept away on a pendulum, and the double helix slide collision. They could have set the entire episode there and not run out of ideas.
  • “This Little Wiggy” is an episode packed to bursting with those sight gags. In addition to the Knowledgeum there’s Robbie the Automaton and the various fantasies he inspires in the kids, Bart and Ralph’s toy store montage (which somehow shows a giant keyboard and doesn’t incorporate the Big homage), and Chief Wiggum’s turtle-on-its-back reaction to realizing there’s a 341 in his own bedroom.
  • The closest this episode gets to a b-story is Homer and Marge trying to record a funny answering machine, which lasts as long as it should. “Do the message!”
  • Dolph’s suggestion for the master key: using it to key cars.
  • The elderly security guard at the penitentiary isn’t seen before this and will never be seen again, which is a shame. He feels like he’s got some real stories to tell. “Why do I always shout first? Just gives them a chance to run away. Well, I’m an idiot.”
  • “All right, you’re overstimulated. Let’s get some beer in you and put you to bed.”
  • “What is your fascination with my forbidden closet of mystery?”
  • “It’s an abandoned prison! All the prisoners are long dead. And I’m sure their ghosts are in Hell.”
  • “Smithers! There’s a rocket in my pocket!” “You don’t have to tell me, sir.”

Next week: Kyle Fowle thinks that reviewing “Simpson Tide” is the best thing he ever did. He feels good about himself, he’s helping his country, and later, he’s gonna get Gilligan’s autograph. Then he’ll whomp him with his hat!