Simpsons Classics: Bart Gets an F

"Look, John Hancock's writing his name in the snow!"

The Simpsons, despite how it appears retrospectively, had a fairly auspicious start in its first season. In fact, the show was so successful that Fox made the controversial decision to move it from Sunday to Thursday, placing it in direct competition with NBC’s ratings behemoth (and The Simpsons’ ideological foil), The Cosby Show.

The first episode of The Simpsons’ second season, then, was set up to be one of the definitive moments in the series’ history. Could the Simpsons compete with the Huxtables, and if not, just how badly would they fare? It’s a good thing, indeed, that Matt Groening and Co. decided to air what was originally intended to be the third episode of the season as its premiere; “Bart Gets an F” virtually equaled The Cosby Show’s ratings and, to date, stands as the single highest-rated episode in the series’ illustrious history.

That is why it is not an overstatement to call “Bart Gets an F” the most significant Simpsons’ episode in its now 21-year history.

“Bart Gets an F” also happens to be one of the great early-season episodes of the show. It was moved up to the season premiere in order to showcase Bart—the series’ burgeoning star. What makes the episode so memorable, however, are the risks it takes with Bart’s character: Defined as a rebel in the first season—whether it’s switching his test with Martin’s in “Bart the Genius” or sawing off the head of Jebediah Springfield in “The Telltale Head”—Bart gets a bit of a sympathetic makeover at the start of Season Two. After failing test after test (his 12 on state capitols begs which six he got right), Bart has to pass his last history test in order to avoid repeating the fourth grade—a fate deservedly termed “shameful and emotionally crippling” by Dr. J. Loren Pryor. There are few things as nightmarish for a 10-year-old than the idea of being left back, and Bart’s own horror is appropriately apparent throughout the episode, starting in an impassioned speech at the end of the scene with Pryor:

“Look in my eyes. See the sincerity? See the conviction? See the fear? As God as my witness, I can pass the fourth grade!”

(Homer’s response—“And if you don’t, at least you’ll be bigger than the other kids”—is perfect.) Pryor’s “repeat the fourth grade” recommendation runs as a refrain in Bart’s head as he daydreams in class. Earlier in the episode, it’s easy to relate to how and why Bart procrastinates: There are few topics as boring as fourth-grade Social Studies (particularly colonial America), and Bart keeps pushing studying back in order to play at the arcade, watch “Itchy and Scratchy,” and comfort Homer during the tragic conclusions of several “Big Gorilla Week” films (“It’s so unfair…just because he’s different,” Homer murmurs through sobs as a caged gorilla floats out to sea in one of them).

Now, as a kid whose school performance and condescending learning attitudes tended much more toward those of Lisa or Martin Prince than Bart, I’ve often found myself having a bit of trouble relating to the rebel labeled an “underachiever…and proud of it.”* It’s probably the reason I like Lisa episodes a disproportionate amount.** And yet it’s impossible not to relate to Bart in this episode. His conflict is very simple: He has to do something he really doesn’t want to do. And while he has to do that, everyone else is out having fun.

*It is in this episode, in which we sympathize most with Bart’s status as an underachiever, that Pryor first uses this phrase to define Bart.

**And now seems like a good time to point out that this is arguably Lisa’s most economical episode. She has three lines in the whole episode, and two of them—one on prayer being “the last refuge of the scoundrel” and the other on a child’s conception of God (“I’m no theologian. I don’t claim to know who or what God is. All I know is he’s a force more powerful than Mom and Dad put together.”)—are home runs. (The third, about her A on a vocabulary test, rings very hollow. She would be beyond bragging about A’s at this point.)

In fact, the scene where Bart observes Springfield in the snow while he’s stuck inside studying is one of my favorite in the entire series. The depiction of what Mayor Quimby (in his first appearance) later calls “Snow Day: The Funnest Day in the History of Springfield” captures both the euphoria of a snow day (for everyone else) and the exaggerated sense of envy for the one left out (Bart). In a much later episode of the series (“Miracle on Evergreen Terrace”), the Simpsons see the Hibberts riding around town on snowmobiles. “That’s not as fun as it looks,” Homer says to his distraught children. “Nothing could be as fun as that looks,” Lisa replies. This is the same feeling you get viewing Springfield from inside Bart’s room. The juxtaposition of the joyful singing with the silence in his room—a room is never as silent as when you’re studying—only adds to the jealousy. Who hasn’t been stuck doing something they don’t want to do while everyone else seems to be experiencing “the funnest day in history”?

What’s great about “Bart Gets an F,” though, is that this added sympathy for Bart doesn’t come with an equal sacrifice of what made him edgy in the first place. This isn’t in any way a portrayal of Bart that doesn’t fit with our conception of him—as established in the first season. This is just the first time it’s been explored with such depth. “Bart Gets an F” triumphs where so many of the first season’s episodes failed in presenting us with consistent AND complex characters. It isn’t limited to Bart, either. The episode’s depiction of Martin Prince is pure gold, from his first scene presenting a book report as Ernest Hemingway (“Call me ‘Papa’”) to his string of hilarious lines as Bart shows him how to be popular (“Who would have ever thought that pushing a boy into the girls’ lavatory could be such a thrill. The screams, the humiliation, the fact that it wasn’t me!”). Martin has always been one of the series’ best tertiary characters, and in “Bart Gets an F,” he gets his most prolonged and memorable time on stage.

Finally, the episode furthers The Simpsons’ reputation for undercutting traditional sitcom morals. It doesn’t get overly sentimental in its depiction of Bart’s plight. It doesn’t give us a trite Father-and-Son moment where Father explains the importance of school or helps Son study. If anything, Homer actively harms Bart’s chances of passing his tests. Bart’s shrewd move to consult Martin for studying tips backfires. All this leads to the best part of the episode: Bart still fails the test! He gets his miracle in the form of a snow day, studies his hardest, and still fails. He breaks down after Mrs. Krabappel grades his test:

“Don’t cry. I figure you’d be used to failing by now.”

“I really tried this time. This is as good as I can do, and I still failed. Who am I kidding? I really am a failure!”

This is Bart’s first true failure. As Homer has taken to pointing out, you can’t fail if you don’t try. And so Bart didn’t really fail until he really tried. It’s a crushing moment for him, and one saved only by his application of arcane historical knowledge: “Now I know how George Washington felt when he surrendered Fort Necessity to the French in 1754.” Krabappel bumps his grade up a point to a 60 and a D-. It’s a bit of a compromise, but an acceptable one by now. Bart doesn’t run out of the school celebrating a miraculous A; the episode gives him the plausible D-, one that he’ll hang proudly on the refrigerator.

“Bart Gets an F,” on the other hand, earns it’s A.

8 responses to this post.

  1. […] Simpsons Classics: Bart Gets an F – I could quibble with a few things here, but on the whole this is a very smart piece.  […]


  2. Posted by Deoki on April 12, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    I cried at the end of this episode.
    I felt like someone had experienced their childhood the same way as I did. I truly understand why it is (was) so hard to study and pass. Today I look behind and I feel that it was not so hard, but everyone has a different learning curve and that doesn’t mean they are worst, much less a failure.
    I failed just like Bart. It wasn’t 4th grade, but 5th, and only God knows how hard I studied for a whole week just to bump my grades up. But, where he was successful I wasn’t. My teacher (major bitch then and nowadays) said “Is it such a surprise?” and moved on to deliver the remaining tests.
    15 years passed and when I went to that school to take some pictures, I met her and I told her everything I had inside. In the end I realized I was earning more money, was more successful and, overall, happier than her. She was still a bitch, but at least she heard it from a (former) student.

    All this yada-yada to say that our lives flow at different speed but end up on the same place.

    Thank you Bart, and thank you Tom.


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