“Oh, yikes, what is that?” – Bart Simpson
“It’s the centerpiece, Bart.” – Lisa Simpson
“Well, it’s taking up valuable real estate.” – Bart Simpson
As our friend Mike Amato has been plowing through all the old episodes, I’ve been wondering what he was going to say about “Marge Be Not Proud”. This week, I got to find out. He’s a lot more upbeat about the episode than I am, but what surprised me in reading his take was how little we actually disagreed. There really are a lot of good and excellent parts in this episode, and his long list of tidbits and quotes is very solid (I’ve always liked “You have entered: power drive”).
Where we part seems mostly to be in how much weight we assign to certain problems:
If you read this blog then you’re probably familiar with Dead Homers Society, and their attesting that this is the sole blemish on seven flawless classic seasons. I can’t claim some of their gripes aren’t valid; when you boil it down, this is a “very special episode” played fairly straight, with no real twist or subversion. But what keeps it engaging and impacting is its honesty.
Certainly some things bother or don’t bother some people more than others. For example, I can’t work up too much excitement over problems with “canon” and inter-episode continuity, but start having characters behave in ways that are anathema to their established personalities and I go ballistic. Mike is willing to overlook the “very special episode” thing, but it really rubs me the wrong way, and it’s the main reason that this is the only episode in Season 7 I almost never watch.
“Marge Be Not Proud” was the first time the show really let itself get bogged down with conventional television tropes. They did it in a way that’s subtler than “The Principal and the Pauper”, but both of them are weak stories being propped up by teevee convention (cheap morality for “Marge Be Not Proud” and shocking twists for “The Principal and the Pauper”). Relying directly on old saws like that was something the show had never done before, and it produced episodes that attempt to portray real emotions, but end up undercutting themselves with hoary tricks and tired cliches.
That reliance is something Zombie Simpsons would later make almost routine, but in “Marge Be Not Proud” it was novel. They simply didn’t used to do things like that. Consider a similar story of Bart misbehaving and then redeeming himself, “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”. Both episodes are built around holidays, but, more importantly, both episodes involve Bart acting out and Marge dealing with it.
When Marge yells at Bart in “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”, all the emotional weight of the episode is condensed into a single devastating line that comes like a kick to the stomach: “I hope you’re happy, Bart, you’ve ruined Thanksgiving!”. That is Marge at a full boil (and a bravura delivery by Kavner), and for Bart it comes completely out of the blue. He has no idea how much he hurt Lisa, which is why he doesn’t understand that his cavalier attitude about it is what pushed his mother over the top from angry to enraged.
This is (yet another) one of those scenes from The Simpsons that just flat out works from start to finish. Everyone is in character. The feelings, actions and relationships involved are believable and realistic. And you don’t feel bored or cheated that the rest of the story is spent resolving the conflict set up in this moment because the emotional punch of the scene is devastating. Just look at the aftermath:
- Homer & Marge – Furious at Bart, but that quickly turns to fear and remorse when they find out he’s gone.
- Lisa – Crushed that her centerpiece, a “labor of love”, was destroyed by the brother who constantly overshadows and torments her. It breaks her in a way that no previous incident has because she begins to suspect that Bart is irredeemable, which is both sad in and of itself and bad news for her in general.
- Bart – Sees the destruction of the centerpiece as an accident and is self centered enough that he genuinely doesn’t understand why everyone is so upset over it. With Lisa, Homer and Marge all seriously angry at him, he gets defensive and bails.
The ruining of Lisa’s centerpiece is such a titanic moment that the show needs only to lightly reference the emotions it generates with little and humorous touches afterwards. When Bart tramples the flowers he has to remind himself that he’s mad. When Lisa tries to read the family her poem there’s just the briefest moment of resignation on her face as she is, once again, instantly set aside as the family chases down Bart.
“Marge Be Not Proud” doesn’t have anything even approaching that kind of deft touch with its story. Bart’s remorse is constantly paraded before the audience, as though we’d forgotten it from a few seconds ago. They lay it on so thick that Bart gets caught not once, but twice. There’s basically no progress to the story in between his encounters with the security guard, it’s just one drawn out sequence of Bart feeling bad about himself. “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” has a lot going on so it never gets bogged down rehashing what we already know. “Marge Be Not Proud” has just the single thread: Bart and Marge feeling bad about each other, and it pounds it into the ground.
Much of the episode is one event after another that reinforces Bart’s guilt about stealing the game. Right from the time Brodka (whose Lawrence Tierney gruffness is great) puts his hand on Bart’s shoulder, it’s an unrelenting parade of the exact same thing. There’s Bart walking through the mall with Brodka; there’s Santa rejecting Bart; there’s Brodka leaving the unsparing message on the answering machine; there’s Bart being told he has to go back to the store; there’s Marge pointing out that he’s ruined all their past photos. Each segment strikes the same tone: Bart feels bad. And all that happens before he gets caught the second time, after which the guilt trip really starts to get heavy.
Are you tired of seeing this expression? This episode isn’t.
Interspersed with all that is a lot of very funny stuff (“Where was I? Oh yeah, stay out of my booze!”), but it can’t conceal the fact that this episode has the emotional range and progression of a metronome. It just keeps hitting that same point over and over and over and over and over.
The monotony of it not only leaves the episode wanting in terms of emotional depth, it also guarantees that the ending is going to be face meltingly obvious. Since the episode has spent so much time wracking Bart with guilt, the only thing it can do at the end is have him finally, at long last, make good. All those scenes of Bart looking nervous, embarrassed, worried, remorseful, etcetera paint it into a corner from where there is only one, hacktacular exit.
The same isn’t true of “Bart vs. Thanksgiving”. When Bart returns to the house after having been at the homeless shelter, he stops short of walking in the door because he has no way of knowing that everyone is worried about him and that his return will be welcomed. He still doesn’t understand why they were so mad at him and fears a repeat. From his point of view, their anger was a grotesque and hurtful overreaction, and since he hasn’t spoken with them since, he has no idea what to expect now.
Even in the harsh moments, things stay funny.
In turn, that sets up his rooftop reconciliation with Lisa, which is both sweet and lined with little jokes to keep things light (“the boy nobody wanted just won the Super Bowl”, “did they cry?”/“yes”/“whoa, bulls-eye!”). Every character acts according to what they know at the time, and all the scenes work within both the plot and emotional boundaries that were established earlier.
The ending of “Marge Be Not Proud” is much clumsier (though still a far cry from Zombie Simpsons). Just like in Season 2, the big moment is Bart returning to the house, this time after having gotten a nice picture of himself taken. Right here the episode opens up a rather stark plot hole. Bart went back to the Try-N-Save and had no problem whatsoever with Brodka. Huh? A big chunk of the middle of the episode is the fact that Bart can’t go to the Try-N-Save. Did that restriction get lifted? They don’t say.
More immediately jarring is the way they stage Bart’s return. After he walks into the house the show puts on this big confrontation between Marge and Bart over what Bart has in his jacket. Marge and the audience are supposed to believe that it’s the video game, but Bart knows it’s his picture (with receipt, just in case you didn’t get it yet). Since Bart knows that, what is the point of that little mini-chase? Of Bart’s terrified looking behavior? Bart’s been trying to make good for a third of the episode at that point, are we really supposed to think he’s stolen video game? The entire scene is fake tension filler before we get to the hammy conclusion that we all knew was coming.
It’s Christmas, so Bart is apparently aware that the end must involve lots of ham.
This is the problem with having such a formulaic, one note plot: it leaves you with no option for resolving it other than cheese drenched schmaltz, a sentiment the show had rigorously avoided to that point. And since it’s something Bart’s been trying to do for most of the episode, by the time it finally happens it’s more of a relief than a resolution.
There’s real emotional pain in both of these episodes, but “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” uses it mostly in the background to drive a typical Simpsons story. Even better, the emotional state of the characters changes as they go through the plot. Bart realizes that the family he was so mad at is actually the best thing he’s got; Lisa feels sad that Bart is gone even after what happened. Finally, they have their private moment on the roof where Bart at last becomes aware of what he originally did.
“Marge Be Not Proud” puts its lone emotion front and center where it weighs everything else down and makes the story painfully simplistic. It’s a single note compared to a symphony, and while there’s a lot of decent stuff in between, the episode has the same kind of weak structure that characterizes so many bad episodes that have come since. If you can abide that one note droning in the background, then more power to you for Troy McClure’s shoplifting video, “SimReich”, and the way Lisa drops the can of fake snow. I can’t. Too many bad episodes, “The Principal and the Pauper” included, start rattling around inside my head.
(Oh, and do read Mike’s whole post, it’s got lots more of the good stuff than this does.)