“I’m still trying to figure out what’s bothering Lisa. I don’t know, Bart’s such a handful, and Maggie needs attention, but all the while, our little Lisa’s becoming a young woman.” – Marge Simpson
“Oh, so that’s it. This is some kind of underwear thing.” – Homer Simpson
Beneath the unvarnished cruise line agitprop, the hastily dropped money saving plot, and that bizarre encounter with penguins in Ant-fucking-arctica lies what may be the most half-assed aspect of “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again”, its blisteringly simplistic and incomplete handling of Bart’s serious melancholy. Though the episode doesn’t really get around to what Bart’s actually feeling until past its midpoint, the Bart we see here is floundering among the deep and unanswerable questions of life. Is this all there is? What should I be doing with my life? Since Zombie Simpsons always – always – follows in the footsteps of The Simpsons, it’s worth looking at the first time the show handled a youthful crisis of self doubt and existential dread, Season 1’s “Moaning Lisa”.
The driving idea of “A Totally Fun Thing That Bart Will Never Do Again” is Bart’s unhappiness, his belief that because he doesn’t have enough “fun”, his life is a total waste. To its surprising credit, Zombie Simpsons actually portrays this rather grimly, by having Bart imagine himself on his death bed, looking back on a life wasted at school and work, the only real accomplishment of which was to produce a son capable of wheeling him into the hospital to die.
It’s more bleak than funny, but I’m almost impressed.
Of course, being Zombie Simpsons, they viciously undercut this rather depressing concept in a number of ways. Not only do they place it right after their pathetic song-vertisement, but they actually have Bart say out loud exactly what he’s feeling three (3!) times in succession. First, young Bart laments that vacation will end and fun with it. Then old Bart says the same thing. Then they cut back to young Bart who repeats it again. You can make a case for the third one, because it does have Bart resolving to keep the cruise going forever, but the first two are 100% unnecessary filler.
Being aware of how full frontally bad your writing is doesn’t make it okay.
As poorly and as late in the episode as Zombie Simpsons is presenting it, however, this is some heavy shit Bart is dealing with. (And no, the montage at the beginning doesn’t count, even as foreshadowing. It’s fluff that gets discarded as soon as the cruise commercial comes on.) Even though he’s only kinda sorta still a kid, to have a ten-year-old imagine his unhappy death is both sad and morbid. It’s a meaty enough concept that you could, were you so inclined, base a decent episode around it.
Now that’s foreshadowing.
Naturally, “Moaning Lisa” is better than just “decent”, and that’s due in no small part to the fact that it takes her feelings seriously enough to introduce them at the beginning of the episode and then show us why she feels that way. Lisa is unhappy because her father is a terrible parent, her brother torments her night and day, and her mom doesn’t understand her, and we see each of those happen.
Homer doesn’t mean to make things worse, but that’s exactly what he does:
Homer: Why don’t you climb up on Daddy’s knee and tell him all about it.
Lisa: I’m just wondering, what’s the point? Would it make any difference at all if I never existed? How can we sleep at night when there’s so much suffering in the world?
Homer: Well, uh, eh . . . c’mon, Lisa! Ride the Homer Horsey!
That’s followed by Marge telling her to take a bath, Bart yelling at her, Maggie declaring her love of the TV, and then Homer telling her to stop playing her saxophone in the house. Even at this early stage of The Simpsons, everything is interspersed with jokes and comedy (and there’s the great video boxing B-plot), but the story takes precedence because without it, nothing else matters.
Consider the scene with Bart, Lisa, Maggie and the television. Bart’s mad at Lisa, Lisa’s sad, and both of them are doing everything they can to get Maggie on their side. When Lisa gives up, and Maggie heads for the television, it works not only because she chose the box over her siblings, but because the stakes have been raised so high. Loving television over people wouldn’t be nearly as funny if it weren’t so serious. It’s the difference between slapping some unrelated jokes into a story, and telling a story that is itself both poignant and funny.
Teacher. Mother. Secret Babysitter.
Of course, that distinction is totally lost on Zombie Simpsons. They’ve got this profoundly ominous cloud hanging over Bart’s head, but instead of making use of it, for comedy or story, they tuck it off to the side so they can continue with their hyperactive gibberish. After Bart manages to convince the ship that the entire world has been destroyed, itself a plot twist that makes no sense on any level whatsoever, all the things he had been loving about the cruise vanish. No more good food, no more water slides, no more endless amusement.
Bart doesn’t react to any of this; he, and he alone, is completely untouched by what’s going on. Like so many other things, this could’ve been used constructively. They could’ve had the family show Bart that it wasn’t the ship that he loved, but being with other people or some such nonsense. Instead, Bart remains bafflingly immune to the horrors all around them while the show trots out whatever apocalypse gags were left over after the “Outlands” episode a couple months ago.
However, even that level of head scratching weirdness isn’t enough for Zombie Simpsons. They decide to ratchet things up even further by stranding the family in Antarctica before finally, at long last, getting Bart to realize some kind of lesson about making the most out of life. Even then, they have to club you over the head with it, though in this case the expository narration is necessary because what they’re showing you – trapped in Antarctica and freezing to death – is so wildly different than what they’re saying:
Lisa: Well, sure life is full of pain and drudgery, but the trick is to enjoy the few perfect experiences we’re given in the moment.
Homer: Yeah, stupid. Stop thinking about fun, and have it!
By this point, the realization, and the depression that necessitated it, are hardly even footnotes to what’s happened and what’s happening. Leave it to Zombie Simpsons to ask the audience to take emotional satisfaction in an ending after enduring the near seizure level mood swings between “triple upgrade”, Homer with an orange mohawk and spiked shoulder pads, and a survival situation that’s set to kill them all very soon.
By contrast, “Moaning Lisa” doesn’t end until the story wraps itself up by actually addressing the problem Lisa’s been having since the beginning. In the car on the way to school, Marge makes another attempt to help Lisa:
Marge: Now, Lisa, listen to me. This is important. I want you to smile today.
Lisa: But I don’t feel like smiling.
Marge: Well, it doesn’t matter how you feel inside, you know? It’s what shows up on the surface that counts. That’s what my mother taught me. Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees until you’re almost walking on them. And then, you’ll fit in, and you’ll be invited to parties, and boys will like you, and happiness will follow.
This is terrible, repressive and retrograde advice, but at this moment in the story it’s the best Marge can do. She still doesn’t understand what’s wrong with Lisa, so she falls back on what she was told by her mother, which we in the audience already understand since we saw it earlier.
As soon as Lisa steps out of the car, she starts doing what her mother told her, and this is when the episode shows us both a) how disastrous it is, and b) Marge realizing how disastrous it is. No sooner has Lisa opened her mouth than she’s being taken advantage of and letting her hopes and passions die. That in turn prompts Marge to swoop in and tell Lisa what she’s needed to hear the whole time: that even though it sometimes doesn’t feel like it, Lisa is loved and valued for who she is.
Not only is Lisa’s emotional burden lifted, but we the audience get a fulfilling ending, with Marge and Lisa bonding and the whole family going to the jazz club to see Homer embarrassed by Lisa’s song. By comparison, Zombie Simpsons brought up a lot of serious emotions, ignored them for its preferred pastime of lunatic zaniness, and then dropped in a glib and hollow ending at the last second because it had literally reached the end of the world. One of these is thoughtful and funny, the other considered being thoughtful, but dropped it because penguins.