Compare & Contrast: Bart’s Remorse

Bart vs Thanksgiving9

“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. 

Bart vs Thanksgiving7

Yikes indeed.

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.

Marge Be Not Proud3

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.

Bart vs Thanksgiving8

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.

Marge Be Not Proud2

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.) 

16 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Bart’s Remorse”

  1. 1 Thrillho
    22 December 2011 at 4:59 pm

    Marge be Not Proud? I’m not familiar with it. ;)

    Seriously, while I do really like the episode, I found your analysis very interesting. I still have to side with Mike on this one, and now I want to check out more of his blog, so thanks for that.

  2. 22 December 2011 at 6:02 pm

    You raise some entirely valid points, but to me, they don’t bring down the episode at all. Agreed that this is nowhere even close to Zombie Simpsons – the emotion may be less subtle than usual, but this episode has enough solid character-driven stuff to keep it believable, which is more than I can say about ZS’ attempts at yanking madly on our heartstrings. Bart is still Bart, and Marge is still Marge.

  3. 22 December 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Thoughtful write-up as always. The points about “Proud” are all valid; your enjoyment just depends on your perception. I’ll defend a few points: Bart never really felt bad about stealing, only about getting caught in the second act, which then switched to his remorse in the third. Nowhere here does Bart explicitly say or imply that he’s learned his lesson that stealing is wrong, which would have put this in true “special episode” territory. Also, Bart hiding the gift from Marge was explained; he wanted to keep it a surprise. Sure, running made him more suspect, but he’s a kid, he didn’t think that far ahead.

    Anyway, I still think the characterization is strong and the jokes solid enough to keep this in the classic realm, but I respect your well-defended opinions on the matter.

    • 23 December 2011 at 9:42 am

      Hey, I love your blog, Mike. I just started reading and there is lots of excellent writing. I am so thankful for blogs like yours and dead homer for the thoughtful intelligent writing about the Simpsons.

    • 23 December 2011 at 10:31 am

      One question… maybe rheotorical… how’d you land on a Christmas episode so closely to real-life Christmas.. since you’re doing them in order.. that is excellent timing!

  4. 8 Mike Russo
    22 December 2011 at 9:49 pm

    First off I love both episodes. Let me just say that straight out. But comparing them is silly.

    And when you think about it, the conflict in “Bart vs Thanksgiving” is more than a bit overblown. All Bart was really doing was bringing in the main course and having a fight with his sister, who was trying to overcrowd the dinner table with a humongous centerpiece. The destruction of that centerpiece was completely accidental and Marge’s reaction seems to me like an overreaction. It doesn’t bother me that much though, because the show was still trying to find it’s footing. It hadn’t even been on the air for a year. Which is why I think it’s unfair to compare it to an episode made in season seven, when the show was striking gold with every new episode. It’s not the same as comparing an episode in season seven to a random piece of shit from the past decade.

    Now we’ve got “Marge Be Not Proud”. The big difference here is that Bart knowingly does something illegal. It’s nothing like accidentally tossing a centerpiece in the fireplace. He steals an expensive video game and goes to great lengths to hide the evidence. The worst part for Marge is that she discovers this in front of the entire store after vehemently sticking up for her son. So OF COURSE her reaction is going to be far different this time. She’s not just angry, she’s hurt and her confidence and trust in her own child is shattered big time.

    This is a lot more realistic than what happens in the earlier episode. Here, Bart gets the silent treatment as a devastated Marge starts to re-evaluate how she’s parenting him. That’s a very realistic way of dealing with something like this and I think that hits close to home for a lot of people. It certainly did for me. I sympathize more with Bart here than I do with him in “Bart vs Thanksgiving”. In that episode, he gets screamed at and then runs away from home. In “Marge Be Not Proud” Bart suddenly find himself scared, lonely and missing his mother’s love. That’s powerful stuff and it’s to this episode’s credit than it can pull off something like this and still be hysterically funny,


  5. 23 December 2011 at 9:08 am

    I enjoyed your writeup, but I have always liked (liked, not loved) “Marge be Not Proud”. I think it’s mostly hilarious… yet, it does go a bit overboard in the sentimentality and all at the end. One of the things that made early Simpsons episodes so interesting is how things aren’t overstated or obvious; there might be emotional twists/dialogue/endings/etc. but they don’t beat you over the head with it and they aren’t in your face about it. “Marge”, in retrospect, is a bit in your face, but despite its cheesiness at times, I don’t think it’s even close to being a bad episode. In fact, there’s enough great bits to justify its existence.. there’s a great episode in there.. but maybe the direction at points was questionable.

    Always loved Lawrence Tierney. Anyone ever seen the movie RED, about the infamous Tube Bar Calls? Great 30 minute ish short film that is nothing but prank phone calls, not unlike the movie THE CORNDOG MAN, which I highly reccomend to all you Simpsons fans, it’s probably the funniest movie ever. Highly reccomended!!

  6. 23 December 2011 at 10:37 am

    Bart knows how to respond when people yell at him, be it Homer, Skinner, or even Marge on occasion. Noramlly he would lash out and rebel at those who are angry with him, but this time Marge is too disappointed and depressed to get angry which leaves Bart in a state of confusion and worry. He knows this time it’s different, which is why he reacts differently then he did in the Thanksgiving episode. And so for that reason I really didn’t mind how heavy handed the shoplifting episode was or how thick they laid on the whole “bart is sad” expression. I remember being Bart’s age and there’s no worse feeling than when your mom isn’t proud of you. You wish she would get mad so you could get mad too. But you’re left paralyzed. You can’t do anything until she responds. So I actually really liked this episode. It’s not as good as Bart vs Thanksgiving, I will give you that, but I gotta go with Mike’s blog on this one.

    Also, this episode gave us “Thrillho” and “Lee Carvello’s putting challenge”. That alone is enough for me to recommend it. I had a nearly identical experience to that when I was a kid. My mom got me a game I already owned and I had to fake excitement. I think we’ve all recieved a “Lee Carvello’s putting challenge” at some point or another.

    • 11 kokairu
      24 December 2011 at 3:31 am

      I agree with this: this episode is deliberately unsettling because it feels as though Bart has forever damaged his relationship with his mother.

      I definitely see Charlie’s point, but this episode has far too many classic moments for the issues to bother me much. There are episodes from the first 7 series that I like less.

  7. 23 December 2011 at 1:59 pm

    You cite hitting the same emotional point as a problem, could it be deliberate?

    I’ve had times when I’ve been stuck in an emotional problem, something I’ve done wrong or fear I’ll do wrong, and the guilt or worry nags away. Could it possibly be the aim of the episode to recreate this ‘trapped’ feeling – to put the audience in the mind of a character trapped by a nagging feeling of guilt that can’t be broken away from?

  8. 13 ryc
    23 December 2011 at 11:54 pm

    How is this different from an episode like life in the fast lane? Same problem all throughout, joke-free scenes of a lonely homer, and an obvious, cheesy happy ending. I’m honestly asking too since i can aaalmost see where you’re coming from…

  9. 14 Kant
    24 December 2011 at 9:14 am

    Yes, yes the emotional plot in the episode is not very good but here is my question – Are the jokes still good? Did they made you laugh?

  10. 15 Kant
    24 December 2011 at 9:52 am

    To be fair Marge reactions when she’s heath broken where very sad…

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