(Photo: Fox)

Pulling off a heartwarming Bart story is hard to do these days, and “Looking For Mr. Goodbart” almost manages it. Back in the show’s earliest years, when Bart-mania was running wild and would-be moral watchdogs like Bill Cosby (um…) were calling him out for being a bad role model, Bart’s function as a stand-in for youthful rebellion made his occasional flashes of kindness and selflessness the crux of some of the best episodes. But Lisa’s taken on that role more and more over the years, with Bart’s li’l bastardy being relegated to broader shenanigans, as a broken-just-enough-to-prove-the-point rule.

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“Looking For Mr. Goodbart” starts with Bart’s narration as he turns himself into a pomaded, be-blazered approximation of the ideal grandson in order to keep up his lucrative hustle of squiring Springfield’s loneliest, most neglected grandmothers around town. There’s a hint of Goodfellas in Bart’s direct address to us viewers (and the way he uses his trusty slingshot to pop a bathroom mint into his mouth), a character-appropriate grifter’s glee in relating how he found himself in this position. (The conceit comes and goes throughout the episode, disappointingly.) Goofing off with some treacle-cutting, inappropriate lyrics to Springfield Elementary’s “grandparents’ day” welcoming song (“Simpson, those lyrics are not approved and not that funny,” snaps Skinner), Bart’s sentenced by a desperate Skinner to escort the visiting Agnes Skinner to her bus. It’s always refreshing when some thought has gone into the motivation for a week’s episode-setting premise, and credited writer Carolyn Omine takes Bart’s transformation into a cheek-pinched favorite of the rinse-and-set set through its paces with admirable logic.

Bart would love to stick it to Skinner by siding with Agnes, and he would definitely find her constant mockery and belittlement of his classmates and their own grandparents a hoot. (Coming upon Martin complaining that the cold air is going to make him “all nipply” gives the pair plenty to work with.) Playing along as Agnes needles Martin’s doting granny (“I get to meet all the little boys Martin snitches on!,” she beams proudly), Bart bonds enough with his charge to accompany Agnes to the Orchid Show (motto: “Check your pistils at the door”), where his glad-handing skills (and a Tooth Fairy-prompting sack of hobo teeth) quickly make him every attendee’s go-to surrogate grandkid. Soon, Bart’s pockets are bursting with hard candy, old ladies are calling the Simpson house to ask just what video game system he wanted, and he’s handing out business cards at the local beauty parlor.

(Photo: Fox)

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That is, until a tough old British bird named Phoebe (an on-point Jennifer Saunders) susses out Bart’s game, telling him, “You are a cold little customer.” Of course, Bart isn’t all that cold a customer, and Nancy Cartwright and Saunders make Bart and Phoebe’s grudging relationship, again, make both plot and emotional sense as they start spending time together in some of Springfield’s bully-infested woods. Phoebe’s a reluctantly retired nature photographer (“Wow, two things that won’t exist in 20 years,” exclaims Bart) who needs a supposed family member to sign her out for her daily rambles. Bart’s only in it for the promised 100 bucks, but comes to appreciate his crusty (not Krusty) new pal’s no-nonsense rebelliousness. Plus she, significantly, gives Bart her beloved camera, and, being British, she utters the phrase “taking the piss,” and a new semi-dirty expression is like a shiny new bike for one Bart Simpson.

So when Bart shows up unannounced at her retirement home only to find that Phoebe’s pulled a runner (having used Bart’s regular visits to lull the staff into complacency), he’s worried. Having turned down Phoebe’s money because of their burgeoning kinship, he thinks back to the time she rather ominously said of a decrepit deer, “He’ll know when his time has come. We all do.” Oh, and then he flashes back to the time Phoebe flat-out told him she was going to walk into the woods and kill herself. (Bart’s attention span hasn’t improved over the years, no matter how much he likes hanging out with spunky old ladies.)

Luckily—for Bart anyway—Homer and Lisa have been playing a very, unimaginatively disguised version of Pokémon Go, and they rally a search party of fellow cellphone-toting players to help in Bart’s desperate attempt to keep Phoebe from doing the unthinkable. “Luckily” is qualified because, as cute as some of the Homer-Lisa silliness is, it really derails the story’s focus on Bart and Phoebe’s shared outsider status, which had been building quite nicely. The whole Pokémon (or “Peekemon,” here) conceit is good for some laughs, especially when Homer turns his tomato juice skunk bath into a Bloody Mary (that was a real skunk, and not a Peekemon), or when Homer gets lost in his ruminations on cake while attempting to talk Lisa into spending 600 bucks to rush the game along by buying a rare specimen. (Homer ending his explanation with “All cakes are pieces of something bigger!” suggests a long and fascinating labyrinth of Homer-logic.) But, for all the jabs at the town getting sucked into a passing fad, the whole Pokémon Go thing is a passing/passed fad itself, which doesn’t bode well for “Looking For Mr. Goodbart’”s claim to Simpsons timelessness.

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In the end, Phoebe is found, safely napping in the grass, her Bart-aided adventures in freedom restoring her will to live. Unalloyed sentimentality isn’t, thankfully, what The Simpsons strives for that often. The best such moments aren’t content with pat messages, but allow the characters’ endearing quirks to resurface just enough to head off any potential mawkishness. Here, it’s Saunders’ weary voice that does most of the heavy lifting, her admission that she’d had “some dark thoughts” and her still-curmudgeonly demeanor as she walks into the lovely sunset with Bart letting her stay herself, only a little less sad. The same goes for Bart, whose lesson-learning sends him apologizing to Abe for embarrassing him on grandparents’ day (preceded by a nifty animated push-in through the Springfield Retirement Castle), before Abe—infamous teller of long stories—complains that Bart’s tale of self-discovery is familiarly boring.

“Looking For Mr. Goodbart” isn’t boring. But it doesn’t quite land as hard as it appears it’s going to for a time. The script really does lay the foundation for it—Bart and Phoebe’s mutual admiration makes sense in context, and both actors find the emotional truth there. I like how Phoebe’s unimpressed reaction to Bart’s scam turns to genuine appreciation once she, among other things, sees Bart enjoying nature (in the form of a losing fight with a praying mantis). Walking off with Bart, she talks about them going “inside that Milhouse you love so much.” (She thought it was a house, don’t be weird). Set straight, Saunders’ offhand “Oh well, there you go,” once last time, hints at the rounded person who gave Bart’s little epiphany someone real to bounce off of.

Stray observations

  • As a late-adopter of that Simpsons cellphone game, I can only hope that there’s some implied self-parody in Homer and Lisa getting seduced into leaping ahead in their video game by paying real-world money. (No, I will not pay for any stupid donuts, no matter how scarce you make them, stupid video game I’m obsessed with.)
  • Nelson mocks everyone’s grandparents before “Haw-haw”-ing himself into depression by recalling that both his grandmothers are gone, one in jail and one in “dirt-jail.”
  • Lisa makes reference to Marge’s long-unseen mother, Mrs. Bouvier, when she asks if Bart having been playing “the perfect grandson” means he’s been doing it for her. Bart: “No, for everybody but her.”
  • Some prime Skinner tonight, as, freed from his mother’s stifling presence by Bart, he contemplates running wild by just giving his hair just “a finger-comb.” (It works, as we see him on a genuine date later.)
  • Also Skinner (to himself), after boasting to Bart that he has more punishment weapons beside calling his parents or detention: “I have no other weapons.”
  • The cold open starts out strong, with the legend “30 years ago” preceding one of the original Tracey Ullman Simpsons shorts. But then, there’s a retrospective of the show’s 600-plus episodes set to a parody version of The Big Bang Theory’s theme song, and that’s less strong, frankly.
  • Speaking of questionably necessary songs, the PokĂ©mon-flavored musical dream sequence as anime-style Homer and Lisa (and Maggie) battle monsters. Cute, I guess, but hardly worth stealing so much time from the main story.
  • That is an imaginative runner connecting Maggie’s terror at Marge’s nursery rhyme in the Ullman short to Homer using updated technology to terrify her all over again by spotting all the Peekemon lurking unseen in her bedroom.
  • Homer searches for Peekemon (that name only gets more annoying the more I write it) in the cemetery where, among others, Bleeding Gums Murphy and Frank “Grimey” Grimes’ graves are seen. (Along with one reading “Clinton & Kaine: I’m with her.”) In case there was ever any doubt where The Simpsons comes down on the 2016 election.
  • Valerie Harper joined her old Rhoda sister Julie Kavner for a return appearance here according to the end credits. For the life of me, I couldn’t pick out where she was in the episode. Li’l help?

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