It’s the moment Bart loses that watch that does it. “A Father’s Watch” improbably winds together three story strands into a satisfyingly unified whole episode. I say “improbably” because The Simpsons’ latter-day tendency to cram three potentially show-carrying plot devices into one undercooked outing is a constant, baffling weakness. But here, Marge’s worry about Bart’s perpetual underachiever status, Lisa’s scheme to undermine the resulting parental obsession with overpraising, and Bart’s relationship with his grandpa (cemented by the gift of a family heirloom), are all tended with care. Credit goes to first-time Simpsons writer Simon Rich, of Saturday Night Live and Man Seeking Woman fame, who roots each storylines’ comic turns in the characters, all while coming up with some plain old good jokes, both in the meat of the episode, and in the fiddly bits around the margins. Starting out in Froggy Heaven and watching the newly arrived dead frog stare in escalating horror as science student Bart uses his corpse in variously insulting ways is a gag that should be too random and cruel, but for the way that the two observing frogs are brought to life in the performance. There’s a care in all the aspects of “A Father’s Watch” which is most refreshing.
And the true test comes when Bart accidentally loses that watch over the cliff at the peak of Springfield’s aptly named Challenge Peak. I gasped. That’s how well—in a very brisk episode—Rich and company sketched out how much that watch and all it’s come to represent means to Bart. We accept that things we’ve never heard of or seen before take on extreme importance in a Simpsons episode. (See: “Taily” in the best episode of the past five years or so.) That’s just part of the show’s elastic, Etch A Sketch reality—a plot can hinge on a new element (even if it’s never mentioned again) without deforming the show’s world. Even so, Rich takes the time to layer the importance of that watch every step of the way, which both pays respect to the (plot) device itself and squeezes a decent couple of jokes out of the contrivance at the same time.
When Abe, seeing how devastated Bart is at having heard Homer tell Marge how few hopes he has for his son (“He was born a screw-up. And no matter how hard he tries—and he never will—he’ll always be a screw-up”), presents Bart with the previously unmentioned Simpsons family pocketwatch, he undercuts the sentiment by revealing that the watch has been in the family since Gettysburg. That’s 1982 Gettysburg, when it was stolen off of a corpse, presumably of a dead tourist. The same goes for the fact that Homer—despite never having mentioned said watch in the history of the show—not only has a glass display case all ready to receive it, but has been writing a series of novels (featuring lead character John Homer) all about the watch’s adventures. (We see part two in the end credits: The B.A.R.N.E.Y. Protocol: A John Homer Mystery.)
The ramp-up to Bart losing the watch is perhaps too quick, but here, too, the writing is crisp and economical enough to carry the weight of the story. Buoyed by Abe’s faith in him, Bart starts trying, in school (two fetal pigs in Fetal Pig heaven high-hoof when Bart chooses not to slingshot his dissected pig’s heart at Sherri and Terri), and in real life, where Bart takes the tougher path up to Challenge Peak. (And Abe’s line about the watch, “Every tick will remind you that your grandpa believes in you” is just lovely.) That Homer’s voice on the soundtrack is singing a ramshackle version of Karate Kid anthem “You’re The Best” over a montage of Bart’s achievements helps, but so does Nancy Cartwright’s performance. In an interview, Rich has cited “Bart’s Comet” as his favorite Simpsons episode ever, and he does Bart justice here, allowing Springfield’s premiere li’l bastard to reveal hints of the vulnerable little boy inside. Tying Bart’s acting out with Homer’s lifetime of binge-eating (binge-everything, really) is a solid move, too, letting all three generations of Simpson men trace their various shortcomings back through the generations of blinkered, emotionally stunted bad fathering that formed them. We see Abe’s sepia-colored memories of his father’s career as a “professional child beater” (who never patented his kid-strangling techniques, tragically), just as we’ve seen evidence through the decades of Abe’s, then Homer’s, specific methods of abuse and neglect to their own sons.
It’s all culminates in Homer’s response to Bart teasing him about getting the watch, an extended bit of irony that Dan Castellaneta maintains far beyond where, by all rights, its breaking point should be:
Next you’ll be telling me that this whole trophy business—and, in fact, all of my get-rich quick schemes over the years—are born of a desperate need for approval from a father who couldn’t show love, likely because of his traumatic relationship with his own father, and his before him, and so on. But unfortunately, Dr. Freud, that couldn’t be further from the truth… Doctor.
That “trophy business,” while technically the B-story, is tied in perfectly to the episode’s theme of self-worth and parental love. When Marge, touchingly, frets about Bart’s all Fs and Ds report card, she’s a sucker for the first authoritative voice on the subject she can find. The collision of Marge’s good intentions and unworldly blind spots are usually fine comedy, as when, here, she asks Homer worriedly if the internet might possibly have any advice about parenting. (Cue one trillion or so results.) The Springfield populace is never more hair-trigger impulsive than when their kids are involved (don’t ever, ever try to disband the P.T.A.), and the guest expert Marge books into town (voiced by SNL’s Vanessa Bayer) uses the spurious tale of a poor mouse who died of “low self-esteem” (he was never fed because he ever solved a maze) to whip the town’s parents into a participation trophy-doling frenzy. (And a lucrative book-buying frenzy.) The whole “everybody gets a trophy” argument often boils down to very Abe-like (although more mean-spirited) railing against these kids today getting too soft, but “A Father’s Watch” does what the best Simpsons episodes do, which is to dig for—and play around with—the roots of the issue rather than take cheap shots.
While it’s true that it’s silly for Chief Wiggum to give Ralph a trophy for every step of his nightly ablutions, it’s also undeniable that Springfield’s kids feel better about themselves when their traditionally subpar parents show them some positive attention. Similarly, Lisa’s justified resentment that her actual excellence is devalued by the fact that literally every kid in class gets a trophy (a bigger trophy, in fact) for losing to her in an academic competition makes sense, too. As does Lisa’s relatably human need for validation in a world where her smarts are so undervalued. When she, in turn, books a competing parenting guru (the peerlessly named Dr. Fenton Pooltoy, voiced by Rob Riggle) who holds the exact opposite view on unconditional praise, his dismissive, derisive view of coddling Springfield’s kids is presented as both as right, and as limited, as the first expert’s.
On The Simpsons, being a good person means doing the best you can despite not having any damned idea what you’re doing. The intention is all, as when Homer, finding Bart’s lost watch in a pawn shop (Milhouse sold it there after Bart’s attempt to locate it via dropped rocks results in a faceful of bruises), sees his son weeping in his bedroom. Bart tells Santa’s Little Helper that Abe was the one person left who believed in him, and that now even his grandfather will write him off as a disappointment. So Homer gives him the watch. It’s simple, and it lands with the satisfying predictableness of a good story, told well. That’s worth a trophy if anything is.
- That’s Brian Posehn as the episode’s third, very able guest star, applying his signature wry stoner skepticism to the pawnshop owner. (With vape pen.)
- Marge’s worst-case scenario for the unsuccessful Bart: coal mine coal-taster. Although she soft-pedals it to Bart as simply, “… not a success.”
- That’s a sweet little moment when Marge tucks the unconscious Bart into bed. (Read Zack Handlen’s take on the show’s all-time classic episode on the Marge-Bart relationship, while you’re at it.)
- “‘Nothing we can do’ is a whole lot better than ‘it’ll take all we’ve got.’”—Homer’s approach to fixing Bart.
- “And Moe yells a third thing to feel part of the group!” is some classic Moe.
- Homer, cashing in (temporarily) on the town’s trophy fever, learns “the self esteem that comes with wad-riffling.” (Riffles wad of cash.)
- Bart, initially reacting with practiced wariness to Abe’s tale: “Even if only a little bit of that actually happened, I’m still gonna be a loser.”
- And the fourth cameo of the episode goes to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, announcing that, in the first overall pick of the draft, the Philadelphia 76ers take—purely on the basis of his trophy total—Ralph Wiggum. Sorry, long-suffering Sixers fans, but that made me laugh most of all.