Photo: The Simpsons /TCFFC

“Like most of America, I think I know the movie business.”

The Simpsons’ (every year is now a) record-breaking 30th season premiere, “Bart’s Not Dead,” is, in one way, a relief. In other, all-too-familiar ways, it’s also sort of a low-key bummer, but let’s stick with relief for a moment. Unlike previous years that have begun with a high-concept would-be attention-grabber (like season 29's inconsequentially medieval fantasy episode or what must still be termed the “Lena Dunham’s Tattoos Simpsons Universe” episode), “Bart’s Not Dead” (credited to Stephanie Gillis) aims for a more character-driven return. Sure, Bart, Homer, and Flanders wind up making a Christian-themed movie that winds up making $100 million, but the heart of the episode is, well, heart.

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Bart commits the bully-baiting sin of turning down a dare from Jimbo to pull the fire alarm during Lisa and Milhouse’s talent show jazz dance-and-sax performance, and attempts to restore his li’l bastard cred (with the bullies and the ashamed Homer) by taking a death-defying plunge into the Springfield reservoir. Waking up surprisingly un-shattered in the hospital (it was a hell of a plummet), Bart attempts to save his and Homer’s bacons by distracting the furious Marge with tales of a near-death experience where he got to meet Marge’s father and that Jesus guy. Waving off Lisa’s warning that little lies beget bigger ones, Bart uses his newfound celebrity to fib to Flanders and manipulate Reverend Lovejoy’s sermon lengths before a trio of Christian movie producers (Pete Holmes, Dave Attell, and Kevin Michael Richardson) come dangling a faith-based movie deal that Homer naturally accepts. (Bart lashes Homer to the eavesdropping Flanders with his bogus Jesus authority, just for kicks.) The movie’s a hit, Bart gets outed as a fraud, Homer and Ned have to donate all their profits to charity, and Bart and Lisa have a reconciliation on the roof.

Photo: The Simpsons /TCFFC

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It’s a nice story, graced throughout with moments of the Simpson clan being nice to each other. Bart balks at embarrassing Lisa and imagines her telling him she loves him. Marge, hearing of Bart’s schoolyard code-violating refusal of the dare, lavishes the squirming Bart with kisses and tells him, “I’ve never been happier to be your mother. You’re a good boy.” (Unfortunately for Bart, right next to a school bus full of sneering peers, whose mockery Marge counters with a not-helpful, “Every laugh turns into one more smoochy-poo from Mom!”) Homer, although first hesitating at Lenny’s joke-dare not to, rushes to try to prevent Bart from jumping into the water, and then defends Bart to the angry crowds by taking the blame for the scam on himself and urging, “Don’t blame the boy for being a boy.” Then Lisa and Bart have their moment on the roof where Bart’s gone to contemplate his public shaming, with skeptic Lisa generously assuring her brother, “Well, if there is a God, from what I know, said God will forgive you if you truly have remorse in your heart.” She even brought him some ice cream and everything.

I like nice. And I think The Simpsons could do with a lot more heart as its later seasons rumble forward on the back of higher concepts, less imaginative jokes, and pop culture references. We all have so much goodwill stored up for these characters that a gracefully executed heart-tugger of an episode can reawaken our affection for The Simpsons and the Simpsons in an instant. So why doesn’t “Bart’s Not Dead” move me?

Perhaps the key lies in the ending. Not the tag, where a second Bart dream sequence of the episode sees Bart and Homer meeting in Heaven, and Homer fleeing the Flanders-esque dullness (and actual Flanders) to become a turtle courtesy of “Hindu Heaven.” But the end of the Bart-Lisa story, where, after Bart makes Lisa swear she won’t tell anyone about the nice things he said about her, the pair take a tandem plummet thanks to Homer’s shoddy shingle work. Landing safely in a convenient pile of leaves, the siblings muse that Homer must have remembered to rake the yard, with Bart cracking a story-capping, “Now that’s a miracle!” Yes, there’s a joke just following the line that frames the ending as that of a “Homer Simpson/Stupid Flanders Production (apparently the name of their screenwriting partnership), which might serve to tie the cornball moralizing laziness of the joke to the movie within the episode. (Also called Bart’s Not Dead.) But it’s still a too-neat little way to tie up the episode that hearkens back to the first season, when the show’s writers were still figuring out the right heart vs. gags recipe. It’s like “Bart’s Not Dead” was trying to look back to what makes the earlier episodes the classics they are, but traveled back a bit too far.

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Photo: The Simpsons /TCFFC

As to the central faith-based film industry satre, “Bart’s Not Dead” never digs too deeply into the murky moral mire surrounding the often lucrative, always prosaic fundamentalist messaging therein. The sharpest jab comes when Bart innocently assumes that all profits from their proposed Bart movie will go to the church and the three wheeler-dealers all pull at their collars. I also dug the joke about how the film’s title and poster is changed for different markets, with China getting the decidedly less churchy The Brat Boy Who Saw Upwards, and Australia seeing the cleverly titled Hello From Up Over. (The youth market is pandered to with The Lord Is My Skateboard.) The film itself is a predictably shoddy affair, even if Homer and Ned somehow lure Gal Gadot and Emily Deschanel into auditioning for Marge’s part. There’s also a musical number, courtesy of the film’s Bart, Hamilton and Mindhunter’s Jonathan Groff, which isn’t forgettable as much for its inclusion in the hacky film as it is just sort of forgettable.

That effortful but middling musical gag is of a piece with much of the episode’s jokes throughout, sadly. I liked some of Homer’s Homer-esque dimness when he forgets that the auditioning Deschanel isn’t really Marge, even though he concocts an elaborate series of high signs to remind him. And his self-exonerating advice to Bart (“You got us off the hook in the short term, which is all that ever matters”) is the sort of knowing line that at least recalls some past, better ones. I did laugh at Homer’s sincere takeaway from Bart’s plummet that, “As someone who’s fallen off a cliff multiple times, the best thing we can do is teach him how to fall off cliffs.”

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And so The Simpsons 30th season on the air begins. And if “Bart’s Not Dead” is underwhelming, it at least indicates an interest in character-focused stories going forward that’s a lot more intriguing than any splashy stunt casting or reality-busting fantasy would be.

Stray observations

  • Protest signs: “The second half dragged,” “B.S. is B.S.,” and “This is why I’m Wiccan.” (Held by Moe.)
  • After Bart lies that he saw Lincoln in heaven, Homer asks if there were any other presidents there. Bart’s “Nope, just Lincoln,” gets Homer’s decisive “It was heaven” in return.
  • Flanders reads the screenwriting book Christian Story Structure, written by Izzy Goldberg.
  • Movie Jesus’ advice to Bart on bringing his message to the people: “And if they doubt you, viciously attack their character!”
  • Homer practices receiving a Christian Oscar from the Academy of Arts and Anti-Sciences.
  • After finding out that their film has beaten all the real movies at the box office (and scored a 98 percent on aggregator “Rotten Communion Wafers”), Homer gloats, “Take that, Paul Thomas Anderson!”
  • Idea cards in Homer and Ned’s brainstorming session: “Bart’s Dare,” Stiff On A Cliff,” “Rainbow Butt” (Bart told Flanders horses in heaven shoot rainbows out of their butts), “Paintball In Heaven” (would watch), “Suspicious Marge,” “Homer = Hugh Jackman?,” “CGI Holy Spirit,” “Chinese Investors,” and “Miracle At The Academy Awards.”

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