“Did you ever see the movie Boyhood?”

“Oh, is that what this was?”

Good question, Homer.

While this Boyhood-inspired episode of The Simpsons apes the storytelling gimmick of Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age film, it misses the point almost completely. Instead of using the time-lapse structure to lend new insight into Bart Simpson’s mind, Dan Greaney’s script just rehashes the show’s same old character beats and jokes with different haircuts. As missed opportunities go, “Barthood” is especially disheartening.

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Reviewing The Simpsons some fifteen years past its prime is often an exercise in lowered expectations and faint praise, but I’m not a cynic about the show. When the stars align and an episode finds the sweet spot of heart and big laughs The Simpsons used to be renowned for, my gratitude is such that I have to check myself before issuing a grade, lest relief leads to overinflation. This year alone, there was an episode I’d plunk down among the best seasons without imagining that someone seeing the show for the first time would identify it as being from “the bad years.” There’s bedrock underneath The Simpsons, just waiting for the right writer to build something great on top of it.

And while the series has had mixed success in doing “future Simpsons” episodes, the prospect of projecting what we know about these characters into their older selves is undeniably full of potential. “Lisa’s Wedding” is the gold standard, and while a lot of people like the more sci-fi-flavored “Holidays Of Future Passed” more than I do, there’s a core of understanding there that enhances the characters we know in the older versions we see. (It helps that “Lisa’s Wedding” is safely ensconced in a dream sequence of sorts—irrevocably closing off potential futures doesn’t do the infinitely renewable world of The Simpsons any favors.)

So “Barthood,” which projects back then forward through to Bart’s young adulthood had potential, too. If there’s a relatable core to one Bartholomew J. Simpson (now that his early, catchphrase-laden domination of the show’s earliest incarnation is long past) it’s in the sadness lurking at the heart of his li’l bastardy that his parents—everyone, really—don’t think much of him or his potential. (Sure, some of that’s retconned in there over the years, but of what character on The Simpsons can’t that be said?) Doing a Linklater-esque exploration of the life of Bart through the little moments we never saw could work wonders—both as an episode and as a way to rejuvenate the character. In practice, though, we learn precisely nothing new about Bart, and the expected emotional payoffs are flat and unaffecting as a result.

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The through-line in Greaney’s script is that, unlike the ever-brainy Lisa, Bart’s always had spirit (“gumption” Grandpa calls it here), and creativity. Further, that, thwarted by Marge and Homer’s lack of appreciation of his unique talents, Bart turned his creativity toward destruction. (We see him as a pre-teen, resentfully pinging out streetlights, a crime Milhouse inevitably goes down for, emerging three years later as a buff, crucifix-tattooed teenager.) It’s not a bad idea, as far as it goes, but the episode relies heavily on Alf Clausen’s sparse, lovely Boyhood-style music cues to signal emotional beats “Barthood” itself doesn’t establish.

Indeed, there’s barely enough Boyhood in “Barthood” to wonder why the show bothered, if not for that same sort of borrowed resonance and notoriety. Both the beginning and ending sequences see Bart and Homer sprawled out on the grass (artificial grass in what’s intimated to be an environmentally ruined future), and staring up into the clouds. It’s a logical starting point, and the opening payoff (Homer’s only laid out there because he’s crippled himself on one of Bart’s toy cars) is a deftly handled merging of the two worlds. But, as in the episode-ending quote that leads off this review, the show isn’t comfortable with stillness (or with allowing a joke to land without explaining the hell out of it).

Bart goes to stay with Grandpa, but their bond here doesn’t make much sense in the history of the show (which doesn’t matter overly) or in Bart’s journey to adulthood as owner of his own bike-customization business (which does matter quite a bit). There’s no reason for the Bart-Grandpa relationship here, no special significance in what Grandpa teaches him in buying Bart a bike and allowing the lad to drive his nifty car. Especially since—apart from the “gumption” theme—Grandpa’s his usual, nattering self. (“Beloved father and mutterer” reads his tombstone in the future.) Grandpa’s the one to inspire Bart because Bart needs to be inspired, not because there’s anything special to the relationship that the episode brings out.

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The same goes for Bart’s relationships with Homer and Lisa here. (Poor Marge lifts out of the story almost entirely—I guess a boy’s relationship with his mother doesn’t matter.) Homer’s a bad father who favors Lisa mainly because she’s so self-sufficient, leaving him free to do nothing—which we already know. Bart’s resentful of Lisa’s success and the attention it brings her—which we already know. But, apart from the fact that the promised insight into Bart never materializes in “Barthood,” the emotional moments, when they come, are laid out so prosaically that the score can only serve to point out where we would be moved if they were better fashioned.

“Why is it you and I are never on the same page?,” asks Bart, and Homer (caught doing hits from Bart’s bong with Chief Wiggum for the sake of some tired weed jokes) replies, “I’m just like you, a misunderstood guy who just wants his family to love him.” Lisa responds to Bart’s resentment at Milhouse’s predictably disastrous graduation party (where Maggie and the former one-eyebrowed baby hold hands) saying, “You’re a hell of an artist even thought you don’t do anything with it!” Because we know the characters, and because the episode signals that it’s time, it’s clear that these exchanges are supposed to be meaningful. But, apart from the final reveal of the huge mural to Lisa (“One of my favorite sisters”) on the door to Bart’s shop at the end—which succeeds as a nicely unexpected twist on its own—nothing that happens in “Barthood” has its own emotional truth to it.

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Additionally, the Boyhood structure flattens out the comedy—straining too much for emotion leaves “Barthood” feeling especially airless. Not that there are a lot of great jokes. Homer’s bad parenting is on hilarious display as he responds to a therapist’s diagnosis that Bart feels he and Marge care more about other children than about him with a clueless, “I see… and how can we help these other children?” (The therapist drops her professional demeanor in exasperation to snap, “Take him camping!”) It’s always funny when Chief Wiggum gets fed up with Lou’s comparative competence, here sarcastically responding to Lou questioning his putdown with, “Thank you, joke police.” But there’s a rather dire exhaustion to much of the jokes here (Nelson’s discovery that Bart is El Barto that ends the episode is the best exit line they could come up with?), leaving “Barthood” as forgettable an experiment as its namesake is a memorable one.

Stray observations

  • The couch gag similarly looks to Linklater, rendering the Simpsons in his Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly rotoscoping style. (Or “roto-rootering,” as Homer would have it.) Like the episode that follows, it’s a reference with little else to say.
  • Mutterer or not, Grandpa has some fine advice: “If you ever have a chance to pitch woo at Myrna Loy, take it.”
  • Bart’s stats during his BMX career include “broken necks,” and “sketchy endorsements.”
  • Milhouse’s plan to reinvent himself in flight attendant school: Invent a girlfriend from Alberta, Canada named Alberta, “so I don’t have to remember two lies.”
  • Milhouse again: “You know I had a rocky childhood with all the rocks they threw at me.”
  • Bart: “You’ll never know what it’s like to be second best!” Lisa: “Yeah? I’m going to Yale!” Well, at least she didn’t end up at Vassar.

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