“Bart’s New Friend” tests the theory that The Simpsons needs to look back to move forward. Judd Apatow was in his early 20s when he wrote a spec script for the show’s first season in 1989, and that script, which sees a work-beleaguered Homer being hypnotized into thinking he’s 10 years old, was dusted off at showrunner Al Jean’s request. It’s good marketing, with Apatow (This Is 40 notwithstanding) having proven himself an influential comic force in Hollywood—and appealing to a broad swath of the series’ desired demographics. But it is also based on a refreshingly simple and human Simpsons premise, as Homer’s transformation allows him and his son to connect with each other. That the conceit doesn’t land as feelingly as it could is a disappointment, but not a crippling one (especially after the colossal bummer last week’s “high concept” episode was). The Simpsons at its best—say, seasons 3-8—was able to wring genuine emotion out of its heightened comic premises. “Bart’s New Friend” isn’t on that level, but it certainly would have stood up above the season it was written for.
“It’s harder and harder to find those simple through lines,” Jean has said about the appeal (apart from the publicity and ratings, presumably) of Apatow’s script, a statement that debacles like last week’s “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” bears out. Grounding whatever Springfield-ian shenanigans an episode tosses out there in the show’s characters is what keeps The Simpsons from becoming disposably silly. (As opposed to sublimely silly.) “Bart’s New Friend” aims for that sweet spot between broad premise and emotional truth, and if its aim is a little off, the effort is at least appreciated. Homer and Bart have reconnected many times over the years, but that’s not an impediment in itself—The Simpsons can revisit familial themes over and over again, its template of the American family redressed to fit the emotional core of the story. I’m repeating myself in these reviews, but I reject the idea that The Simpsons is out of stories, because there is no end to the stories to be spun out of the relationships and conflicts of the family unit. So Homer being made to think he’s the same age as his son is as good a premise as any to explore the divide between a parent and child, the way children see their parents, how adults lose touch with the sort of adults they thought they’d be, and on, and on.
So when Bart sees transformed Homer’s bratty game-playing with the hypnotist (“Only the coolest kid ever could think of that!”), and when he and Homer play contentedly with the other kids or by themselves, and when they skip out to avoid Homer’s “re-adultening” with a trip to Itchy And Scratchyland, Bart’s joy at having a cool new friend is playfully affecting, as is Homer’s delight at being a kid again and not having to make sure the nuclear plant doesn’t melt down. (Or, as he explains after his co-safety inspector—who’s been doing all the work—retires, “If I don’t do my job, atoms go boom!”) The fact that Homer and Bart’s story isn’t more affecting than it is, however, stems from the story’s inability to make it more specifically about the father-son bond, rather than just about two irresponsible ten year olds happy to have someone to goof around with.
Marge and Lisa barely figure into Homer’s transformation, with Marge merely getting squirrely about having a ten year old Homer in her bed (he bunks down with Bart)—which leads to a lengthy dildo joke that is only funny for how drawn out the gag is. (Not sure how many dildo jokes The Simpsons needs, cumulatively, but this might be it for a while.) Lisa, relegated to the background, at least finds new Homer more willing to groove out to her saxophone, as he croons along tunelessly to the famous riff from “Baker Street.” (RIP Raphael Ravenscroft). But the central friendship between Homer and Bart is the one that should have gone deeper—a continuing flaw of even decent latter-day Simpsons episodes.
This time, the problem isn’t with a diminished running time eaten into by overlong couch- and credits-gags (although the pointless Goldilocks couch gag could have bought back a precious minute), but a more nebulous lack of focus. (The “Homer and Bart playing” montage is a shorthand the episode could have used more wisely.) There’s a reason why these sorts of stories—with someone having a chance to change something fundamental about himself—are a staple of science fiction (or animated series with elastic realities). Such stories allow for viewers to ponder choices made and for characters to live out what those choices might have wrought. Here, only young Homer’s rejection of his actual future (“I’d secretly be very sad. You could tell by how much I’d eat and drink and just sit on the couch”), and his final, post-hypnotism half-recollection about his time with Bart (“he was this really, really great kid—I wonder what happened to him?”) strikes that chord with any real feeling.
- After hypnotist Svengali (alias: “Svenjamin Gali”) hypnotizes Chief Wiggum into thinking he’s a kangaroo, in the next scene, Wiggum is carrying Maggie around in the front of his shirt as if it were a pouch, a brief joke all the funnier because its not remarked upon.
- Homer on the Jews (after Marge explains the meaning of “shpilkus”): “They have a lot of funny words for not so funny things.”
- That’s Stacy Keach as retiring sector 7G safety inspector Don Bookner, continuing his late-career renaissance of bringing a gravelly comic gravitas to silly jokes in contemporary sitcoms. See also: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, 30 Rock.
- Bookner: “I’m out of here. If I were Fred Flintstone, I’d be at the end of the dinosaur by now.”
- “That’s the last time I’m covering your ass, Homer.” “[Shrieks] But it’s such a big ass!”
- “All I’m asking you to do is stay 21 more years.”
- “I thought you said no homework at the table.” “It’s called a double standard—one of the bedrocks of parenting.”
- Marge, on Homer’s new work ethic: “A workaholic is probably your best ‘-aholic’ ever, but…”
- “This hypnotism is strong—dinner theater strong.”
- “Gross! Weird! Complicated!”—Bart, after hearing ten-year-old Homer describe Marge as “hot.”
- The Skinner and Chalmers Show, in all its glory: “Is that a grown man going between childrens’ legs?” “Well, there’s nothing against it in the rulebook.” “It’s on page one of the rulebook!”
- Of course, Skinner can’t see the rule because of his ongoing comic strip “Mumbly And Grumbly” about a suspiciously Skinner and Chalmers-like father-son dynamic.
- Something tells me that Judd Apatow has had bad experiences with both FastPass and stack parking over the years.