“Bart On The Road” (season seven, episode 20; originally aired 3/31/1996)
In which Bart’s been driving all night, his hands wet on the wheel…
Bart, Lisa, and Maggie Simpson are not growing up before our eyes. They’ve been children for 25 years, and will continue to be children until Fox finally pulls the plug on The Simpsons (probably shortly after Marge becomes a robot or Bart adopts a bear). That grants the show freedom from certain TV pitfalls, like awkwardly passing the kids up the academic ladder or dealing with actors who are aging out of their roles. But it also means that The Simpsons can’t explore certain rites of passage or coming-of-age stories because these characters will never come of age—at least not without the help of a flash forward.
There are two season-seven episodes that step around this limitation, however. “Bart On The Road” gives its titular protagonist the type of spring-break road trip typically reserved for fictional college kids; the season finale, “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” is a touching teenaged story for perpetual 8 year old Lisa. Befitting the stars of both episodes, “Bart On The Road” is the shaggier, wilder episode, a travelogue that begins with a sneak peek at adult life before careening into the rowdiest adventure four elementary schoolers can have with a fake ID, a rental car, and a 1982 AAA Guide Book.
The built-in advantage of The Simpsons’ perma-kids is also “Bart On The Road”’s greatest strength: The world beyond the backyard is still a mystery to these characters. A minor Tennessean metropolis and The Happiest Place On Earth sound equally as enticing to Bart, Milhouse, Martin, and Nelson; in Lisa’s imagination, a pair of hazmat suits can be astronaut gear. For viewers closer to the cracker factory than they are to the playground, there’s a rich vein of humor in the thorough disappointment of the adult world as seen in “Bart On The Road”, a place in which $1 million melts into $600 and the fabulous Knoxville Sunsphere is stuffed with unsold wigs. Marge’s at-home runner digs especially deep into this notion, riffing on how lonely adult life can get. It’s especially lonely when the people who write your life bring up the fact that sometimes Homer works at night, mostly to get him and Lisa to the slumber-party step of their father-daughter bonding.
But the kids are already adults in their own ways: In peeling away the layers of Nelson Muntz, “Bart On The Road” reveals the bully to be prematurely elderly. Seven seasons in, Nelson and Martin aren’t episode-carrying characters like Bart or Milhouse, so the script (by Richard Appel) latches onto one weird, previously unseen personality trait for each and milks it for all it’s worth. It’s very similar to the improv-comedy concept of “finding the game” of a scene—the traits, the patterns, the characteristics, the facts, the refrains that can be repeated throughout a scene or a show to sell an audience on a character or a setting. Nelson’s ideal spring-break destination is Macon, Georgia, so it makes sense that he’d listen to “Moon River” with such rapt attention. Martin’s contributions to “Bart On The Road,” meanwhile, are set up in a single line from his father: “You got greedy, Martin.” It’s an easy path to flipping mechanical dogs and talking Al Gore dolls from there.
The episode works similar comedic magic through repetition of “grammar rodeo” and “Langdon Alger,” which get funnier with each utterance, all the way to Bart’s last reference to the event in the episode’s final minutes. For all the zany fun of the road trip and the emotional resonance of Homer and Lisa’s time at the power plant, “Bart On The Road” almost functions best as an impressive collection of Simpsons quotations. In the event you’ve thought of Andy Williams or the Knoxville World’s Fair since 1996, it’s likely that it was in the context of “Bart On The Road.” This is one of those Simpsons episodes that riffs on topics so specific, so ephemeral, it can’t help but make them its own, and the rest of the episode follows suit. “Dorkus malorkus,” “Purple is a fruit,” “I can think of at least two things wrong with that title,” “Diablo Canyon 2, why can’t you be more like Diablo Canyon 1?”: Miraculously, all of this lexicon-ready dialogue originates from the same episode. “Bart On The Road” produces great one-liners with the wondrous effectiveness and efficiency of a Springfield cracker factory—though there appear to be fewer spinning paddles of unknown purpose involved.
Fittingly, an episode that begins with Principal Skinner shirking work to start a vacation concludes with Bart’s vacation being supplanted by a job, and it all ties back to the “What do people do all day?” curiosity at the center of the episode. No occupation, road trip, or Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired hitchhiker will be as alluring to an adult as it is to a kid. Yes, there are all of these things that Bart, Lisa, and their classmates don’t know about, all of these experiences they’ll never have—but that makes the experiences depicted in “Bart On The Road” possible.
- This week in Simpsons signage: Next door to Lurleen Lumpkin’s Branson digs, you’ll find Alabamamania. Not Alabama, but an incredible simulation.
- Nobody does a throwaway, background one-liner like Dan Castellaneta. I would watch a full episode about the cracker-salting dog sledder who hollers “Crackers ho!” during Milhouse’s factory tour.
- What makes the boys’ decision to head to Knoxville all the more tragic is that they’re attempting to visit a World’s Fair from an era when international expositions had turned away from the type of space-age spectacle and push-button futurism that four fourth graders might have found entertaining. (Why yes, you have happened upon a review of an 18-year-old Simpsons episode written by a World’s Fair enthusiast. Welcome to the loneliest, saddest corner of the Internet.)
- For an episode with a lot of complicated animation sequences (the cracker factory, that faux helicopter shot around the rental car), I’m so glad director Swinton O. Scott III and team made time to register Bart’s full dismay at having to spend a day with his aunts at the DMV. Nancy Cartwright’s voice captures the mood; frozen Bart and his slippery cereal bring the gag home.
- Next week: Some folk’ll never review “22 Short Films About Springfield” / But then again some folk’ll / Like Emily VanDerWerff will be doing in this very space in seven days.