Li'l Bart & Li'l Lisa (Fox)

It’s hard to write about modern-day Simpsons without comparing it to older—invariably better—classic episodes, but “The Kids Are All Fight” does the referring for me, so I say I get a pass. When an old roll of film sparks Homer and Marge’s memories of a time when the younger Bart and Lisa were fighting all the time, their reminiscences tie directly into season four’s “Lisa’s First Word.” The terrifying clown bed is there, for one, having survived at least for the year it took infant Lisa to become two-year-old Lisa, and Bart four-year old Bart—and for the genuine warmth that grew between them at the end of that episode to curdle into non-stop physical violence. That’s not a complaint—anyone who’s been around kids growing up knows how quickly the little monsters can turn on each other—but “The Kids Are All Fight” can’t help but suffer in the inevitable comparison it invites upon itself.

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For all the various comic and satirical uses they’re put to, Bart and Lisa can still be effective as characters when the show reminds us that they’re still just kids. The reason why there’s still life left in the show’s central characters (and, yes, there is), is their connection to each other. The Simpsons are the American family, their problems, dreams, and 2.4 kids (sorry, Maggie)—for all the times they become cops, or astronauts, or country music managers, or TV sidekicks—are all rooted in their embodiment of the white (ok, yellow) suburban, middle class existence. I love wacky, ludicrous Simpsons as much as I love character-based, surprisingly emotional Simpsons, but there’s something about the relationship between Lisa and Bart that can take a great episode and tie a rocket to it. “Lisa’s First Word” is one of those, mainly due to how it understands the begrudging but unbreakable bond between the two. That element makes for the best bits of “The Kids Are All Fight”—unfortunately, all the good Bart/Lisa stuff in the world can do here is elevate an undistinguished episode to a mostly forgettable one. (Or, say, a C+ to a B-.)

On the good side of the ledger, it’s always a good idea to team up Bart and Lisa. As Zack Handlen pointed out in his review of the season eight finale “The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson” earlier this week, while the team-up always follows the same formula (“Bart is a troublemaker; Lisa’s intelligence has made her an outsider at school; circumstances temporarily place them at odds with one another, but ultimately find them working together as a team”), it’s always effective because of how it invokes the truths underlying their relationship. Bart’s the li’l bastard as well as the big brother, showing off as the center of attention, while carrying the reluctant knowledge that his little sister’s brains and character are going to serve her better in the long run. And Lisa is secure in her intellectual superiority (here, showing off how she can write Bart’s name better than he can), even as she looks up to her big brother’s audacity—and simply looks up to her big brother. (Not to overdo it on the nostalgia, but the way she delightedly repeats Bart’s name—the first word of “Lisa’s First Word” is as joyously moving a summation of sibling hero worship as you’ll see anywhere.)

Tonight, that relationship works its magic on the busy flashback plot, as Bart and Lisa—lost in Springfield after fleeing the apparent death of babysitter Grandma Flanders—put their various talents together to overcome bullies, the Springfield tire fire, traffic, really steep hills, and adult incompetence/indifference. There’s no real motivation for why the two were fighting so much six years ago, but, again, kids do that. But it’s affecting how their gradual thawing stems from mutual self-defense, not only against the big, bad world, but also against that world’s callous plans to set them on predetermined tracks. When the frazzled Marge and Homer take the fractious kids to a child psychologist, her glib determination (after only 15 minutes of their session) that “one of your children is smart and good, the other is dim and evil” is just the sort of thing that sibling bonds suit up for. (I’m glad Homer stole the Altoids from her waiting room.) It’s on their further encounters with a world all-too-willing to disregard their individuality that their incessant combat softens to what present-day Lisa terms “the uneasy alliance we enjoy today.”

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When they run into pint-sized versions of Dolph, Jimbo, and Kearney, Lisa’s brains back up Bart’s defiance, her impressive fake crying saving Bart’s tricycle. Yeardley Smith, as ever, is outstanding as Lisa, her little girl terrified weeping (“I’m crying out my nose!”) pivoting immediately to a hard-bitten, “All right, let’s move” with a skill that even Bart admires. His compliment to his baby sister is just right, summing up their relationship in a few short lines:

With your smarts and my Barts we make a good team.

What are Barts?

You’re the smart one, figure it out.

Like his later estimation of the Bart/Lisa dynamic (“You’ll always be half my age but you’ll always be smarter than me”) and Lisa’s consoling rejoinder (“That’s okay, Bart—you’ll always think you’re in charge, even though I secretly will be”), there’s a touching solidarity there that never loses sight of the truth about who they are.

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On the downside, “The Kids Are All Fight” suffers both from a lack of memorable jokes, and a slapdash plot. Even in the silliest parts of “Lisa’s First Word” (baby Bart swinging on that clothesline, for starters), the emotional beats of the story kept the episode’s feet on the ground, so to speak. Here, the gags are too far-flung (see: Homer flinging the kids across town and back into Bart’s scary clown bed). The Family Circus dotted-line runner “Bart and Lisa in ‘Criminal Neglect’” is the roadmap for the episodic plot, which would be more effective if the episodes were funnier or better tied into the Bart/Lisa story. As it is, we get Marge and Homer roleplaying (best not think too hard on “seagull and boardwalk trashcan”), then brunching with the Flanders, Ralph accidentally shipping himself across the sea, Gil applying for a job with the SPD, Selma as a telephone psychic, and poor Grandma Flanders nearly croaking on the job. Most fall flat, with the only chuckle coming from Bart’s description of the Springfield Retirement Castle as, “where Grandpa and his friends the monsters live!” (Plus, Old Jewish Man trying to lure the kids with his dreidel. “I made it out of clay!” I just always get a kick out of Old Jewish Man.)

As callback episodes go, “The Kids Are All Fight” isn’t as disastrously misguided as last year’s “Days Of Future Future,” but its low-key charms would have been better served if it didn’t tie itself to an all-time classic episode so closely.

Stray observations:

  • As adorable as the designs for little Bart and little Lisa are, there is nothing in Simpsons history as heartbreakingly cute as little Milhouse. Those oversized glasses are going to see so much pain, little guy. Sorry.
  • “That’s where I used to grow my weed, but that’s a story for another day.”—Marge Simpson. I’m casting my mind over a quarter-century of Simpsons episodes trying to think of a joke that pissed me off more than this one. (The one where Bart makes a “beer goggles” joke to one of the pig puppets in Maggie’s pretend saloon maybe.) As there, this is a Family Guy joke—shock for the sake of it, and characterization be damned.
  • “Looks like when grandma turned to dust, they took a powder. Sorry if that sounds flip.” Yes, for Ned Flanders, that does sound both flip and off-character. Anything for a lazy joke, I guess.
  • Similarly, Ned’s uncharacteristically short with Rod and Todd when they ask to tuck themselves in for their nap, and Maude when she has to pee while waiting for the sex-delayed Marge and Homer to show up at brunch. We’ve seen flashback Ned before, and he—impressive hair here notwithstanding—was never this snappish with his loved ones.
  • And, not to be Continuity Guy, but the timeline of this one makes no sense. The Simpsons will never age, which is part of the conceit of the show. And the episode handwaves the issue humorously with Marge’s voiceover, “The pop music of those times was all the rage,” but we know Grandma Flanders didn’t die in the days before the series started because Bart first met her in “Lisa’s First Word!” There are plenty of ways to get Bart and Lisa on the road here, sticking an anachronistic appearance for no reason is just downright annoying.
  • In the opening credits, it seems that Mr. Burns is the subject of the sequel to The Jinx.
  • The advice book Marge consults suggests one parent stay home while one looks for the kids, adding, “It’s better if the one that goes out is the funny one.”
  • “Bart and Lisa were fighting like creationists and common sense.”
  • “Pfft, answers. That’s your answer for everything.”

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