I love The Simpsons, and not just as a concept. Not just in the “oh yeah, Mr. Plow, that was funny,” kind of way. I still watch the new episodes every week and keep up with all the buzz around the show too. Unfortunately, that means I hear a lot of people complaining about how it’s not as good as it used to be over and over again. They’re right, for the record, but I also think these complaints are unfounded and unfair. Most people who moan about it don’t even watch it any more, and while there are a lot of low cards in the newer seasons’ deck, cutting the show off completely means missing out on a lot of great episodes – and none are greater than Barthood.
Barthood is a flash-forward episode, and even in the Golden Age, episodes outside of the regular timeline weren’t always vintage. But part of Barthood’s genius is that it knows that, and understands how to make them work. It’s not trying to be funny, riffing on what Milhouse would look like in 2043. It’s a serious story – with some laughs – that parodies Boyhood and imagines Bart’s life from being a toddler to being a full grown adult, focussing particularly on Bart’s relationships with Grandpa and Lisa. It never tries to be part of the full canon, but it uses that freedom just enough for it to tell a self contained story, rather than taking it as a free pass to be stupid.
In the episode, Bart is a talented artist, but is overlooked because of Lisa’s academic genius, and because he tends to express himself in creative ways, like drawing on the wall. While this is a new take on Bart, it’s in-keeping with his general vibe – he’s a creative boy with a destructive side. Because of clashes with Homer, we see Bart spend most of his time with Abe, who both nurtures his talent and helps him channel his more pernicious urges. We see an older Bart vandalising street lights but deliberately leaving them on around Grandpa’s retirement home, and then later see him talking to Grandpa’s grave, all while trying to find his place in the world while everything comes easily to Lisa. It also sees a return of the Lisa-Nelson relationship, which is secretly the best story in The Simpsons.
There are jokes in there too, sure, but it isn’t really that type of episode. Off the top of your head right now, can you think of a gag in Lisa’s Substitute? That’s the kind of episode Barthood is.
It’s not the only post-Golden Age episode worthy of celebration. Halloween of Horror and Thanksgiving of Horror, both riff on the classic Halloween formula in different ways, providing fresh and funny experiences – that’s especially helpful when you consider how dire the actual Treehouse episodes have become. Meanwhile, Eternal Moonshine of the Simpson Mind is one of the show’s most creative attempts, while The Squirt & The Whale is one of its most heartfelt. They also did a spectacular Lego episode whose only sin was being slightly too similar to The Lego Movie itself. But still, Barthood is the king. These other episodes are good, and in a different series they might even be considered great, but in the dense shadow of the Golden Era, only Barthood’s flame can be seen.
This is part of the problem with The Simpsons – it has set its own standards too high. No, The Simpsons is not currently as good as it was between circa seasons three to nine. It never will be again; very few television shows ever will. But it shouldn’t be held to that standard either. It doesn’t have Conan O’Brien or John Swartzwelder on the books anymore. There’s no Bill Oakley, no Josh Weinstein, no Jon Vitti. It’s just a bunch of writers doing the comedy equivalent of “well I’m sorry, but I’m not Tony Stark.”
That’s not to say it should be allowed to get away with anything. The 700th episode was a real stinker, and a terrible way to mark the occasion, with a pseudo-Christmas episode airing in March, featuring another ‘Homer and Marge split’ storyline that made both of them seem unlikeable and with a resolution that felt deeply unearned. Modern Simpsons still gets it wrong sometimes, no doubt. The handling of the whole Apu thing was equally baffling. But not being as good as the Golden Age is such a daft stick to bat it with – if that was the case, there’d be hardly any shows left on television at all.
Barthood still would be though. Despite featuring in season 27, well after all but the most dedicated (read: stupidest) fans have stopped watching, Barthood is as good as the Golden Age’s quality. It’s not quite up there with Hurricane Neddy, Homer’s Enemy, or the incomparable You Only Move Twice, but it slots in comfortably with the likes of Fear of Flying, A Fish Called Selma, and Homer the Vigilante. Give it a watch – if you don’t like it, that just means you get to gloat all the more about how The Simpsons isn’t as good as it used to be.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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