20. Bart vs. Thanksgiving

(originally aired November 22, 1990)
I was really surprised watching this episode how leisurely the pace is. These first few seasons feel a lot brisker than more recent shows, but this one in particular seemed like it was taking its time. There’s an absolutely lovely scene where Maggie is sitting alone on the couch with the TV on, and Marge walks through the room into the kitchen, that lasts a good twenty seconds. That might not seem like long, but that’s a lot of time in a twenty-three minute show. Nowadays it’s barely twenty minutes, so they could never save that much time to do something like this now. Anyway, the real “plot” of this show doesn’t kick in until halfway through, with the first ten minutes basically just being the family getting ready for Thanksgiving, and it’s just fascinating how amazing and funny the show can be. There’s no complex plot or real tension at the start; just the characters interacting and discussing this holiday. There’s a real beauty in that, and also a great sign that once the conflict arrives in the second half that it doesn’t lose its luster.

So yeah, the first act (maybe the longest ever at 10 minutes) is all the Simpsons preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. More accurately, it’s just Marge, as we open with a gorgeous shot of slimy turkey innards being scooped out. Homer is couch-bound watching the parade, later football, and later then picks up his father from the retirement home (our first real look at the depressing residence). Marge’s focus is on the dinner, and is much chagrined when her sisters bring over food of their own (“Some people find your turkey a little dry, and if they want an option, they’ll have it.”) Lisa is busy preparing an elaborate centerpiece for the dinner table, a highly decorated cornucopia with figurines of trailblazing women. Also amidst this is the arrival of Marge’s hoarse-throated mother (“I have laryngitis. It hurts to talk. So I’ll just say one thing… You never do anything right”), Bart’s lazy attempt to assist his mother, and the radio and television broadcast of the halftime show featuring those peppy youngsters of “Hooray for Everything.” There’s a lot of small stuff happening, but it all flows and feels like a real family on Thanksgiving Day. It takes a good nine minutes for the “plot” to begin, but I could have watched a lot more of this build-up.

As Lisa brings in her centerpiece, Bart butts in with the turkey. The two fight over center stage, resulting in the centerpiece being flung into the fireplace, which instantly sets aflame. Lisa is devastated, and Bart is sent to his room. Completely aghast at his treatment, Bart escapes through the window and, along with Santa’s Little Helper, hits the town in search of food. Winding up donating plasma for twelve dollars (and a cookie) and passing out, Bart is assisted by two homeless people, who take him to the soup kitchen. Kind of like the Christmas episode, this holiday special injects a bit of sentimentality into the mix, but never sinks into overt sappiness. The two hobos are kindly and helpful to this ten-year-old, but aren’t above quickly accepting money from him. We also get the first appearance of Kent Brockman, who is doing a fluff report at the mission. He’s clearly a seasoned professional, delivering an extremely pandering speech about the grimy, unloved patrons of the soup kitchen (“So every year, on one conscious-salving day, we toss these people a bone. A turkey bone. And that’s supposed to make it all better.”

Finally able to vent her heavy emotions through a poem, Lisa is once again pre-empted by Bart as the family sees him on Brockman’s report on TV. While the family is in a panic, Bart realizes how fortunate he is to have those who care for him and decides to return home. He has second thoughts about how they’ll react to his absence however, in another fantastic dream sequence that starts out normally, but turns into a psychotic nightmare. Heavy red lighting shadows over a deformed Simpson family, insanely laughing at a repeatedly apologetic Bart, blaming him for every problem in their lives. It’s a great sequence, with fantastic direction and drawings from David Silverman. Bart opts to climb the roof and chill for a bit, but is taken aback hearing Lisa crying in her room, and calls her up. Here, we get a beautiful sequence between the two siblings, as Lisa mournfully seeks answers for Bart’s actions (“Was it because you hate me? Or because you’re bad?”) while Bart remains adamantly defensive for reasons even unbeknownst to him (“I don’t know why I did it! I don’t know why I enjoyed it! And I don’t know why I’ll do it again!”) With Lisa’s urgings, Bart uncovers a nugget of remorse within him and gives a sincere apology, much to the delight of an on-looking Homer (“You know, Marge? We’re great parents!”)

That’s two-for-two with great holiday episodes. We recognize the Simpsons as a real family, one we can both laugh at because of their exaggerated personas, but also feel for because they’re so rooted in reality. We also can relate to crappy Thanksgiving Day balloons, enduring holiday visits from extended family members, and everyone wanting to bite each other’s heads off in lieu of a peaceful holiday meal. We also briefly see the family at a vulnerable standstill as the search for Bart seems futile, they’re genuinely worried. In the end, though, as the family sits at the kitchen table, nighttime in pajamas, Homer gives his second shot at a prayer before they chow down in turkey sandwiches, “Oh Lord, on this blessed day, we thank Thee for giving our family one more crack at togetherness.” The Simpsons are an irrefutable family unit, we love to see them squabble, and we love to see them reunited just as much.

Tidbits and Quotes
– Following the great opening with Marge degutting the turkey, Maggie enters the living room, which pans to a silent Homer… then to Bart smothering his sister with a couch cushion over a glue bottle. Homer takes charge: “Stop it, you two! This is Thanksgiving, so glue friendly or I’ll take your glue away and then no one will have any glue to glue with!”
I love the rapid-fire, but ultimately incoherent commentary on the parade by KBBL’s Bill & Marty (their first appearance?) It captures those types perfectly, always quick to get a witty retort or comment in, but not thinking it through to see if it made any lick of sense before saying it. Also a great capper in Homer’s comment (“If they start building a balloon for every flash-in-the-pan cartoon character, you’ll turn the parade into a farce!”) followed by a shot of a Bart Simpson balloon on the TV, 1990 being the year a Bart balloon paraded down New York.
– I like Maggie crawling up the stairs past all those dangerous objects. Almost like a throwback to that one Tracy Ullman short where Maggie was off on her own (and put a fork into the electrical socket).
– My favorite line in the whole show, maybe one of my favorites ever, is during that scene with Maggie alone at the TV, the announcer at the football game: “In the Silverdome, now ablaze with flashbulbs, as ‘Hooray for Everything’ leaves the field! Of course, a stadium is much too big for flash pictures to work, but nobody seems to care!”
I don’t know if Homer’s ever gotten through a mealtime prayer without either gossiping with the Lord or moaning and crying about his station in life.
– Great stuff at Burns’ mansion, with Burns eating barely a slice of turkey and asking Smithers to dispose of the beyond-bountiful feast prepared. I also love the winged angel statue in the garden with a security camera where the head should be.
– I loved the line, “Operator! Give me the number for 911!” as a kid, and you know what, I still laughed at it now.

7 thoughts on “20. Bart vs. Thanksgiving

  1. Just like with the Xmas episodes, I watch this one everyone year. It is a really sweet episode that feels legit and while it will never make my top 10, it does have a lot of build up and payoff to its build up. My favorite joke though is when Bart crosses and train tracks into the bad neighborhood and makes the comment, “Wow, I’m on the wrong side of the tracks.”

    The balloon bit is great too though.

  2. Such a solid episode. I love the pacing in this one and the build up to Bart and Lisa’s fight. Their scene on the roof at the end of the episode is fantastic and really shows the depth of their relationship as siblings.

  3. One thing I find so fascinating about this episode is how they stretch out Homer picking up Grandpa at the retirement home. First:
    Marge reminds him.
    He tells Marge he’s getting in the car.
    He drives a sizable distance and listens to the radio.
    He parks, walks in, picks Grandpa out of the main hall, and then they drive back.

    This isn’t a bad thing…it actually gives the episode a lot of charm and heart. It feels like when you actually have to go pick up a family member somewhere. It’s just that in later episodes (not even much later, like starting in season 4-5), picking up Grandpa was never a big deal. They just cut to their picking him up, or he just shows up at the house. There’s never any buildup or mention, it just happens when the plot needs him.

    It’s those little touches that really make the family seem so human, that was lost in later seasons. When I hear that some fans criticized various episodes in seasons 4-5 when they aired, saying they were too wacky and ungrounded, I now understand since they were comparing it to the very relatable, down-to-earth seasons 1-3.

    In fact, this almost proves why the show needed to end at seasons 8-10, because otherwise the relatability would just keep shrinking and shrinking…and they were right.

    1. Well put.
      This episode is one of the best examples of The Simpsons as a relatable show, that manages to be dark, funny, charming and intense in a grounded way. Despite loving the wackiness of later seasons, I prefer this version in terms of characters, especially Bart and Lisa: they keep their unique funny personalities while being and acting like kids of their age. Again, this episode is a wonderful example of that (the relationship between siblings; Bart rampant impudence; Lisa’s deepness, thinking her bother really hates her; Bart hating everyone and not feeling remorse; and only in end when he finally, actually thinks about it.. he can understand).

      The show will surely get funnier and wider in later Classic seasons, but as pure writing skills I see the first 3 seasons as the writers peak.

  4. I absolutely love this episode. The dynamics between Bart and Lisa are fantastic here, and the ending is genuinely sweet because of it, but the episode also doesn’t forget about the comedy. The “number for 911” joke makes me laugh every time I watch this episode, as does Mr. Burns not wanting to finish his large feast.

  5. I love this episode a lot. The Bart and Lisa dynamic is well done in my opinion and the ending was so sweet. Let’s not forget the comedy was good, my favorite moment is when Marge’s mom says that it hurts her to talk and tells Marge she never does anything right. Amazing episode.

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