228. Brother’s Little Helper

(originally aired October 3, 1999)
Putting Bart on ADD medication seems like a pretty obvious premise. This is not a bad thing of course; in terms of satirizing the recent trend of warping rambunctious youngsters with pills, this episode succeeds. A fair amount of this show is pretty solid and enjoyable, at least until the last five minutes or so when things get dumb and weird, and even then I still like it for some bizarre reason. Bart’s latest destructive prank forces Skinner to give Homer and Marge an ultimatum: Bart will be expelled unless he goes on a new experimental drug called Focusyn. I like how this subject is treated with a bit of seriousness: Bart is resistant to take the drugs at first, with Marge remaining unsure about it herself. As silly as the ending of the show gets, this first act at least grounds the episode emotionally to some extend, that Homer and particularly Marge want what’s best for their son and must ultimately face the crazed nutjob they inadvertently turned him into in the end.

It’s not long after Bart starts taking the pills that he becomes a totally new kid. Focusing on schoolwork, doing acts of kindness unto the family, and helping around the house; as Homer succinctly puts it, “He’s gone from Goofus to Gallant! And we owe it all to mind-bending pills!” I like Cartwright’s performance throughout the show as Bart’s tone becomes subtly more ticked and frantic, as well as the animation where his eyes become more squinty and pupils more dilated through the second act. Everything seems to be building toward Bart cracking, but we can’t figure out to what end. Eventually we find him wrapped in tin foil with a trash can lid hat and coat hangers from the ceiling, spouting paranoid theories about secret agencies spying on him. What organization in particular? Major League Baseball. A bit nonsensical, yes, but I guess it kind of works to how manic they’re trying to make Bart out as.

Whacked out on drugs and determined to unveil the truth, Bart lets loose in the town, stealing a tank off an army base and drives it through town. He then shoots a round off into the sky, hitting and bringing down a satellite belonging to, who else, the MLB. Then Mark MacGwire shows up and attempts to instate a big cover-up. So yeah, the ending is by all means stupid, but for some reason I don’t really mind. Bart hijacking the tank works for the scene where Marge must confront her son, warped by the pills she agreed to give him. Even if it makes no sense that Bart was able to accurately hit the satellite and for it to land right next to him, I buy that he was able to figure out exactly where it was in the sky or something. And for some reason, I love the resolution with MacGwire. It knows it makes no sense and is stupid, and it’s not like the painful self-awareness of something being shit that we’ve seen as of late. MacGwire wowing the town by hitting a few dingers rather than explain things is a fantastic hand wave over the whole thing; he basically could have just distracted Springfield with a shiny object while he conspicuously made off with the satellite data. So as dumb as this episode gets in the end, I think most of it still works really well. It has a deeper meaning and some level of emotional content that’s been missing from the series for a while, and a steady collection of laughs that make a great antidote for the shit pile that was the season 11 premiere.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The fire safety fair has some good bits: Bart may have been pushed a bit too far into the insufferable child direction, but I was still amused by his antics (“Look, a fire! …engine. Help! Help! Fire! …helmets.”) Also great is Hosey the Bear, who Ralph seems to mistake as Santa Claus (“And I want a bike, and a monkey, a friend for the monkey…” “You’re not going to start any fires, are you?” “At my house, we call them ‘uh-ohs.'”)
– Interesting to note, I guess, here we have one of the few instances where Marcia Mitzman-Gaven voices Maude Flanders. Voice actress Maggie Roswell had a falling out with FOX over her salary, which apparently was over it not being financially viable anymore for her as her pay didn’t even cover her plane tickets from Denver to Los Angeles. Here, Maude is allegedly voiced by both actresses; I guess they rewrote her scene after the fact and had Mitzman-Gaven do a few lines. Why not redub the whole thing? But then again, I didn’t notice, but her voice did sound pretty off overall. And, sidebar, is it just me, or did Maude look pretty damn good in that hippie getup? I mean, aside from her yellow skin and four fingers. And that she’s a cartoon. …I’ll quit while I’m ahead.
– I like how angry Skinner gets following Bart’s prank; it’s a return to the more ruthless, war-addled character of the past, not the consistently sniveling spineless wimp we’d see later on.
– All the stuff at the pharmacy lab is pretty great right from the start (“I don’t want to pump my little boy full of drugs.” “Yeah, yeah, we get a lot of that.”) The name ‘Focusyn’ itself is pretty brilliant, as are its supposed effects, reducing class clownism 44%, with 66% less sass-mouth.
– We get some great David Silverman drawings of Homer’s twisted freakout upon test tasting the pills. Always fun to see some more far-out poses and animation in the show.
– Purposely childish, but I love Bart’s orange-testicle prank (boy, will this make sense out of context) as well as the payoff (“Back in the lunches you go!” “Eww, Mom!” “Oh, grow up.”)
– Hearing the class start to read “The Daffodils” by Wordworth reminds me of when I read that in school. And how absolutely boring it was.
– Interesting subversion with the class rushing to the window to watch two dogs “going at it,” with “it” revealed to be a fan belt, of all things. Reminds me of way back in “Bart the Genius,” with Krabappel asking whether those “naughty dogs” were at the window again.
– Great Krusty show bit where Krusty almost chokes to death on his electronic spinning bow tie and proceeds to choke out and fire his associate producer (“I said start it at sixty rpm, then move it up to a hundred on the skirt blow!” “Sorry, Krusty, I choked.” “You choked? You choked?!”)
– I like that Homer and Marge’s adult night out involves seeing the awful Showgirls, which they encapsulate pretty well in about five seconds (“Screw you! Screw everybody!”) I also like their conversation on the way home regarding their next night out (“I heard about a new club that opened up where men dance with men. Isn’t that adorable?” “Yeah, if it’s true.”)
– I don’t really know why, but the two showering soldiers is probably my favorite part of the episode (“I can’t believe that Sarge said we’re the worst bunch he’s ever seen.” “See, I have to believe he’s seen worse bunches than us.” “But he said…” “I know what he said. He was just trying to motivate us.” “Well, it ruined the whole hike.”)
– Great bit as Bart’s tank rolls past the Android’s Dungeon. Comic Book Guy and Otto take notice (“Egad! A maniac cutting a swath of destruction! This is a job for the Green Lantern, Thundra, or possibly… Ghost Rider.” “What about Superman?” “Oh, please.”) I also love Krusty’s clown car, and the unfortunate “end” of Sir Widebottom (“I’m alive… but why?”)
– It’s a bit too convenient that the satellite has actual printouts inside of it that Lenny can automatically decipher. For what purpose? But again, for some reason, I accept the dumbness. My favorite bit is how MacGwire tucks said printouts under his hat so obviously, darts his eyes, then tucks a stray bit back under. Also great is the souvenir bat, which is another surveillance item, which has some great identifiers for Homer in a POV shot (Snack Preference: All, Squalor Index: 97).

17 thoughts on “228. Brother’s Little Helper

  1. One things that I miss from the early days where flanders wasn’t a total god head freak, was that Maude was another thing that at least in some ways homer coveted. Maude’s cleavage in the homer stops drinking episode comes to mind, specifically.

    Her being written out of the show always seemed callous, even before I knew about the money disputes. Flanders as a bachelor always seemed so very wrong. But it a shitty story line from the shitty part of the show so eh.

    The last act of the episode always rubbed me the wrong way, though dingers almost makes up for it. Bart hitting the satellite would be more forgivable if there was a quick line about all those video games he plays paying off, or something to that effect.

  2. i dunno, i really didn’t like the intro at all; it just felt like the writers were trying too hard. “look at bart and his mischief! LOOK AT IT!! oh my god we’re so fucking funny!”

    even the “you’ve really done it this time, bart..” “yeah, it all kinda came together!” exchange just felt forced. a perfect example of how bart is no longer a genuine character at this point, he’s just a one-dimensional conduit for the writers’ awful jokes. and the pep closet thing? jesus christ. it came across as a lazy set-up for homer’s closet joke. reminds me of the “how do you explain the culottes, boy?” bit from two dozen and one greyhounds, except that was actually funny.

    though i must agree, there’s still funny stuff here (you choked??), it’s just that i hate seeing characters that i grew up with and love being reduced to this.

  3. This was the first episode I remember feeling as if something was off about the show. When I watched it over time, the Zombie Simpsons stuff was so gradual that it wasn’t until years later that I could see the distinction. So even during Season 10, I was enjoying the series just fine. But Bart’s behavior in this one (laughing at “retardant,” pretending oranges are his testicles) seemed really weird and un-Bart-like to me. He was mischievous and juvenile, but he always seemed too…sophisticated and artful for that kind of humor.

  4. Did some investigation, and this is one of the two episodes this season written by George Meyer; the other is “Behind the Laughter”. That one, in my experience, is a relatively well regarded episode, and it may be a ray of sunshine in an even more farfetched and zany season than 10 was.

  5. The “shoot the tires out” line is hilarious as is the “cone of ignorance” which I think was in this episode.

  6. I don’t know why, but I never liked this one. It’s not even that it’s generally a forgettable sort of greyish blob like most zh episodes, it’s just one that never made an impression, other than the awesome pop eye bit at the end.

    maybe it’s that the hole major league baseball thing just went streight by me (I have no idea who the baseball player was), or maybe it’s just that this one felt a bit too whacked for it’s conclusion.
    There’s the odd really good line, I love Mel’s “Not the sky! that’s where clouds are born!” when Bart has agreed to vacate the tank after blowing up one thing, and Lisa’s outraged “I’m not a time burgler!” when bart proceeds to use tactics from one of those self motivation books on her, but in general this one just doesn’t stand out to me.

    Certainly better than most of season 12 plus, and definitely far from a clunker, but just a good middle of the road episode of classic Simpsons.

  7. I love Marge’s line about men dancing with men, it really reminds of my mom and how she just thinks gay guys are kinda cute.

  8. I agree with all the other comments here: the episode is not horrible for season 10+standard, especially because it stayed grounded for most part, but I find it very Zombie.
    Bart’s behavior is not funny, and it feels like a Zombie Bart: the one-dimensional prankster with no personality. Totally destroying the gym with water and surfing out on the basket? What is it, a Sunday morning cartoon? Oranges in his pants? I dunno. Bart doing a cheerleader? Please, only for that he would have been beaten up by bullies for weeks.
    Anyway, some bits save the episode, like the return of ruthless angry Skinner, and especially the Krusty moment, which is absolutely classic.

  9. This episode really resonated with me when I first saw it, because I was put on medication (zoloft) right around the time it first aired.

  10. This episode is a little better than a remember it being when I watched it over twenty years ago (!). I think at the time, I was really bothered by the insane occurrences in act three, wherein a tank is perfectly to hit a space shuttle in space (as far as I’m aware, tank missiles don’t fire that far). That, and the story becomes really dumb during the last portion. However, there’s actually some decent stuff in acts 1 and 2. I love Bart’s water prank, and the satire on medication, with the great pharmacy employees and the side effects of Focusyn. It’s not a brilliant episode or anything, but it’s surprisingly decent, especially given how bad the premiere was.

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