September 30 seems like an appropriate day for The Simpsons to kick off its 30th season. That’s another huge milestone for the series in 2018, after it already broke Gunsmoke’s record as the longest-running primetime scripted series in history.
Last season began with the gimmicky, medieval-themed “The Serfsons,” an episode that failed to give the show much early momentum. “Bart’s Not Dead” sticks to treading more traditional ground, and while not laugh out loud funny is still enjoyable to watch.
Bart commits the sin of turning down a dare from Jimbo to pull the fire alarm during Lisa and Milhouse’s talent show jazz dance-and-sax performance, and attempts to restore his cred (with the bullies and the ashamed Homer) by taking a death-defying plunge into the Springfield reservoir. Waking up surprisingly un-shattered in the hospital (it was actually quite the fall), Bart attempts to save his and Homer’s bacons by distracting the furious Marge with tales of a near-death experience where he got to meet Marge’s father and Jesus.
Waving off Lisa’s warning that little lies beget bigger ones, Bart uses his newfound celebrity to fib to Flanders and manipulate Reverend Lovejoy’s sermon lengths before a trio of Christian movie producers come dangling a faith-based movie deal that Homer naturally accepts. The movie’s a hit but Bart gets outed as a fraud and Homer and Ned have to donate all their profits to charity, and Bart and Lisa have a reconciliation on the roof.
What stood out the most to me in “Bart’s Not Dead” is that the whole conflict began because Bart made an extremely un-Bart-like decision in the early moments, electing not to bow to peer pressure and ruin Lisa’s jazz performance. There’s been a noticeable swing back to a more sentimental take on the Simpson family dynamic in recent years, and that’s something “Bart’s Not Dead” captures well, particularly in terms of the Bart/Lisa relationship.
The Simpsons generally has a pretty strong track record when it comes to lampooning religion. 1998’s “Thank God It’s Doomsday” has what is now a classic line when God tells Homer, “My son went to Earth once. I don’t know what you people did to him, but he’s never been the same since.” The key is that the show focuses most of its snark not against religion itself, but the people who misrepresent its teachings or try to profit from it.
Granted, there is still a lot of missed opportunity in this episode. I would have liked to see more attention paid to the actual filming of the Bart’s Not Dead movie, in part because what we did see was so amusing. It also seems strange not to put characters like Ned Flanders and Reverend Lovejoy to heavier use, given the subject matter. Flanders all but dropped out of the picture after that prayer circle scene. Bart’s transition from arrogant celebrity back to overwhelmed kid also seemed a little underdeveloped.
Guest stars Emily Deschanel and Gal Gadot, though fine in their very brief stints, were also heavily underutilized. It would be nice however for guest stars to have a bit more to do than simply a scene or two.
“Bart’s Not Dead” was a pretty good season opener because it focused on telling a clever, amusing, character driven story. It didn’t rely on gimmicks and it was all the better for it. Lets hope this season can build on this to give us some much needed quality episodes.
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