Alright, I’m going to call it. Bart vs Itchy & Scratchy is the best episode of season 30 and easily in the top 5 of the last few seasons. If there’s an episode that will restore people’s faith in the show this episode will probably do it.
First, the title is a subtle hint that the episode will be good. ‘Vs’ episodes (and there haven’t been many) have usually been of a higher quality than normal ones; think Marge vs the Monorail, Bart vs Australia and The City of New York vs Homer Simpson. However, a brief synopsis of the episode might have you rolling your eyes (at least I did).
Bart vs Itchy and Scratchy is The Simpsons take on the continuing controversy of gender equality in the world of entertainment. Judging by how the show handled the Apu controversy last season (tasteless episode followed by snide remarks from Al Jean and Matt Groening) it would be easy to dismiss this one as another failed attempt. However, using Milhouse’s own words from this episode ‘prejudging before giving it a chance’ would be a mistake.
First time writer on the show Megan Amram comes with a distinguished pedigree (Parks and Rec, Kroll Show, Children’s Hospital, The Good Place).
The episode centers around the revelation that Krusty will be rebooting Itchy & Scratchy as an all female show. Bart and Lisa blurt out the same ‘oh my God’ but the two mean different things. Lisa is enthusiastic whereas Bart is disappointed. Bart quickly gathers the boys to protest and host a ‘hate not watch’ party where they’ll purposefully not view the premiere. Lisa on the other hand decides to document the premiere on her phone. Interestingly, in the background hanging on her wall we see a poster of cartoon women’s history which includes: Betty Boop, Ms. Grundy, Daria, Powerpuff Girls and Louise Belcher.
Bart sneaks in on her and can’t contain his laughter at how funny the show actually is. He then returns to his group and brags how he’ll never watch that show. Lisa gets her revenge by posting the video online which leads to Bart quickly becoming persona non grata. This is where the episode really starts to turn it on.
Nelson accuses Bart of ‘betraying his wang’ and Milhouse too calls out Bart for his betrayal. Hearing himself being praised for taking a stand, Milhouse’s inner monologue is a sad reflection on male opportunism, egotism and fear. He becomes the bully and leads the boys on an anger campaign designed to fight back against a perceived agenda that the world is trying to ‘erase them’. Here you get what the ‘male victim’ trope can lead to. Of course, their anger is beautifully undercut by their ill chosen name BRA (boys rights association).
In fleeing to shelter Bart runs into a trio of sixth graders. They go by the name Bossy Riot and aim to drop awareness bombs in order to challenge the male patriarchy. Bart aptly summarizes that they’re sticking it to the man, which is men. He joins their crusade as they wreak havoc all over Springfield.
Even the motivations behind changing Itchy & Scratchy are part of the problem and once again allows for deft commentary. The revamp is nothing more than a marketing ploy in order to get more female viewers which works. This is a pointed jab at those corporations who take over causes with the secondary motivation of cashing in on their understanding of said cause.
Lisa, too, isn’t innocent in all of this either. She quickly buys into Krusty’s faux-feminism and piles on Bart by posting the video online. We do however get some great Lisa frustration once she finds out that Bart is part of Bossy Riot. She accurately accuses Bart of not knowing anything about the feminist cause and for being a simple mercenary in someone else’s war. All he cares about is spray painting the world and watching it drip (aka some men just want to watch the world burn). We then get a well done reversal when Bart astutely retorts that if Lisa cares she should join him. She considers it but opts not to. Here we get to see Lisa finally confront her own complacency in the struggle. Being a rebel only in thought won’t affect change.
All of this comes to head in a rather poignant finale. Bossy Riot decide to destroy all the Itchy & Scratchy tapes. Bart can’t bring himself to do it so they tie him up. Lisa saves Bart and the two try to stop the trio. Lisa again steps up and saves the tapes by kicking the vat of nail polish remover out of the reach from the falling tapes. The vat though spills on the audience which includes Milhouse’s BRA. The boys begin to cry and Bossy Riot see an opportunity to further humiliate the boys by ‘glitterizing’ their tears. We then get a slow-mo Saving Private Ryan type scene which mimics a war-zone (pleasant surprise and very well done).
After escaping, the girls reveal that Bart was never part of the group. They only used him for fingerprints and DNA. They also commend Lisa for making the boys cry and even ask her to be part of the team. She stalls and we get her inner thoughts where she asks herself: “Can I do it? Can I push my beliefs farther than they’ve ever gone?” They leave and she hesitates but then resolutely tells Bart to mask her as she dons the yarn, picks up her bike and rides with Bossy Riot. All the while Moby’s Extreme Ways plays in the background (a la Bourne Identity). Bart sees them ride off almost forlornly but then gives a tiny smile as he picks up the pink spray can and writes on a nearby wall: “the patriarchy is a wiener”.
Both Lisa and Bart got a chance to grow as characters here as they both learned valuable lessons about what they actually stand for and how they can truly make an impact. As far as Lisa is concerned I hope we get to see a more activist side of her from here on out.
This episode has the makings of a classic. Its got a good thought out single story with clever commentary and enough laughs to keep you engaged. It might be trite to say that its one of the best episodes of the last few seasons considering that the bar is pretty low for latter day Simpsons episodes. But the episode is worth multiple watches and one that clearly demonstrates that this show is far from over.
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