Tuesday, April 11, 2006

I Was A Teenage Nerd: The Bart Within

You knew it was only a matter of time.

The Greatest Television Show Ever, known in its abbreviated form as The Simpsons, premiered (depending on whom you ask) in either December or January of the year I was in second grade. (I'm not the only person who still reflexively measures years starting in the fall, am I?) My mind already half-corrupted by You Can't Do That On Television (Thanks, Canada!), I was ripe to be warped by this blessed little show. And that's pretty much what happened, as anyone who has talked to me for longer than ten minutes can tell you.

That heady summer of 1990, Bartmania swept the nation. Bootleg T-shirts emblazoned with the sudden new slogans of my generation, "Underachiever and proud of it," "Don't have a cow, man," "I'm Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?" sold in the millions and made rich men out of shiftless opportunists running shady operations out of their carholes. George Bush, Sr., apparently unaware of the Bartian ethos his eldest son had fully embraced, denounced the pointy-haired scamp as a threat to the American way of life (more or less). Skateboards came back in a big way. It was Bart's world; we were just living in it.
Around my house, Bart was persona non grata. My brother and I were in enough trouble as it was; we didn't need encouragement. Nevertheless, the show was a staple of our Sunday evenings (probably because of my father's appreciation for the show's quick wit, irreverence, and self-awareness; thanks, Dad). I got away with watching by saying that I liked Lisa. It was true enough; I felt (and still feel) a great kinship with the eldest Simpson child. Precocious, gifted, introverted, unpopular, overshadowed by her elder sibling, too smart for her own good; change the skin tone and the hair, and the gender, and I *was* Lisa Simpson. It's a good thing the producers waited until I was in college to convert Lisa to Bhuddism; if they'd done it in the earlier seasons, I'd likely have broken my grandfather's heart when I tried to follow suit. (Did I mention I was impressionable?)

I made a good show of pretending not to like Bart, and even sometimes believed it myself, but the truth was, if Lisa was the angel in me, Bart was the devil. Irreverent, smart-mouthed, trouble-prone, impulsive, feared by the parents of the neighborhood; I may as well have worn one of those T-shirts (although my school, among thousands of others, banned them within weeks of the show's premiere). And it's perhaps this that made me reject the Bart within. Bart was trouble. Bart was headed down a wrong path (Homer's dream of him becoming Chief Justice of the Supreme Court notwithstanding). I didn't want to be Bart. I was afraid of being Bart.

And so I remained, alternately disdainful and wary, until syndication showed me the error of my ways.

Homer, Bart, and the rest made their jump to early evening TV in my market not long after the airing of the 100th episode ("Sweet Seymour Skinner's Badassssss Song," or, as I referred to it for years, "the one where Bart takes the dog to school and gets Skinner fired and Flanders becomes principal and Bart and Skinner become friends and Skinner rejoins the army and the guy comes off the bus and says 'Where do I get my grenades at?'"). I had missed an episode here and there, and relished this chance to catch up, as well as see some old favorites in the light of the added wisdom five years had given me.

It was in this last capacity that I vegged down (I rarely simply sit to watch TV) to watch a re-presentation of episode 7F07, "Bart vs. Thanksgiving." True Springfieldianites will no doubt remember the episode by rote: Bart ruins the holiday by accidentally-on-purpose destroying Lisa's centerpiece, runs away, hangs out at a soup kitchen, returns when he realizes that life on the wrong side of the tracks ain't what it's cracked up to be, and privately apologizes to Lisa. I didn’t think much of the episode on first glance; Bart is a brat through most of it, and the ending, I believe, was skipped over when my own family's Thanksgiving dinner was served.

This time, though, I was paying attention. And, as is the show's wont, I was rewarded for doing so.

When he returns to 742 Evergreen Terrace, Bart initially balks at the notion of apologizing to Lisa, imagining a rather hyperbolic situation where the family revels in humiliating him. In a huff, he climbs up into his treehouse, and from there to the roof, where he revels in finding his old junk… until he hears Lisa tearfully writing in her diary. He calls her up, and there they engage in one of those Socratic sibling conversations that makes me love the show.

Lisa asks Bart, point-blank, why he burned her centerpiece: "Was it because you hate me? Or because you're bad?"

Quoth Bart: "I don't know! 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!"

Now… I know this is supposed to be funny. I'm supposed to laugh. Ha-ha, Bart's a slave to his urges.

But man… did you hear the anguish in that? The resignment, the fear, the heart-rending self-loathing? For one moment, Bart was completely aware of who and what he was, and he reacted accordingly: with desperate angst.

That was me inside Bart. Every tearful confession, every agonizing moment in the principal's office, every afternoon of self-imposed exile in my room, every downturned gaze at the disappointment on my parents' faces. Bart may have been a misbehaving little turd, but he was also a scared little boy who saw what he might grow up to be, and didn’t like it.

And that, my friends, is how I learned to stop worrying and love the Bart. Because to love Bart is to love that part of ourselves that we most despise, to accept it, and, with a little help from the better Lisas of our nature, overcome it.

Like I said: Greatest Television Show Ever.

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