One of the great things about the Simpsons as characters is that they can pretty much do anything or be anything. You can put Our Favorite Family in whatever kind of story you’d like, from a standard domestic squabble to a world-threatening catastrophe, and for the most part, the characters are so universal and recognizable that they’ll still fit regardless what sort of narrative they’re dropped into. It’s part of what makes the show’s Treehouse of Horror franchise work — these characters can be slotted into any number of spoofs, pastiches, and homages, because they’re firm but malleable enough for it to click no matter the setting or plot.
But as I discussed with Robbie and Matt on The Simpsons Show Podcast, I often find that my favorite episodes of the show draw back to the quieter and more relatable stories for these characters. I warm to the ones where they feel like real people going through trials that we can all understand, accented with that trademark Simpsons irreverence.
That’s what’s so striking about “Marge Be Not Proud.” In a series that can claim some of its greatest triumphs in the guise of monorails gone awry, and city-threatening comets, and town-hopping, knife-wielding, Machiavellian maniacs, The Simpsons makes such an impact in this episode by stepping back from the commedia dell’arte-style flexibility of its characters, and focusing on the specific and down-to-earth story of a boy and his mom experiencing one of those moments that makes them see each other in a different light.
We don’t get many Bart and Marge episodes on the show. Almost every combination of the core family has had its moment in the sun, from the loads of episodes centered around Homer and Marge’s marriage, to the all-time great episodes about the relationships between Lisa and her parents, to classic installments about Bart and Lisa as siblings. But for whatever reason, the connection between Marge and Bart is, by comparison, only scantily explored.
That makes sense to some extent. The two characters are very different. Bart is a boundary-pushing, if kind-hearted young hellion, and Marge is supportive, button-down, and the squarest square that ever lived. The pair don’t naturally fit together as the dual anchors of a story.
But that’s part of what gives “Marge Be Not Proud” its power. For what feels like the first time, Marge and Bart’s differing worldviews and attitudes truly clash, in a way that resonates thanks to the universal growing pains between parents and children. Bart, who previously felt oppressed by his mother’s “lameness,” starts to miss and appreciate the “mom stuff” he once took for granted. And Marge, who always thought that Bart was a handful but still a decent kid, starts to worry about the person her special little guy is turning into.
The focal point of all this emotion is a story that’s simple but effective. In the first act, Bart feels tempted by the hype around a hot new video game. After some pressure from the bullies, he tries to shoplift it and gets caught. In the second, Bart manages to avoid any trouble beyond a stern talking to from the imposing and eccentric Try-N-Save security guard, Don Brodka, who bans him from the store, a fact which he tries to keep from his parents. Bart is found out, however, when The Simpsons head to that store for a family photo, and Brodka confronts him. In the third act, and the emotional crux of the episode, Marge wonders if she’s failing as a mother, and Bart feels the guilt of having disappointed the one person who always believed in him, while trying to make amends. It’s a solid structure that balances a setup, a conflict, and the emotional climax of the episode with superb pacing.
On its surface, however, this is a plot that wouldn’t feel out of place on Full House or other T.G.I.F.-style programs. The story of a young boy making a mistake and learning the error of his ways, with parent and child each reaching a new level of understanding, is well-worn territory in family sitcoms. But what makes “Marge Be Not Proud” a cut above is how real the emotional turmoil at the center of the episode feels (not to mention the amazing comedy in the midst of it).
While Bart’s part of the story is foregrounded, we spend some heartrending moments with Marge as she reels from the revelation that her son stole something, and she engages in some sad self-questioning over it. There comes a moment in every parent’s life, often several moments, when they realize that their child is “not [their] little baby anymore.” For Marge, it’s a rude awakening, and one that makes the viewer feel for her as she adjusts to the possibility that Bart’s “hand [has] slipped away” from hers.
The same goes for Bart himself, who’s the main character of the episode and whose journey is the most harrowing. One of the underrated elements of The Simpsons is how well it captures the feeling of childhood, in a way that few works beyond fellow yuletide animated brethren like Charlie Brown have. “Marge Be Not Proud” conveys all the anxieties and insecurities of youth in a striking fashion. As a kid myself, I didn’t really care for this episode, in many ways because it felt too close to reality, to the point that it was almost uncomfortable to watch. That speaks to how effective this story is on that front.
That comes through in how the episode gets the little details, the sense of what it’s like to be a kid in this situation, absolutely right. Bart’s exuberance at the barely-exaggerated commercial for Bonestorm was and is replicated on playgrounds across the country. His self-justifying, blame-shifting logic in the moments before he talks himself into shoplifting (with help from pastiches of the Mario Bros., Donkey Kong, and Sonic in place of Jiminy Cricket) are the exact type of rationalizations that kids make when stepping a toe across that line for the first time. And his nervous laughter, pleas for mercy, and frantic bargaining amidst Don Brodka’s opaque missives capture very sort of anxious and bewildered atmosphere of getting caught and having to face a scary, unknown authority figure.
But the most potent part of the episode, the one that makes its emotional content piercing instead of cloying, is the moment when Bart’s crime is exposed to his mother, and the ensuing guilt and sense of loss he feels. You can’t help but feel a pit in your stomach, for both Bart and his Marge, when Marge angrily and confidently declares, “My son may not be perfect, but I know in my heart he’s not a shoplifter.” It’s a devastating use of dramatic irony, one that speaks to the themes of Marge’s faith in her troublemaking son, a faith that will be shattered in seconds.
Julie Kavner nails the line reading, as well as the sheer shock and disappointment in Marge’s voice when she sees the footage of Bart stealing, hears his confession, and can only muster “Oh Bart” in response. The same credit is owed to the show’s animators, who draw Bart with the perfect hangdog expression after watching his mom loudly proclaim his innocence, only to see her realize the truth of what he’s done.
In the aftermath of this, the relationship between Bart and Marge is severely shaken. Marge’s flat affect and Bart’s visible, deeply-felt contrition tell the story. The powerful subtext is that for a long time, Bart bristled at Marge’s deeply uncool mothering, wanting to be independent and mature, but now finds himself sorely missing the very thing he once resented. When he sees the true brat, Gavin, who berates his mom and gets whatever he wants, Bart imagines that he must be “the happiest kid in the world.” And yet when Marge worries that she babies Bart too much, treating him like too much of an innocent child and thus inadvertently enables his bad behavior, she decides to hold back a bit, Bart realizes how much he needs her, how much he misses Marge’s admittedly dorky but undeniably loving presence in his day-to-day life.
There’s so much pathos in Bart’s concern that he’s damaged his relationship with his mom in a way that might never be fixed. The bathroom rug analogy, as hilariously gross as it is, is a great visualization of that fear. It’s eminently pitiable when Bart asks Mrs. Van Houten if he can watch her do “mom stuff” and half-begs her to tell him that he’s good. You feel his sadness when he misses out on family events like snowman building and hot cocoa marshmallows, small things that make him feel like he’s less a part of the family now. Tuck-in time and Forrest Gump quotes may be lame, but when they’re signs that your mother cares about you, and they’re suddenly gone, it can be understandably unmooring for a ten-year-old boy.
“Marge Be Not Proud” pulls no punches when exploring Bart’s difficulty with what seems like the new normal for him. A line like “Milhouse, do you ever worry that your mom might stop loving you?” may not rise to the starkness and frank examination of despondency in youth as something like “Moaning Lisa,” but it’s still something truly painful to hear out of the mouth of an admittedly troubled, but kind-hearted young kid like Bart.
There are symbols in “Marge Be Not Proud” that speak to the characters’ relationships and emotional states. The most obvious is the family portrait. Of all the Simpsons, Marge seems like the biggest Pollyanna about who and what her family is. Those portraits represent the way she’d like to see herself and her loved ones, as something loving and respectable. And each of Bart’s pranks in those photos, down to the misdeed that messes up the latest attempt, obscures that hope and reminds Marge that despite all of her efforts to hold this family together, things are still more than a bit askew.
When Bart takes a nice photo to fill out the portrait (a reveal preceded by an outstanding little fake out), he literally and figuratively restores balance. It renews Marge’s faith in her son and in the idea that despite the rougher edges parts of Bart’s personality, he is still her “Little-bitty Barty,” the well-meaning kid she thought he was.
But the other big symbol is the video game itself. Bonestorm starts out as the object of Bart’s temptation. It’s the thing Marge told him he couldn’t have, the one that leads him astray and causes him to betray his mother’s trust in his good nature. In the end, however, it’s also the thing that show’s how much he’s grown. When Marge offers to let Bart open his Christmas present early, and tells him she asked the clerk which game every boy wanted, his eyes light up at the prospect of finally getting to engage in some digital destruction.
Instead, he unwraps the golf pencil-fueled “fun” of Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge. It’s a disappointment, but when he looks up and sees his mother’s loving eyes once more, he realizes he’s regained something more worthwhile to him than any game could be. Nancy Cartwright’s reading of Bart’s reassuring expression of gratitude is fantastic, and a sign that Bart has grown, that he appreciates those lame things Marge does because they’re loving gestures, and that’s what really matters.
Just as there’s a lack of Bart and Marge episodes in The Simpsons, there’s also a surprising dearth of Christmas episodes during the show’s classic years. “Marge Be Not Proud” is, in fact, the first one since the series’ very first episode. But it’s an appropriate backdrop to revisit in the context of this episode. The Christmas story is, as so much of classical art has depicted, one of mother and child. The Christmas season is also, as time-honored tales like A Christmas Carol have shown, a season of redemption, a chance to find the good in ourselves and in one another.
“Marge Be Not Proud,” then, is a story of Bart redeeming himself in his mother’s eyes, of him learning to appreciate her love after taking it for granted for so long. The episode lacks the flash and excitement of some of The Simpsons’s more thrilling outings, but what it lacks in bombast, it makes up for in heart and the sense that we’ve all experienced that moment, the time when we’ve done something that didn’t just make our parents angry, but made us wonder if our relationship with them would ever be the same. It also revels in the spirit of love and hope, the things that come when we rebuild and repair those relationships. There is a catharsis in that, one laden with how painfully true Bart’s guilt and shame feel, but one buoyed by the joy that grows from when he and Marge, in the midst of the holiday season, restore their faith in one another.
Odds and Ends
- There’s tons of great animation and direction in this episode. It includes several nice little details, like the way Bart’s chin putty sticks a bit as Marge yanks it off his face. There’s also many imaginative little sequences like Bart picturing Don Brodka as the back of a car seat and putting out his cigarette on his own belt/ashtray. And there’s tons of fun tricks with perspective and framing, like the shot of Comic Book Guy blocking Bart’s hand with a sharpie or Homer’s goofy little waggle over to his son when declaring “Uh-oh! Somebody’s got tired little legs!” Techniques like these help keep the episode stay as visually interesting as it is emotionally potent.
- Similarly, I love the bit of tension in the moment when The Simpsons are posing for their family photo and Don Brodka is stalking the aisles. For Bart, he’s basically the shark from Jaws, moving ever closer and threatening to do some real damage. It’s a great sequence.
- Kudos as well to the show’s sound designers and Foley artists for the sound effects when Bart steps across the everything-absorbing bathroom rug. The disgusting squish sounds it makes perfectly drive home Lisa’s metaphor.
- In my book, Homer is at his perfect level of idiocy here. Bits like him asking Marge if Lisa is at Camp Granada, or being unable to remember saying “I stink” when seeing a voice bubble in a photo, or getting sidetracked by the Police Academy movies in the middle of a lecture to his son don’t make much sense if you stop and think about them, but the gags absolutely land in the moment. As I’ve mentioned before, for as versatile a main character as Homer can be, he’s also a revelation as a pure comic relief side character.
- In the same vein, Homer shouting “Haven’t you learned anything from that guy who gives those sermons at church? Captain What’s-his-name?” is the peak of his hilarious hypocrisy, and an oft-repeated quote in the Bloom household.
- It’s amazing to me how much I’ve missed of a show that I’ve watched dozens of times thanks to the unfortunate commercial reality of syndication cuts. Seeing Homer’s giddy joy when describing his intent to enjoy the mere “thirty noggy days [before] the government takes it away” makes his proposed nog-ban as part of Bart’s punishment all the funnier. Damn you for excising that scene from reruns, local FOX affiliate! (Not to mention Lisa’s amusing declaration that this is the “worst Christmas ever.”)
- Lawrence Tierney turns in a brief but memorable performance as security guard Don Brodka. His gruff demeanor and distinctive growls give him a unique presence on the show that helps drive home how uncomfortable and scary this whole episode is for Bart.
- Between Homer’s comments here, his dig in “The Springfield Connection,” and the famed “Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star?” line in the Stonecutters’ song, it’s clear that the folks behind the scenes at The Simpsons have no love lost for the Police Academy movies.
- I hope whoever in the writer’s room came up the idea that the dud video game in the episode should be Lee Carvallo’s Putting Challenge received a big bonus. They certainly earned it.