Martin. He's one of my favorite characters and in this episode he's nearly fully conceived and executed the way he will continue to be for the series. No other character is dropped into life so fully formed on their first appearance. Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa take until the second season to become themselves but Martin is Martin.
He's also one of the best side characters in the series and I have a real-world parallel story to a Martin in my own upbringing.
Before you ever see Martin, though, you get to see the incredibly long opening sequence. According to the commentary, Matt Groening hadn't seen any current TV shows and assumed that long openings were par for the course. They weren't but his little accident gave us one of the most recognizable theme songs of TV. There are little things about the long opening sequence that stand out. Homer doesn't let out a scream when Marge nearly runs him over in the driveway. At the bus stop as Bart rides by a group of people, you notice one guy looks like Bart up to the spiky hair. It'll be interesting to see what season they get rid of that scene and replace those characters with characters from the Simpsons world. But more interesting is that this tells us that the spiky-hair rule hasn't been implemented yet.
At a certain point, the Simpsons' creative team decided that only the Simpsons could have spiky hair. All other characters in Springfield had to have normal hair. Once implemented, the only time I can think of the staff breaking that rule is when Bart and Lisa try to save the Itchy & Scratchy show but are beaten by Lester and Eliza. That's worth breaking the rule over.
Totally worth it.
Let's get back to season 1, episode 2.
Homer is not yet super dumb at this point but we do get little glimmers of it. In the very first scene, we see Homer agonizing over his nonsense Scrabble tiles: O X I D I Z E. "How can you make a word with these lousy letters?" he says as he puts down Do.
In an effort to get out of the game quickly, Bart makes up a word. We've all done this. And I've done this many times playing Scrabble with my great grandma, parents, and brothers. We couldn't ever pass off a fake word on GG. At least you can pronounce KWYJIBO, unlike OXIDIZE.
A few things to notice. The coloring looks awful. The house is a weird, spray painted pink that reminds me of what I thought cartoons looked like in Afghanistan based on my multiple viewings of Super Troopers. It looks kind of half-assed in certain scenes but the DVD contains a note from Matt Groening reminding us that they had no idea what they were doing during season 1.
Then we get our introduction to Martin. My-friggin'-favorite.
Bart Simpson and his gang, Milhouse and two other guys, are tagging the school walls with Principal Skinner saying, "I am a weiner." Martin, in all his glory, tattle-tales to Skinner and then chides Bart on his spelling of wiener. "The preferred spelling of wiener is w-i-e-n-e-r although w-e-i is an acceptable ethnic variant."
Holy cow, I just had a cow man. That line is so perfect. It very well may be the best damn line of the season. I don't know. I'm watching and writing this as I go so I'm sure I'll say that more than a hundred more times. But how many kids did you know like that growing up? It's very easy for me to think of and point at the kids I thought were little Martins but I'm sure, even in my adult life, I come across as a Martin. Martin is a perfect character. He is Comic Book Guy before the reality of life has crushed him.
I knew a Martin in third grade. My third grade teacher was also a lot like Edna Krabappel. I remember the anti-smoking message being drilled into us since we were in kindergarten so it was quite a scandal when Ms. Bledsoe came to school smelling like smoke. Ms. Bledsoe did treat me the same way Krabappel treats Bart in this episode. Bart is constantly in trouble and had to conform to preemptive measures to ensure he didn't cheat. I was a little shit in third grade, no doubt, but I had what I thought was a good friend. He was supposed to be a Milhouse but he ended up a goddamned Martin. He tattled on me constantly and Ms. Bledsoe even enlisted him to keep a tally of how many times I cussed at recess.
Look at me now, Ms. Bledsoe! I'm cussing and nobody gives a shit!
This is why I love Martin so much. He reminds Ms. Krabappel that Bart must face the window so that he's not tempted to cheat. The humiliation! Bart is so overwhelmed by his incompetence that, after a nightmare sequence, he falls out of his chair. Martin is already done with his test so Bart steals it, naturally.
Homer and Marge are called into Skinner's office to be informed and pay for Bart's vandalism but in the nick of time, the school psychiatrist jumps in and reveals that Bart's IQ test reveals he's a genius. He asks Bart, "Are you bored? Are you frustrated?"
The answers are the same for a genius as they are for miscreant, of course. Bart doesn't even need to lie. Out of pride, Homer kisses Bart. Totally uncharacteristic of what we've come to know Homer to be. I wonder if that's the only onscreen kiss between father and son? We'll have to keep a running tally:
# OF TIMES HOMER HAS KISSED BART: 1
When Bart gets transferred to a new school, the teacher reveals a class full of kids who speak in palindromes and other weird, smarty-pants stuff. The teacher says, "When you're bored, you can read a book!" Bart gets bored and picks out a Radioactive Man comic book. The teacher says, "A comic book? How did this get in there? We used it last week as a prop in a film about illiteracy." Bart is not at home.
Homer's proud of Bart and asks him how his day was. Bart answers, "Os, os." Homer is confused but Bart reveals that it's just "So, so," backwards to which Homer is genuinely impressed. It's almost heartbreaking.
Here's another standout line when Marge reveals they're going to the opera. Homer says, "But I'm not genius! Why should I have to suffer?"
The pacing of this episode is very leisurely. When you juxtapose it to an episode of the Simpsons just two seasons later, it feels like it's totally out of place with what it became. But it's important to remember that nobody had done anything like this before on TV. People always compare the Simpsons to the Flintstones (The Simpsons surely owe the Flintstones a debt) but the Flintstones existed farther outside reality than the Simpsons ever did. The Simpsons was commentary and satire while the Flintstones were animated family hi jinx with a pre-historic backdrop. The realest the Flintstones ever got was when they were selling Winston cigarettes.
Milhouse's character surely evolves from the first season to the next. He's kind of a Bart-lite in these episodes. He's wise cracking and turdlike. He doesn't get established as a shy and goofy nerd just yet. Milhouse is also part of a group of Bart's friends, friends we don't ever see hanging out as often as they do in this episode. As the series progresses, Milhouse becomes Bart's only friend. He is also a foil to Bart whereas in these early episodes he mirrors Bart.
The softness of Homer reaches its zenith when Homer and Bart play catch. The next day, Bart mixes acids and bases and blows up his chemistry lab getting him kicked out of school. He writes a proposal explaining why he wants to go back to his old school (to observe the normal kids) but gives up halfway through and writes a confession. The school psychiatrist is quick to point out that confession is spelled wrong.
As Homer bathes Bart in turpentine, Bart reveals it was all a sham. He never was a genius. He just cheated but he hopes that the way their father-son relationship was when Homer thought he was a genius continues. Homer responds the only way we know how he will - with the words, "Why you little!" and a chase.
Bart benefited in so many ways in his home life as his social life deteriorated. He was an outcast among the other kids but he was celebrated at home whereas he was celebrated as a bad ass at school and punished by his family (and other authority figures) at home. Bart entered bizarro land and found that he liked some of the respect and love that being good engendered. But it just wasn't his bag.
Bart locks himself in his room as Homer bangs on the wall. Bart laughs as the camera fades. Just as much as he loved the attention his father showered on him, he loves driving him crazy, too.
This episode marks the first time the chalkboard gag and the couch gag were used.