Original air date: 10/11/1990
Production code: 7F03
Airing on Thursday evenings at this point and successfully competing with the still-untouchable The Cosby Show, "Bart Gets an 'F'" would be a milestone in the history of The Simpsons. Not only was this new series entering its second season, but it was the start of a season that would solidify the success of what is now the longest-running animated prime-time series in television history.
And to think that one of the major reasons for the success of The Simpsons was the central character of this, the season premiere: slacker, wisecracking bad-boy Bart, whose very personality traits result in this episode's crisis. Bart, unable to study, concentrate or perform well in the classroom on even routine assignments, falls into danger of being retained to the fourth grade.
The episode begins with Bart being asked to present his book report. He announces his subject as Treasure Island, but all his report is ad-libbed bull, and when it becomes clear he did not read the book, his teacher, Edna Krabappel, confirms her suspicions by having him name the main pirate (Long John Silver), which Bart is unable to do. Mrs. Krabappel keeps Bart after school, and then tells him in no uncertain terms that if he does not improve his academic performance quickly, adding to his worries that there is a challenging test on Colonial America coming up, he will be in danger of flunking fourth grade; Bart is distracted and doesn't hear a word his teacher has said. Bart goes home and tries to study, but is continually distracted by such things as a video game and a monster movie on TV. The next day at school, Bart, realizing he is unprepared for the test, fakes an illness to go home early. He later calls Milhouse to get the answers to the test, but the information proves useless, as Bart gets his "F" with an apparently worse score than Milhouse. Homer and Marge are called to school to meet with Dr. Pryor and Mrs. Krabappel, all whom are concerned about Bart's poor academic habits and performance, and everyone agrees that it may be in Bart's best interest to repeat the fourth grade.
Bart, who is asked to be at the conference, objects to Dr. Pryor's recommendation and vows to do whatever he can to do better, being given another chance to take the exam. To accomplish this goal, Bart asks his sworn nemesis, the nerdy Martin Prince, to tutor him. Martin agrees to help out under the condition that Bart promises to help make him cool. After a while, Martin decides to back out on his end of the bargain when, after becoming cool for the first time, he discovers that being a slacker and a prankster is more entertaining than studying. Left with no other alternative, Bart tearfully and earnestly prays to God to give him one more day to study.
God listens, and the next morning, a massive blizzard results in school being cancelled.
Bart celebrates and begins to dress up to go outside and play and join in all the revelry of this snow day. Lisa sees him, reveals that she heard him praying the previous evening for "one more day", and says that he had now better hold up his end of the bargain. Bart agrees with her and decides to change his plans. So while everyone else is enjoying the snow day, Bart tries his hardest to focus on the expected material for the test, though he doesn't always succeed. The next day, Bart takes the test. Anxious about the outcome, he has Mrs. Krabappel grade it right away. She does and lo and behold, he gets a 59, 1 point below the passing threshhold.
Bart immediately breaks down in tears, telling Mrs. Krabappel that he honestly tried to study and he still failed. In the process, he compares his failure to George Washington's surrender of Fort Necessity to the French (in 1754). Mrs. Krabappel is stunned and pleased that Bart was able to successfully recall a relatively obscure historic event and its impact on Washington's future. She is so pleased by this development that she gives him an extra point on his test, meaning that he (barely) passed. Bart is extremely grateful, so much so that he kisses Mrs. Krabappel on the cheek and happily runs through Springfield to proudly state that he passed (he only stops to spit in disgust when he realized that he kissed Mrs. Krabappel). Homer congratulates Bart for showing improvement and tapes the test to the refrigerator; Bart proudly states that part of the D-minus "belongs to God".
"Bart Gets an 'F'" contains examples of:
- Actually Pretty Funny: When Homer hits Mr. Burns with a snowball, he's rather amused by it.
- Adults Are Useless: While everyone criticizes Bart's low test scores and laziness, none of the adults actually step in and try to help him study or stay focused. Even when several adults watch Bart struggle with concentrating on his studies in the basement, they do nothing to step in.
- An Aesop: Failure is an inherent part of life. You can try to the best of your abilities and still fail at something, and hard work does not guarantee success. However, if you do manage to succeed at something, even if it's small, that in itself is worth celebrating.
- Answer to Prayers: Bart prays for a miracle to help him get a passing grade on a test, or he'll be held back. The next day is a snow day, giving Bart more study time. When Bart is about to go play in the snow, Lisa stops him, pointing out that this is the miracle he'd asked for, and that he shouldn't waste it, to which Bart agrees. After he passes the test by the skin of his teeth and his parents are putting his test on the refrigerator, he says, "You know, part of this D- belongs to God."
- Art Evolution: The artwork and animation quality is much better-looking here than in season one, but it would take at least another season before it really improves.
- Attention Deficit... Ooh, Shiny!: This was the first episode to depict one of the root causes of Bart's perennially poor scholastic habits – that being his inability to concentrate or prioritize his studies over his free time, which are wasted on video games, gorilla movies and just plain goofing off. Even when given an ultimatum to pass a final test or be retained to fourth grade, and given an extra day to study due to a sudden snowstorm, his attention span is shorter than that of a gnat. He has to resort to constantly slapping himself during his studying just to try and keep focus.
- Blah, Blah, Blah: Mrs. Krabappel tells Bart that his grades are getting worse and that there's a test coming up, then starts blahing, while Bart continues to respond "Yes, ma'am" until she asks him to verify what she's said. Later, Marge and Homer meet the school's psychiatrist about Bart's behavior, but Homer only hears blahs.
- Brilliant, but Lazy: This usually applies to Bart, but it turns out that even though he worked harder than ever before, he still only barely got a high F (which got turned into a D- after Bart compared his failure to a failed battle George Washington led and Mrs. Krabappel saw this as a sign that Bart actually did learn something).
- Captain Colourbeard: Bart incorrectly guesses the pirate's name in Treasure Island as Bluebeard.
- Captain Obvious: Because Bart didn't read Treasure Island proper, he ad-libs his report on the book, part of which entails describing the appearance of the pirate on the book cover.
- Continuity Cavalcade: The Snow Day scene features just about every noteworthy character from Season 1, marking the beginning of the show building up its huge supporting cast. The scene also notably has some characters who never really caught on, such as Princess Kashmir and Cowboy Bob.
- Couch Gag: The family sits down on the couch, and it falls through the floor. Homer yells "D'oh!" while falling.
- Damned by Faint Praise: All over the place.
- When Bart vows to pass the 4th grade at the parent-teacher conference, Homer reassures him that if he doesn't, he'll at least be bigger than the other kids. Dr. Pryor can't help but look at him funny as if to say "not the right thing to say, Mr. Simpson".
- Bart consults his situation to Otto, who tells him not to sweat it, that being held back could be the best thing that ever happened to him, and that he himself was held back twice. The fact that Bart doesn't look particularly reassured by this heavily implies that even though he looks up to Otto, he doesn't take everything he says to heart.
- Edna's attempts to comfort Bart when he first flunks the test amount to this: "I thought you'd be used to failing by now!" and "Well...it's a high F..." It's then subverted when she passes him thanks to "applied knowledge" and genuinely congratulates him on a job well done.
- Deliberate Underperformance: This episode provides some insight into Bart's underachieving when his grades drop from bad to abysmal. Although he doesn't actually want to do badly, it's emotionally easier for him not to put the work in than to try his hardest and face failure anyway.
- Despair Event Horizon: Bart completely breaks down and believes himself to be a total failure when he gets an F on the test despite genuinely trying to study hard for it.
- Deus ex Machina: The blizzard that buys Bart one more day of studying could be explained away by perfectly normal means, but Lisa points out to Bart that it's the miracle he was praying to God for the previous night, and probably owes Him for it.
- Did You Think I Can't Feel?: As the page quote says, Bart angrily states that he knows he's "dumb as a post" and, despite seeming like a lazy slacker, isn't at all happy about it. Later, Edna has a similar moment when she sees Bart begin to cry after flunking, remarking that she figured he'd be used to failure at this point. Bart explains that this time, the difference is he actually tried... and still couldn't pass.
- Downer Ending: In-universe with Gorilla the Conqueror. The film ends with Gorilla being put in a cage and set adrift at sea. Homer breaks down crying, finding the ending unfair.
- Dumbass No More: Downplayed with Dr. Pryor. He was by no means an idiot in "Bart the Genius", but his misdiagnosis of Bart definitely raised eyebrows. Here, his concerns of Bart's poor study habits and short attention span are on-point.
- Early-Installment Weirdness: This is one of a small number of Season 2 episodes without music composed by Alf Clausen; Richard Gibbs, who had scored every Season 1 episode, did not return and several different composers were trialled before Clausen got the job permanently. In this case the composer was Arthur B. Rubinstein, who was the only one of those (apart from Clausen himself) to score more than one episode (he also did "Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish").
- Epic Fail: When pressed for the name of the pirate in Treasure Island, one of Bart's mental guesses actually is the correct answer (Long John Silver). He still manages to give the incorrect answer of Bluebeard.
- Everyone Has Standards:
- Bart looks up to Otto and respects him, but Otto basically telling the boy that being held back isn't a big deal doesn't make him feel any better about his dilemma, which is further evidenced by his Imagine Spot in the very next scene.
- Despite not being Krabappel's favorite student, even she couldn't bear to see Bart cry over his F.
- Evolving Credits: The opening sequence was re-animated and rescored starting with this episode. This animation would be used all the way up until the show went High Definition in Season 20, though the music would be redone again the next season.
- Facepalm: Bart's reaction when Martin paints a mural of Mrs. Krabappel instead of a graffiti.
- Fictional Video Game: At the Noiseland Video Arcade, there is a green-pink Robert Goulet Destroyer, purple Eat My Shorts, purple Itchy Vs Scratchy, and purple Escape from Grandmas House.
- Go-Karting with Bowser: Sideshow Bob is seen frolicking in the snow with everyone else.
- Gone Horribly Right: Bart's agreement to make Martin cool makes him so happy that he's no longer interested in helping Bart prepare for his quiz, despite agreeing to it.
- Gotta Pass the Class: Bart will be held back if he doesn't pass the end of the year exam. He ends up with one point below passing despite putting in his best effort, but Mrs. Krabappel gives him the point because she could see that he really tried his hardest to study.
- Hard Truth Aesop: The ending demonstrates that sometimes, despite all of one's hard work, they may still not succeed.
- Hard Work Hardly Works: Played for drama. Even with all the grind work Bart undergoes prior to the day of the examination, he once again fails to score enough points to meet the passing threshold. It gets better for him, however, when Mrs. Krabappel compliments him for successfully demonstrating applied knowledge (after he comments about an obscure history event) and awards him an extra point, thus Bart barely passes.
- Held Back in School:
- The main part of the plot: Bart being told he is seriously being considered for retention due to his poor academic performance.
- An extreme example happens as an Imagine Spot, where Bart sees himself as being in the fourth grade 20 years later and one of his classmates is his son, Bart Jr.
- Otto also mentions being held back. Twice!
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: With the context that the audience has of how hard Bart has worked, Mrs. Krabappel has what seems to be an incredibly cruel response when he gets his second F ("Another year together. Oh, it's gonna be hell"). Her reaction when he starts crying over his grade and tells her that he really tried make it clear it never occurred to her that the grade mattered to him or that he made the effort, and she gives him credit in the end for the knowledge that he attained and the use he made of it.
- Kick the Dog: Mrs. Krabappel is right that Bart's not trying hard enough, but she doesn't exactly do anything to try and help him, and instead just piles insults and criticism on him. Right before he starts crying, she openly says that having Bart repeat the 4th grade will be hell. She does, at least, Throw the Dog a Bone when she realises Bart really did apply himself.
- Killer Gorilla: It's Big Gorilla Week on the Million Dollar Movies channel. One film is Gorilla the Conquerer, whom Homer describes as "the grand-daddy of them all!" One film shown later on involves a giant gorilla in tap shoes.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Martin, but not in an immediately visible way. Bart teaches Martin to be cool by basically making him act like a hellion, all in exchange for helping him study for the test. But Martin backs out on the agreement, enjoying the "cool" life too much to even care about the test, leaving Bart on his own, even though he was cool now because of Bart. Come test day, we see Martin handing over his test in shades and a shirt that screams "juvenile delinquent", later spraying graffiti on the wall as a way of insulting Principal Skinner the way Bart usually does. Skinner himself catches him in the latter instance and even grabs him, likely taking him to his office for punishment. We don't see the exact punishment, but the school more than likely disciplined Martin back into shape offscreen, not wanting one of their best students' academic performance to slip, thus explaining Martin's Snap Back into his nerdy self.
- Meaningful Echo:
- The two scenes of Bart receiving his F are animated similarly, likely for symbolic purposes.
- Marge pats Bart on the back and says "there, there" when Bart admits he's "dumb as a post" at the parent-teacher conference. Edna later does the same when Bart cries after initially failing the history final.
- Bart prays to God for a miracle, which he gets in the form of a snow day. After finally passing, Bart says part of his D-minus belongs to God.
- Mythology Gag: Dr. Pryor says that Bart's permanent record calls him an "underachiever and proud of it", a reference to a popular slogan from Bart t-shirts.
- Not Allowed to Grow Up: Even though Bart was in danger of being held back, but managed to pass the fourth grade, the writers at the time had no idea that the series would last as long as it has, so they would constantly keep the children in the same grade, regardless of whether they pass or not.
- O.O.C. Is Serious Business:
- Bart's never cared about his grades before, but being in danger of repeating fourth grade kicks even a proud underachiever like him into gear. Barring that, his mischievious and Anti-Role Model tendencies are toned down in this episode for the desire to make him more sympathetic.
- Mrs. Krabappel trying to comfort Bart when the latter cried after seeing he really worked hard on trying to pass. She does end up passing him when he mentions something he did pay attention to.
- Pet the Dog:
- Despite everything in Kick the Dog, when Bart breaks down crying that he still failed despite trying so hard, Mrs. Krabappel realizes he's genuinely upset and tries her best to comfort him. When he quotes George Washington's surrender at Fort Necessity, she's so impressed that she increases his grade to a D-, allowing him to pass. It's notably the first time in the series where she showed any kind of empathy toward the boy.
- Nelson gives Bart a thumbs up when the latter passes. Keep in mind that Nelson was still characterized as The Bully during this time period and has yet to have the truly humanizing moments with his classmates that later seasons would show.
- Platonic Kissing: Bart spontaneously kisses Mrs. Krabappel after he barely passes a test, only to later react in disgust when he realised what he did.
- Playing Sick: Bart, unprepared for an exam on Colonial America, pretends to fall physically unwell during school so he can go home early.
- Prayer Is a Last Resort: Bart prays for just one more day to study, as he struggles to study for his test. Lisa observes this and later reminds Bart of it when he tries to go sledding.Lisa: Prayer: the last refuge of a scoundrel.
- Reality Is Unrealistic: While Mrs Krabappel giving Bart an extra point is seen by some as undercutting the Hard Truth Aesop, it's far closer to how an actual elementary school would operate than people think. As a general rule, schools don't want to hold students back unless they have a very good reason (Dr. Pryor makes it abundantly clear that the very idea of holding a student back pains him). Extra credit questions or convenient rounding up are both possible, assuming the passing grade isn't several points lower than advertised for situations exactly like this. And this is before factoring in Edna's general desire to be rid of Bart...
- Recycled Animation: The setup for Bart's Imagine Spot is borrowed from Bart the General.
- Recycled Soundtrack:
- Ridiculous Procrastinator: Deconstructed; Bart's inability to concentrate or start on something that isn't necessarily enjoyable to do takes center stage here.
- Self-Harm: Bart continuously slaps himself so he can pay attention to studying, which continues into a Match Cut where he's still slapping himself in class.
- "Shaggy Dog" Story: Sadly, all the episode ends up amounting to, given the show's reliance on Status Quo Is God and Not Allowed to Grow Up.
- Ship Tease: Long before Skinner and Edna became an item, they are seen playfully skating together in the snow here.
- So Proud of You: Homer says this to Bart at the end.
- Status Quo Is God: It kind of undercuts the dramatic stakes of the episode (Bart is trying not to be left back) when you consider that Bart, along with all his classmates, will remain in the same 4th grade class for over 30 years, with Mrs. Krabappel (who dreads having to deal with Bart for another year) as their teacher until 2013.
- Stolen Credit Backfire: Bart fakes being sick to get out of taking a test, then calls Milhouse for the answers. When Bart takes the test the next morning, Mrs. Krabappel gives him an F, noting that he scored even worse than Milhouse.
- Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
- Of course someone who's an "underachiever and proud of it" like Bart would have horrible grades. Even with all of his best effort at studying, Bart still gets an "F" when he takes the climactic test.
- That Man Is Dead: Cool Martin telling Bart the previous Martin no longer exists. He changes back to his nerdy self the next time we see him.
- Totally Radical: "Cowabunga!" This is one of only two episodes in which Bart actually says this, the other being "The Tell-Tale Head".
- Ungrateful Bastard: Martin is not interested in helping Bart study for the test after the latter helped make the former cool.
- Unintentionally Sympathetic: In-Universe, Homer cries over the ending of Gorilla The Conqueror, finding the title character to be Not Evil, Just Misunderstood.Homer: It's so unfair, just because he's different.
- Vocal Evolution: Dr. Pryor speaks in more of a nasal voice here than in "Bart the Genius". His next appearance in "Separate Vocations" has him go back to his slightly raspy voice.
- Weather Saves the Day: Bart prays for a miracle to help him pass a test. The next morning, snow has fallen and school is canceled for the day, giving Bart extra time to study.
- Zeerust: The school of the future from Bart's Imagine Spot. The desks are equipped with built-in computers (with CRT displays, of course), as if the students couldn't just use their own laptops or tablets, and there's also a huge satellite dish on the roof outside, which was a standard way of showing futuristic interconnectivity before the days of the widespread Internet.