Santa’s Little Helper, the Simpson family mutt, has been with our family since the very first episode. This means we’ve been familiar with the dog for almost thirty episodes now, and aside from his first appearance, we haven’t really had much of a focus on him. He went with Bart when the boy was running away from his family in “Bart vs. Thanksgiving,” and helped Bart with some mini-golf practice in “Dead Putting Society,” but now it’s time for the lovable canine to get an episode of his own, in “Bart’s Dog Gets an F,” an episode title that should be pretty familiar considering the title of Season 2’s opener; “Bart Gets an ‘F.’”
“Bart’s Dog Gets an F” is the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons second season, but it was written fourteenth, before the previous two episodes, “Principal Charming,” and “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” I couldn’t tell you the reason for why this episode was delayed, but I can tell you that it was first broadcast on March 7th, 1991. The chalkboard gag for this episode is, “I will not sell school property,” which is probably a bit less severe than selling land in Florida (from the last episode), and the couch gag features the family sitting on the couch with both Santa’s Little Helper and Snowball II joining in on the action as well (the same gag used in “Dead Putting Society”).
Morning once again arrives at the Simpson house and Homer is experiencing aggressive and non-obedient behavior from the family dog; Santa’s Little Helper. When Marge wakes up Lisa, she notices her daughter doesn’t look very well and her cheeks are completely swollen, making her believe that Lisa has a case of the Mumps. While Santa’s Little Helper is tied up in the backyard, he breaks his leash and wanders around town, ending up in a neighbor’s pool, forcing Homer to go and retrieve the animal. When he arrives home, he runs into Ned Flanders who has just bought some very elaborate sneakers called “Assassins,” which Homer immediately wants for his own.
Lisa is forced to stay home for the week, and when Homer goes to pick up some magazines for Lisa, he also ends up buying the “Assassins” for a grand total of $125. While Lisa is at home, Marge starts teaching her daughter how to sew so she can add her own patch to the Bouvier family quilt, a quilt that has been within the family for now six generations. While Santa’s Littler Helper is walking around the house, he notices Homer’s new shoes at the top of the closet, and when a shoelace drops down within the dog’s reach, he grabs the shoes and proceeds to shred them beyond repair, which prompts a very angry scream from Homer.
Because of the issues the family has had with Santa’s Little Helper, they decide to look for an obedience school to enroll the dog into so he will stop causing distress and destruction for the entire family. They ultimately land on Emily Winthrop’s Canine College and Miss Winthrop herself just so happens to be a very esteemed dog trainer (whose voice is portrayed by Tracey Ullman, the very same Tracey Ullman from the Tracey Ullman show, which is the television program the Simpsons first debuted on). However, Santa’s Little Helper doesn’t seem to be learning or achieving much in the class. Meanwhile, Lisa finishes her patch for the Bouvier family quilt and when they go to show Homer, Santa’s Little Helper goes into Lisa’s room and shreds the quilt beyond all recognition. He also happens to eat a large cookie that Homer bought for himself when he was trying to return the damaged shoes, and the cookie is the last straw for Homer. He calls a meeting for the whole family and announces that he plans to give the dog away.
Bart is absolutely devastated and begs for the dog to stay. He is also backed up by Lisa, who despite being affected by the dog’s destruction of the quilt, can’t bear the thought of letting the dog go. However, both Marge and Homer are standing firm with the idea of giving the dog away, as no improvement has been shown at the obedience school. Bart asks, with one final plea, that if the dog passes obedience school, they can keep him, which after a short speech from Lisa, both parents ultimately agree. Bart tries hard to get the dog to obey his commands, but Santa’s Little Helper doesn’t seem to listen or understand anything Bart tries to tell him; even something as simple as “sit.” The night before the final exam, Lisa suggests that instead of trying to force him into obedience, that he has one last night of fun with the pet before they ultimately need to give him away. This way, their last moments can be positive moments, and not unhappy ones. Bart and the canine frolic around for a while, and when Bart starts saying his goodbyes, Santa’s Little Helper finally listens when he hears Bart say the word, “sit.” Bart is completely overwhelmed with joy when the dog finally starts listening to him and seems to understand a lot of other commands too. The next day, Santa’s Little Helper passes his test and the entire family rejoices, ending the episode.
This episode was on my Simpsons VHS tape, and I will go ahead and say this now, this was perhaps my least favorite episode on the tape. I was not fond of this episode because Santa’s Little Helper always seemed just really frustrating for the family to deal with and was a big reason why I was never crazy about the idea of owning pets. Don’t get me wrong; I love animals and I love dogs, but having a pet that could destroy any of your possessions, make messes inside your house, and just have the tendency to just not obey your own commands or wishes because of their own natural instincts, just seemed like more of a hassle than a joy to me. Obviously, I’ve warmed up to the idea of owning pets a lot more now, but it’s still not something I really see myself doing; at least right now as an independent person. I’ve already made peace with the fact that if my future girlfriend or spouse is a dog lover and they want to own a dog, that I might need to change my stance, and I am okay with that. Aside from that though, I’m just not much of a pet person, and I’d almost say this episode was a big reason for that. Also, some of the scenes where Santa’s Little Helper destroys stuff, the animation filter and music they use during those scenes is a little creepy, which also probably traumatized me to a degree.
Despite me not being crazy about this episode, there are some good things to talk about here. For one, I really like the idea of how they used Santa’s Little Helper’s first-person perspective when it came to other characters talking to and interacting with him. It really gives you the sense that the dog himself doesn’t really understand what’s going on or what’s being asked of him, which makes sense because he is not a human being, and therefore, has a different form of speech and understanding from humans. That’s the way all dogs eventually learn obedience. After spending enough time with their owners and/or masters, they start to become more familiar with specific sounds, which is how they learn basic commands. They’re like, “Whenever a human says this ‘sit’ word, they want me to do this!” and that’s how they ultimately learn how to do tricks or what certain words mean. I think when it comes to this episode, it does a really good job of describing and exploring that owner and pet dynamic, and the writers even used it in a manner to progress the plot further. On this watch, one thing I noticed was that whenever it showed the family trying to speak or command Santa’s Little Helper to do something, it was usually done in a very aggressive and angry tone, with no positive reinforcement whatsoever. Because of that tone, maybe the dog was less inclined to listen or obey because he felt like he had already done something wrong, so he just went with his own natural instincts instead. It wasn’t until Bart’s positive attention at the end of the third act, that the dog finally started learning the concept of obedience, and was able to pass the test. When you look at it from that angle, it’s actually a nicely-written story.
I also think Homer has a very good performance and character arc in this story as well. It might seem odd to say that, because Homer is the one pushing for giving the dog away, and that makes him out to be the antagonist here, but when you look at what he goes through during the episode, it’s hard not to sympathize with him a little bit. During this episode, Santa’s Little Helper tears apart the sports section of the newspaper, eats Homer’s breakfast, gets loose in the neighborhood (leading to Homer getting yelled at by the neighbors, when he DID tie him up in the backyard), destroys Homer’s sneakers, and eats Homer’s big cookie. I’d imagine all of that would be frustrating to him, even if he could have avoided some of those incidents by being a bit quicker to react, or just been a little smarter about where he stored things. But at the end of the episode, even Homer celebrates the dog’s success in a very strange twist of fate, which shows that even though he was so driven to give the dog away, he still cared about him to a significant degree. Honestly, it’s nice to see how the entire family acts towards the dog as well. Bart clearly has a very emotional, special connection with him, as we see during the ending. And even though he wrecks the quilt, Marge and Lisa at least show some form of compassion for the little guy (Lisa a bit more than Marge) throughout the episode. Marge is the one to suggest the obedience school as an option for better behavior and does give the dog one more chance to succeed, while Lisa ultimately is the one that reminds them that the dog’s actions do not reflect what is in his heart. So overall, there were great performances and deliveries by the entire family, which is good because there wasn’t really a lot of secondary character involvement in this one, and while there was a guest voice, I wouldn’t say the performance was particularly groundbreaking. Miss Winthrop is just a very driven dog trainer who is serious about her job, and that’s about it. It works for this episode because it sets up the plot point that Santa’s Little Helper isn’t going to squeak by or get off easy, and that he WILL need to learn obedience in order to pass, and that Bart isn’t willing to use aggressive methods to get his dog to behave either. Aside from that though, I would say Tracey Ullman’s performance of Miss Winthrop, although not bad, wasn’t incredibly significant or memorable either (compared to other guest voices).
As far as funny moments, I will say that for me, there aren’t too many of them here. I’d say this episode leans more towards emotional responses than humorous ones, or at least those responses are the ones that work better. The first moment that sticks out for me is when Homer is contemplating buying the Assassin sneakers, and he keeps hearing Flanders in head, saying “Sometimes you just got to spoil yourself!” Then, when Homer tries to question that mindset, Ned quickly retorts, “Simpson! I order you to buy those shoes!” which is just not something you would ever hear from Ned Flanders. Also, even though the B-plot isn’t super interesting, one line I always find myself quoting is when Marge and Lisa are watching the soap opera on TV. At one point, a character walks into a room and the lady on the show says, “I thought you were dead!” to which the actor responds, “I WAS!” in a very booming voice. I don’t know why that gets me every single time, but it does and is strange one-liner that has always stuck with me. There is also some humor in Homer getting outmaneuvered by Santa’s Little Helper every time, even though I did claim I share sympathy for him, and there are some funny moments and visual gags during the obedience school scene, but nothing in particular that stands out to a large degree.
Also, while I initially thought the title of this episode was extremely lazy (especially since the first episode of this season was “Bart Gets an ‘F’”), I actually do find it pretty clever how both the story of that episode and this one are pretty similar in execution. Much like how Bart’s parents and teacher are about to give up on him in “Bart Gets an ‘F,’” both parents are once again not incredibly hopeful for Santa’s Little Helper to succeed in this episode either. Is it still lazy? Sure, but at least you can draw parallels between the two and it does kind of make the relationship between Bart and Santa’s Little Helper stronger, as Bart is not a stranger to the type of situation the mutt faces in this story.
Although I do appreciate this episode a lot more now, compared to what I used to, I’d still say this is probably one of the weaker episodes of Season 2, at least in my opinion. I think it doesn’t help too much that I’m not that much of a pet person, nor am I personal pet owner myself, so I can’t really relate to a lot of what is going on here. The story is a bit cliched, as you know everything is going to work out in the end, but the way the conflict is resolved is quite touching and perhaps the episode’s biggest strength. The rest of the story though is just kind of…okay. There’s nothing bad or offensive here, but there is nothing substantial or exciting either. If anything, I kind of relate more to Marge and Homer than I do Bart and Lisa. The children are quick to forgive the dog for the chaos and destruction, while Homer and Marge are rightfully frustrated with having their possessions ripped to shreds, some of which were irreplaceable to them. As a result, when the episode tries to make Santa’s Little Helper out to be the underdog, trying to redeem himself for the family, it was kind of hard for me to root for him. I’m sure it’s easy if you are a pet lover, and someone who loves dogs and animals in general, but for me, someone who doesn’t really have an interest in owning a pet, it kind of reaffirms my reasons for not wanting to own one, if that makes sense.
I think the writers could have done this episode a little better if they tried to introduce the dog’s redemption arc a bit earlier in the plot. Maybe they could have done a scene or two during the second act where it showed the dog was making progress, but whenever Bart wasn’t around, he would continue his destructive ways and further push the parents into wanting to get rid of him. That way, we’d at least know the dog was capable of progress and success, and the crux of the episode would be about trying to show that to the disbelievers like Homer, Marge and Miss Winthrop. After all, I’d probably be less willing to be on their side, if that was the case. I also just don’t think the B-plot of the episode, Lisa staying home from school and learning how to quilt, is really all that important or interesting to the main plot. It serves to get something of value to Marge and Lisa destroyed by the end of the second act, but that’s really all it is, and Lisa isn’t even that broken up about it. It just seems like a case where I personally think the B-plot could have been abandoned for more supportive scenes for the main plot.
Overall though, it’s not a bad episode, but just not a great one either. If you know the challenge and/or struggle of owning a disobedient pet at some point, you’ll probably get more mileage out of this episode than I did. I personally just think there are better Santa’s Little Helper episodes than this one, and now I’m interested to see how I will feel about those now that I’ve analyzed this one. In fact, there is one in Season 3, so hopefully we won’t have to wait too long for that episode in particular.
Hey, I managed to only take 2 weeks for this one, so that’s an improvement as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, with this episode done, we are now down to the final six episodes of the season and next episode will be the 30th episode overall. Thanks to everyone who has read and kept up with this series and been very patient with me for some of the waits on these episodes. Next up, we have another episode that focuses on an extended member of the core Simpson family, as we look at Grandpa’s first big episode, “Old Money.”