Sunday, September 14, 2008

Kamp Krusty

Second in an occasional series on archives in popular culture, with particular focus on The Simpsons . . . .

In tandem with some great visual references to Apocalypse Now, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and National Lampoon's Vacation, records of various kinds help to shape the narrative structure of Kamp Krusty, the first episode of the transcendently great fourth season. Kamp Krusty opens with Bart's dream about the last day of school. Bart, whose father has threatened not to send him to Kamp Krusty unless he gets a "C" average, successfully persuades Mrs. Krabappel to change all of his F-'s to C's. Then Principal Skinner uses the PA system to announce that the school year has come to an end, stating "I trust you all remembered to bring in your implements of destruction." Children pull out hammers, flamethrowers, and automatic weapons, and proceed to demolish the school.

Principal Skinner gets in on the act by pulling out a couple of Paige boxes filled with neatly filed papers and announcing, "Somebody put a torch to these permanent records!" The children happily oblige.

Of course, the real world isn't as accommodating. The last day of school has indeed arrived, but Mrs. Krabappel refuses to change Bart's grades and the school remains standing. Bart, who desperately wants to go to Kamp Krusty, changes every D+ on his report card to an A+. The doctored record doesn't fool Homer: "'A+'? You don't think very much of me, do you, boy? . . . . You know, a D turns into a B so easily. You just got greedy." However, Homer doesn't want the kids hanging around the house all summer, so he allows Bart to accompany Lisa to Kamp Krusty anyway.

Once Lisa and Bart get to Kamp Krusty, they find that the facility doesn't live up to the promises of Bart's hero, TV's Krusty the Clown: Krusty is nowhere to be found, the facilities are rundown and dangerous, Springfield Elementary's biggest bullies are serving as counselors, the arts-and-crafts facility is a sweatshop producing counterfeit designer goods, most of the campers subsist on Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel, and campers with weight issues are continually hectored by a sadistic drill sargeant.

Campers are barred from communicating with the outside world, but Lisa, resourceful and courageous as always, manages with difficulty to smuggle out a letter documenting conditions at the camp. However, her parents, convinced that she is merely homesick, discount her tale of abuse and exploitation.

Once Bart realizes that Krusty isn't coming to save the day, he leads a campers' revolt that attracts media attention. Springfield news anchor Kent Brockman, reporting live from the scene, asserts: "Ladies and gentlemen, I've been to Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all three of them put together."

Krusty, who has been taking in Wimbledon and is on the verge of being knighted by the Queen of England, reacts to the TV news coverage by rushing to Kamp Krusty. Krusty freely admits that he will endorse just about any product put before him, but feels bad that the children have had such an awful experience.

In an effort to make it up to them, he takes them to the "happiest place on earth": Tijuana, Mexico. The episode ends with a series of photographic records of the event: Krusty buying the children sombreros, Krusty taking the children to a cockfight, Krusty passed out drunk in the middle of the street, Krusty left behind in Tijuana as the trip comes to an end . . . .

If I were given to making tortured intellectual arguments, I could make the case that Kamp Krusty says something important about adult interpretation of the records created or modified by children: Marge and Homer dismiss the truth contained within Lisa's letter as readily as Homer discounts the false information on Bart's doctored report card. However, let's just say that Kamp Krusty is a first-rate episode and that the records that help to propel its narrative occupy a position that is central yet subtle--as is so often the case with the records that document and shape our own lives.

No comments: