What? Could this be a kinder and gentler Bart being sent forth to do battle against the Huxtables?
After all, here he is in tonight's first new episode of the season in which "The Simpsons" is matched up against "The Cosby Show" worrying about failing fourth grade, studying hard to pass a test, even praying!
But, relax, it's still good ol' Bart, who despite his two-dimensional heritage is perhaps the most complex and fully developed character in any comedy on television.
The new season begins tonight at 8 on WBFF-Channel 45 -- six months after Fox ordered a fresh batch of shows, so complicated the animation process -- with Bart trying to give a book report.
He's following an overdone performance on Ernest Hemingway -- the type that causes teachers to ooh and aah and kids to moan and groan. He attempts to glean the contents of "Treasure Island" by looking at the picture on the cover as he stands in front of the class.
Naturally, he fails. When he tries to listen to his teacher's post-class admonishments, her words turn into the blurry blah-blah-blahs that always emerge from the mouths of authority figures when they're talking to kids like Bart.
But ultimately, the prospect of actually failing the fourth grade and being held back gets Bart's attention. He resolves to do better. And the schemes he comes up with to pass an upcoming American history test demonstrate a level of intelligence that never shows up in the classroom.
He feigns illness in a brilliant acting performance that the school nurse falls for hook, line and sinker. A similar show gets him some help from the smart twin girls, but they're onto his act and steer him wrong. He befriends one of the class nerds, agreeing to teach him how to be cool in exchange for help in studying.
Bart does his job too well, and the kid goes off the deep end.
Finally, he prays -- "The last refuge of scoundrels," sister Lisa calls it -- and when his prayer is answered in the form of snow, Bart knows he'd better get down to business, leading to a wonderful fantasy scene as he stares out the window at the all the fun he is missing. The snow also is a satisfying conclusion that leaves the whole issue of Bart's school work far from resolved.
What makes "The Simpsons" such a remarkably admirable show is that even as this script careens like a runaway skateboard through Bart's mess of an academic career, crashing into gags and jokes along the way, it delivers some rather profound messages.
At home, Bart has a father who thinks his son is just not smart, so why worry about school? Homework is at the bottom of the priority list for his boy, that's the stuff that the smart Lisa does. So what if you're held back, Homer tells Bart, at least you'll be bigger than all the other kids.
He has a befuddled mother who coddles him, afraid to challenge either her son or her husband's image of the boy. And, at school, he has a teacher who sees Bart and his kind, those who refuse to conform to the lock-step pattern of learning, as the enemy, not worthy of nurturing attention, only of admonishment.
But don't worry that "The Simpsons" is starting to take itself too seriously. As always its messages are delivered in the midst of hilarity, not with didactic asides.
And then there's the scene of the confrontation with the inevitable school psychiatrist who notes that Bart is an underachiever and then, fumbling for words, says, "And he seems to be proud of it."
Take that you T-shirt censors! "The Simpsons" is back, and proud of it!