Saturday, October 26, 2013

Week 21 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

I might be violating the spirit I intended for this list, in that I shouldn't hastily make changes based on anything that has just recently happened. But that's what I'm doing today. And part of what makes me okay with is that A) when I really think about, I think I like today's episode better than the one I originally intended to write about, and B) even if I had written about the episode I intended to, I could have told you a different episode was actually my favourite tomorrow.

After the break: I am going to make you sad about a cartoon character, dammit.

The Simpsons, "Bart the Lover"
First aired on Fox Thursday, February 13, 1992

"And so let us part with a love that will echo through the ages."

Procrastination has finally actually helped me by allowing me to put my head on straighter.

This entry was intended to go up last Friday, and would have been about the fourth season episode "Lisa's First Word". It's a funny half-hour with some all-time classic "Simpsons" gags, like Bart's nightmare of "From now on the baby sleeps in the crib! / Iron helps us play! / Hello, Joe!" and his resulting repetition of "Can't sleep, clown'll eat me!". School work got in the way unfortunately, and it was delayed a week. I had hoped to write about it today.

And then I woke up this morning to the news that Marcia Wallace, who has played Bart Simpson's fourth grade teacher Edna Krabappel since the series' second episode in 1990, had died on Friday, just a few days short of her 71st birthday.

As it tends to do, Twitter began to share suggestions for some of Wallace's best work on the screen, including episodes of "The Bob Newhart Show," some of her classic game show appearances, and of course episodes of "The Simpsons" in which Krabappel took centre stage. Two of the episodes most recommended were "Special Edna," a 2003 episode in which Bart nominates Mrs. Krabappel for the "Teacher of the Year" award and in turn wins her and the family a trip to Disney World in Florida, and 1997's "Grade School Confidential," in which Bart discovers and subsequently exposes a scandalous relationship between Mrs. Krabappel and Principal Skinner (which ends in a pretty beautiful sequence where the two barricade themselves in the school and the police's attempts to chase them out with music and bright lights actually create a romantic atmosphere in which they share a dance).

But of course the most recommended was the quintessential Edna Krabappel showcase, season three's Valentine's Day episode "Bart the Lover," in which Bart Simpson, stuck in after-school detention for a month, discovers his teacher has placed a personal ad and responds to it using the name of the 28th President of the United States and the face of "Mr. Hockey" himself, Gordie Howe. It's a sad, depressing, even occasionally nasty episode, given what we see of how lonely Krabappel is and the ignorant glee Bart initially takes in his ruse. But it's also one of many "Simpsons" episodes that radically three-dimensionalizes a character that was created simply to populate a world that the titular family could realistically live in and interact with. The Simpsons needed a neighbour, so we got Ned Flanders. Homer needed a boss at work, so we got Mr. Burns. And Bart needed a teacher, so we got Mrs. Krabappel.

The thing is though, is that despite Springfield, and in turn the universe of "The Simpsons," being so realistically filled with hilarious recurring characters, no one at Fox ever told the writers to make those characters realistic people (thanks to a strange and unusual deal that executive producer James L. Brooks made before production began in 1989, the Fox network is not allowed to give "The Simpsons" any notes on the direction of story lines or the like - all they have to listen to and comply with are censor notes from the Standards and Practices department). They can introduce as many Ned Flanderses and C. Montgomery Burnses and Edna Krabappels as they want and have them say nothing other than their respective catchphrases of "Okily-dokily!", "Excellent!", and "Ha!", but nobody was ever going to make them do episodes like "Hurricane Neddy," "Rosebud," or "Bart the Lover". That's all great storytelling and thoughtful characterization, and it makes the show such a richer environment that most other cartoons never would have come within ten feet of. (For further evidence, I point you to the scene in which Ned Flanders calls up Reverend Lovejoy with a religious dilemma and his reaction to Helen passing him the phone says so much about their relationship, and how many times Ned must call Lovejoy at home in any given day - even in just the third season).

What makes "Bart the Lover" all the more impressive is that even though we can, of course, see a lot of visual acting in Mrs. Krabappel's face courtesy of the animators, I can still hear all of her sorrow and regret come through just in Wallace's performance (a performance that won her an Emmy - sometimes they get stuff right). I wouldn't have done it under normal circumstances, but with her passing obviously on my mind, I spent parts of the episode with my eyes closed just listening to her speak. Just hearing the representative work of everything she gave to that character for almost 25 years. And when I got to the scene at the end where Bart slips the final letter from "Woodrow" under Edna's door and she runs outside shouting, "Wait! Don't go!" it started to feel like some dust was coming in to the room. Given the built-in limitations, the ability for a performer to humanize a cartoon character is one of the most impressive things this TV nerd has the privilege of witnessing.

Self-awareness of its tropes, and the cultural landscape it exists in, makes "The Simpsons" smarter than the average bear cartoon. It also apparently launches the episode's B-story, in which Homer starts depositing money into a swear jar after his frustrated attempts to build a dog house fall on Todd Flanders' impressionable young ears (his "freakin' ears" even, to reference a callback to his impressionability in season seven's "Bart Sells His Soul"). Wikipedia claims the subplot was inspired by criticism that the show had been trending more vulgar, and I think it does a really good job of showing the audience that it a) could listen to them, and b) was so much more than any of the show's detractors assumed it to be (under different circumstances, this would segue into a lengthy paragraph in which I rant about how my relatives, who have never seen "The Simpsons," are so incredibly ignorant and wrong to hate the show and think it's stupid). It also features a good deal of dumb, angry but well-meaning Homer, the best kind of Homer.

"Bart the Lover" is everything "The Simpsons" can do at its absolute peak. It's funny, thoughtful, and touching, but all in a way that is reactive to realistic feelings of disappointment and aimlessness. It knows how to toe the line between cartoonishness and humanity, and it does so confidently and considerately. And now, it's a loving tribute to a brilliant comedic actress and a venerable member of "The Simpsons" family. So it feels only right to end on an excerpt from the last letter penned by "Woodrow" (in this case, a collaborative effort by the entire Simpson family) to Mrs. Krabappel:

          "Dearest Edna, I must leave you. Why, I cannot say. Where, you cannot know. How I
          will get there, I haven't decided yet. But one thing I can tell you: any time I hear the
          wind blow, it will whisper the name, 'Edna...'"

Rest in peace, Marcia.

Odds and ends:

- A tip of my hat to Jon Vitti, whose 25 writing credits on this show include "Bart the Lover" and another episode that was a contender to be my "Simpsons" entry for this list, "Lisa's Substitute". He may in fact be my all-time favourite writer. Of anything.

- According to executive producer/showrunner Al Jean, Wallace had completed recording a number of episodes that are still to air (and from what I gather, none have been left incomplete as a result of her passing) so she'll still be appearing on the show for at least a little while. Afterwards, the show will retire the character, and Mrs. Krabappel will take to standing in the background of large crowd scenes with Troy McClure, Lionel Hutz, and Lunchlady Doris. That being said, Krabappel was always an instrumental part of any story that involved Bart at school, so he will probably need a new teacher at some point. I could see them pulling the "South Park" move and deciding to finally move all the kids up a grade to make the transition less awkward, but to take Lisa, Janey, Ralph Wiggum, et al. out of Ms. Hoover's class and put them with a new teacher as well seems unnecessary

- Pause for a moment of particular bleakness: this has me very concerned about future cast members dying as the show is still producing new episodes. Krabappel was the only character Wallace regularly voiced so this is manageable by the writers, but what if anyone from the regular cast just suddenly died tomorrow? There are six main cast members on the show - four of them play Simpson family members, and the other two are Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer, who each play about a dozen regular supporting characters

- Given how much I disliked my grade school experience, one of my favourite things about "The Simpsons" is their absolute disdain for and mockery of the public school system. And man, the black and white film strip that opens this episode, in which a boy named Jimmy has a nightmare where he comes to regret wishing he could live in a world without zinc, is such a perfectly hilarious sendup of the kind of educational short film we would occasionally watch

- Bart ends up in detention after killing the class' pet fish by destroying their tank with a yo-yo, which have become all the rage at Springfield Elementary School after a presentation by a company called "Twirl King". Of the many fads that swept through my first eight years of school, which included marbles, trading cards, and miniature hockey, yo-yos were never one of them. I think my age group just missed them by a couple years - I remember my brother, who is five years older than me, had one

- The continuing mysteries of Clancy Bouvier: Little is known about Marge Simpson's late father, who I believe has only ever appeared in two episodes of the series. The most significant of these was season six's "Fear of Flying," in which Marge's phobia of air travel is revealed to have been caused by her childhood discovery that her dad was not a heroic pilot like everyone claimed, but rather an apron-wearing flight attendant ("stewardess" is the word Marge chooses). In "Bart the Lover," she introduces the idea of the swear jar to Homer by revealing that Clancy served in the Navy for some period of time and came back with quite the sailor mouth. "It almost cost him his job as a baby photographer," Marge explains in one of the episode's funnier throwaway lines (Marge gets a lot of those)

- One of the episodes' best jokes is Bart re-appropriating the drunken ramblings of Homer's love postcard (sent to Marge from his trip to the Duff brewery) in one of Woodrow's love letters to Edna. "Truly, yours is a butt that won't quit."

- "Fiddle dee dee! That will require a tetanus shot!" is my new favourite way to suppress an outward expression of pain or frustration. Thanks, Homer!

- Todd Flanders used to watch "Davey and Goliath," but he thought the idea of a talking dog was blasphemous

- I can't really explain why, but ending the episode with Gordie Howe's stats just feels so right. Maybe today in particular, I'm just looking for something in "Bart the Lover" to explicitly be a tribute and that's where I'm landing

Next week: Ghost lights, haunted gas stations, and wacky Southern accents! It's the only episode on this list that technically never aired.