Original airdate: April 24, 2022
The premise: The new fourth grade teacher causes Bart to act out in ways he can’t explain, triggered by a previous interaction he had with her. Meanwhile, Lisa directs a well-received documentary short about an octopus and its tragic end, however, she is actually keeping the creature in secret as a pet.
The reaction: I’ve talked about the awkward subject of replacing Mrs. Krabappel several times at this point. Nine years after Marcia Wallace’s passing, there’s been little movement in regards to creating a new permanent fixture in Bart’s class. Ned Flanders was christened the replacement a few years ago, but I think we’ve only seen him in that role maybe three times? If that? Considering he was married to Mrs. K in the end, you’d think that inheriting his deceased wife’s job and teaching his neighbor’s kid would have lent itself to some new or interesting story lines, but instead they just decided to do nothing with it. But hey, that’s fine, now they’re going to try again with an all-new character, Rayshelle Payton, voiced by Kerry Washington. Promotional articles about this episode have called this character “permanent,” so it seems this is the series finally being proactive in filling this hole in the cast. So who is Rayshelle? She’s an incredibly earnest and caring teacher who wants to help all her students do the best they can. Are you laughing yet? Her only “humorous” quirk is sometimes blurting out her unfiltered thoughts and stammering to backpedal them, like insulting her husband’s shitty musical abilities or calling Bart a problem child. Very funny stuff. So for her debut episode, she’s not giving that strong of an impression, but the story seems to be more on Bart’s reaction to her. When he first lays eyes on the woman, he gets a weird flashback to having seen her before, then proceeds to act absolutely bonkers in every scene with her going forward. It feels really awkward, like him just getting incredibly anxious and losing himself, making strange noises and smacking his head onto a piece of paper drowning in glue. But then his behavior turn to jealousy, destroying Milhouse’s model project after Rayshelle compliments him. All the while, I’m just waiting for them to finally reveal where Bart knows her from, as they teased from the beginning. I hate whenever they do this stuff, like are they expecting the audience to be glued to their seats wondering what the reveal will be? So it turns out that while sneaking into a fancy beachside resort, Bart almost drowned in their pool and was saved by Rayshelle. Embarrassed by having to be rescued, he shouts at her (“Why did you do that?! I was fine! I’m an amazing swimmer!”) and runs off. As he recounts this story to Homer, Bart feels remorse (“I feel awful. I ruined her dress, I yelled at her… She doesn’t recognize me yet, but when she does, she’s gonna hate me.”) All this feels so wildly out-of-character for Bart, even with it obviously heading toward the added “reveal” that Bart has a crush on his new teacher, as when he sees her interacting with her husband, he gains Hulk strength and rips the water fountain out of the wall. We’ve seen Bart feel vulnerable, we’ve seen Bart in love, but this pathetic, sniveling display here feels so off to me. He hides his head in his shirt as he eventually confesses his crush (“Barf emoji,” he concludes). Rayshelle uses this as a teachable moment (“You know, a crush on a teacher just means you’re coming to love a new part of yourself that I’m bringing out in you.”) Bart found himself actually doing homework and liking it, so I guess this is part of him learning to be a good student! Based on this episode, it appears that Rayshelle’s role as Bart’s teacher is to help him teach lessons about life and grow as a person. This also seems to be the motivation reflected in quotes from Kerry Washington and writer Carolyn Omine in the aforementioned articles about this episode. So… this is a show that’s lasted for over three decades. I don’t expect the series to stay exactly the same for its entire run. In fact, the best long-running series are the ones that shake things up to make things feel fresh. But the very ethos of this show is that it was the anti-sitcom, filled with miserable characters in a world full of misfortune and indifference. Springfield Elementary acted as a scalding critique of education in America, staffed by teachers who hated kids and an administration who cared even less. You could definitely work in a character of a teacher who actually wants to do their job in a world like this. You can even have them form a kinship with Bart in some way, it’s definitely possible. Instead, everything just feels incredibly sanitized. In the again aforementioned articles, Omine compares Rayshelle’s character to Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, where the comedy comes from them being overly positive and super into their jobs. The humor from Parks also relied on characters like her grumpy polar opposite Ron Swanson and other weirdos butting up against Leslie, something we get none of here. Rayshelle is just the most caring and awesome teacher who’s gonna stick around and help all the kids with their problems! That ending scene with her and Bart is easily one of the most schmaltzy, cliche sitcom scenes this show has ever done. Again, I’m all for this show growing and changing in new ways. Even though I didn’t care for them, episodes this season like “A Serious Flanders” and “Pixelated and Afraid” were ambitious departures for this show in trying something different. But for the most part, any changes the show has done is to devolve more and more into a boring, traditional sitcom, and the additional of Rayshelle seems to be a pretty big indicator of such. What, is this going to be like Corey and Mr. Feeny? Boy Meets World had more fucking teeth than this show does now.
Three items of note:
– There’s not a whole lot to talk about with Lisa’s story, especially compared to Bart’s. The plot was clearly inspired by the Oscar winning documentary My Octopus Teacher, chronicling the relationship between a filmmaker and his octopus subject. While the octopus in the film naturally dies, the twist here is that Lisa’s film depicts the octopus being dragged off by shark, while in reality, she keeps the creature in secret, manipulating the narrative of the film in order to win an award. I guess we’re just supposed to think Lisa bonding with the little octopus is cute, but nothing happens and it’s just boring. She tries to keep the octopus safe in her room, then she overhears Homer giving Bart an uncharacteristic pep talk about accepting the reality of things no matter how much it hurts or fucking whatever and she decides to set it free. We see their tearful departure over the credits as Lisa lets the octopus go in the ocean as the music swells… hey, remember when this show was funny? Some of the writers were clearly touched by the documentary, so they decided to pay homage by just ripping it off.
– This episode really shines a light on how small the staff of Springfield Elementary is. Our focus has always been on Bart and Lisa’s classes, but in the classic era of the show, we used to catch glimpses of the rest of the faculty that filled out the school, just enough to make it feel like a real place (the teacher who jubilantly tells the kids we won World War II at the start of summer break, the burned out hippie teacher (“Did I ever tell you kids about the sixties?”), and of course, Mr. Glasscock). But as of the last twenty years or so, random background characters have been mostly exiled in favor of the sixty or seventy rotating members of the established cast. Rayshelle busts into the teacher’s lounge where we see Groundskeeper Willie, Miss Hoover, Mr. Largo, Lunchlady Doris (or Dora, whatever they decided to call her now), Mrs. Pommelhorst, and Coach Krupt. Only one of these characters is an actual academic teacher, alongside two gym teachers. Where the fuck is everyone else? There’s at least five grades being taught at this school.
– The promotional articles talk about Rayshelle being recurring to the same degree Mrs. Krabappel was, so I guess time will tell as to how her character will develop and ingratiate herself with the rest of the cast. They mentioned that her husband, the terrible oboist, could have a future plotline with Lisa, but who knows if they’ll actually do that. It’s too soon to call any of this, but if this episode is any indication, I can’t say I’m looking forward to her next appearance.