724. My Octopus and a Teacher

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.

723. The Sound of Bleeding Gums

Original airdate: April 10, 2022

The premise: Lisa is outraged that one of Bleeding Gums Murphy’s songs is being used for a lottery commercial. She is later shocked to find out that Murphy has a deaf son, and goes on a crusade to get the rights to his father’s music back in his hands.

The reaction: Bleeding Gums Murphy is a really curious character; he feels like such a timeless fixture of the show (especially since he’d appear every week in the opening theme), an integral figure in the first episode to really explore Lisa’s character, but he only really featured in season 1’s “Moaning Lisa,” and in season 6’s “‘Round Springfield,” where he was killed off. We actually learned a lot about Murphy in his second outing, almost purposefully to give more weight to his upcoming death; his mentor, Blind Willie Witherspoon, his possible relation to Dr. Hibbert, his fledgling mainstream success appearing on Steve Allen and The Cosby Show, and his crippling Fabragé egg habit. All of these bits, in addition to being funny, further served to flesh Murphy out and make him feel more like a real person. So here, posthumously, we have a chance to learn more about him, so what’s up? Well, despite Lisa priding herself to be the biggest Bleeding Gums expert around, she’s stunned to discover he had a son. And a wife, apparently, who we see only in pictures in his house. So where were these two when he was on his death bed? What’s the story there? We’re never told, with our only flashback involving Murphy taking his son to the doctor to find out he’s deaf. Who was his wife? Is she still alive? In the last episode, we had an extended flashback sequence of Cletus and Brandine’s courtship, but we can’t delve into this material? Whatever. Monk Murphy is a deaf man with a healthy relationship with his deceased father, and Lisa pries her way into his life to try to get the rights to his father’s music back. Lisa is in 100% insufferable idealist mode here (“I was destined to find you. My new mission in life is to make you happy! You’re my new cause!”) The point of the episode is that Lisa’s childlike optimism hits hard against the harsh reality, but she’s written less like an innocent child and more like the 30-something grad student persona the writers had spent the better part of the 2000s writing her as. Lisa’s search for answers of who owns Murphy’s music is just so boring. They go to the Jazz Hole to talk to his old colleagues, we have to endure an unfunny scat session, then Lisa happens to look at one of Murphy’s album covers on the wall and they decide to go to the record label’s office. She didn’t think to go there first? It’s not like it was hidden information. For a huge Bleeding Gums expert, she doesn’t seem to know about this obvious stuff. The record label is a humungous scam created to steal shit from artists (as made obvious by endless sign gags), where Monk eventually calls it quits and tells Lisa to just stop bothering her and it’s not her business. Lisa learns a lesson not to pry, I guess, and makes up with Monk, who later gets a cochlear implant, then Lisa plays his father’s record and he cries. Hooray. The thing is that this structure could have actually worked. In her apology, Lisa tells Monk that her father helped her when she was sad, and he wanted to return the favor by helping him. We even see a recreation of “Moaning Lisa” at the beginning of the episode, but it doesn’t feel like it translates to Lisa actively recalling how much Murphy’s kindness meant to her, outside of being a music snob who’s pissed off that Big Lotto is appropriating the music of her people. It all felt like a big wasted opportunity, given how strong the Lisa/Murphy connection is, despite their screen time being so brief.

Three items of note:
– This episode got some minor buzz for featuring deaf actors playing Monk Murphy and the characters at his non-profit, as well as featuring sign language (which must have been a challenge adapting to the four-fingered characters). In principle, I’m all for the inclusion of more kinds of people on any kind of show. It’s also fortuitous for the show that this episode is coming off of CODA winning Best Picture at the Oscars; as we saw in that film, as well as Troy Kotsur’s speech after his Best Supporting Actor win, there’s plenty of ways to be humorous with deaf characters, and the subject matter itself. But Monk Murphy, much like almost all one-off characters this show creates now, is pretty uninteresting. It’s not entirely his fault, as he basically functions as the silent tagalong as Lisa drags him around to fight a cause he doesn’t even care about until he puts his foot down. But finding out more about him and his father would have been interesting, and he could have had some funny moments along the way, but he just doesn’t. The closest we get is when he tells Lisa he can just tune her out at will by closing his eyes, as he won’t be able to read her lips, which he demonstrates. It’s not a bad joke, but it reminds me too much of a much, much funnier real life story from my wife about one of her students, who happens to be deaf. In class, the girl was getting annoyed by some other students who were being loud and obnoxious, who insulted her when she asked them to be quiet. She then shot back herself, saying, “I don’t have to listen to this,” then turned her cochlear implant off. What an absolute badass moment. It’s pretty much the same as the joke done here, but not as cool. Anyway, the writer of this episode, Loni Steele Sosthand, pulled this story practically out of her real like: she had mixed race parents, a father who loved jazz music, and a deaf brother, all of which were made part of this story. The golden years of this series were built on the writers remembering elements of their childhood and amplifying them to comedic purposes. A stable of younger writers could definitely harness this power again to create new and different stories like this one to breathe life into this decayed husk of a show, but for whatever reason, it’s just not coming to life for me.
– I think Kevin Michael Richardson did a pretty solid job voicing Bleeding Gums here, especially with the “Moaning Lisa” recreation (in 4:3, no less), and even with Richardson repeating some of Murphy’s other previous lines (“You’ve made an old jazz man happy, Lisa!”) It’s not a perfect match, but like Grey Griffin’s Martin Prince, it captures the essence of the character enough to work. Also, this is the first time that I haven’t been bothered by his Dr. Hibbert. It still doesn’t sound like Harry Shearer at all, but my brain has just stopped hitting the brakes whenever I hear it at this point, so that’s progress, I guess?
– There’s a bit late in this episode that feels like the most damning example that this show should just never, ever do pop culture references ever again. The spirit of Bleeding Gums tells Lisa that he’s always magically here for her, citing The Legend of Bagger Vance and Driving Miss Daisy as examples, basically labeling himself as Lisa’s Magical Negro. Before we get into the actual scene, this set-up feels off to me. Lisa is a little girl who loves jazz, so it feels appropriate she would look up to and idolize an old jazzman. In his two appearances, it never felt like Bleeding Gums filled the Magical Negro role at all, other than just being a black man who “helps” a white person. He acted as a sympathetic ear in “Moaning Lisa,” and gave Lisa his saxophone on his death bed. That’s all. But whatever, from there, we cut to a recreation of Miss Daisy featuring Bleeding Gums and Lisa, where they do a really annoying joke where Lisa just says what happens in the movie (“Teach me about equality and civil rights in a way that doesn’t make me feel too guilty. In return, in thirty years, I will ask you your last name.”) Wow, way to take down a prime target for ridicule, Driving Miss Daisy, a film over thirty years old that nobody really cares about anymore. Would you believe that it’s outdated in its racial politics? Just as I mentally griped about the show carting out such an old reference, Murphy’s car slams into that of Frank Vallelonga from 2018’s Green Book, helpfully holding up a copy of said book as he’s driving. Even being a four year old movie, this feels super outdated too; everybody already had their fill ragging on Green Book when it was out, many of which were parallels to films like Daisy. Even outside the age range of the references, the pop culture jabs are always just so surface-level, stuff that has been observed and ridiculed millions of times over already. Then we get stuff like the scene over the credits, where a black-and-white Lisa, Bleeding Gums, his son and the whole band of jazz musicians and deaf kids sing at a jazz club. The other Simpsons are in attendance, Bart complains to Lisa, and Lisa makes him disappear by nodding his head, in an I Dream of Jeannie reference. I Dream of Jeannie! A show that went off the air over fifty years ago. Who is this joke for? Despite featuring more and more scripts written by writers in their twenties and thirties, this show still manages to make time for jokes that only appeal to people in old age homes.