The Simpsons, Season Three, Episode Eighteen, “Separate Vocations”

The show has had a minor theme of the demoralising effect of the education system almost since the very beginning, but this is the most sophisticated presentation of it yet, and it’s accomplished because it uses two characters we’ve come to know so well. The premise of the episode is that Bart and Lisa take a test that’s supposed to predict what job the students will have later in life, and due to an error in the machine analysing the tests, Bart’s comes back telling him he’ll be a police officer while Lisa’s comes back as homemaker, and this causes them to switch social roles at school.

What makes this great is that the essential core of the characters stays consistent, it’s just transferred over to a different context. Bart’s pranks were always defined by a sense of showmanship and a creative development of process, and that carries over to how he acts as a hall monitor (Christ, I hate it when I say something that sounds pretentious but I know is true). Lisa always had a vast knowledge base and an understanding of what the people around her wanted and how the system of the school worked, and she’s simply reversing the effect she normally chases (“Well, you’re certainly earning your eighteen grand a year.”).

And I really like the satirical effect this creates. I recall taking tests like that when I was a kid, and while they never had the absurd effect they do in this episode, they were useless for basically the same reason that they’re dangerous in the story – they’re treated as a definitive end-all rather than looking at the specific situation and skills of the individual in question. Nobody looks at Bart and says “well, you have a sense of showmanship and creative problem-solving, which means we can teach you this way”, they just jam the kids into roles and leave them be, which creates hope in some and hopelessness in others; what’s really changed this episode is that the sense of hope is swapped.

But this isn’t just a depressing satire of the failures of the education system, it’s also a fun parody of cop shows, and it gives us the first real case of one of the great teamups on the show: Bart and Principal Skinner. Skinner’s enlisted Bart’s help before, but that was for a generic love story that flattened him slightly and Bart was very reluctant; this is the first time they’ve had a shared goal and mutual trust, and while the fact that the whole point is that Bart is acting slightly out of character means they don’t quite develop the camaraderie they will (though there’s hints of what’s to come when Bart laughs at the fake butt Skinner shows him), the cop-on-the-edge vs police chief relationship they develop is gold.

All these different elements come together in the climax, when Lisa gets the idea to steal the Teacher’s Editions of the textbooks. From a character perspective, it’s Lisa crossing a moral line that can’t be uncrossed; it’s a total violation of her normal moral code and the effect is strong enough that she realises she’s gone too far but it’ll take an extreme action to make it right again. And it pays off in both the cop show parody (“Supreme Court! What have they done for us lately?”) and the satire, as the teachers panic and lose their minds – they’re either so underqualified or so deadened by the grind of teaching that they don’t know what to do without the actual answers. Bart takes the fall for Lisa, assuring her that she’s guaranteed to be a success.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not barf unless I’m sick.
Couch Gag: The family sit, and Bart leaps up and lays across all of them.

This episode was written by George Meyer and directed by Jeffery Lynch; after a few very wacky animation episodes, this one is more down-to-earth, though I love all the expressions he gets out of everyone, especially Skinner.

Lisa and Skinner quote The Wild Ones. The scene where Bart rides along with the police as they chase and catch Snake is a reference to Bullitt, with music lifted from The Streets Of San Francisco. The title coming up at the start of Act II is also a reference to that show. Bart’s imaginary sequence of him in court references the trial of William Kennedy Smith, and Steve Allen cameos as Bart’s electronically altered voice. A scene transition references the Batman 60s TV show. Axel F‘s theme shows up.

First Appearances: N/A
Biggest Laugh: During the montage of teachers, we cut to one saying “Have I ever told you kids about the Sixties?” and while the line itself isn’t very funny, especially on paper, the delivery and hard cuts in and out are hysterical.

Oh, Will This Horrible Year Never End?!
So, we’re at the one year anniversary of these articles! I think it’s safe to say that my original goal of creating a space for people to talk about these yellow four-fingered freaks on both a deeper level and a “them words is funny” level; I appreciate and enjoy the small community that has popped up, even those of you who have the gall to disagree with me (“Give us hell, Napoleon!”). These writeups feed off your insights as much as I hope you feed off them.

I’ve also personally come to appreciate this as constant practice for writing essays – the best piece of advice I ever got was ‘learn by doing’, and having a regular deadline to beat, a great show to explore, and a smart audience to please has given me room to grow and learn; it’s hard not to appreciate that as the show has grown in sophistication, so have my writeups, to the point that one of my goals in 2018 is to bring a Simpsons writeup mentality to other areas of my life.

This raises a question though: what’s next for the Simpsons writeups? This year will finish off season three, go all the way through four and five, and finish a few episodes into six; if I keep on operating on the show’s level, I’ll build on what I’ve already developed to deliver some spectacular absurdity with a clear moral heart that occasionally but consistently becomes profoundly moving. All I can promise is that I will keep going until these writeups become unprofitable.