The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode Twenty-One, “The PTA Disbands!”

It’s been noted before that The Simpsons’ satire is less about specific problems (like how The Wire is a brutal point-by-point takedown of structural flaws in the Baltimore police, school, and newspaper systems) and more about general principles. This, I think, is something that makes it age so well and travel across the whole world; what we see in the story is an American byproduct of human nature. From this perspective, this is one of the greatest satirical episodes of the show, because it gets at a basic point that drives flaws not just in the American education system, or even American democracy, but in people themselves: people want good things to happen, but aren’t willing to sacrifice anything to get it. What gets me about this episode is that both sides are genuinely correct – Mrs Krabappel is right that this is destroying the lives of a generation of students before they even have a chance, and Skinner is right that they don’t have enough money to actually do any of the things teachers want. The entire problem would be easily solved by raising people’s taxes, but everyone takes it for granted that Taxes Are Bad because it means people taking away your money. Not only is that sentiment still alive and well, it’s largely responsible for the ills of the world – if you’ll allow me to get into my personal politics for a second, it’s astounding that there are people who’ll passionately argue that taxing the rich is morally wrong. At what point do you have enough money? Which individual person needs a billion dollars? Surely the point where you have enough money is the point where you stop having to think about where your money is coming from. I know I’m coming at this as someone who gets fulfilled out of dissecting a twenty year old cartoon, but it’s my understanding that most people just want to spend time with their loved ones, maybe have kids, and maybe get good at something. Surely you don’t need a billion dollars to do any of that? Surely you don’t have to drive as many people into poverty as possible to do whatever it is you want?

Anyway, what’s great is how this works with the characters we’ve spent all this time with. Way back in season one, Krabappel was cynical and cruel just for shits and giggles, but we’ve seen her rich inner life and much less rich outer life, and at this point it makes a lot of sense that her cynicism comes from a school system that actively subverts any attempt to do real teaching. I’m also amused by Skinner’s particular brand of cynicism – Chalmers said to simply sit back and enjoy the ride of the decline of the American education system, and in his own way, that’s what Skinner is doing, bucketing water out of the sinking ship as best he can. His businesslike approach to getting the rickety bus to the Civil War reenactment only makes the absurdity even funnier; he and the kids have done this enough to have a whole procedure for it (it also means even if we hadn’t seen every episode up until now, we get what Skinner means about the lack of budget). Come to think of it, this episode turns Skinner into an educator’s version of Krusty – just as the clown genuinely loves performing and hates show business, so too does Skinner love teaching and hate the education department. The character beat that best sells this is when he angrily shuts down Krabappel’s demands for more resources with “We both know these children have no future!” and, upon seeing the kid’s horrified reactions, cheerily says “Prove me wrong, kids!” Aside from being a hilarious application of ‘yes, and’ (it would have been way less funny if he tried to backtrack – instead, he tries to spin it as a positive, which makes him look more pathetic), it’s also his instincts as a teacher battling his cynicism.

The middle act of the episode shows Bart and Lisa under the effects of the strike, and while their initial responses are predictable (“Great news, Mom!” / “Horrible news, Mom!”), I really love where they go with it. When I was a kid, our summer holidays went for eight weeks, and the last two weeks of it always felt dragged out – you know, you’d been everywhere in town four times over, read every book, seen every repeat on television, watched every DVD, played every game, and otherwise completely run out of things to do to the point I’d be ready to go back to school just for something to do. The way Bart and Lisa respectively go mad definitely recalls that memory – what they’re both fundamentally lacking is a structure, one for Lisa to live up to and one for Bart to rebel against. We’ve had discussion over Lisa’s motivation, and while she obviously loves learning just for its own sake, I would point to this as a clear example of her still needing some kind of external validation; it’s one of those little things that makes her more kid-like and more sympathetic (certainly, it looks familiar to me). And Bart, once he’s exhausted his initial wave of ideas, starts going somewhere really strange, like a junkie chasing a greater high; without a system to rebel against, he flounders.

From there, the episode goes into Marge as Bart’s substitute teacher, which feels like something a lesser show would stretch out into an entire episode. I have a theory that a good story has multiple high concepts at once, so that the storyteller can switch between them when one idea runs out of steam, and generally I think of this as multiple initial concepts – the example I always use is The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, which switches between its three characters and the various permutations of their allegiances, and then I point to The Dark Knight (switching between Batman, Harvey Dent, and Joker) and the first Pirates Of The Caribbean (switching between Will, Elizabeth, Jack, and Barbossa). This has that same idea, except instead of switching scene-by-scene, it does one after the other. ‘What if Bart and Lisa had no school?’ followed by ‘What if Marge was Bart’s teacher?’. What really interests me is that this is a miniature version of what The Good Place does over the course of a season – that show is wildly experimental because it makes ‘situation o’ the week’ an explicit part of the story with explicit rules, taking an implicit understanding of the sitcom genre and using it to ask questions about the nature of being human and how to be a good person. The Simpsons is a lot subtler about its experimentation, but I think this is why people recognise the show as both experimental and good, because it delivers the pleasures of the genre with no dead air.

Chalkboard Gag: I do not have power of attorney over first graders.
Couch Gag: The family run in from an MC Escher version of their house.

This episode was written by Jennifer Crittenden and directed by Swinton O Scott III. Much of the episode draws on David Mirkin’s experience as a child in poorly-funded schools. The most difficult part of the episode to animate was the bus shaking as it moved. David Silverman’s favourite line in the show is “She said you’d fold faster than Superman on laundry day.”

The other really great bit of satire is how poorly Springfield whitewashes its history (“But the Springfield Brigade was too brave to accept their surrender!”). There’s also Homer assuming teachers are striking because they’re trying to palm people’s kids back onto them, which aside from recalling all those people who react to protests with “But why does this have to inconvenience me?!”, reminds me a lot of when Australian schoolkids took a strike from school to protest the government’s inaction of climate change and some people responded with “why can’t they protest outside school time?”

“Anyone can miss Canada, all tucked away down there.” That’s not an iconic line, but it is one I use every time I botch American geography.

Milhouse’s tutor is based on Tony Randall. The troop outfit was based on F Troop, and the gag of the cannon not going off is a reference to its opening. ‘Diz-nee’ buying the site is a joke about Disney’s failed attempt to buy up heritage sites. Uter being left behind is a reference to Von Ryan’s Express. The school’s library consists of TekWar by William Shatner, Sexus by Henry Miller, Hop On Pop by Dr Seuss, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, 40 Years Of Playboy by Hugh Hefner, Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman, and The Theory of Evolution by Charles Darwin. Gabe Kaplan of Welcome Back, Kotter is on Bart’s list of substitutes driven away. The character at the bank is based on Jimmy Stewart as a reference to It’s A Wonderful Life.

Iconic Moments: 6, and I find it significant that if you made a top ten list of most iconic Simpsons lines, at least four of these would appear on it, and I would argue five of them would. “If you don’t like your job, you don’t strike! You just go in every day and do it really half-assed. That’s the American way.” | “In this house we obey the laws of thermodynamics!” | “The finger thing means the taxes!” | “That’s a paddlin’.” | “You won’t enjoy it on as many levels as I do.” (this is the one I’m not sure on) | “I’ve had just about enough of your Vassar bashing, young lady!”
Biggest Laugh: This was a case of discovering to my surprise one more layer of The Simpsons‘ influence on my sense of humour, because I put the same growl into my voice when I’m saying something stupidly obvious.