After missing numerous opportunities to study, Lisa resorts to cheating in order to pass a test. Her A+++ pushes Springfield Elementary over the state’s minimum standard, entitling them to a basic assistance grant. Lisa is faced with a serious ethical dilemma: does she stay quiet for the good of the school, or does she honor her obligation to the truth?
Also, Homer does not eat a lobster, but later does eat a lobster.
There are some terrific jokes and solid satire here, surrounded and nearly choked out by vast quantities of filler. What stands out to me more than anything is the way the complexity of Lisa’s choice is continually complicated and made more intriguing. It never exactly becomes thrilling, but it manages to take the far-fetched idea of Lisa Simpson doing the wrong thing and making it seem possible.
It’s something of a hallmark of latter-day Simpsons episodes to prop up the A plot with a seemingly unrelated first act that sets up the main stories. Disposable by nature, these rarely leave much of an impression except for the gags (and in this case, the bad taste left by Homer’s grocery store entitlement). Suffice it to say that when it’s all over, Lisa has a cold and Homer has a lobster that he intends to fatten up before eating.
The Pinchy plot may be negligible, and I don’t have much to say about it, but at least it doesn’t require even more laborious setup. It’s not enough for Lisa to be unprepared for a test due to illness – she also has to become briefly and inexplicably addicted to an Australia-themed video game. It’s inoffensive enough, but it is clearly nothing more than a pit stop on the way to the fireworks factory.
Finally, the story starts to get going. Lisa’s panic over the test is genuine and understandable in the context of the pressure put on students starting at a young age. If you don’t show promise in elementary school, you don’t get put into the accelerated math classes, which means your college transcript doesn’t have pre-calc or calc. Even in the non-STEM fields, being perceived as “smart” in fourth grade could put you on a path that other students might later struggle to break into. There’s enough exaggeration in Lisa’s fears to make them funny – neither Harvard nor Brown would care about a book report – but they’re also grounded enough to resonate.
Cheating doesn’t resolve Lisa’s problems, of course – she’s got too powerful a conscience. The writers do an excellent job allowing her to stew in her anxiety and remorse before tightening the screws even further with the promised grant money. It might have been the only possible way to make it seem plausible Lisa wouldn’t confess; she would never stay quiet for her own benefit, but the possibility of doing the wrong thing for altruistic reasons makes the decision about as hard as it could be. The kicker is Skinner and Chalmers pointing out what Lisa almost certainly already knew: the school is desperate for cash.
The comptroller arrives at the moment of truth, and we get a wickedly clever twist on an ancient cliche. The “you screwed up, but gosh you’re so honest we’re gonna reward you anyway” ending is exactly the kind of hacky sitcom resolution American television has taught us to expect, which makes it all the more satisfying to see it subverted. We still get our win-win outcome, but instead of it being granted like a wish from a genie, it’s earned by the modest ingenuity of Skinner’s solution, as well as how well he knows Lisa. Lisa’s conscience is appeased, and the school is given enough of a lease on life to fail its students for years to come.
In the end, the A plot is good enough to make me wish we could see it play out over a number of weeks on a show less hostile towards serialization and continuity. But on its own merits it works, and manages to be pretty funny along the way.
The Funny Bits
Bart: “I’m starving. Mom, can we go Catholic so we can get Communion wafers and booze?”
Marge: “No. No one’s going Catholic. Three children is enough, thank you.”
I enjoyed the procession of fake Ben & Jerry’s (excuse me, Ken and Harry’s) flavors, starting with one real one (Cherry Garcia) and including Honey Bono, Milli Vanilla, Desmond Tutti-Frutti, Candy Warhol, Xavier Nougat, and Sherbet Hoover.1 Referencing Spanish musician Xavier Cugat is a seriously deep cut.
Lisa: “Mom! No, wait. We can make a deal.”
Marge: “You don’t have anything I want.”
Bart: “Wow. You didn’t even feel her forehead. How do I get that kind of credibility?”
Marge: “With eight years of scrupulous honesty.”
Bart: “Eh. It’s not worth it.”
I’m a big fan of Nelson’s toilet stall office, especially his filing system.
Lisa: “Can’t you see the difference between earning something honestly and getting it by fraud?”
Bart: “Hmm. I suppose, maybe, if, uh … No. No, sorry. I thought I had it there for a sec.”
There’s a whole essay to be written about the priorities of American school systems as related by the way the grant money was to be spent: a new scoreboard, the first computer for the computer lab, a regulation tetherball, a lightbulb in every classroom, real periodic tables (instead of promotional ones from Oscar Meyer), and a new TV for the teachers’ lounge. Fortunately for me, I didn’t feel like writing that essay.
Ms. Krabapple: “Who can tell me the atomic weight of balonium?”
Martin Prince: “Delicious?
Ms. Krabapple: “Correct. I would also accept snack-tacular.”
Skinner: “This school was once classified the most dilapidated in all of Missouri … that’s why it was shut down and moved here, brick by brick.”
Gil: “Now let’s talk rustproofing. These Colecos will rust up on you like that. Shut up, Gil. Close the deal. Close the deal.”
Bart getting out of class by creating a realistic Bart dummy works as a joke about how much work he’s willing to do to avoid doing work. But I love that they paid it off with his creation of a fake Lisa doll.
Chalmers: “I know a liquor store where we can cash this right now!”
- The lobster subplot speaks volumes about the writers’ inability to fill 22 minutes without relying on Homer.
- I didn’t particularly like the jokes about Ms. Hoover’s drinking problem.
- By the time the episode aired The Learning Channel had already rebranded as TLC and had moved away from boring documentaries on seaweed sharks and towards the reality programming that has defined it since.
- Future historians may wonder why Americans found dingos eating babies so hilarious. I think we’d have treated the subject a lot more seriously if dingo wasn’t such a funny word.