"The Substitute" aka "Oh Captain, My Substitute"
"He's an adult that I can look up to. Finally." --Angela to her parents about the toothpick-chewing, mismatched-sock-wearing, honesty-advocating English teacher, Vic Racine.
When I first saw this episode of MSCL, I had an almost instinctual distaste for it. Granted, at the time, I was a creative writing student at an arts high school who was spending most of her time reading Anne Sexton, John Ciardi, Jim Thompson and others, studying forms, scansion, and meter, and writing based on daily assignments--so I had an aversion to anything that made writing seem like something anyone could do if given an inspirational teacher and a few candles, as well as anything that reduced good creative writing to something that "does better than make sense. It makes you feel." A trope like that was something that we, superior art students that we were, would have called "too sentimental," in addition to "cutesy, banal, synthetic, appalling"--the exact words Mr. Racine used to describe the "domesticated animal" and "greenery"-heavy work of Angela's English class.
In watching the episode now, however, I think my former opinion of it, clouded as it was by heavy doses of art-school superiority, couldn't have been more off. Yes, there is a musty whiff of Dead Poets Society about the episode, and the writing-and-changing-lives montage is more than a little cutesy, but Robin Williams' character in Dead Poets Society is never revealed to be a phony, and a little cutesiness here and there can be forgiven if it's undercut later on. Overall, this episode is a solid, often subtle, and emotionally-complex one--even if it does essentially begin with a English class chaos set to the tune of TLC's "What About Your Friends."
When you first see Vic Racine, substitute teacher, with his toothpick and mismatched socks, telling his students that they can leave if they want to but, "we will be discussing you in your absence," and then dramatically throwing their old work out the window, it's easy to see why high school students would fall for him. He's provocative and cool, so much so that Angela has to tell Rayanne about him, and Rayanne tells Ricky, and pretty soon everyone in the school is sneaking into that English class to worship at the mismatched socks of Vic. He tells them to be honest in their writing. "Don't worry about spelling, or words. Don't make it sound like writing." All of which is fine, but it's hard to talk about honesty so much without coming off like a phony.
The first hint we have of the real Vic, is when we see him sitting under a blackboard that reads, "Question Everything." That command was directed at the viewer as much as it was Vic's students. The second is a few seconds later when Patty, scandalized by the juicy sweetness of "Haiku For Him," comes to see Vic to tell him she won't print the poem in the school's literary magazine. Vic leers at her, half-chewed toothpick in mouth, and says, "[Your husband]'s a lucky man," before calling Graham "fragile." Following a funny ("I sense you're angry? Are you angry?" "Yes." "I sense that.") exchange Patty relents in the interest of "kids who aren't afraid to put their hearts on the page," and agrees to print the Lit.
Of course, that issue of the Lit is only available for the most fleeting of everyone's-reading-it! montages, before the principal confiscates the magazine, essentially outlaws its distribution, and orders Mr. Racine to his office. The next we see of Vic, he's running down the school steps, pausing only to offer a hollow fist-pump to the kids who are yelling his name out of the window. "All that crap about honesty and truth," Brian says back in the classroom, his blond curls shaking with rage, "He didn't even teach." Jordan, poor illiterate Jordan, counters this Vic attack, "Yes he did. He was the best teacher I ever had."
Angela, Rayanne, Sharon, and Ricky run downstairs to catch Vic, but apart from spouting something about "injustice" and reminding them to "Wake up!" he doesn't offer them any explanation for his leaving. Soon, though, Angela finds out from Graham the real reason why Vic left: Vic isn't who he says he is. His name isn't even Vic. He's a guy who left his family who has a warrant out for failure to pay child support. So Angela goes to the weird construction site/apartment complex where her one-time hero lives to confront him. Vic, in return, tells her that there are a bunch of truths about his situation--then throws every cliché he can muster at her: His family is "better off without him," "Get out before it's too late, Amanda," and "Leave that mind-control factory they have you in," etc. Angela, perhaps tipped off to Vic's phoniness by the fact that he can't even remember her name, tells Vic , "I don't think leaving high school is the answer. I don't think leaving anything is."
It's a bittersweet note, and one that the episode could have ended on. Lesson learned: People aren't always who they seem to be. Heroes aren't perfect. Etc. But the show goes further, to the next day when Angela decides to take it upon herself to copy and distribute the Lit. As her "Oak Tree" poem is being lauded by the new, totally clueless English teacher ("It should probably be re-typed."), Angela is furiously photocopying the outlawed literary magazine and handing it out in the hallway. She is caught, of course, which is what she wanted: to stand up for this principle she believed in, no matter what the consequences. But then there are no consequences. The bow-tied principal lets her off the hook that she very much wanted to be on, because she's a good kid, and this isn't her. So in the end, Angela made a decision (Stand-up against censorship!), only to find out that things had already been decided for her (You don't really mean this, Kid). It's the powerlessness of adolescence in a nutshell.
--Another reason this is a good episode? It's a nice breather from Angela's inner dramas. There's nothing about her crush on Jordan, or dealing with her parents. It's just Angela learning to separate the lesson from the teacher.
--"You know what we need? A wife." Zing, Patty!
--Yet another reason this is a good episode? Brian's never-ending angry jealousy: "Is there, like, anyone's car you won't get into?" "Yes. I live my life to annoy you, Krakow. You're like my world."
--Also there's this: Teacher: Where are you supposed to be?
Brian: [halfway between sassy neck-snap and boredom] Computer.