I have written in the past that Lisa episodes can’t be fun to write. I’ve also written that Marge episodes similarly have to feel a little like homework to writers. The same can be said about Simpsons episodes devoted to Patty and Selma. I’m realizing now that for Simpsons writers episodes focusing on female characters are infinitely more difficult to write than episodes centering on men.
In The Simpsons, as in life, men invariably have it easier. Mr. Burns is fun to write because he is utterly amoral so he can quite literally do anything, from blocking out the sun as part of a super-villainous crazed scheme or stealing candy from a baby with just a little too much reverence for the second amendment. The parameters on what Mr. Burns can say or do are wide open. The same is true of Homer, because he has no shame or self-consciousness, and Bart, whose life is devoted to seeing just how much he can get away with at any given moment. Ditto Krusty the Klown.
The men in The Simpsons are often larger-than-life hedonists while their female counterparts are often joyless scolds, bitter spinsters or both. I’m not saying that The Simpsons didn’t write good roles for female characters, especially early in its run. On the contrary, The Simpsons has wonderful, iconic, memorable female characters. They just tend to be inherently more limited in what they can do and say than Bart or Krusty.
The life of Edna Krabappel is defined by its limitations and boundaries. Her relationship with Seymour Skinner is inherently limited by Seymour’s mother issues while her attempts to land a boyfriend who isn’t stuck in a Freudian nightmare at home are circumscribed by her age, air of ineffable sadness and status as a heavy-smoking middle-aged divorcee elementary school teacher who hates herself, her students and her lot in life.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that it took three seasons before the show devoted an entire episode to Krabappel and her romantic ennui. Actually, it’s a testament to the depth and richness of the show’s deep supporting cast—arguably the best in television history—that it could comfortably devote a full episode to Bart’s spinster schoolteacher.
“Bart the Lover” begins with one of the show’s anachronistic fixtures—the winking spoof of a clueless old instructional film. In this case we’re treated to a tantalizing glimpse of a short scare film made perhaps by the Zinc People about an earnest young squeaky-voiced-teen from the Eisenhower era who discovers too late—or does he?—how dependent he is on Zinc for everything from the telephone to the gun he might use to end a life that is devoid of meaning without his magical friend Zinc.
The instructional film served dual purposes: it affords writers the opportunity to riff on the heavy-handed self-promotion of old instructional film and it highlights how disengaged Mrs. Krabappel is from her students and her profession. She’s also so damnably lonely that when the buzzer rings and her students flee their educational dungeon she only half-jokingly offers to do her student’s homework for them.
Speaking of anachronistic, much of the episode is devoted to a flashy yo-yo team that mesmerizes Bart and his colleagues and sparks a brief but intense fad for yo-yos. Even in 1992, the notion of a yo-yo team was crazy retro. It’s prehistoric now though the sequence is worth it if only for the brief look into the sad life of the team’s second “Sparkle” (we don’t want to know what might have happened to the first).
After school, we’re treated to more sad glimpses of Edna’s infinite sadness: a trek to the Kwik-E Mart to pick up a can of Chef Lonelyheart’s Soup and a scratch-off lottery ticket that proves a ticket to absolutely nowhere and an even more dispiriting voyage to the mechanic after Edna’s ex puts sugar in her tank.
“Bart the Lover” etches the details of Edna’s loneliness with surprising subtlety and care. The episode hearkens back to the life-sized human drama and comedy of the show’s first two season rather than the freewheeling, sometimes outrageous and surreal free-flowing satire it would become.
Bart’s relationship with Edna is similarly etched with surprising delicacy. After Edna puts Bart on suspension after one antic too many he decides to enact furtive revenge by wooing Edna via the personal ads through a fictional lothario with the name of an American President and the toothy good looks of a hockey legend. But Bart can’t help but feel just a little bit sorry for his perpetually lovelorn teacher and ultimately changes course on his prank before Edna can get hurt too badly.
Bart plays both sides; he sends Edna florid missives with the intention of raising her hopes so that he could crush her spirits while also casually filling the role of the man in Edna’s life. He listens to her problems with the caring ear of the bartender he at times resembles and chips in with helpful advice.
Romance does not come naturally to Bart so he seeks help from a profoundly unhelpful place; the one quasi-love letter Homer sent Marge, a hilariously boozy, distracted missive where Homer drunkenly praises Marge’s posterior before growing agitated about the price of pretzels.
“Bart the Lover” travels a predictable arc as Bart comes to see the error of his ways and sets about letting Edna down as easily as possible once he realizes that enacting this particular form of revenge on Edna would be a cruel and empty gesture. According to the audio commentary, it was James L. Brooks who ultimately came up with the idea of the Simpson family collectively writing the final letter to Edna that heals her broken heart.
The Simpsons often ends with a burst of sentimentality that undercuts some of the sadism and sour humor that precedes it. “Bart the Lover” errs on the side of sappiness and a b-story involving Homer trying to wean himself off swearing feels shoe-horned in and fatally inorganic. But before it turns mushy, “Bart the Lover” is a funny and sad character study of a middle-aged woman grasping at a delusional shot at happiness distinguished by a great vocal turn from Marcia Wallace, who won an Emmy for her performance here. She deserved it: Edna easily could have been a shrill caricature of a man-hungry shrew but Wallace gets us to care about a woman with precious few redeeming qualities beyond a desperate need to be loved. She’d eventually become a broad joke but here at least the show is interested in her as a suffering human being, not just a vessel for easy jokes about promiscuity and desperation.
—Why would anyone want to live in a world without Zinc? The FOOL!
—Do kids still play with yo-yos or have they all moved on to yo-yo simulation video games?
—“You knew I had a temper when you married me!”
—“Homer at the Bat” is up next. Sweet!
—This episode really forces us to see Edna as a sexual creature. I’m not sure how I feel about that.