“Replace teachers with super-intelligent cyborgs. Or, if cyborgs aren’t invented yet, use people from the neighborhood.”—Ned Flanders, “The PTA Disbands”
It struck me during this viewing of “The PTA Disbands” that The Simpsons is flat out spectacular at crafting plots that earn hilarious reactions on an individual basis as well as an ensemble basis. It’s one thing to show how Bart and Lisa are reacting to the teachers’ strike; it’s another thing to show how Springfield at large is reacting. But it’s a whole other spectacular trick that “The PTA Disbands” pulls, one that uses an institution to which everyone in Springfield is tied—because even if they don’t have a child enrolled in Springfield schools, they’re still funding them through taxes—as the basis of a plot that offers a position to almost every player on the show’s deep bench. The show tosses the strike like a stone into the pond that is Springfield, and we’re invited to watch the ripples.
Consider some of the stories that come out of the strike: Bart, untethered from the minimal amount of structure afforded by Springfield Elementary, goes from schoolyard scamp to unwholesome, night-kiting instigator. Lisa devolves into a nervous wreck who must be graded—or else. Milhouse doesn’t even get to enjoy the fantasy of a school-less life, because Professor Tweedy Von Tonyrandall is already waiting for him back at the Van Houtens’.
And that’s just the fun “The PTA Disbands” gets to have at the expense of a universal childhood daydream. In that way, the episode is an echo of “Bart Of Darkness.” Like the pool in the season premiere, the teachers’ strike presents a “Be careful what you wish for” scenario—for Bart in particular. The episode raises the question “Which is worse: Breaking your leg or having your mom for a substitute teacher?”
At least Marge isn’t in danger of getting her beard stuck in the pencil sharpener. The second part of “The PTA Disbands”’ big trick is the window it builds for pulling in a huge chunk of the show’s supporting cast. Some of them don’t even need to show up to get a laugh: So stacked are the ranks of Simpsons secondary players that Chief Wiggum, Barney, Lionel Hutz, and fan-favorite Gabe Kaplan (you know—from the one with the Sweathogs…) score with the mere sight of their names. The Simpsons is uniquely built for the sequence at the center of this episode, relying on characters whose quirks are reliable and versatile enough to make a mark in only a few seconds in front of a classroom. Because overstaying their welcome in an episode that moves this quickly—well, that’d be a paddlin’.
As a result of its swiftness, however, “The PTA Disbands” is a scattered installment. The joke-writing and performances are top notch—the episode just has the kind of accelerated metabolism typically reserved for supernatural teen fare on The CW. Part of that must’ve been a function of the subject matter: The Simpsons managed to build one of its best episodes around a labor dispute, but the stakes are in the opposite place here. There are great Skinner episodes, there are great Krabappel episodes—there’s at least one great Skinner-Krabappel episode waiting for us in season eight. It’s just not as easy to invest in their roles in the teachers’ strike as it is to invest in Homer’s part in “Last Exit To Springfield.” And so “The PTA Disbands” goes full steam ahead toward a resolution, letting the strike form the general spine for vignettes like Bart’s escalating mischief or the substitute montage. The way this episode moves, it makes it seem like the slower episodes of season one and two were 20 years in the past, not four or five.
Of course, the tradeoff for narrative satisfaction is still pretty valuable, in Simpsons terms: The script for “The PTA Disbands,” the second by Jennifer Crittenden, is an embarrassment of quotable riches. On beyond Jasper’s “paddlin’” spiel, even: I’ll always love the way Moe breaks the out-of-left field It’s A Wonderful Life homage at the bank. And since the spring of 1995, no game of telephone has ended without some Simpsons-loving smart-ass dropping “purple monkey dishwasher” into the chain.
And it wouldn’t be possible without a simple notion that ties all the characters together with the strength of the school system: Money talks. Sometimes it screams like the brave men of the 9th Bearded Infantry; sometimes it sounds like the mass of people panicking over missing money or higher taxes. The Simpsons recognizes basic truths like this better than almost any other TV comedy, and thanks to the many established, differing POVs among its characters, it was able to make hay with those characters as individual voices as well as a big, screaming mass.
- Apologies for the late review: Unexpected memorializing threw a wrench in my writing plans for the day.
- It’s a sad coincidence that The A.V. Club’s review of “The PTA Disbands” is running so soon after the death of Marcia Wallace. It’s not the series’ best showcase for Edna Krabappel—that’d be the episode that earned Wallace her Emmy for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance, “Bart The Lover”—but it does provide some spotlight for the caustic wit and hard-won determination that made Wallace’s embodiment of the character so special. (And there’s some contention with Skinner, which is always enjoyable.) Most actors aren’t lucky enough to inhabit a character that endures across the decades; thanks to The Bob Newhart Show and The Simpsons, Wallace was fortunate enough to play two such characters, and I hope the show finds a way to handle her passing in a manner that honors both Wallace and the character she helped breathe life into. Smoky, not-completely-ground-down-by-the-bastards life.
- The strange stakes of the episode even provided a great moment for script and animation to help one another to peak funniness. Crittenden was of the impression that the PTA’s dissolution was the height of drama within the episode, a thought that so tickled showrunner David Mirkin that he pitched the “Oh my God! The PTA has disbanded!” guy into the episode’s big meeting scene. It’s such a Simpsons way to react to that news, and getting the character to leap back through the same hole is the best call director Swinton O. Scott III made all episode.
- Lunchlady Doris says what we’re all thinking: “There’s very little meat in these gym mats.”
- Perfect use of a background role from Dan Castellaneta: “Oh yeah, the taxes. The finger thing means the taxes!”