Just when I was ready to call Unsupervised a turtle, it busts out with an episode that, if I’m not ready to welcome it to the eagles quite yet, is at least among the highest grades in the normal class. “Stupid Idiots” is funny, it has plot to spare, it builds on continuity, it's motivated by theme and mitigated by tone, and did I mention it's funny? Even the edgy stuff is nimble, and somebody calibrated the gross-ometer. Plus we get to know Darius! All I can say is that episode is frickin’ awesome as hell!
Like some hyperactive amalgamation of conspiracy shows and school-bound inspiration stories dreamed up by Gary and Joel on an especially boring afternoon, “Stupid Idiots” takes us all over Maynord High, the greatest frickin’ school, in an attempt to discover just how deep this thing goes. Apparently it, by which I mean Principal Stark’s segregation of the students based on potential success on the standardized test responsible for state funding (whew!), goes to a shipping container in the courtyard for Rusty and the other sardines where you get an A for attendance. After discovering they’re stuck on a low track (the turtles), Gary and Joel demand open access to the test, and everything turns out the way you’d expect.
It’s not that Unsupervised doesn’t believe in its kids. It just knows better. Gary and Joel are still singular human beings, high on a crazy enthusiasm that allows them to persevere through anything, but they’re not magically great students just because they buckle down and study. That said, lest the show send the wrong message, Joe the sardine gets a perfect score, even if everyone else ends up where Principal Stark originally assigned them. That’s the heart of Unsupervised. The after-school moral is there, but it’s tempered by a weary outlook beaten down by disappointment upon disappointment. The principle is enough in itself. The kids don’t also need to ace the test to prove Principal Stark’s track-system unjust.
Speaking of the Skunk, “Stupid Idiots” makes some promising concessions to continuity. To my delight both she and Coach Durham return from “Field Of Dreams . . . And Dogs,” a small gesture but an important one. Unsupervised can get zany and tends not to have long-term consequences, in part because one week the kids are hanging out with a dentist and the next with firemen. But just knowing that there are authority figures out there, and that Unsupervised is interested in developing some semblance of serial continuity (note that Coach Durham still lives in his car) inherently adds a new dimension to the show. It realizes the setting of the school as a place that exists outside of the gang, especially since the principal and the coach have much more serious dealings with the kids than, say, Martin or Sid, the neighbors.
“Stupid Idiots” also nails the edgy humor. Unsupervised has some dark thoughts, and even if I think the line has been crossed, I don’t want the show to sacrifice that side of itself. But the grossest things get this week is Rusty eating wires (or as he calls them, “pisketti”) and discussing what it does to his bowel movements, the perfect tightrope walk. It stays true to Rusty and his garbage antics, but it doesn’t cause so much lasting damage that we can’t chuckle or wince (or both) and move on, like, say, a one-eyed kid losing his eyeball or a kid with mental illness being Geneva Convention tortured. Then there’s the darkness of the kids locked up in the shipping container and a handful of Columbine jokes, of which a comically worked-up Darius is the butt. More of this, please!
Speaking of Darius, Romany Malco sure earns his spotlight this week. Apparently Darius is an eagle, which we can add to our picture of this boy who likes food and television, has attentive parents, nominally participates in an extracurricular activity, and has no friends except Gary and Joel. Malco’s turning out to be a secret weapon (mainly because the character’s been offscreen for most of the show), able to drop a few comic grenades and get out of the way. Megan, meanwhile, is on the normal track, and when this type-A schoolhound has the chance to prove herself on the big test, like Jessie Spano before her, she succumbs to temptation, only in this case it’s cheating instead of caffeine pills. Here’s hoping that 0 doesn’t get her transferred to the sardines.
- “Stupid Idiots” only touches on the ideas of how standardized test scores determine state funding or how Maynord stratifies perks like air conditioning (and concomitantly how Coach Durham sacrifices “mad minutes for learning” because it’s too hot), but the rigidity of class comes across. I mean, this episode is literally about class mobility.
- Apparently Gary and Joel like to call random phone numbers because they want to meet someone from every state, even if it takes a long-distance call to California.
- David Hornsby is always great at showing Joel freak out, but when Joel get overwhelmed learning about the tracks and the upcoming test and the injustice of Gary’s placement, he makes the funniest groan yet.
- My favorite gag this week is the Viking Steele book Coach Durham reads to the turtles for English class, not to mention the later Viking Steele fantasy sequences. And somehow it works: The turtles do well on the English portions of the test.
- Another beautiful cinematic touch is that push in on Principal Stark as she intones about the boys regretting their demand to try honors classes accompanied by haunting music and the sudden break to reality as we see Rose typing next to her. Later there's another push on Principal Stark talking about the ballet as Swan Lake fades in and the edges of the frame blur. Really, everything Principal Stark does is hilarious, though that’s at least the second use of the brittle bones gag this week (after Saturday Night Live).
- “He got the right answer. Give him a freakin’ sour hot already!”