“Grade School Confidential” (originally aired 4/6/1997)

“Just sit down, Seymour. It might be nice to talk to a grown up for a change.”—Edna Krabappel

And so begins The Simpsons’ greatest love affair (non-Homer And Marge Division). The relationship between Seymour Skinner and Edna Krabappel would weave in and out of the show for years, until Edna connected with the final love of her life, Ned Flanders, in season 22. “Grade School Confidential” is a well-told, true-to-character origin story for the Skinner-Krabappel romance, which is forged outside of the harsh light of public scrutiny, only to return to the darkness of the janitor’s closet by episode’s end.

It’s one of season eight’s funniest episodes, but one where the laughs stand in stark contrast to the tiny tragedies they surround. Beyond attraction and familiarity, a Skinner-Krabapel pairing works because the characters share an abiding loneliness. The character’s best showcase episodes—“Bart The Lover,” “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song”—put this on display, depicting what little Edna and Seymour have going on beyond the walls of Springfield Elementary School. For all the genuine sweetness of Rachel Pulido’s script, an air of melancholy permeates “Grade School Confidential.” Just get a load of the melancholy woodwinds Alf Clausen deploys in the opening of this sequence from Martin’s birthday party.

“Bart The Lover” and “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song” also contain contributions from the third key figure in “Grade School Confidential”: Bart Simpson. Bart is a bridge from the central characters of the show to the central characters of this episode, but “Grade School Confidential” doesn’t force that connection. Edna and Seymour are Bart’s primary adversaries Monday through Friday, but in the tradition of many great pop-culture adversaries, they need one another as much as they despise one another. In this case, that need becomes the driving force of the episode: The only witness to the couple’s first kiss (in a child’s playhouse, further emphasizing the illicit nature of their hookup), Bart is forced by his teacher and his principal to become Cupid’s errand boy. That is, until the pressure of keeping their secret becomes too much, and he makes the relationship known to the entire school.

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The montage that follows that big reveal is the source of two all-time great Simpsons quotes—one for Ralph, the other for Homer—but it’s also a keen illustration of why it has to be Bart getting in the middle of Krabappel and Skinner. It’s more than his involvement in “Bart The Lover” and “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song”: Bart is the only Simpson with any link to the “Grade School Confidential” lovebirds. In the storm of rumor and innuendo that leads to the couple’s dismissal, we learn a) Lisa can’t recall Mrs. Krabappel’s name, and b) Homer’s been calling her by the wrong name all along. “I’ve been calling her Crandall!” is a brilliant non sequitur and a gut-busting example of Homer getting upset about the wrong thing, making a Springfield-wide scandal all about himself. But it’s also a sly reiteration of how Bart got himself caught up in this mess, and why he’ll have to put in some work to clean it up.

For an episode that begins with scores of children being carried away on stretchers, “Grade School Confidential” does its best work in subtle strokes. That’s a balance often struck by director Susie Dietter (think the many shades of the Dietter-directed “Radioactive Man,” from painted horses to the tidal wave of radioactive goo), who lines “Grade School Confidential” with light touches like a humiliated Edna tugging at her hemline. That attention to detail is great for the close-viewers among us, but it’s a nice thematic echo of “Grade School Confidential”’s larger concerns, too. And they aren’t really “larger” at all: The fleet of police vehicles and typical Springfield mob aside, this is a human-sized story of two people falling in love. The firings and the public outcry and the increasingly convoluted sneakings around are just comedic exaggerations of the risks anyone takes in the name of romance.

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That’s driven home by the biggest secret Principal Skinner divulges in “Grade School Confidential.” It’s no surprise that Seymour is a virgin: Until now, the only woman his life could accommodate was his pictures-of-cakes-collecting mother. His willingness to admit this in front of the entire town—thus clearing his and Edna’s names—is the surprise that Pulido and company pull here. It’s a bravely honest moment from a character who’s often boneheadedly honest (when he’s not trying to cover his ass with “steamed hams,” that is), and like “I’ve been calling her Crandall!”, it serves dual purposes. It quells the furor of the Helen Lovejoys in the crowd, but it also displays Seymour’s devotion to Edna. He cares so much about her, he’s willing to sacrifice whatever remains of his dignity.

And Bart’s right, you know: Seymour and Edna make a good couple. Her assertiveness gets him to temporarily drop his pushover ways; he shows her that she can be valued and loved by someone who’s more than a photo of a Hockey Hall of Famer. There’s a rocky road ahead for the couple, but they’ll always have Martin’s playhouse, Tom Berenger, and one colander-lit night in the school cafeteria. And the janitor’s closet, the one spot in Springfield where Agnes Skinner can’t keep tabs on her boy. (Though Groundskeeper Willie could probably help her out there…)

Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • As you may have read elsewhere, Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon died this week. Though he’d been away from the show for nearly four years by the time “Grade School Confidential” debuted, it’s episodes like these that best memorialize his contributions to the show. Simon helped make Springfield more than just a few houses on Evergreen Terrace, and it’s because of those efforts that we have any stake in whether or not Bart’s teacher and principal are allowed to be together. Rest in peace, Sam—I hope you managed to find your very own Land of Chocolate in the end.
  • Another light visual touch I love from “Grade School Confidential”: The way the moonbounce bows with the redistributed weight of the kids avoiding Milhouse’s vomit.
  • Insight from the DVD commentary: During the recording process for “Grade School Confidential,” all of the megaphone dialogue was recorded through an actual megaphone. When it came time for Dan Castellaneta to read Homer’s response about having the remote in his pocket, he improvised the first part of the line—directed to nearby Marge, Lisa, and Maggie—through the megaphone.
  • The things the characters choose to collect are the most acute sources of sadness in “Grade School Confidential”: “Oh yeah, you got to keep busy. I collect matchbooks from glamorous night clubs. It’s amazing. If you just write to them and ask them nicely…” (The way Marcia Wallace trails off on the last part of that line just kills me.)
  • Ever since I first saw “Grade School Confidential,” I’ve never been able to hear the phrase “Good gravy!” without also hearing the follow-up from the cafeteria worker: “Oh thank you, it’s just brown and water.”
  • Whoever winds up with that big, fat permanent record doesn’t have the best employment prospects: “As you know Bart, your permanent record will one day disqualify you from all but the hottest and noisiest jobs.”
  • Superintendent Chalmers, asking all the wrong questions at the Aztec: “You think they actually filmed this in Atlanta?” “I don’t know! I don’t think it’s important!”
  • Another big Chalmers laugh, this one predicated on classic cartoon iconography: “You can give up this tawdry, fulfilling relationship, or you two will be out of here so fast, your mortar boards will spin! And where is your mortar board, anyway?”
  • I didn’t write enough about Chalmers in the main review, did I? “No one would like to celebrate your love more than I. But I am a public servant, and not permitted to use my own judgement in any way.”
  • This Chalmers quote is dependent on Hank Azaria’s line reading, which drops a weird emphasis into a paraphrasing of an old advertising jingle: “What kind of man wears Armour hot dogs?”
  • A rare setup/punchline combo from the comic duo of Maude Flanders and Krusty The Clown: “I don’t think we’re talking about love here. We’re talking about s-e-x in front of the c-h-i-l-d-r-e-n!” “Sex Cauldron? I thought they closed that place down!”
  • Next week: Is Joshua Alston wearing a tie to impress Laddie, the dog Bart orders with a fake credit card in “The Canine Mutiny”? Do you think Laddie noticed?

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