I usually only write reviews when I have a strong reaction (exceedingly positive or negative) to a show and/or episode. This was an average episode on the whole, but I still want to point out some things that I liked about it, since (a) my past couple of "Simpsons" reviews were so negative and (b) "average" is a substantial step up from the quality we've been seeing lately, so it might be a good idea to look at some of the ways in which this episode was an improvement.
Synopsis (some spoilers): After Bart's crank call to Skinner ruins Springfield Elementary School's auction, Skinner challenges an angry Chalmers to do something that no educator can seemingly do: get through to Bart. Chalmers accepts the challenge and becomes Bart's mentor. Surprisingly, Chalmers is successful in turning Bart into a motivated student. Chalmers' approach is to teach Bart about type-A males in American history - most notably T. Roosevelt - and gear his whole pedagogy towards the interests and proclivities often-year old boys(with an emphasis on student-initiated discovery, exploring, adventure, etc). Encouraged by his success with Bart, Chalmers begins mentoring other males from Springfield Elementary. During an archaeological expedition led by Chalmers (in search of Pres. Roosevelt's lost "spectacles" in a national park), Nelson falls and injures his arm. The Muntzes sue the school, and the district accordingly fires Chalmers. Upset that the district fired the only educator who ever got through to him, BartralliesSpringfield Elementary's males andorchestrates a lock-in to protest the district's actions.
Why was it just an average episode? Two reasons. First, none of the jokes were punch-you-in-the-gut funny and there were moments (especially during the act breaks) when you could easily tell that a more ambitious writing room would've come up with something really funny. Second, some (but - importantly - not all!) of the characters were caricatured a little too much for the sake of easy humor, namely Homer and Milhouse. But this episode did have a lot going for it, such as:
A decent plot! - See how the synopsis above actually made sense? Characters' motivations were actually plausible this go-around. They responded to circumstances as their characters would, rather than because a senseless plot dictated. The plot didn't revolve around a guest character or a wacky adventure completely removed from everyday life in Springfield. This episode was grounded in some modicum of realism. Of course, it wasn't totally realistic, but the marriage between realism and fantastical absurdity is what makes "The Simpsons" such a great show - there's a magical quality when we transcend the all-too-relatable dreariness of everyday life in everyday Springfield. The show's been a bit lacking on the realism front recently (thus making the absurd elements more Saturday morning cartoonish than sublime)so it's nice to see this episode returning the show to its roots, so to speak.
Chalmers' characterization - This is the most impressive aspect of this episode, IMO. Whereas many secondary characters have become reduced to one-joke wonder over the years, this episode did a great job developing Chalmers' character. Think about that for a moment. A recent "Simpsons" episode actually invested in a character enough to give him a little more dimension. And the characterization was excellent as well, and didn't contradict our previous understanding of Chalmers or weaken the impact of his trademark "Skinn-nnner!" He's portrayed as a rugged "guy's guy" and a committed educator at heart who's a bit disillusioned by the system (more on that below). He was compelling, dammit, way more compelling than any secondary character has been in a long time. Another thing about "The Simpsons" that makes it such great "comfort food" even when the episodes aren't too terrific is the way that all these secondary characters are identifiable as part of a greater community, and you know their back stories and idiosyncrasies even when they're just drawings in the background. It's sort of like driving around your hometown after being away for a while and seeing people you've known for, like, forever, and it brings a certain grounding to your existence just to know that they're there and they're real and they're a "part of us all, part of us all" (as Marge would say). This episode did great justice to Chalmers and helped make him a more important part of Springfield as we see it.
Bart's characterization - This episode also seemed to understand why Bart was *The* iconic ten-year-old for so many kids for such a long time: he's a type A guy. He likes to explore, have adventures and conform to no one. When he sees injustice, he does exactly what he wants to rectify it, when conformists or burned-out-on-life adults would roll over and let life beat them a little more. Because his adventures are so cool and because he does what every ten-year old would like to do (but probably wouldn't do) in those situations - especially when the injustices of being a child in a world run by the most pathetic of adults are implicated - he rightfully deserves his legendary status. Staging a lock-in to protest the firing of his most successful educator due to that educator's transgression of a repressive bureaucracy (the school district, a legal system that punishes teachers for letting boys be boys) was quintessentially Bart.
Skinner's characterization - Skinner wasn't in this episode very much, but - in a rare moment - he actually took charge of a situation by standing up to Chalmers following Bart's prank. After years of being depicted as a feckless nebbish, hopefully we'll start seeing Skinner return to his old form: the no-BS, staunchly bureaucratic, hard-nosed disciplinarian. That characterization, after all, was what made the whole Bart/Skinner dynamic work so well. (The fact that he was cast as such a militaristic hardnose also made glimpses into Skinner's emasculation - usually the result of Agnes and later Edna - funny and compelling, before that emasculation became his defining, then only, characteristic). So, in short, another encouraging return to form.
Social satire! - This episode actually had some decent social satire! It presented a good argument as to how education in America fails to accommodate children's learning styles, despite top bureaucrats knowing about this dilemma and sincerely wanting to (and being able) to do something about it but for the bureaucratic strings that bind them (e.g. fear of being sued if anything goes wrong and subsequently getting fired). While I may have attributed this dilemma to the post-No Child Left Behind teach-to-the-test paradigm more than "feelings-oriented" pedagogy that Chalmers thinks is responsible for American education's inadequacies, the mere fact that this show even has me thinking about the sad state of education in this country is a testament to this show's enduring power to be thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time.
Loose Ends - The shoutout to Penn Law professor Kermit Roosevelt goes down as the most random academic/pop culture reference that I've picked up on throughout the show's 23-season run. Also, it wasnice to see there's still some love for John K. out there in the animation community. Finally, giving guest star credit to President T. Roosevelt was pure class.
Bottom line, even though the humor could have been sharper and some caricatures for the sake of easy laughs should have been sacrificed for the greater good (even though Milhouse's take on "It's Cool to Cry" had me laughing), there are some very good things to be said for this episode. This one deserves its place in "The Simpsons" canon, and hopefully the writers will expand upon this episode's strengths as the season moves along.