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The Simpsons Kick Off Their 22nd Season With Elementary School Musical

By Edited Nov 15, 2013 0 2

I'm a real sucker for well-crafted novelty music, particularly song parodies, so I had a hunch that I would find a lot to love in Elementary School Musical, the premiere episode of the 22nd season of The Simpsons. I was especially looking forward to it because it co-stars Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, the self-deprecating Kiwi musical comedy duo of Flight of the Conchords fame. Such a pairing seemed like a perfect match if done properly, and happily, I found that their appearance on the show lived up to all of my expectations.

It's not particularly unusual for The Simpsons to make forays into musical comedy, and generally this is very well done. In this episode, we have both original songs and parodies, most of them focusing on Lisa's storyline but some involving the other main storyline, which features Homer and Bart accompanying Krusty the Clown to Norway, where he believes he will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This is actually the story that begins the episode, as we open upon a gathering of the nerdy, led by Lisa, to watch the "Nobies," the televised Oscar-like presentation of these distinguished awards. When the announcer names acerbic, abusive Krusty as the Peace Prize recipient, it's obvious at once that something strange is afoot.

I wasn't quite as engaged by this storyline, which involves a lot of very lame jokes by Krusty, which only Homer seems to find funny - and even he grows tired of them before long. Once they arrive in not Oslo but The Hague, that part of the story becomes yet another instance of the Simpsons making their way through another country while the show takes mild pot-shots at its residents and culture. In this Dutch wonderland, we get references to marijuana, the overabundance of the prefix "Euro-" and a discussion about the difference between region 1 and region 2 DVDs, among other things. The show also manages to work in the vuvuzela, everybody's favorite Instrument They Never Heard of Before This Year's World Cup, which made me smile as I've had a devious desire to get my hands on one of these obnoxiously loud horns ever since.

The main event, however, is most definitely Lisa, whose middle child status has her all steamed when Bart gets to go overseas and she has to stay home. As silly as The Simpsons is, this is a show about a family whose members genuinely love each other, and no one is more steadfast than dedicated wife and mother Marge. I'm always hoping that The Simpsons will move me as well as amuse me, and I was touched by how in tune Marge is with Lisa in this episode. Here's Lisa, feeling sorry for herself, and Marge has the perfect solution to her daughter's malaise - and she seems to have planned this well in advance, since I assume a week-long arts camp would require reservations. Granted, the timeline doesn't make a lot of sense, since it seems like a summer camp but she's back in school the next week and bullies dog her because of her absence, but in any case, good on Marge for figuring out exactly what Lisa needed at that time.

While there, she is surrounded by kindred spirits and immersed in the joy of theater and music from the instant of her arrival. In a shortened but thoroughly engaging parody of the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations, Glee's Cory Monteith, Lea Michele and Amber Riley, as a pair of camp counselors and a friendly fellow camper, welcome Lisa warmly to camp. ("I... I love the elegant pearls you wear / And the starfish shape that constitutes your hair...") So exuberant and harmonious is the introduction, I half-expected to spot a unicorn wandering through the camp at this point.

Instead of thinking she is strange, her fellow campers embrace her and mirror her imaginative view of the world, as demonstrated by a brief scene that I suspect is an homage to the early Peanuts strip that has Linus, Lucy and Charlie Brown cloud-watching. Of course, the trouble with Arts Camp is that you get a week of intense creative stimulation, and then you're plunged back into your normal routine, and that can feel very deadening and depressing. You can't hold onto the magic of camp forever, as one of Lisa's newfound friends wryly comments when she says, upon their parting, "I'll miss you a lot - then a little - then not too much!" Isn't that always the way it seems to go?

In the first portion of the episode, camp counselors Bret and Jemaine are the symbols of all that is grand about the artistic lifestyle, and they lead a lavish production number in which a cow, in a possible reference to RENT, and uber-genius Stephen Hawking join in to voice their support for the arts and Lisa's involvement in them (even though Bret and Jemaine claim that "Everyone listens when artists are talking, / 'Cause artists are smarter than Mr. Stephen Hawking"). This song feels very much like the kind of thing that would appear on Flight of the Conchords if they were hired to do a touchy-feely PSA for the Arts Council. Their dynamic is much the same here as on that show. They have a habit of randomly bursting into snippets of song instead of simply talking, as Lisa notes, and their banter with each other as Bret quietly criticizes Jemaine's pitiful attempts to demonstrate heckling is golden.

Later, we get to see what life is like for these musicians throughout the rest of the year, and it isn't pretty. In fact, it looks very much like... Flight of the Conchords. With no paying gigs, they live in rat-trap apartment without utilities, avoiding starvation by eating sandwiches they've "accidentally" dropped on the floor at their job in a sub shop. When Lisa, overwhelmed with post-camp blues, seeks them out in an effort to embark on a life of artistic greatness, they sing a much more minor tune about the life of a Bohemian. ("Artists are the least important people in the world, / So whatever you do, don't be an artist, girl.") Somewhere in between the mountaintop camp experience and the despairing valley of their Sprooklyn life lies the truth - that art can indeed be inspiring and noble, but in order to follow artistic passion, you need to be prepared for the likely possibility of economic struggles.

This must have been an especially fun episode of The Simpsons to write as Matt Groening worked in as many references to events over the summer as possible, particularly the blockbuster Inception, sprinkling in mini-parodies of songs like My Country, 'Tis of Thee and singers like Raffi. There are times when it seems like The Simpsons are running out of ideas, but Elementary School Musical is not one of those occasions. A fantastic season opener.


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Comments

Sep 28, 2010 12:05pm
mcimicata
I was definitely pleased to read through this article, and it has provided me with great and useful information...Great article!
Sep 29, 2010 11:50am
bilbopooh
Thanks! Really looking forward to this season of The Simpsons.
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