"A Test Before Trying"

"A Test Before Trying"

The story wasn't the greatest, but I laughed a lot.

This was a middle-of-the-road episode that was livened up by having a steady stream of ancillary funny bits. The perfect sort of thing to round out the middle of a season, in other words. It didn't try too hard, but it also didn't seem to lose interest in itself the way many episodes have done recently.

In the main story, Springfield Elementary is at risk of being shut down as the worst school in the state, pending the results of a standardized test. It all comes down to Bart, whose test results could save the school. 
 
I thought this was the least interesting element of the episode. Which is a problem, given that it's the main plot. This kind of story has been done so often, and done better. I was reminded of the King of the Hill episode where Bobby's principal tries to save Tom Landry Middle School by putting Bobby and other students in the Special Ed class. In the end, it all comes down to Bobby's test results. 
 
Comparing these two episodes is an interesting lesson in how to build narrative tension (or not). I would argue that it hinges on two key elements that are missing from this Simpsons episode: Bobby's willingness to enter Special Ed, and the fact that he genuinely tries his hardest in school (but never does very well). Bart's arch demeanor, instead of building narrative tension, just makes you dislike him. The question of the episode becomes, "Is Bart REALLY such a brat that he would blow off this test?" And that's no kind of peg to hang an episode on.
 
Luckily, the rest of the episode was hilarious. Starting with the extended couch gag, which riffed on overly-dramatic action movie trailers. Homer's thing with the parking meter was odd but not interesting enough to serve as a main plot, meaning that it was perfectly deployed in its role as the B plot. 
 
I'm willing to forgive a lot of narrative flaws, because I laughed a lot during this episode. I laughed at the "dying" parking meter dribbling coins, and laughed doubly hard at the "EXPIRED" flag. The film strip, cut short before we could learn more about "Y, The Vowel That Goes Both Ways." The students that Bart had never seen before, and would never see again. Chicken Pete Pie (which showed up later in the background as the lunch room special of the day). And I even laughed at all the various shrimp-related electric kitchen appliances the Simpsons own. (And what is Moe planning to do with those mannequin heads, by the way?)