This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 32 Episode 12
The Simpsons Season 32, episode 12, “Diary Queen,” may be the sweetest offering of the series. It’s not only sentimental and self-esteem-positive, it’s downright edumacational. At least for Bart, who certainly learns a lesson. Thankfully, as the episode explains by example, he probably won’t retain it.
“What’s the matter, Bart? I figure you’d be used to failing by now,” Edna Krabappel once consoled the spiky haired kid who seemed so determined to get through school without schooling. Marcia Wallace, who played the Springfield Elementary teacher, died unexpectedly in October 2013. Edna’s death was first acknowledged in “Four Regrettings and a Funeral,” from season 25, when Bart wrote “We’ll really miss you Mrs. K” on the chalkboard. He only wrote it once. Her death was punishment enough. Both the character and the voice actor were instrumental in the chemistry of The Simpsons, and chemistry happens to be one of the few things Bart’s ever excelled at in school, even pranking a talent show in the “Haw-Haw Land” episode. But he gets his beakers crossed in the latest installment.
“Diary Queen” opens with an inspired West Side Story song parody, “Too Nice” replacing “Tonight.” It’s time for Ned Flanders’s annual yard sale, and he’s on a holy mission to undersell eBay. Comic Book Guy is looking for a broom to play Quidditch on, Waylen Smithers is going to score some kitsch, and Ned will finally toss those fuzzy dice Maude bought him to the bottom of an impulse item box of jokes he did not get. The Flanders family are parting with their humble possession in a public bid for humility, in case no one notices. Ned gives up Rod’s teeth. Todd consigns his toys to the auction block on the grass. “Playing is a sin that we regret,” one of the Flanders kids explains.
Ned’s bizarre outdoor bazaar is the only segment which has any meanness in it. The Springfieldians want to take advantage of Ned, and openly mock him. Carl and Lenny turn the yard sale into a yarn brawl, and Jimbo’s gang buys commemorative plates just to smash them. It’s enough to send Ned looking for the fans he always carries around in case of stress-induced hot flashes. As Patty and Selma are flicking ashes into Rod and Tod’s baby shoes, it seems Nelson, Bart, and Millhouse are the only ones worthy to buy Ned’s treasured mementos. And, of those, only Nelson’s purchase is authentic. He buys all the bad words, like “adultery” and “fornication,” which Ned cut out of his old religious texts. Nelson has a genuine use for them, you can just tell.
Bart and Millhouse buy the books. Even without the offending admonishments, they swear they’ll still find useful ways to better themselves. Their haul winds up being the fiery centerpiece for a supercool skateboarding feat which no one will ever see. It’s an old joke, but we do get to notice how big Millhouse’s nose looks when he’s picking it. One book, which gives the title to the episode, is spared the conflagration of Bart’s daredevil jump: Edna Krabappel’s diary. Bart recognizes the Ds and Fs, and Millhouse recognizes the smell of Parliament Lights 100s. It’s very telling how these are the most recognizable clues. They are each ready-made character punchlines.
The diary is a font of information. Bart and Millhouse learn all the teachers work night jobs during school hours, and the many lonely secrets of Groundskeeper Willie. But their first use of it is inspired gaggery. Bart learns Superintendent Chalmers keeps his car keys behind the visor. The two kids not only steal the car but take advantage of a free yogurt offer at a car wash. The idea that taking the yogurt and ditching the car is a “perfect crime” is great kids’ logic. It is a little odd, however, that Springfield’s Chief Wiggum sees fourth grade car thieves as inspiration for a little personal time with Officer Lou, but it works within Simpsons logic.
The central point of the episode is Bart’s relationship with his dead teacher, and his relationship with himself. He actually believes someone he thought only saw him as troublesome also considered him “smart as a whip.” It leads him to believe he actually has potential, which he translates to: all the time he was showing his butt he was showing promise. This spurs him into thinking about getting seriously educated. Not only does he try but he succeeds on his first dry run, resisting the urge to draw a skeleton head on a multiple-choice test grid, and getting an A. Not only does he finally understand how his sister Lisa doesn’t suck, but he puts himself on the same level.
Lisa goes through all the stages of jealousy, and even realizes she’s on the verge of obsession when even her imaginary comfort pony begins to look like Bart. This makes it worse, because realizing he is the only thing she can think about only makes her dwell on it. Lisa is usually the family genius, and how she reacts to Bart doing well really depends on the circumstance and need for story conflict. For instance, when Bart had to apply geometry to miniature golf in an early episode, Lisa brought a Zenlike understanding of all things which putt. Lisa does Bart a disservice tonight in the guise of doing the right thing. It’s her MO.
Of course, Marge and Lisa don’t trust Bart’s recent good grades, but while he comes up clean to Marge, Lisa digs up the dirt. Bart correlates “cruel” with “lying” because “they’re both great.” He thinks he’s going to win a Spelling Bee just because he has the potential to do it. Would it have been less cruel for Lisa to let him see how far his belief would get him? She’s set him up for worse humiliations just for an edge at science fairs.
Millhouse gets a few good gags tonight. When Lisa starts developing a rash because of the stress of not crushing her brother’s potential, he pulls cream out of his fanny pack labeled “rash stash.” Groundskeeper Willie is a highlight of the episode. His character has one of the most interesting takes on passive aggressive behavior in comedy. It’s not that he gets it backwards, so much as he pays it forward: Terrorizing Bart with the idea of simmering a new pet into rabbit stew when all he’s thinking of is how much bunnies love stewed carrots.
Subtle social commentary makes its way into the episode. As this is the first episode since the Trump presidency, it opens with a Bald Eagle flying a sign asking “Is it safe yet?” We learn Ned doesn’t find Bill Maher funny. A priest tells Bart and Millhouse reading someone else’s diary in church is not the worst thing you can do within the hallowed walls. Moments later we see the priest handcuffed and escorted past the pews by the police. We can only wonder what offenses are happening at Reverend Lovejoy’s competition.
Fat Tony (Tony Montagna) tells his henchmen his crime family doesn’t kill children, “We wait till they’re 18.” Lisa is kept up at night by the cold dead eyes of Mike Pence. Subtle subversive commentary can be found when Principal Skinner declares the drug-free portion of the school assembly a success because Lisa, the only one in the auditorium, tells him she doesn’t do drugs. But the scene comes shortly after we learn Dr. Hibbert is pushing kiddie-Xanax “sleepies” and “dopies” on her. The best bad side effects are “Portuguese insolence” and the “tendency to see yourself as others see you.”
The episode has quite a few sight gags which work well. The sign outside the Spelling Bee contest reads H-E-A-R, and we see one of the losing contestants ripping up a dictionary on the way to the exit. When Ned starts to preachify in the treehouse, he only stops because Bart is drawing back a trigger finger on his slingshot. Mrs. Krabappel’s beloved cat not only was not harmed during the making of the episode, but was a willing participant, according to the closing disclaimer. One of the stills in the photo montage is of Krabappel watching The Bob Newhart Show, which Marcia Wallace was a regular on.
For the majority of The Simpsons’ run, Mrs. Krabappel was a sexually independent woman who was often “looking for a substitute to teach me a lesson I sorely need.” She began dating widower Ned in “The Ned-Liest Catch” from season 22. They married in secret and stayed together until her death in “The Man Who Grew Too Much.” The cause of Edna’s death has never been revealed, except in a non-canon, future-set episode. For this installment, Wallace’s two lines are taken from earlier episodes. “Diary Queen” will be her last appearance.
This is a different kind of arc for The Simpsons. “Diary Queen” is on an uplifting trajectory until Lisa knocks it off course, and ends in a sudden life-affirming crash. Bart’s final warning to Marge, “I’ll go over the edge if you try to make me feel better,” is wonderfully skewered, but the final twist is a dose of treacle. The episode was originally slated to premiere on Valentine’s Day, and is a sweet sendoff.