Who Wins When The Simpsons Debates Nurture Versus Nature?

Bart and Lisa may not learn their lessons but Springfield gets an education on the Simpsons on “My Octopus and a Teacher.”

Bart and his teacher in The Simpsons season 33 episode 18
Photo: Fox

This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.

The Simpsons Season 33 Episode 18

You can always count on The Simpsons to go against accepted wisdom. Each of the Simpson kids’ worst traits are indulged in “My Octopus and a Teacher,” and in this case, it is a lesson well learned. Bart drives the school’s new teacher, Rayshelle Peyton (Kerry Washington), to the end of her rope. Lisa reels in another creature to save in spite of itself. Some of the best and worst episodes are predicated on these problematic predilections.

The first segment sets up an extremely effective atmosphere of mystery. What is the backstory behind Bart and this enigmatically transparent new teacher? Bart has always been an educational challenge, or as Rayshelle Peyton calls him, “a nightmare.” Late in the episode, a teacher will admit he’d rather go back to prison than teach Bart. Even the perfect teacher has to wonder “what the hell is wrong with this kid?” She says she’s tried recess, no recess, breakfast clubs, scared straights.

Peyton is a map to the path of aggressively passive least resistance. Her “I see you the way you see you” approach to students is only the top layer of her comic subversion. She also has an arsenal of unintentional backhanded insults to savor. In her job interview, she besmirches all the town including the Springfield Orchestra. She presumes teachers live terribly sad home lives, and offers learn-by-the-numbers lesson plans. Without adjusting the dosage on whatever she’s on or sharing it, Peyton is a satisfying guest character. Skinner and Chalmers’ closet duet, realizing the school can hire an actual qualified teacher just because her husband sucks at oboe, is inspired.

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Lisa joins a nature documentarian club to get extra credit to make up for the C she got in gym. Filming underwater, she discovers Molly, an octopus and master of camouflage, and makes her the subject of the documentary. “Cephalopod Soulmate” really captures the creature beneath the batter in the marinara sauce. It is truly a sad and beautiful short, as touching as “Pukahontas,” the film Barney made for the Springfield Film Festival in the episode “A Star Is Burns.”  

Marge continues to be the most representative American mom on television, always responding with a perfectly skewered maternal instinct, like “I don’t like you hanging out with sharks.” Lisa’s coming-of-age arc stems from two ethical problems she is vaguely familiar with over the course of the series. Her new group’s motto is “never interfere,” as important as the prime directive on Star Trek. Uncharacteristically, Lisa also imposes captivity on the animal for its own good.

The episode does a good job at building Bart’s inexplicable strangeness. The kids can’t laugh at buffoonery if they’re concerned about the clown, but blaming Skittles with “he couldn’t handle the rainbow,” is brilliant.   

While the episode doesn’t need the crush-on-the-teacher cliché, the scene where Bart rips out the water fountain is Jack-Nicholson-in-One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest impressive without being a tribute. It also gives Homer a chance to do some real parenting. His story of falling off the monkey bars just to see the school nurse is quite revelatory, and screaming into empty Pringles canisters is surprisingly practical advice for stress relief. As is Homer’s final tip. It really shows how much he’s retained.

The octopus’ escape segment succeeds at being pretty scary, especially when it leads to Googling toxicology. The ending blends the two plots well, but begs the question: What would Jesus the Redeemer do with the octopus in Lisa’s place? Probably flush it, Bart is her brother, after all. But she takes a higher road, with a subtle undercurrent of commentary. When Lisa claims she is part of nature, and disrupts the food chain, it is like putting down a camera to help a victim at the cost of a good video.

As well as finding new twists for old plots, The Simpsons most recent seasons emphasize character building. “My Octopus and a Teacher” tells an original story which brings depth to the entire Springfield school system, broadens Homer’s fatherly input, and teaches Lisa a new lesson. Bart goes from “angry drowning boy” to having a crush on myself, because of a teacher. He is also reunited with his signature punishment, filling a chalkboard with “I will not express my feelings through chaos” promises. “My Octopus and a Teacher” is an altogether sweet, but not sappy, episode, but don’t expect Rayshelle Peyton to replace Miss Krabapple.

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4 out of 5