53. Separate Vocations

"Systems analyst? Systems analyst? Systems analyst?"

“Systems analyst? Systems analyst? Systems analyst?”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 27 February 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 14 November 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: George Meyer
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Jeff Lynch

Every so often you get a Simpsons episode that doesn’t know what to do with itself for the first 10 minutes or so, before suddenly hitting its stride and motoring cleanly to a satisfying finish. Separate Vocations is just such a story, idling away for half its running time then snapping into action. It bears the hallmarks of a ‘late season’ episode: tired writers, semi-formed ideas, slightly slipshod production and a last-minute lucky strike.

Plot
We’re given a bustling opening, with everything concertinaed and lots of fast cutting. Things look promising. Then not a lot happens, a few characters visit a few places, and the pace slows to a crawl. At one point it looks like we’re going to get an episode about Lisa’s saxophone; then it seems Bart’s about to join the police force. Finally the plot begins and we follow the contrasting fortunes of Bart as a school hall monitor and Lisa as a class drop-out. It’s basically a “what if?” caper, mixed with that sitcom staple, the role reversal. Thanks to a flurry of stylish animation and a fair number of gimmicks, the final act is strong enough to almost make up for what came before. It still feels a few drafts short of a decent story, though. 5

Characters
The reason Bart and Lisa “swap” places is a school aptitude test, the results of which are not well received (Lisa: “A homemaker? I might as well be dead.”) When the role reversal happens, each character uses elements of their “usual” personality to effect the change, Lisa deploying her intelligence to cause havoc while Bart puts his wits to authoritarian use. It’s a neat idea but one that might have worked better confined to a single, seven-minute skit within an anthology episode, as per the Halloween specials. Instead it’s dragged out and Lisa’s disruptive behaviour quickly turns tedious. Homer and Marge are barely in it, while scene after scene is stuffed with blandly-drawn, nameless children. You end up almost well-disposed to Bart and his reign of terror. 3

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Locations and design
We see a couple of new additions to Springfield’s clutch of oddball municipal attractions: a music shop called Li’l Ludwigs, emblazoned outside with a caricature of Beethoven in a nappy –

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and decorated inside with a rather attractive display of gargantuan quavers:

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Then there’s the Who’s To Know motel, number one for “discreet” liaisons between the great and the good:

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Both locations, ludicrous yet down-at-heel, suit the story perfectly. 8

Pardon My Zinger
The seemingly joyless topic of school aptitude tests is responsible for two of the best moments. As Mrs Krabappel begins reading the questions to her class, she asks (without any trace of an eye-roll): “If I could be any animal, I would be a) a computer ant, b) a nurse shark or c) a lawyer bird?” Later, when the class are receiving their results, Martin is the happiest he has ever been: “Systems analyst? Systems analyst? Systems analyst?… SYSTEMS ANALYST!” Elsewhere there’s a nice touch when Homer opens the door to some police officers and instinctively blurts out: “Look, I didn’t steal that copper wire, I just thought they were throwing it out – here, take it!” He has barely any lines in this episode, but does get one scene in which he frets pointlessly about Bart and Lisa, prompting his wife to remind him: “We have three kids, Homer.” “Marge!” comes the response, “the dog doesn’t count as a kid.” 6

Special guests
Former chat show host Steve Allen has an all-too-brief cameo. His voice is so far removed from the sound palate of The Simpsons that you get quite a jolt when it turns up, but sadly he doesn’t appear in person. Instead Allen merely supplies Bart’s “altered voice” during a fantasy court sequence: a stunt that smacks of gratuity on the part of the producers (Look! We can get someone as big as Steve Allen and then throw him away on one line!). Hearing Allen’s rich, smooth, conversational tones exclaiming the word “Ay, carumba!” claws back some pity points. 6

Music
One of the highlights of the episode – no, THE highlight of the episode – is the sequence when Skinner and Bart are checking school lockers for a missing stash of textbooks. It’s animated in perfect time to a piece of music pastiching the theme for Beverly Hills Cop, each slam of a locker door coinciding with the first beat of each bar. And it goes on for about 30 seconds, every locker filmed from a different angle, every slam matched meticulously to the rhythm of Alf Clausen’s music. It’s as much of a tour de force as any plot twist or run of gags, and certainly stays in your brain longer than anything from the episode.

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Elsewhere Clausen tosses in some lovely saxophone cues whenever Lisa is feeling particularly mournful, and some expertly over-the-top music to soundtrack a haphazard car chase between the police and Snake – a nod to Clausen’s previous work on The Naked Gun film. 10

Voices
Harry Shearer once again takes the prize. Everything Principal Skinner says is delivered with the just right mix of quavering confidence and misplaced optimism.

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“Sleek, vigilant puma,” he coos at the school’s bronze mascot, “principal of the mountains!” He sounds deliriously thrilled at Bart’s work as hall monitor (“The school is a police state!”) and laps up every small victory against the pupils (“Forgery! So he DIDN’T have leprosy!”). Even when placating staff, Shearer makes Skinner sound like someone with only skeletal authority: “There will be NO mocking of your name, Mr Glasscock.” 9

Animation direction
During the plodding first half, the animation feels a bit like it’s been assembled from outtakes from other episodes, or showreels from wannabe directors. Nothing hangs together: there’s no consistency of style, scenes don’t flow together, and some of the characters are badly off model.

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Only when the actions switches to the school do things click into place and the direction settle into a rhythm, alternating nicely between Bart and Lisa’s storylines before bringing them together for the locker-door sequence finale. The “days of the week” montage, itemising Bart’s increasingly lavish escapades as hall monitor, is beautifully done:

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– while the scenes at the test processing centre are full of suitably gargantuan electronic watchamacallits. 5

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Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The very first line of the episode – Mrs Krabappel announcing “Class, I promised you a surprise today” – is the trigger for a fantasy sequence. More of them follow throughout the episode: Bart imagining himself as a drifter, then later imagining himself giving evidence in court; Marge reliving a childhood dream of becoming an astronaut. This sort of thing would get even more pronounced over the next couple of seasons, though we’re still some way from it becoming predictable or (worse) unfunny. Film and TV homages shuffle by with almost as much frequency: Batman, The Wild One (“Lisa, what are you rebelling against?” “Whadda you got?”), Bullitt, The Streets of San Francisco, some more obvious than others. Only connoisseurs of 1970s US cop shows will properly appreciate the moment at the start of part two when the screen freezes and a caption appears, accompanied by a stern voiceover: ‘ACT 2: DEATH DRIVES A STICK’. The rest of us can giggle nervously. 5

Emotion and tone
This story hasn’t aged well and some of it rings very hollow in the present circumstances (“Supreme Court? What have THEY done for us lately?”). Whenever Lisa turns into a brat in The Simpsons she instantly loses all her appeal; here, every time she disappears off screen you breathe a little easier. There’s an idle artifice to the episode that never quite goes away and, set pieces aside, stops you from ever fully enjoying what you’re seeing. Only at the very end does a flash of genuine emotion materialise, when Bart takes the blame for Lisa’s antics, reasoning: “I didn’t want you to wreck your life; you’ve got the brains and the talent to go as far as you want.” 4

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Verdict: 61%
Saved by the school bell.

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