A Fox-up 

8 January 2014 tbs.pm/2334

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Having just begun its landmark 25th year, animated comedy The Simpsons was dealt a blow this past October with the passing of voice actress Marcia Wallace, who portrayed Edna Krabappel – Bart Simpson’s teacher.

Generally, when a long-running series loses a cast member, there is a standard acknowledgement at some point on the next telecast. Unfortunately, the Fox network, home to The Simpsons, is also home to baseball’s World Series, and normal programming was disrupted the week immediately following Wallace’s death.

Fox issued a press release saying that when The Simpsons returned Nov. 2, not only would there be the usual ‘in memoriam’ card at the end of that week’s new episode, the network would also air a “classic episode” beforehand – the third season episode “Bart the Lover.”

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Simpsons critics, fanatics, and historians alike share a consensus that “Bart the Lover” was a standout Edna Krabappel episode. Edna puts an ad in a Contact-like lonely hearts magazine hoping for a date. When Bart finds out about this, he creates a fake persona and sends romantic pen-pal letters to his teacher, and eventually lures Edna into showing up at a fancy restaurant, in which her dream man never arrives. After seeing how cruelly his actions affected poor Edna, Bart tells his family what he did, and the Simpsons club together to help write Edna one final letter that explains why the ‘man’ can never see her and allow her to save face. It shows a level of heart and conscience one wouldn’t expect from the otherwise zany world of Springfield.

The 23-year-old episode is a world of difference from current episodes, in format, style, and writing. It is longer by some 4-5 minutes; cut into fewer parts, 3 instead of 4, and paced very well – due to modern day commercial restraints, the pace of current episodes is very rapid and doesn’t lend itself very well to the sort of stories the staff were able to tell even ten years ago.

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But in the context of Edna Krabappel, the episode highlighted one of the most memorable stories in the series’ history. Marcia Wallace won an Emmy for her performance in the episode, and was a great choice to tribute the late actress.

Instead, when viewers tuned in on Nov. 2, instead of “Bart the Lover,” they got “The Ned-liest Catch,” an episode from 2011 in which Krabappel begins a relationship with hyper-religious neighbor Ned Flanders.

Almost instantly, social media lit up with the question – where’s the episode we were promised? The answer had to be found with some search assistance – Time magazine reported that Fox ran into “technical issues” clearing the episode, a vague if not totally indifferent explanation.

The answer leaves more questions than answers – was it a problem upconverting from standard definition to HD? Were there music issues? Could they not negotiate paying royalties for the repeat? Could they not fit the longer episode in due to the previously mentioned modern-day runtime?

Regardless of the reason, Fox says that technical issues prevented the episode from airing.

Fine.

So why didn’t they say so on-air?

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Even in the 1980s and 1990s, though rare, American network television sometimes had snafus that necessitated the use of a ‘Technical difficulties’ slide and a brief announcement. The series in question often made fun of the device, making cute difficulty slides involving drunken cameramen or cute puppies unplugging equipment on their stills.

With the knowledge that many fans would be tuning in a half-hour early to watch this special tribute re-broadcast, why wouldn’t Fox have had a brief message on-screen saying hey, we had trouble with this episode, but we’re offering another Krabappel-led episode in its place?

There’s no shame in admitting fault. I’ve seen enough Youtube videos from ITV and the BBC to know it happens frequently and with the retention of corporate dignity. That’s why it confounds why Fox wouldn’t acknowledge on-air whatever difficulty they were having getting this particular episode on-air, as a courtesy to the fans.

Instead, the fans had to look for answers, and as many on Twitter said, reach for their DVDs, torrent sites, and the like – to watch the episode they had been promised.

Images © Matt Groening for the Fox Broadcasting Company

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