by Patricia Grant
While we wait with bated breath for the release of Netflix’s “The Magic School Bus 360°,” a reboot of the animated series from the ‘90s (due Fall 2017), let’s whet our appetite for The Friz with a look back at one of the series’ most iconic episodes “For Lunch.” In this episode, we join Ms. Frizzle and her 4th-grade class as they pile into The Magic School Bus and enter their hapless classmate Arnold via a bag of “Cheesie Wheezies” to travel his digestive tract - for educational purposes, of course. It certainly is no pleasure cruise.
Arnold, wary as ever of Ms. Frizzle’s field trips, is all too willing to be left at school with class pet Liz, the chameleon. The boy suspects nothing though perhaps he should, given the unsettling way Ms. Frizzle says “See you very soon, Arnold,” as the bus door closes and the class departs. Alone in the classroom, save for Liz, Arnold sets himself to the task of breaking the school olive-eating record to impress his beloved Wanda, while unbeknownst to him, she, Ms. Frizzle and the rest of the class traverse his innermost regions in pursuit of knowledge.
If you watched the show as a child, it’s a good bet that this episode, or some remnant of it, is still lodged somewhere in your psyche, like an old piece of corn. If you are drawing a blank, allow me to jog your memory: the episode features animated sphincters in action. Though they are the pyloric and ileocecal, the less notorious of the sphincters, they are nevertheless portrayed as puckered and brown - and identical to their more external cousin, the anal sphincter. It was - and still is - impossible not to snicker.
Sadly, Arnold’s anal sphincter never makes an appearance, nor does his rectum. This is the primary reason why the episode is so memorable - and so problematic. Ms. Frizzle and the class, the ultimate adventurers in education, get right up to the brink of making history as the first class ever to pass through a classmate’s bowels into a boy’s room toilet and they chicken out.
When their path narrows in the smelly confines of the large intestine, they stop to consult the map (an anatomy book) then unanimously decide to turn around. They opt not to drive The Magic School Bus into Arnold’s rectum, but instead to go back the way they came, thereby omitting the entire lower portion of the digestive tract from Ms. Frizzle’s lesson.
I have a number of longstanding beefs with this abrupt about-face, not the least of which is the missed opportunity visually. I am no director of animation, but a shot where The Magic School Bus bursts from Arnold’s anus in a wide splash of brown surely could have been the crowning achievement of an animator’s career. I cannot help but feel that something has been lost.
Clearly, there was censorship at work here, a rewrite mid-script by order of the powers that be, because an uncensored Ms. Frizzle would never be so timid, so prudish. An uncensored Ms. Frizzle would not be afraid to get a little shit on the bus. Nor would she approve of the impracticality of traveling the digestive system in reverse - an arduous journey to be sure - when the most natural and logical exit is right in front of them. If Ms. Frizzle taught us anything, it’s that we must be intrepid and inquisitive explorers of our natural world. We must go forth boldly into the environment, be it a rainforest, an underwater volcano or our classmate’s anus.
While the decision to back out of the lesson (instead of back-ending out) is inconsistent with the entire philosophy of the show, the bigger issue is the gap in knowledge it leaves in the young viewers. What about the children at home who have no reliable access to information about their rectum? Doesn’t this leave them vulnerable to schoolyard hearsay and misinformation scrawled on restroom walls? How can this be permissible in a show that claims to educate children?
This concern is addressed in a segment tacked on at the end of the episode where the viewers call in to voice their opinions. “You didn’t complete the ride!” cries one irate child, who may or may not have been me. “Waste products that accumulate in the large intestine-” the child continues, but is interrupted and roundly brushed off by a show runner/producer type who appears far more interested in her Chinese food. “I know, I know,” says the show runner/producer type, “but did you really expect us to show that on daytime T.V.?”
Yes, lady. Yes, we did.
I am going to be merciful and not grade this episode. Instead, I give it an “incomplete” for not finishing the assignment. I think Ms. Frizzle would, too. It is my sincere hope that “The Magic School Bus 360°” rectifies the disappointment and confusion its predecessor inflicted on my generation. I hope it does so in the very first episode.
So how do Ms. Frizzle and the class exit Arnold’s digestive tract if they refuse to take the quickest, most logical, most natural way? They catch a ride in a gas bubble, of course! Arnold lets out a belch of Homer-esque proportions and out they fly. It’s natural. It’s normal. It’s magic.
Patricia Grant is a writer. She knows you expect her to say something clever/funny/cute here and she is cracking under the pressure. Follow her on Twitter @_patriciagrant and she will come up with something later.