“Lisa The Simpson” (season nine, episode seventeen; originally aired 3/8/98)

In which Lisa, wonders, “What will my life be like if I descend into mediocrity?”

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In the unending debate about when the Simpsons “golden age” finally ended, season nine (where we are now! Ahhhh!) is most often pegged as the borderline. As we’ve seen in this season of Simpsons (Classic) reviews—and the fact that this is most likely the end of regular, season-long Simpsons (Classic) reviews—season nine is where, as Hunter S. Thompson might have said (if he were an A.V. Club TV critic) “with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark—that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.” (Honestly, I’d love to see what Thompson would have made of Scandal.)

Anyway, anyone looking for that last-gasp feeling might feel the fading vibrations in “Lisa The Simpson,” as it was truly the final, lonely outpost of the Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein era. Showrunners for the uniformly brilliant seasons seven and eight, the duo had ceded to season nine showrunner Mike Scully, but “Lisa The Simpson,” as Oakley says in the commentary to the episode, was held over until deep into the ninth season. Explains Oakley:

It was the last one we ever recorded and read when we were running the show. We wanted to end with an emotional one, a very solid one that had sort of a heartwarming ending. It embodied our feelings about the show. The humor, the depth, the things that could actually make you tear up sometimes.

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Indeed, from his comments, it seems that Oakley and Weinstein intended “Lisa The Simpson” to be the last of season eight, a conclusion borne out by his comparisons to season seven’s finale “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2,” which also featured an emotional, heartfelt story about Lisa’s attempts to come to terms with her place in a world seemingly all too eager to pass her by. It’d be nice to say that “Lisa The Simpson” is as nigh-perfect a goodbye to the Oakley-Weinstein tenure as “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” was to season seven, but “Lisa The Simpson” just isn’t on that level, a victim of a high-concept premise that undermines the intended pathos of Lisa’s fear that she’s losing her intellect with the sort of easy out that, regrettably, was a harbinger of The Simpsons to come.

It’s no secret why Oakley and Weinstein, in looking for an emotional, character-driven note to go out on, turned to Lisa. From the stellar “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2,” to episodes like “Lisa’s Substitute,” to “Lisa’s Pony,” to even the most recent Simpsons episode, the delightful surprise “Halloween Of Horror,” Lisa’s the go-to Simpsons character for pathos because of her position as perpetual outsider. Lisa’s sensibleness and love of learning set her ever apart from the world of Springfield, where tempers are hairtrigger, attention spans miniscule, and pop culture king. So when the episode hinges on the idea that Lisa may be losing her smarts, it strikes at the very heart of who she is, which should be guaranteed dramatic gold. The fact that it isn’t lands at the feet of episode writer Ned Goldreyer, whose sole credited episode script (he wrote part of one “Treehouse Of Horror” as well) makes Lisa’s dilemma both unmotivated, and too easily resolved, all the while engaging in some callous comedy that undermines the emotion.

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When Lisa can’t solve the brain-teaser on the back of the vegetarian astronaut meal she’s brought to school (while Martin and supposed dullards Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph all twig to it immediately), she obsesses over her failure, staying after school, studying it all night, and forgetting the big agricultural project she’s supposed to have done. (Her hastily assembled pencil eraser pig does not impress Miss Hoover, who gives even Ralph a passing grade, if only so she doesn’t have to see what’s in the bloody, fly-buzzing paper bag he’s brought).

Confiding her fears to Grandpa, the elder Simpson explains that all Simpsons start out smart but sail right over a cliff into mediocrity right around Lisa’s age. ( “Sure—but it doesn’t mean you can’t live a long and pointless life,” he offers by way of encouragement.) Devastated at the news, Lisa attempts to fit in with Bart and Homer’s even more slack-jawed than usual TV watching and binge eating before setting out to enjoy her dwindling intellect while she can. Making a plea on the news, where she claims to want to give an editorial against Proposition 305 (“You’re against discount bus fares for war widows?,” asks the station manager), she gives a heartfelt entreaty for everyone in town to enjoy their minds while they still can, spurring Homer to contact every Simpson relative he can think of to prove Grandpa’s assertion wrong.

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This should all be more affecting than it is, but the script feels both rushed and flat, with Lisa’s fear coming on too quickly, and a paucity of truly memorable jokes along the way. Yeardley Smith, as ever, makes Lisa’s anxiety and pain deeply real, but, unlike “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2,” where Lisa’s sorrow at the prospect of never being accepted came from the character herself, “Lisa The Simpson” sees Lisa reacting to a plot device. In nailing down how they wanted to go out in the commentary, Oakley sites the solid Simpsons formula, “a perfect combination of a really heartfelt A-story and a crazy B-story”, and while the episode has the latter (more about Frostillicus in a moment), the emotional impact is blunted by the fact that Lisa’s journey is based on a cheat.

In Goldreyer’s script, there is a Simpsons gene—but it only affects the Simpson men, dooming them, as we see in the assembled male Simpsons at the end of the episode, to a life of sloth, and ignorance, and under-employment. (Their roster of jobs includes: prison snitch, running an unsuccessful shrimp company, shooting birds out at the airport, and aspirational millionaire impersonator. “You probably should have researched this,” says Bart to the increasingly desperate Homer.)

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Luckily, Marge uses her Bouvier intelligence to point out to the despondent Lisa that all of the (heretofore and hereafter-unseen) Simpson women present are smart and confident and successful, including a doctor (chief of complicated surgery at the Invasicare clinic), an environmental lawyer, an architect, and the very proud “regional sales coordinator for the third-largest distributor of bunk and trundle beds.” As in season twelve’s “HOMR,” where Homer’s subnormal intelligence is revealed to be the result of a crayon he’d once stuffed up his nose, the pleasures to be found in “Lisa The Simpson” come at the expense of the very character beats the story is relying on for its emotion. (And, sure, “HOMR” contradicts “Lisa The Simpson” on the matter of Homer’s intelligence, but that’s a comments fight for another day.)

So Lisa’s story here doesn’t reach the heights of a truly great Lisa episode, although she does have a nice moment in her editorial, pleading with the world she imagines she’s doomed to join to find joy in great books (I love that Lisa’s eight-year-old sensibility picks To Kill A Mockingbird, Harriet The Spy, and Yertle The Turtle, “possibly the best book written on the subject of turtle stacking”), and telling them, “I’m begging you, please don’t take your brain for granted. It’s the best friend you’ll ever have.” As a little girl whose smarts have always left her on the outside looking in, this should land harder—it’s less affecting because it’s spurred by a gimmick that we know isn’t going to come to pass. Only it then comes to pass, if only for the Simpson menfolk.

On the subject of those dum-dums, the episode takes the brain-bashing too far, sending Homer and Bart into Cletus territory (eating melted couch-candy and bonking into each other with pots on their heads), and extending to the reductive binary “men dumb-women smart” ending. Even Lisa, envisioning what her life as dumb Lisa will look like, has a crude, unfunny daydream of herself as an obese, muumuu-draped, Southern-accented trailer mom (married to Ralph, no less) that’s much more characteristic of her brother’s sensibilities.

Similarly, the episode closes on a sour note, as Bart, overhearing his seemingly inescapable fate, asks, “So this means I’m gonna be a failure?” To which Homer replies, blithely, “Yes, son. A spectacular failure.” Like those future episodes that spell out the family’s invariably depressing destinies, “Lisa The Simpson”—intended to be heartwarming—goes for a cheap joke that robs the characters of their potential.

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Stray observations

  • Oh, and in that “crazy B-story,” Jasper freezes himself in Apu’s walk-in and Apu turns the Kwik-E-Mart into a lucrative freakshow, featuring Jasper as “Frostillicus,” the haunted cash machine (“dispenses pictures of dead presidents”), label-less “mystery can,” and filthy trucker hat (“Do you dare read it?”). Turns out, Ned (clasping his hands over Rod and Todd’s eyes) does not, in fact, dare read it. It’s a funny enough bit, completely unmoored from the main story though it is. It’s also unusual for two minor characters to have such prominent roles almost entirely separate from the main characters. (Homer is amused at the start by Apu’s naked lady novelty pen, explaining excitedly, “Hey, you know who would love this? Men!”)
  • A minor quibble, but there’s no explanation of why Jasper eventually thaws out. His awestruck reading of “Moon Pie” as proof of his being in the future is pretty funny stuff, nonetheless.
  • In the commentary, it’s revealed that the brain-teaser came from writer, legit math genius, and future Futurama co-creator David Cohen. I didn’t get it either, Lisa.
  • Lisa, frustrated at the hieroglyphics-looking brain-teaser symbols, cries out, “It’s not Egyptian! It’s not Prince’s names!”
  • The news director, allowing Lisa to give her editorial: “No, leave it on—I’m trying to get fired.”
  • Kent Brockman, introducing Lisa: “And now with an editorial reply—here’s a small girl.”
  • Lisa’s prediction of the only entertainment her dumb self will enjoy: talk radio, vulgar mudflaps.
  • Grandpa, asserting Homer’s childhood smarts: “Your Dad used to be smart as a monkey. Then his mind started gettin’ lazy, and now he’s dumb as a chimp.”
  • Dr. Hibbert’s variable medical competence in evidence: “Does it hurt when you go like this?” “No.” “Well then can you turn this projector on for me?”
  • Dr. Nick is always Dr. Nick, however: “Moving him now could kill him, and tire us out.”
  • The Troy McClure gag, where he removes his hazmat suit and immediately causes a klaxon to blare and all the scientists to flee the lab, recalls Phil Hartman’s turn as Peter Graves doing the same on SNL.
  • Some more of Troy McClure’s other educational films: Alice Doesn’t Live Anymore and Mommy, What’s Wrong With That Man’s Face?
  • On the commentary, it’s pointed out that the ridiculous “buildings fall down” and “surgery gone wrong” programs they made up to mock the potential depths to which TV could sink now essentially have their own dedicated channels.

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Next time: We told Les Chappell to stay away from “This Little Wiggy,” but he just couldn’t help himself. What is his fascination with the forbidden closet of mystery, anyway?