Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC
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“It sucks a whole truckload of butts!”

To deliberately and wantonly misquote Waylon Smithers, “The Girl On The Bus” crosses the line between everyday late-run Simpsons mediocrity and actively irritating and dispiriting late-run Simpsons mediocrity. It both rehashes and squanders a better previous storyline, plays fast and loose with motivation and characterization (while hand-waving the laziness away as “farce”), and wastes a potentially fruitful and affecting Lisa arc. That’s a lot of deficit to balance, so the fact that the episode also isn’t remotely funny steers this one into disaster territory. Midway through, Lisa winkingly jokes that her adventures are playing out like a bad French farce—a conceit underscored by cutesy title cards, as well as the score—but the whole enterprise lacks even the energy of farce. It’s nothing.

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The plot sees Lisa—trapped on her traditional soul-sucking bus ride to Springfield Elementary—spotting a happy little girl playing the clarinet on her front stoop. Turning from the Otto-enabled chaos of “lunchboxing” (Bart and Nelson beating each other with lunchboxes taped to their hands), and chafing under the comparatively uncouth Simpsons dinnertime shenanigans, she hops off the bus the next day to track the girl down. Finding her imagined friendship soulmate (named Sam Monroe) down to her eco-conscious, art-and-literature-bedecked home, Lisa lies to the girl and her cool, cultured parents (voiced by Patti Lupone and Kevin Michael Richardson) about her own circumstances. (Homer’s a sculptor, Marge a chemist, and Bart doesn’t exist.) Contriving a way to live a double life split between her depressingly real and new and idealized families, Lisa’s immediately caught out by Marge, who makes her invite the Monroes to dinner, where the whole wheezing plot sputters out in a comedy death rattle of non-conflict leading to non-resolution. Oh, and Bart opens a nightclub in his room. The French end card advises viewers to stay tuned for Bob’s Burgers, which sounds like good advice.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

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Whenever there’s an episode about Lisa being dissatisfied with her lot as the only sane member of the Simpson family, the degree of comic difficulty is high. More than any other character, Lisa tests writers’ abilities to balance the show’s comic sensibilities—too far one way, and she’s the villain, the stick-in-the mud, hectoring bore her detractors accuse her of being. But too far the other, and the show risks becoming cloying, Lisa’s position as lonely outsider turning her tormentors (intentional or otherwise) into the braying caricatures latter-day Simpsons detractors take them for. The episodes that find the happy medium are rightly remembered as classics. The vaunted “Lisa’s Substitute” ends its examination of Lisa’s conflicted desire for a different life with the sublimely silly, sweet sight of the abashed Homer and ashamed Lisa finding common ground in matching sincere apologies and Homer’s endearing monkey impression. Whereas “Lisa’s Rival” (the closest match to tonight’s episode) finds Lisa realizing the value of staying true to herself and her identity as a Simpson, all without turning the new girl version of herself and her seemingly perfect family life into a sour joke. “The Girl On The Bus” mines similar turf and makes the wrong choices every step of the way.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

From the start, Lisa’s actions are abrupt and peremptory in service of getting the plot creaking into action. Getting off the bus, she essentially breaks into Sam’s house and just walks into the crying little girl’s room. Bonding over the horrifying size of the Pacific garbage patch (the cause of the tears, along with some dolphin-related jazz), the girls immediately bond, jamming thanks to the inexplicable cache of spare saxophones clarinetist Sam has lined up in her closet. When we finally meet Sam’s parents (without any discussion of why Sam’s not in school or where they were when Lisa was doing her light B&E), they’re a pleasantly hip interracial couple, just as happy singing duet as preparing Lisa a non-judgementally vegetarian alternative dinner.

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If there’s a knock against the Monroes, it’s that, conceptually, they’re a deadening combination of mildly broad and indifferently voiced. Sure, she gets to sing a bit, but if you bring in Patti Lupone, she shouldn’t come off as dull. (Honestly, how do you make Patti Lupone dull?) I love Kevin Michael Richardson on The Simpsons (he should—but for financial considerations—be a full cast member by this point), but his dad here isn’t given much to do apart from be politely blithe about his accomplishments. And Sam herself needs a stronger presence than Tress MacNeille gives her. Tress (that is her, right?) is a national treasure, but Sam isn’t a distinct enough creation for the weight her character has to carry here. There’s some light teasing of the Monroes’ cultural cachet—their coconut water maker crafts little huts out of the pulp, Sam’s mom keeps a diary devoted to Sam’s dinner table bon mots—but the episode commits to neither parody or complexity in the portrait, so Lisa’s exemplary family remains affably blank.

Photo: The Simpsons/TCFFC

As for Lisa, the whole “bad French farce” angle might explain why she acts both uncharacteristically and inconsistently throughout the episode. Or, you know, it could be bad writing. Either way, she comes off poorly. It’s not easy to have Lisa’s desire for something better than life in Springfield’s pop cultural wasteland (the family eats TV dinners while watching the all-too-literal Rollercoaster Romance) throw the family dynamic out of whack, and then put it all back together again in 21 minutes, but that’s the job. Here, Lisa’s conflict comes off as a by-the-numbers template (Lisa/unsatisfied/surrogate family), and the execution plays out in the same programmatic way—except buggier.

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Why is Marge so snippy, hostile, and dismissive of Lisa’s objections to the family eating crappy food in front of the TV? (“Because it’s good for the damn family!,” she wheels on Lisa.) And why, once she immediately discovers Lisa’s double-life deception (like, in a second), does she continue to be the jerk in the Simpson parental partnership (“Oh, spare me!,” she retorts to Lisa’s explanation), only to pivot to a panicky need to make a good impression on the Monroes for Lisa’s sake when she forces Lisa to reveal to them the truth. Still, all of that pales next to how indifferently “The Girl On The Bus” (credited to Joel H. Cohen) wraps things up, with the culturally disparate families’ dinner not amusingly awkward so much as tossed-off. (Calling it “farce” can only excuse so much.) Lisa claims that denying her family to the Monroes “will haunt the person I will become forever,” but the conflict with Marge over her deception hasn’t been established as anything but a muddled mess of unexamined Simpsons clichés. Then the whole thing is jettisoned in favor of the joke that Bart has turned his room into Springfield’s hottest nightspot (“I’m starting a new farce”), complete with strobe lights, house music, velvet rope and bouncer, and a working wet bar, whose alcoholic allure makes Mrs. Monroe creepily flirty to the ten-year-old Bart.

Lisa’s a tough character to write for. Not because her smarts make her better than everyone else, but because her awareness of her world’s absurdities can’t shield her from being, irrevocably, part of it. So again—degree of comedic difficulty noted. But this is The Simpsons. And say what you want about the good old days, but when there’s a legacy of writing great Lisa stories and you botch one this badly, the failure is that much more glaring.

Stray observations

  • After Lisa responds to Homer’s text about not being able to find his phone (“You’re texting on it”), Homer sends a picture of that Homer disappearing into the hedge meme, because why not at this point.
  • I have no idea why Homer and Marge seemingly switched personalities in their response to Lisa’s lies, but Homer’s clueless excuse for his wife to Lisa is pretty funny: “Your mom has her flaws. but there are a lot of people who really like her . . .”
  • Lisa’s journey tonight starts with a song, an occasional Simpsons storytelling staple that, in the half-realized snatch of prosaic musical exposition here, plays more disposably than ever.

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