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“Lost Our Lisa” (season 9, episode 24; originally aired 5/10/1998)

In which Lisa takes a detour on a trip to the museum…

The first time I watched “Lost Our Lisa,” I was 19 years old and I still believed The Simpsons was perfect. I don’t remember the specific event; I can’t tell you where I was, or even if I saw it when it first aired. But it took me a long time to accept that one of my favorite shows could actually have serious flaws—that it could, in fact, have entered into an inevitable, if gradual, decline. I’d seen the episode multiple times before re-watching it for this review, and what I wonder now is when the doubt crept in. Did I start to wonder if maybe something was wrong? Did I think it had something to do with me? (The first Stephen King novel I read that I hated, I was convinced it was because the publisher had changed fonts.)

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I don’t know. I do know I had fond memories, and the reason I mention them now is that for the first half of “Lost Our Lisa,” those fond memories hold up. This is not a great episode, and what holds it back is emblematic of the struggle all long-running series must face sooner or later: how to find new stories with the same characters without violating who those characters are, or breaking the reality of the show. The Simpsons has a flexible reality, and it has deep enough characters that there’s a considerable amount of wiggle room. But it’s still possible to push something so hard it breaks. While “Lost Our Lisa” has enough that works to be a disaster, it’s still an episode that more or less falls apart in the final act.

Let’s look at the start, though, where things are solid. Bart and Milhouse have the day off on account of a teacher conference, and they decide to get into shenanigans. This isn’t a new storyline, and the fact that Bart’s shenanigans (glueing novelty items to his face with industrial glue, courtesy of Homer) end up wrecking Lisa’s plans feels familiar as well, but that familiarity isn’t a problem; all of this is in character, and starts the episode off on comfortable footing. This isn’t going to be an epic Simpsons, with monorails or trips to outer space. This is going to be one with small, immediately recognizable problems. The show can do epic without breaking a sweat, but there was something reassuring at this point in the run to see the writers still able to find human problems to give their iconic protagonists. I’m a sucker for watching the Simpsons deal with regular stuff—not every episode, but it makes for a good change of pace.

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And so long as “Lost Our Lisa” keeps things low-key, it works really well. Lisa’s bus trip is a great sequence that quickly captures the scariness of being out on your own when you’re still too young to know exactly what “out on your own” entails. Lisa stories work best when she’s allowed to be both smart and young, and here, her intelligence gets her into trouble. Assuming her knowledge of the bus schedule will be enough to let her ride into town on her own, she enters a world that, no matter how nice she is, doesn’t give a damn about little girls, or their assumptions. It’s a lovely bit of writing and animation that makes you feel just as confused and alone as Lisa by the end.

So far so good, and Bart’s trip to the doctor’s to remove the junk on his face gives us some classic Dr. Hibbert sadism. Bart’s attempt to apologize to Lisa’s empty room is also a highlight, and one of those scenes I’ve remembered for years (just like the bus ride) without ever being to remember exactly what episode it fell into. A lot of “Lost Our Lisa” feels like that—stuff that captures the feeling of the show at its height, but fails to connect together in a way that makes it memorable as a whole.

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Things fall apart when Homer gets more involved in what’s going on. Even then, his initial behavior makes sense. Lisa tricking him into giving her permission to take the bus is very funny, and his sudden realization (courtesy of Lenny and Carl) that he’s made a horrible mistake is also excellent. I’m a big fan of teaming Homer and Lisa up, and while it’s a well the show has returned to probably several times too many, the pairing is so strong that it always manages to generate a charge.

The real mistake here comes right after Lisa rescues Homer from the cherry picker. As they’re driving home, Lisa tells her father that her attempt to go to the museum alone was a “stupid risk.” Homer slams on the brakes, and gives her lecture on how “Stupid risks are what make life worth living,” and you can actually feel the writers straining so hard to find something new to say that it hurts a little. They’ve written themselves into a corner: Lisa has learned her lesson, she and Homer have shared a moment, but there’s still too much running time in the episode to just end things there. Besides, “Lisa makes a mistake but realizes it without any consequences” is kind of a bland way to go out.

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Still, that would’ve been better than Homer’s decision to break into the museum with his daughter, and Lisa’s willingness to go along with it. It’s a ridiculous turn that breaks the relative realism of the rest of the half hour. The Simpsons doesn’t need to be “realistic,” obviously, but it does need to be consistent within each individual episode; one of the strengths of the series at its height is its ability to shift styles from week to week, but doing a shift this drastic this late in the half hour is a mistake. It’s not that everything that happened before was perfectly plausible, but it all operated more or less on the logic that these are things that could happen to you, albeit with some cartoon touches thrown on for effect. But Homer and Lisa doing a B&E? That’s too much.

What makes it worse is how the writers still strive to find emotional resonance in the decision. In a scene that borders on self-parody, Homer and Lisa sneak into the Egyptian exhibit, and Homer inadvertently knocks open the mysterious “Orb Of Isis,” revealing it to be a music box that no one’s heard play in a thousand years. The blend of silly and sentimental comes so close to working that its failure is all the most frustrating. Instead of being moved by the sight of a father and daughter who have so little in common coming together, I found myself aware of being manipulated to feel that way, and I resented the clumsiness of the manipulation. It’s like a minor but disappointing betrayal of all those great Homer and Lisa scenes in previous episodes.

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Again, “Lost Our Lisa” isn’t terrible. But it’s such an uneasy mixture of good and not-good that the last five minutes make it hard to appreciate everything that came before. It’s just wrong, and that wrongness is impossible to ignore, even when forced into a structure that’s worked in the past. Homer teaching Lisa something is a good idea; it subverts our expectations, and it plays off their bond. And teaching Lisa that it’s okay to take risks every now and again is not a bad message at all. But shifting from that to “Let’s break into the museum after hours and also discover a secret that’s been hidden for centuries!” ruins the moment by making it absurd in a way the story can’t support. It feels like flailing, sacrificing character integrity in a desperate effort to find something new to say. It’s a mistake the show had made before, and one that would become routine in the years to come.

Stray observations

  • Bart on the chalkboard: “I am not the new Dali Lama.”
  • Milhouse offers his glasses perscription when buying X-Ray specs. Classic Milhouse!
  • “Well, you should’ve thought of that before I glued all this stuff to my face.” -Bart
  • Don’t go to Crackton. Never go to Crackton.
  • “It had to be terror sweat.” -Dr. Hibbert (What horrors has that button applicator seen?)
  • “But now I have to leave on a totally unrelated matter.” -Homer
  • “I’m not normally a praying man, but if you’re up there, please save me, Superman!” -Homer
  • “Could you open the window? The cops have Daddy’s prints on file.” -Homer

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