I hate defining moments.”
“Girl’s In The Band” marks perpetual 10-year-old boy Nancy Cartwright’s first ever foray into writing for the series that’s been her home and defining achievement for the past 30 years. Joining Harry Shearer (who wrote one in season 28), and Dan Castellaneta (whose written nine, usually alongside life and writing partner Deb Lacusta), Cartwright’s late-run entry into the Simpsons writing canon isn’t a Bart story, per se. Instead, it’s one of the show’s many examinations of how Lisa’s multifaceted exceptionalism winds up putting the family into a bind, as Lisa’s saxophone skills send her on an expensive, time-consuming daily gig with the Capital City Philharmonic’s youth division.
So far so good. The Simpsons has made compelling, deceptively tricky dramedy out of the collision of familial platitudes of support and the very real sacrifices that support means once the family member in question calls it in. And there’s a typically funny and vital guest spot here from J.K. Simmons, channeling his Whiplash tough love as the fast-talking Philharmonic conductor Victor Klesko, whose love of berating vulnerable and talented children, it turns out, won over his competing desire to be a prison guard. While this is Lisa’s story, Cartwright also gives Bart some affectionately on-model li’l bastardy, as his jealousy over Lisa’s ascension (and the daily hour-long commute) erupts in tetchy brattiness and a little light rebellion. (He foments dissent among the other “afterthoughts, second-stringers, also-rans, and unwanted children” consigned to the Philharmonic’s shadowy daycare classroom.)
Bookending the episode is a peek in at the inner and outer life of Springfield’s least invested educator (quite a footrace, that), Dewey Largo, whose dreams are still haunted by his own early success as a young conductor, and whose daily slog through thoroughly enervated renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Springfield Elementary leave his charges possible even more miserable than he is. Cartwright’s script spends arguably more time with Largo than ever before (he’s still in a loving but unequal relationship with his layabout lover, also named Dewey), which is an interesting setup for a story that never really pays off. (The pair nearly breaks up in the tag before Largo bullies Dewey into letting him rename their dog.)
That’s a minor structural quibble about an episode with a much more glaring storytelling problem, though. Working through a conflict on The Simpsons is a lot harder than it looks. We have to start at one and return to one, all in 20-odd minutes, and all in a world that can never fundamentally change. So the conflict here means Lisa and her family each have to come to terms with a seemingly insoluble problem, all while staying true to each character, and not short-changing anyone in the necessary resolution. It’s harder, I maintain, on a show like this than on a more conventionally serialized show, where arcs can affect the whole in a more permanent way going forward. Still, a great episode of The Simpsons finds a way to do that—including at least one other episode where Homer takes a second job to make his daughter’s dreams come true. Not to hold this iteration of The Simpsons to that high a bar, but, then again, why shouldn’t we? “Girl’s In The Band” isn’t a bad effort at finding that narrative and comedic sweet spot that made The Simpsons The Simpsons—but it’s an incomplete and unsatisfying one.
Among the issues—and the most glaring one—is how both Homer and Marge share the “bad parent” role without adding anything of substance to the central discussion of just how much is too much to sacrifice for your kids. Homer is willing to take on the night shift double-duty at the plant, but mainly because he misunderstands that Lisa “playing for the jazz” doesn’t actually mean his eight-year-old daughter will be signing a lucrative NBA contract. Meanwhile, Marge does nothing but grumble that Homer won’t talk her out of the half-hearted case for Lisa’s new opportunity that Marge can barely force herself to make. Throughout, Marge remains sullen and snippy as she ferries Lisa, Bart, and Maggie to and fro through the interminable Capital City traffic, while Homer quietly goes bananas at work, eventually slipping into a The Shining parody that’s neither particularly funny, nor thematically relevant. (There is an amusing bit of Homer slow-thinking when he can’t quite pick up ghostly bartender Lloyd’s hints about killing his family, a joke construction that’s a Simpsons classic for a reason.)
This isn’t to gloss over the fact that Lisa’s chance to join the Philharmonic career path is an easy choice for her parents to make. It’s that the episode glosses over the fact that there needs to be a more resonant way in which to show how an all-too-common family no-win situation can provide a satisfying episode of The Simpsons. When finally Lisa gave up her horse, Marge treated her like an adult, showing her daughter how our individual dreams affect the people we love, and allowing her to make a choice. That’s why Lisa’s goodbye to Princess breaks our hearts—it’s a moment where a little girl realizes that life is all about making compromises and sacrifices for people we care about, even if they are such screw-ups that their grand gestures are what cause us more heartbreak in the end. In its place here, the inciting incident is Lisa overhearing Marge moping to Bart, “There’s nothing worse than being a parent of a kid with promise,” and I simply have no idea who that Marge Simpson is, frankly.
Here, Lisa makes a choice, too, intentionally playing a wrong note so that Klesko boots her back to Springfield. (More specifically, to the corner of “Good-But-Not-Great and Disappointment Boulevard.”) And I really liked the way that Cartwright left things, with Bart and Lisa bonding over the shared knowledge of Lisa’s act in a giggling conspiracy of backseat Homer-baiting. If anyone knows the Simpson kids at this point, Cartwright does, and to let Bart and Lisa respond to a grown-up problem by acting like the very real kids they still are works nicely. It’s sweet, and sad in its way, but “The Girl’s In The Band” can’t unify those elements into something truly satisfying.
- Bart’s chalkboard reads “I am not a grandmother.” Cartwright’s a grandmother.
- Simmons is always a treat. I especially liked how Klesko’s attempt to frighten Lisa lists all the secret notes bigger kids have to learn: V, cursive-V, Frank, Frank-natural.
- He does promise that such a step is the gateway to “fame, fortune, an affair with Hans Zimmer.”
- After making a point about Mozart, Klesko admits to his students that he doesn’t actually know what Mozart would do, since he’d probably have been working a plow at the time. “You think everybody gets to hang out with Mozart?”
- One of Bart’s fellow also-rans moans that it’s terrible to be “a second banana to a third chair.”
- Maggie remains the show’s real secret genius, of course, showing Lisa a forgiveness picture of her big sister holding an all-A report card and a note reading “You are Lisa Simpson.” Which is from another episode that dealt with this particular parent-child disillusionment theme a whole lot better, too.