“Lisa’s Date With Density” (originally aired 12/15/1996)

In which “Lisa likes Nelson!” “She does not!”…

The Simpsons’ best Lisa episodes are possessed of a quiet brilliance. They might indulge in flashy gimmicks (the flash-forward in “Lisa’s Wedding”) or showy jokes (the “cromulent”/“embiggens” gag from “Lisa The Iconoclast”), but they don’t always play up such attributes—one of the first great Lisa episodes, “Lisa’s Substitute,” didn’t even identify its big-name guest star upfront. Showcasing the strongest vessel for the show’s heart, these episodes sneak up on the viewer, avoiding the typical markers of a memorable Simpsons installment on their way to bittersweet laughs.

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The heart of the show wants what it wants, and in “Lisa’s Date With Density,” it wants Nelson Muntz. The two characters don’t have much in common, but they do share this: The tragic inability to fit in. Lisa is an outcast in her own home and a bit of a loner at school; Nelson has the camaraderie of Jimbo, Dolph, and Kearney, but he’s largely a lone wolf. Nelson is the most fully realized of Springfield Elementary’s ne’er-do-wells (though “Lisa’s Date With Density” was produced during the Golden Age of “Kearney Is Older Than He Seems” jokes), and the episode affords us a deeper look into his solitary existence. The scene in his bedroom is a prelude to the bully’s big documentary bow in “Any Given Sundance,” as Lisa gets a brief glimpse of what it’s like to be and be with the owner of a “Nuke The Whales” poster. (Says Nelson of the poster: “Gotta nuke something.”) After years of voicing Lisa and Bart, Yeardley Smith and Nancy Cartwright knew how to play several sides of an adversarial relationship, and they strike a fresh new dynamic of antagonism as Lisa and Nelson try (and fail) to understand one another.

It’s a sign of Lisa’s unquenchable spirit that she thinks she can change the boy behind her first kiss. She’s building herself up for disappointment, but there’s a determination in both the script and Smith’s performance that makes it seem possible. Lisa puts that belief into Nelson’s absurd change in wardrobe, an excellent visual gag that swaps his ratty wardrobe standbys for a smart sweater vest and saddle shoes. But a vest is a vest is a vest is a vest, and and a new one does nothing to alter the person wearing it. Nelson gives up on layering while he’s tossing rancid cole slaw at the Skinners’ house, shedding a skin that was never really his in the first place.

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Just as determination defines Lisa, so do bullying and pranks and “smell ya later” define Nelson. As a depiction of first crushes and inevitable disappointments, “Lisa’s Date With Density” is on-point. And that emotional accuracy is agonizing, watching Lisa gaze down on a frantic Nelson, believing that the cops aren’t after him but knowing it’s not true. Such is the power of these Lisa episodes: You tune in to Fox expecting a rather amusing story, and The Simpsons turns around and proves it has a lot more power over your feelings than you previously gave it credit for. Emotions can get the best of us, even a whale-nuking, “Joy To The World (The Teacher’s Dead)”-crooning crumb bum like Nelson Muntz.

Susie Dietter hits those notes especially well in her direction of “Lisa’s Date With Density.” The lighting and shadows are especially evocative: The blush of young romance that gives the view from Springfield Observatory its purple hue; the Vietnam-flashback atmosphere of Venetian blinds streaking across Principal Skinner’s face. There’s nothing like The Simpsons at nighttime, but I like the early morning of the episode’s coda the best. The shadows are long, but the new day brings the promise that maybe, just maybe, Milhouse could be the “almost anybody” who Lisa has in mind for her next crush.

That’s part of this episode’s sneakiness: You can’t talk about “Lisa’s Date With Density” without talking about Milhouse, a Springfield resident so pummeled by life (and bullies, but mostly life) that he barely appears in an episode called “A Milhouse Divided.” The Simpsons would lean darker and meaner after Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein handed the showrunner reins to Mike Scully, and there’s foreshadowing of that in the way Milhouse is treated by “Lisa’s Date With Density,” which was written by Scully. It’s a sharply humorous cruelty, but it’s cruelty nonetheless: a carton of milk explodes in Milhouse’s face, he’s mercilessly teased by the other members of the band, he’s bloodied and incapacitated by Nelson in a fine use of a smash cut. The episode belongs to Lisa, but Milhouse almost makes it his own while lingering on its fringes, his affections overlooked because, like Lisa and Nelson, he can’t be anyone but himself. Or, as he puts it when Lisa says she wants to bring “the Milhouse” out of Nelson: “But I’m all Milhouse!”

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Milhouse factors in to another of the episode’s funniest one-liners: Putting an end to the band’s Möbius strip of “[Name] likes [Name]” taunting, Mr. Largo flatly states “Nobody likes Milhouse!” “Lisa’s Date With Density” would be a pretty sad episode without material like this, the jokes that insulate its heart. Homer’s “Happy Dude” runner, fluffy as it is, is an ideal fit for this role. As it aged, the show came to rely more and more on insubstantial B-plots like this one, but here the B-plot provides necessary services like boosting the laughter count and providing a Professor Frink cameo. The lack of a satisfying father-daughter arc is the major thing separating “Lisa’s Date With Density” from Lisa’s other Simpsons highlights; there are no piggy cufflinks or Frank Capra-style march down Main Street to be found here. But the way the “Happy Dude” calls give the episode some anarchic levity, it’s almost as if Homer and Lisa still get that moment of bonding.

Stray observations:

  • This week in Simpsons signage:

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  • Season eight doesn’t have an official Christmas episode, but given its original airdate and Nelson’s gory rendition of “Joy To The World,” “Lisa’s Date With Density” almost counts as holiday fare.
  • This is a real showcase episode for Hank Azaria, with big moments for Superintendent Chalmers, Apu, Chief Wiggum, and Professor Frink. They get in on the one-liner party, too: Chalmers delivers the immortal non-brag “Aw, that’s how people know it’s a Honda,” and Apu delivers a most decisive refusal of service: “A Mounds bar is not a sprinkle. A Twizzler is not a sprinkle. A Jolly Rancher is not a sprinkle, sir.”
  • One amazing detail I never noticed during past viewings of “Lisa’s Date With Density”: Mr. Burns’ feet don’t reach the floor when he’s seated at his desk.

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Next week: Rowan Kaiser has no record of “Hurricane Neddy,” but his records only go back to 1978 when the Hall of Records was mysteriously blown away.