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In which Lisa is left strainin’ to do some explainin’.

In a show as long-lived as The Simpsons, characters coarsen. It‘s all too easy to say the show isn’t as good as it used to be—a dull refrain whose opening strains truly gathered strength in this ninth season—but for a half-hour family comedy to endure for 26 seasons (nearly 600 episodes!?) means that the show’s characters have been through innumerable hands, twisted out of shape and back again. Every Simpsons fan can point out the moment when their favorite character did something uncharacteristic, betrayed who they are—or who each viewer sees them to be.

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There’s truth there, as far as it goes. As we reach the beginning of the end of what’s considered “classic Simpsons,” the cracks that begin to show see the characters starting to drift at times, their actions and motivations painted in broader strokes, their arcs hung on the most obvious pegs. The escalation of Homer’s immaturity and selfishness to unrelatable levels spawned a sour patch (whose beginning and end are hotly debated to this day) designated as “Jerkass Homer,” while Marge the scold and Bart the li’l bastard suffered similar fates. But Lisa Simpson is often singled out for criticism, her position as perceived know-it-all making Springfield’s most sensible citizen all too blithely disregarded as a one-dimensional stick in the mud. (Which, not coincidentally, is Lisa’s traditional fate inside the show as well.)

That’s not to say that Lisa’s been immune to the series’ periodic lapses in characterization, but her position as Springfield’s voice of reason makes Lisa especially vulnerable. If an episode is indifferently written, Lisa’s rationality veers into boring smugness—at least when Homer’s off track, he’s going to do something wacky. “Lisa The Skeptic,” sees Lisa, again, facing off against Springfield’s bottomless well of ignorance, irrationality, and hairtrigger stupidity in a way that seems especially offputting—except that, in her quest to stop the angel-mania that sweeps the town upon her discovery of a suspiciously be-winged fossil, you realize that she’s let down at every opportunity by every adult she looks up to.

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Written by future Futurama co-creator David X. Cohen (still going by David S. Cohen in 1997), “Lisa The Skeptic” sets up a standard “science versus religion” comic conflict, with Lisa’s discovery quickly dividing the town into two equally intransigent camps. Actually, most of the town is rabidly, immediately on board with the whole angel idea, while the anti-angel contingent consists entirely of Lisa and guest scientist, the late Stephen J. Gould, playing himself. And while the episode has been the subject of a number of scholarly studies on the nature of belief, group-think, and the like, it doesn’t settle much, except that the people of Springfield (and, by implication, people) are easily-swayed to mob mentality. After Lisa’s arrest for supposedly destroying the angel fossil is voided by the angel’s reappearance outside the courtroom, ever-lugubrious Judge Snyder’s proclamation that religion and science must stay 500 yards from each other at all times is about as deeply as Cohen’s script goes toward resolving the debate.

What’s most striking after repeatedly re-watching “Lisa The Skeptic” is how the episode reinforces the essential loneliness that suffuses Lisa Simpson’s existence. As regular Simpsons reviewer for the past few years, it’s no secret to anyone that Lisa’s plight really gets to me. While I make no claim to being as smart as an 8-year-old girl, it’s terribly lonely to be the smartest kid in the class, or at least to feel like you’re the only one who can step back and point out the escalating nonsense around you. And the fact that Lisa is only 8 is the key to making her nigh-invariably correct pronouncements about her world so affecting. Here, Lisa’s refusal to admit the possibility of something supernatural in her find comes off at first sight as just the sort of dismissiveness often pointed to as her least attractive characteristic. (I certainly remembered it that way.) But throughout the episode, Lisa encounters resistance (if not outright hostility) from almost all the adults in her life. Lisa being at the center of the town’s wrath isn’t new (“Lisa The Iconoclast” echoing both the title and theme of “Lisa The Skeptic”), but there are subtler shades to the opposition arrayed against her here. Where Lisa eventually found an ally in Homer in the earlier episode, Marge’s response to Lisa’s truth-telling here is a lot less supportive.

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People point to Lisa’s curt, “I feel sorry for you,” as she walks out of her debate with Marge as a particularly unsympathetic moment for the character. But in that scene, where Marge attempts to get Lisa to at least entertain the possibility that the angel is real, it’s actually Marge who comes off worse. Apart from the fact that Marge is seemingly willing to believe that the angel (cobbled together as a publicity stunt by the owners of the new mega-mall) might be real—echoed later, when Marge worriedly forces the family to dress up to meet the promised apocalypse found carved into the fossil’s base—Marge is shockingly cold to her daughter’s dilemma. Not to be childish, but Marge says it first, in her disappointed “If you can’t take a leap of faith every once in a while, well, then I feel sorry for you.”

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Much of the complexity of Lisa’s plight here comes from Yeardley Smith’s performance, her exchange in the kitchen with Marge coming quite believably from the mouth of a little girl looking for reassurance, rather than from the smarty-pants she’s often accused of being. When Marge takes Lisa to task for calling the angel-worshippers morons by claiming that, she, too believes, Smith’s reading of Lisa’s “But you’re an intelligent woman…” is just right, incorporating Lisa’s shock alongside her desperate need to have the one usually sensible adult in her life back her up. In that one line, Smith finds the terrifying disconnect between loving someone and realizing that that person believes something so antithetical to your beliefs that it throws your entire vision of the loved one into question. (Far from being smug, Lisa’s “I have a spiritual side—I just have a hard time believing there’s a dead angel hanging in our garage!” sees Lisa pleadingly trying to reestablish some core of rational connection with her mother.) Sadly, this version of Marge lets Lisa down, her dismissive remark about feeling sorry for her daughter essentially shutting the door on the conversation—and Lisa. “Lisa The Skeptic” is perhaps my least favorite Marge episode ever, both her coldness and her susceptibility to the whole angel boondoggle my low point for the character.

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The same goes for Professor Gould (formerly a teacher of Cohen’s at Harvard), who, good sport as he is for appearing, fails Lisa spectacularly, at least in this fictional form. Not only in his failure to carry out the DNA test Lisa asked for (his offhand “I’m going to be honest with you, Lisa. I never did the tests” a particularly flat shrug of an explanation), but in how he serves as a model for her behavior. When, hearing of the angel controversy, Gould’s dismissive “preposterous” is echoed by Lisa, Smith’s performance admits just the barest hint of hesitation to show that Lisa is, as children do, emulating someone she looks up to. Sure, there’s no chance that scientist Cohen is actually opening up the angel debate to serious discussion, but, his stated affection for Gould aside, the professor’s contemptuousness here—and its effect on Lisa—paints the forces of science and reason in unsympathetic colors. If Lisa’s looking for an authority figure who can hold fast to his beliefs without ridiculing others’, then Gould’s not her man.

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In the end, Marge’s reconciliation with Lisa is as big a cop-out as the judge’s ruling, with Lisa’s fear at the seemingly real angel’s doomsday prediction leaving Marge teasing Lisa’s momentary doubts. It’s an attempt to have the debate both ways, but at Lisa’s expense—there’s no angel, sure, but an 8-year-old was scared enough of a booming voice and impossible occurrence to reach out to her mother for support. (I do always get choked up by Marge calling Lisa “angel” at the end of the episode—Marge is still in there somewhere.)

Stray observations

  • The way Skinner frames the school’s field trip to the dig site with the exact same words to the good and bad kids is one of my favorite, underrated Skinnerisms.

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  • Lisa’s thwarted attempts to rally the family into protesting with her is one of my forgotten favorite Lisa moments as well.

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  • “Lisa The Skeptic” showcases the way Harry Shearer’s rolling cadence as Dr. Hibbert can land a joke, his eminently reasonable tone making the unexpected turns in three lines laugh-out-loud funny. (“From the looks of it, I’d say that this fellow died from ‘causes unknown.’” “Speaking from a strictly medical point of view: That ain’t right.” “Now, regardless of what this thing is, it’s a priceless scientific find. So our most pressing concern now is determining who owns such a valuable skeleton—and I’d like to suggest that I do.”)
  • A good episode for Ralph Wiggum fans, as well, with his excited “Prinskipper Skimmal! Prinnipple Skimpster!” upon finding a fossil (it’s his trowel blade) an all-time favorite. Plus, the animation of his little legs kicking to climb out of the archaeological dig (after Lisa says they might find a T-Rex) is adorably specific.

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  • Moe has his moments, too, asking Lisa, “Well, if you’re so sure what it ain’t, how about tellin’ us what it am?” And after Lisa states categorically that the fossil is not an angel: “Lisa’s right—it’s an angel!”
  • Lisa’s been a guest on Smartline 13 times. I love the way she responds to Kent Brockman’s introduction with a curt “Kent.”
  • “How can you maintain your skepticism in the face of the fact that this thing really, really looks like an angel?”
  • As ever, organized religion takes a beating on The Simpsons (or at least those who abdicate their reason to organized religion). The pro-angel crowd not only destroys the natural history museum, observatory, and robotics lab (and, in their zeal, the Christian Science Reading Room), but Flanders sums up the episode’s take on mindless unreason succinctly with “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say there are some things we don’t wanna know—important things.”
  • Ned leading the mob and calling Lisa “the unbeliever” is pretty unnerving.
  • The way the crowd immediately forgets about being manipulated speaks to Springfielders’ lack of conviction, too. I mean, the mall does have a Pottery Barn, but, c’mon.
  • Moe: “Go home, science girl!” Lisa: “I am home.” Moe: ”Good. Stay there.”
  • The poor robot fleeing the flames of his lab utters one of my favorite existential pleas in TV history: “Why?! Why was I programmed to feel pain!?”

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  • Homer, in addition to fleecing his neighbors for a peek at the angel (which he steals while everyone’s arguing about who should get it), is taken in by one of those police entrapment scams where he’s invited to pick up a free motorboat, only to get nabbed for outstanding parking tickets. (Also fooled: Snake, Jimmy the Scumbag.)
  • Homer, to Marge: “Don’t let go, no matter what. If they want you in heaven, they’ve got to take me too!”
  • A fine outing for the Burns and Smithers show: Burns: “Oh, fiddle-faddle. Everyone knows our mutants have flippers. Ooh, oops, I’ve said too much. Smithers, use the amnesia ray.” Smithers: “You mean the revolver, sir?” Burns: “Precisely. Be sure to wipe your own memory clear when you’re finished.”

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Next time: Marge becomes a real estate agent in “Realty Bites,” the introduction of Gil, who pleads to Erik Adams, “C’mon, Erik, give it a good review—ol’ Gil needs this one!”