“Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” (season seven, episode 25; originally aired 5/19/1996)
In which Lisa changes shells…
Lisa’s role on The Simpsons is a natural fit for episodes where the writers want to ground the show in emotional reality. For some, that makes her something of a killjoy, a too-rational counterpoint to Springfield’s broader comic insanity. And in 25 years, she, like every other member of the family, has certainly seen those qualities exaggerated in unflattering ways. But there’s a reason why Lisa is at the center of some of the show’s most affecting episodes (especially with Yeardley Smith as her voice)—of all the myriad residents of Springfield, Lisa is the most alone.
Sure, her family loves her—in their way—but her intelligence sets her apart, even as the little girl in her wants nothing more than to be one of the crowd. Lisa appeals to every viewer who looks at the craziness and boorishness of a loud, dumb world and longs to both transcend it and be embraced by it. And since Springfield is our world, only exponentially crazier and more boorish, Lisa’s isolation is even more profound. It’s that vein of universal longing and separateness that the best Lisa-centric episodes mine for maximum poignancy, and, in “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2,” this last episode of season seven, a simple trip to Flanders’ beach house sees Lisa’s essential dilemma produce one of the series’ most emotionally wrenching—and hilarious—evocations yet of what it means to be Lisa Simpson.
There’s a scene three-quarters of the way through “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” where Lisa, having used the vacation change of venue to reinvent herself, has gained the acceptance of a gaggle of cool kids led by the laid-back Erin (voiced by guest star Christina Ricci). When Bart, jealous of Lisa’s sudden popularity (fueled in part by the theft of Bart’s even-then worn-out catchphrases,) outs Lisa as a bookish, decidedly uncool outcast with the help of the yearbook she edited (“Retrospecticus”). She’s crushed—almost literally, as the kids unceremoniously drop her, mid-blanket-toss, to the sand. At breakfast the next morning, however, Lisa appears fine, placidly munching her cereal and seemingly accepting Bart’s smug lesson, “It’s important to be yourself.” At least until Marge leaves the room. What happens then is worth looking at in detail:
Her eyes switch in an instant from bored to Sopranos dead inside and she waits—just a beat—for the reality of what’s about to happen to settle, before grabbing Bart by the shirt-front and delivering the most blistering, no-shit serious renunciation of a sibling since Michael Corleone smooched Fredo that night in Havana.
“I know exactly who I am—I am the sister of a rotten, jealous, mean little sneak. You cost me my only friends, you ruined my life.”
Yeardley Smith’s performance couples with the animation to make the moment downright chilling. When Lisa turns to her right to grab Bart, the change in perspective makes her hair points look sharp and menacing, as does her posture, dwarfing her seated older brother as Smith spits Lisa’s words with a whispery growl that underlines every syllable—especially the way she unexpectedly shudders as she draws out the word “mean”—with the utter finality of eternal hate. Picking up the innocuous breakfast honey bear and bringing it to within an inch of Bart’s fear-bulging eyeball, this Lisa Simpson has finally, irrevocably had enough. She is the incarnate rage of every betrayed, bullied, disregarded little girl the world has ever known. She is Lisa the Great and Terrible.
It’s a great scene, set up by Lisa’s journey throughout the episode, where she makes the decision that all that’s been holding her back is the fact that everyone in Springfield actually knows her. (“Bye-bye, Lisa Simpson,” she says with heartbreaking wistfulness as they drive out of town.) Engineering her transformation by “forgetting” to pack, Lisa gets Marge to buy her some cool kid duds (even though Marge favors an outfit from the little miss department with “a starfish on the fanny” and its own bucket and shovel), and then sets out to shed every identifying characteristic that would mark her as Lisa Simpson. It’s not a viable solution, naturally, and the episode visualizes the violence Lisa’s doing to herself when she is tempted to visit the Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport library by visions of her favorite literary characters, only for Alice to break script and urge her to flee, with the gun-wielding Mad Hatter dragging her away.
When she finally finds what seems to be the town’s only other kids mumbling vacantly under the boardwalk, her desperate joy is still marked by her smarts, whether she realizes it or not (“Only kids are that incoherent!”), and her success in fitting in with her new slacker pals sees her appropriating her popular big brother’s anti-intellectualism and attitude. (Bart’s mean about it, but he’s not wrong.) Even then, however, she can’t help but let a bit of the real Lisa Simpson peep out, teaching her pals about hermit crabs and not drinking seawater, which makes Bart’s betrayal, and Lisa’s devastation, all the more powerful—and their eventual reconciliation so moving. To cross nerd spheres, the twin acts of kindness from the kids and from Bart that close the episode (they cover Homer’s car with the “sea junk” Lisa taught them about, Bart gets them to sign the very yearbook he used to destroy her) recall Giles’ quote from Buffy The Vampire Slayer upon seeing a similar gesture from Buffy’s always-dismissive classmates: “I had no idea that children, en masse, could be gracious.”
“Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” is Lisa’s show, and one of the most emotionally resonant Simpsons ever, but it’s also home to some outstanding “jerk Homer” moments. His initial rejection of Flanders’ generous offer (“I only get two week’s of vacation a year and you want me to spend it in your lousy beach house?”) is the quintessence of the Homer/Flanders relationship, especially when he allows Ned the privilege of assessing problems with the Simpsons’ septic tank to seal the deal. (“Hello, Mr. Brown-ground, whatcha got for me?”) And that’s a fine piece of physical comedy animation as Homer panics and hurls himself around the Flanders’ kitchen trying to dispose of his illegally destructive firework (the dreaded M-320) before slamming it into the dishwasher and apparently flooding the place with the Flanders’ septic system. His heedless enthusiasm mocking Milhouse’s resemblance to “the dud” in the Mystery Date board game involves some prime Homer unthinking cruelty. But his biggest laugh, and one of the best executed quick-hit gags in Simpsons history comes when Homer decides he’s fashioned the perfect impromptu swimsuit from the Flanders’ welcome mat:
With Lisa doing most of the episode’s emotional heavy lifting, it frees Homer up to deliver the big laughs, culminating in the climactic scene, where the sweet earnestness of Erin and the boys’ big reveal (and Smith’s beautifully affecting inability to even form words in Lisa’s shocked happiness) is cut off just at its height by Homer’s impeccably timed and delivered outrage at the kids’ well-meaning but destructive tribute.
The storytelling instincts here—as in most of season seven—are flawless, the achingly lovely denouement of Lisa’s story used as a launching pad for the episode’s biggest laugh. As a capper to one of the show’s best seasons, “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” finds everything in Springfield, even during a detour to Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport, in perfect balance.
- This week in Simpsons’ signage:
- “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2” is also one of the all-time favorites for Milhouse lovers (you know you’re out there). Along for the Simpsons’ vacation week, he’s strapped into a baby seat by Bart, affirms his eternal position as sidekick (“Right—you go over and wow them, I hide in the shrubs!”), and tries to make nice with a very menacing horseshoe crab once Bart makes off with his glasses. Jumping the gun when he mistakes the last day of school opening bell for the dismissal bell (“Screw you, Krabappel!”)—and being immediately brought back by Officer Lou—is executed masterfully. And his closing yearbook salutation to Lisa (“See you in the car! Best wishes, Milhouse”)—accompanied by too-hopeful wave from across the bench seat—is prime Van Houten. But all Milhouse fans know what we’re here to see:
- “The leatheroleum covers were worth the extra money. You can really smell the benzene!”
- “Who died and made you boss?” “Mr. Estes, the publications adviser.”
- Marge has a subtly affecting shadow story to Lisa’s going on in “Summer Of 4 Ft. 2,” in which her grown-up loneliness keeps appearing in the background. She tells Lisa how she’d dreamed of having a little girl someday to be her best friend when she was a little girl, focuses her attentions on Maggie once Lisa ditches her (Maggie looks suitably worried), and, in another expertly deployed visual gag, immediately pivots unseen and exits the room when Erin mocks how her own mom would be hovering over them with Rice Krispie squares and Tang—while carrying a tray of Rice Krispie squares and Tang.
- Hefting Lisa’s empty suitcase, Homer responds to Lisa’s explanation that he must be getting stronger with a proud, “Well, I have been eating more!”
- Lisa: “It must be exciting to make a different set of beds.” Marge: “I know you’re joking—but it is!”
- “Homer, I don’t know what you’ve got planned for tonight, but count me out.”—Marge, upon seeing the diversionary purchases Homer made (an American Graffiti parody) while working up the courage to ask the clerk about fireworks.
- Strangely, the publication American Breast Enthusiast appears in both of the season seven episodes I’ve reviewed. This means something.
- In the commentary, it’s revealed that Ricci is one of the few guest actors in the show’s history who performed her role over the phone, thanks to scheduling problems. As leader of the inarticulate beach kids, her bland spaciness, due to long-distance or not, is appropriate.
- There’s something so depressingly adult about Lisa’s resignation when she thinks the kids have devised one final humiliation for her: “Okay, you found out I’m an overachieving bookworm. So whatever mean prank you’re pulling, just finish it up and send me a Polaroid. I’m going to bed.”
- “You like hangin’ out?” “Well, it beat’s doin’ stuff.” Yeah—stuff sucks.”
- “Kids, stop that! Don’t make me get the carny!”
- According to Newsweek, Springfied is “America’s Crud-bucket.”
- Underrated gag: After one of the beach kids claims his French parents only let him celebrate Bastille Day, he chimes in later to Lisa’s beach party idea with, “I know where we can get some baguettes!”
- Homer, after mocking Milhouse for looking like “the dud” in Mystery Date, engages in some great Homer circular insensitivity: [To Bart] “You’ve got friends—you’ve got the dud right here. Stand up for yourself, Poindexter!”
- “These are my only friends—grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal. And even he’s kissed more boys than I ever will.” “Girls, Lisa—boys kiss girls!”
- Thanks to you all for reading and to Erik for letting me review the last episode of one of the best Simpsons seasons ever.