Holy shit, you guys. I knew “Moaning Lisa” was famous as the first Lisa episode, and that it characterised her as soulful, intelligent, and introspective instead of as Girl Bart, and I even knew about the speech Marge delivers at the climax of the episode, but I didn’t expect it to be so good, and good in ways the show generally wouldn’t be later on.
Like most sitcom plots, this episode is quick and easy to summarise, but unlike most sitcom plots, it’s not so much a plot as it is a theme: Lisa has depression. There’s no root cause for it – she’s completely unable to articulate why she’s sad, she just knows that everything feels pointless. It culminates in a note being sent home to her parents after she refuses to play dodgeball because she’s too sad.
Up until now, I’ve complained about slack plotting. Traditional sitcom plotting has the character commit an inciting action, then follows the consequences for that action until they run out (see the classic cliche plot of “character breaks a beloved item, then covers it up, hijinks ensue), and this is something the classic era of the show would do with marvellous consistency. Early Simpsons tends to try and do it, but gets bogged down in an idea (e.g. “There’s No Disgrace Like Home” doesn’t actually start until act 2). It doesn’t develop ideas, it riffs on them.
In this, the thematic unity of Lisa’s depression gives the episode focus, and in a way that lends itself well to the overall point. The episode feels scattered and disconnected because Lisa feels scattered and disconnected; traditional plotting wouldn’t convey that feeling of despair nearly as well. It suggests a direction The Simpsons could have gone – not high-concept plots like “Bart steals a lemon tree back from Shelbyville” but Mad Men-esque riffing on feelings and themes.
(I haven’t seen more than one episode of Bojack Horseman, but I’m pretty sure I’m describing Bojack Horseman with my potential alt-Simpsons)
The only thing that seems to bring Lisa any kind of joy is her saxophone, and even then she’s frustrated to find her music teacher won’t let her play the way she wants. She stumbles upon another sax player, Bleeding Gums Murphy, who teaches her the blues. It doesn’t make her feel better – “The blues ain’t about feeling better! It’s about making other people feel worse!” – but it does bring her a sense of peace with her misery.
The episode also characterises Marge much deeper. Her mother taught her to repress her unhappiness for the sake of appearances (both for her daughter’s sake as well as the way she looks as a mother), which is an idea that plays into Marge even today, twenty years later. She tries to pass on the same lesson to Lisa, only to be angered by the sight of her daughter repressing herself. I confess, I cried watching Marge grab Lisa and taking back everything she said, insisting that Lisa feel however she feels, and that her family will be there whatever happens.
Bart and Homer’s plot can’t help but look slight compared to this, but it holds its own by being genuinely funny. It’s more traditionally plotted – Homer can’t beat Bart at a video game, which threatens his whole identity as a man, so he goes out to an arcade to train at it, where he meets a kid who trains him in the ways of video boxing. Just as Homer is kicking the shit out of Bart, they’re interrupted by Marge turning off the TV so Lisa can say something, and Bart takes advantage of it and announces his retirement. Like I said, pretty slight, but it has some great one liners. It’s interesting mainly for being the point where, while he’s still a bit Matthau, Dan Castellanetta sounds more comfortable as Homer than before, expressing subtler emotion.
The episode ends with the Simpsons watching Bleeding Gums sing Lisa’s song. They may not understand Lisa, but her family accepts her.
Chalkboard Gag: “I will not instigate revolution”
Couch Gag: The Simpsons squeeze onto the couch, and this time Maggie pops out. Wow, they really didn’t think much about the couch gags at this point.
First appearances: Mr Largo, Janey, Bart saying “Ididn’tdoitnobodysawmedoitthere’snowayyoucanproveanything”, Homer getting annoyed about Lisa playing her sax, Bleeding Gums Murphy
This episode was written by Al Jean and Mike Reiss, and directed by Wesley Archer. Archer’s direction is more subdued, rarely going ridiculous and off-model, which suits the subtler aims of the episode.
The game Bart and Homer play, Slugfest 5 is a riff on Punch Out!!!. That game was single player, and was on the Nintendo; S5 is multiplayer and appears to be on an Atari, but the graphics and music are very close to the actual game.