The Simpsons, Season Two, Episode Nineteen, “Lisa’s Substitute”

This is one of those classic episodes I have never actually seen, though I heard so much about it, and when I got to that famous moment I felt my soul leave my body. Holy shit, you guys. And this episode turned out to be so much more than its iconic moment! Truly a Classic episode.

Lisa is a character I and a lot of other ex-gifted-children related to growing up. In the introduction for the comic book Lisa’s Adventures In Wordland, Matt Groening remarked that Lisa is the one character who has any hope of escaping Springfield, and I believe that comes down to her ambition. Not only is she already naturally smart, she wants to be smarter – both in the sense that she wants the approval that comes with high grades, and in the sense that she enjoys learning for its own sake. Her education system fails her simply because it can’t keep up with her ever-rising potential, and I’m sure many of us can remember that from our own school days. What this episode asks is: what if Lisa had an adult who encouraged her?

Miss Hoover is taken out by Lyme Disease, causing Skinner to bring in a substitute named Mr Bergstrom, played by Dustin Hoffman (under the pseudonym Sam Etic, a reference to the word semitic and Hoffman/Bergstrom’s Jewish heritage). Hoffman brings a nervous, charming, and most of all intelligent quality to Mr Bergstrom – he reminds me of Al Brooks’ multiple appearances on the show, barely containing as much information as he can into a single breath. Mr Bergstrom knows everything, he’s impressed by everything you know, and he can switch direction in an instant if he needs to.

Lisa is completely bowled over by Bergstrom and quickly develops a crush (I love the scene where she keeps arguing with Marge, who observes everything she feels about Bergstrom is something she feels about Homer). Lisa is smart, and she loves learning, and she will always be smart and love learning, but she’s still human, she still needs human connection, and she’s still drawn to people who make learning look awesome, who openly weep over a good book, who openly care about what she cares about. It only puts her lack of intellectual nourishment ordinarily into perspective – when Bergstrom asks about her father, she reveals a level of cynicism that shocks him. When Bergstrom runs into Lisa and Homer at the museum, Homer’s ignorance is as painful for us as it is for her and Bergstrom, and Mr B. tries to appeal to Homer to be a more positive role model; this goes about as well as you’d expect.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end; Miss Hoover comes back, her Lyme disease being mere hypochondria. Lisa is crushed, and rushes to Bergstrom’s home, then to the train station where he’s leaving for Capital City. She begs him to stay, and only steps back when he observes there’s people who need him more in the inner city. She hugs him goodbye, and he writes her a note to read when she’s afraid, alone, and like there’s nobody she can rely on.

This episode captures a very specific fear: the fear that we alone are not good enough. Lisa is drawn to Mr Bergstrom because he’s everything she wants to be, and everything that her everyday life either mocks or ignores. His mere existence tells her she’ll be okay, that you can be a bookish nerd who loves stories and learning and being smart. Mr Bergstrom recognises her dreams, and her talents, and that she will go on to do amazing things without him and regardless of how shitty her schooling is or how indifferent the world around her is now; like Matt Groening, he recognises that she can and will escape Springfield. I believe that what makes good writing, regardless of style or purpose, is creating the most impact from the fewest words, and what makes this episode so well-written is that it says all that shit I just said in four words:

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In contrast with that, we have Bart. His story isn’t as emotionally open here as Lisa’s, but I like the way it bounces off Lisa’s conceptually – Bart is as poorly served by the education system as Lisa, but in the opposite way. Lisa outshines the system she’s in, while Bart fails to fit into even the basic standard of quality. This episode lets his showmanship come to the fore by having him run for class president against Martin, which allows for some of the biggest laughs and goofier references. It’s also kicked off by a minor yet crucial aspect of the show: while Homer has trouble relating to Lisa, he relates almost too much to Bart, convincing him to run for class president on the basis that it’s a literal popularity contest.

Of course, this is now known as the episode that predicted Trump, with people seeing parallels to Trump’s “throw out any attempt at reason and just say exactly what people want to hear, even if it contradicts yourself and/or reality” campaign. This comparison falls down for two reasons: one, American politics has always been a sideshow, and Trump’s antics are simply the final illogical conclusion; two, Bart loses, showing that the Simpsons’ writers ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Both stories get wrapped up by Homer consoling his children. After Lisa loses Mr Bergstrom, she gets upset with Homer’s oafishness during dinner and calls him a baboon, before running to her room crying. On Marge’s insistence, Homer goes up to talk to Lisa; after some initial oafishness, he admits he can’t relate to her problem because unlike her, he never lost anyone special to him, because everyone he cares about lives in the same house as him. Like Mr B, he tries to tell her that there will be other special people out there; I think it’s his observation that “guys like [him]” won’t be able to bother her that gives her pause for thought. He cheers her up with adorable playing, and they make up.

This is followed by Homer checking in on a despondent Bart, and makes him feel better by observing how much work he just missed out on. Homer follows this up by looking after a crying Maggie, and he decides to go to bed to avoid jinxing it.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family run in to find the couch missing.

This episode was written by Jon Vitti and directed by Rich Moore. The episode was controversial amongst the crew; they were starting to realise the comedy potential of the show and were tired of another mushy love story. Mr Bergstrom was modelled on Simpsons writer/producer Mike Reiss.

Mrs Krabappel tries seducing Mr Bergstrom in a reference to The Graduate. He reads Charlotte’s Web to the class. Martin’s victory references the infamous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman”.

Nancy Cartwright and Dan Castellanetta both include this episode in their top three favourite episodes; Al Jean considers it his favourite sentimental episode.

“That’s the problem with being middle class. Anyone who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more.”

First Appearances: N/A
Biggest laugh:

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