The Simpsons has never really struck me as a cynical show. I think of a cynical story, I think of something like The Shield or a Fincher film, where bad shit simply happens as a matter of course, and there’s no expectation on the parts of either the characters or the audience that things will ever ‘get better’. The Simpsons, at least when it’s Classic, is different – it’s not cynical, it’s angry, and nowhere is that anger clearer than in the character of Lisa.
Lisa is an iconic left-wing character, sensitive, intelligent, championing the rights of women, minorities, and the underprivileged and unerringly uncovering the truth (infamously so, in post-Classic seasons, as a humourless left-wing scold), and while there’s always been an element of that in her character, this is the first real step into her being an explicitly political actor.
As always, the episode comes in on the plot sideways; Homer gets a free magazine in the mail, and becomes an enthusiastic and irritating convert to the concept of reading (favourite part: when he earnestly worries the writer of an article will die). There’s an essay contest for children in his copy, which intrigues Lisa; her task is to write a 300-word fiercely pro-American essay; this strikes me as the perfect gateway into politics for Lisa, someone enthusiastic about doing schoolwork enough to do it on her own time.
Homer takes her to the contest, and we get a long montage of kids giving parodies of the kind of drivel you hear in these kind of things; Nelson’s gets the best delivery, but I also love the kid who gives a poem reminiscent of Baldrick’s poems on Blackadder. Lisa’s essay is, obviously, the most sincere – I find it a touch overwritten (three hundred words), but I buy it as a story device – and, hilariously, the contest judges find it so good they’re suspicious that Homer gave her a hand. After subjecting Homer to a line of questioning, up to and including a drunk test, they award her an additional five points and may God have mercy on her soul and send her to Washington.
The trip to Washington is a fairly straightforward set of Simpsons riffs, showing the family (mainly Bart) ruining every aspect of the trip. We’re still in the early stages of the show, so Bart’s pranks are fairly straightforward bratty child behaviour, though there’s two great gag: when he lets Lisa pick which bed to have without arguing, which makes her suspicious that something is wrong with it (which is the kind of thing I still do to my sister), and when he pushes a button on the plane, activates the oxygen masks, and sends everyone into a panic.
(There’s also the earliest example of Homer going “[x] goes [y], [x] goes [z]”, as he amuses himself over a shoe horn)
We also meet Congressman Bob Arnold, who is almost endearing in how cheerful he is about taking bribes; when he meets Lisa, he’s totally encouraging to her and condescends to her observation that there are only two women senators (if you’re curious, there are now twenty). The next morning, Lisa is too excited to sleep, and decides to visit the Winifred Beecher Howe Memorial to pass the time and pep herself up, and there she sees the Arnold not only taking a bribe, but insulting and then objectifying her heroine.
(Both Howe and the Floor Mop Rebellion are creations of this episode)
Lisa is distraught, unable to believe in her own original essay. I think one of the things that makes her such an iconic left-wing character is the fact that she’s a child; her ideals don’t come from experience (the way, say, Marge’s worldview comes from her creativity always being shut down, or the way the internet has opened up a lot of people’s empathy), but are simply an innate part of her character, and her journey is watching those ideals clash with a world that won’t support them; surely a familiar path for a lot of us.
Lisa tries turning to the statue of Abraham Lincoln for advice, but finds herself interrupted by dozens of other people babbling about their more inane problems; she tries turning to Thomas Jefferson (I forget if this ages badly and he’s the really fuckawful one, although maybe I’m thinking of Andrew Jackson), but in a slightly strange imaginary sequence he gets stroppy about only being visited because the Lincoln Memorial is overcrowded. Finally, Lisa’s sadness turns to anger, and she writes up a new essay, calling out American in general and Bob Arnold in particular for corruption; Yeardly Smith plays Lisa like a righteous street preacher.
Arnold is taken down for corruption in a way that’s a slight cheat, but funny enough to get away with it (“A little girl is losing faith in democracy!” “Good lord!”), but it costs her the competition. What’s not a cheat and fully, unironically earned is that Lisa gains the respect of Truong; it might be absurd to say that Lisa could change the world and put a Congressman in prison, but it’s not absurd that she could keep her self-respect.
Chalkboard Gag: Spitwads are not free speech.
Couch Gag: The family sits, then Homer pulls Santa’s Little Helper out from under him.
This episode was written by George Meyer and directed by Wes Archer, who presents some spectacular images; I really like this shot:
We’re looking up at them, making them powerful; they’re looking up at Howe, making them less powerful than her, which makes it feel slightly more degrading when they insult her.
This is the first episode Mike Reiss and Al Jean oversaw as showrunners, and they were frightened of not living up to the show, causing them to rewrite and rewrite until it was as funny as possible.
The title and plot are a parody of Mr Smith Goes To Washington.
The timber industry was offended by the fact that the guy bribing Arnold is from the timber industry.
First Appearances: George H.W. Bush
Biggest Laugh: “Oh Marge, grow up.”
(“Aw Napoleon, cartoons don’t have any deep meaning. They’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.”)