Once again, The Simpsons is setting out to develop a minor character by using romantic interest as a plot device. But this time, like a football to the groin, “I Love Lisa” works on so many levels – as an introduction to Ralph Wiggum, as a sadly-still-relevant commentary on gender politics, and as an uproarious comic story. When I first rewatched the series on DVD in 2015, I can’t express the shock I felt at seeing that one of my favourite shows ever and a pop cultural icon had done a story about a girl pursued by a boy she wasn’t interested in, and showed it from her perspective; it can be easy for a young progressive to fall into the assumption that they are among the first to be aware of things like sexism and racism, and anything made before three years ago will inevitably be at least a little #problematic, but this isn’t just aware of how much girls have to put up with, it builds a whole story out of it.
What makes it work as an exploration of gender politics is the same thing that makes it work as a story: it never loses empathy for either Ralph or Lisa. The story starts when she notices him alone and sad on Valentine’s Day, and gives him a card to cheer him up; this sets off a crush in him, and when he inelegantly attempts to get to know her better, it’s understandable that Lisa would be put off by him, and now she’s caught between not hurting his feelings and wanting him away. This is where Ralph’s richer personality comes into the story; his now legendary stupidity is why people generally don’t like him, and his father being Chief of Police is what empowers him in an extended campaign to win Lisa over – figuratively as well as literally, as Wiggum tells his son what is, in 2018, quite a chilling statement: “The key to winning a woman is persistence”. From Ralph’s perspective, sending Lisa gifts and following her around really do seem to be the right thing to do.
It all comes to a head when Ralph invites Lisa out to Krusty’s 29th Anniversary show; when finally and quite publicly put on the spot, Lisa snaps and tells him that she only gave him a card out of pity. One way this falls short as a satricial take on gender politics is that Ralph is no physical danger to Lisa – Ralph’s not about to hurt Lisa or shoot up a school or anything, the only thing really at stake are his feelings. If you prefer to read fiction as a corrective to negative attitudes, though, I think where the story goes with this is a good direction, as Ralph channels his hurt feelings into suddenly becoming a great actor, and he and Lisa manage to reconcile as friends. Men and their hurt feelings over rejection are never going away, but there are healthier ways of dealing with them, and this episode convincingly presents rejection as something that can be withstood, and as male/female platonic friendship as a positive outcome.
Outside these two, we have some prime Krusty comedy; as always, rooting the pop culture references in specific characters only serves to make them funnier. Krusty’s various antics over the years aren’t just funny for being references, but because they gradually reveal him as a hack who’ll follow literally any popular trend. We even get the extra gag of current Krusty commenting upon his past (“Ugh, what was I on?”). There’s also some edgy satire of crooked cops that has, if anything, become edgier in the decades since.
Chalkboard Gag: I will not call the principal “spud head”.
Couch Gag: The big dance number.
This episode was written by Frank Mula and directed by Wes Archer. It was inspired by a card Al Jean got as a kid, and by the general idea of a Valentine’s Day episode. Michael Carrington guest stars as both Rex, and Sideshow Raheem.
Beloved commentor Great Boo’s Up suggested that Bart would one day get into drama and work out all his energy, and this episode has some compelling evidence for it when he hijacks the school play. Similarly, Homer floating around the episode only serves to make him stronger, as he opens it up with a classic ‘forgot to buy a present’ gag and drops one-liners all throughout, from his advice for getting rid of Ralph (“I’m not gay, but I’ll learn”) to his commentary on the school play.
“Monster Mash” and “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” appear in the episode. Homer’s conscience speaks like Droopy. Bart drops a reference to Terminator 2: Judgement Day. Chief Wiggum meeting Krusty in a porno theatre is a reference to the arrest of Paul Reubens. I’m fairly certain most of Krusty’s flashbacks visually life from Laugh-In, but I’m too young and Australian to know for sure.
The ‘Nam flashback joke got the crew an angry letter, which they brushed off.
First Appearances: N/A, though I wish Rex had caught on.