The Simpsons, Season Six, Episode Two, “Lisa’s Rival”

When David Mirkin took over as showrunner in season five, his main goal was to explore character and find out what made these four fingered freaks tick, and I’ve been wondering if that will change going into six. Just based on this, not only is it still doing that, it’s taking it to the next level. Lisa is the archetypical Gifted Child, the kid who aces every test, who sucks up information like a sponge, and most importantly taking it for granted that she’ll succeed at everything; I’m sure all of us can recognise the weariness of “Anyone besides Lisa for a change?” Generally, Lisa’s relationship with the education system is that of someone whose talent exceeds the school’s grasp, a downtrodden genius who is denied the resources to flower further. “Lisa’s Rival” flips it over by actually giving Lisa the challenge she’s craved for so long, only for her to discover this means a giant kick in her ego. I have said before in this series how I identified with Lisa as a kid and Bart as an adult, and her journey this episode is a depressingly familiar one.

It’s a common and rather insipid misconception that extremely smart people are by definition very bad at some common task, which I always thought came from 1) a very human need to find balance in everything and 2) an insecure need to one-up someone better than oneself (“They might know good math, but can those nerd scientists calculate the human heart?!”). What I think is more common, and what this episode explores, is that sometimes having a talent for something means you struggle a bit when you have to actually work on it. It’s a really clever move, too, to make this challenge for Lisa an actual person, a fellow student. Chiefly, it means we never lose that conception of the series that the System is inherently and perhaps unfixably damaged – Lisa has no hope of intellectual stimulation from her class, and so Allison really does represent a lifeline in this regard. But it also means Lisa’s morality is genuinely tested. Like she says, she should be Allison’s friend, not her enemy, but her drive to learn and grow (as well as her general humanism) is up against her satisfaction in already being the best – if you like, one kind of Lisa’s ambition is fighting another, her ambition to be the best she can be fighting her ambition to be the best there is.

Next to this low-key humanist story is one of the most absurdist breaks the show ever did, and it’s mainly rooted in trying to push Homer’s most basic elements out of reality entirely. Homer’s obsession with the mountain of sugar is simultaneously totally nonsensical bullshit that no human being would do, and exactly what Homer would do. It combines his get-rich-quick greed, his brain warped by pop culture, his gluttony, and his tenuous grasp on reality all in one action. His famous “What’s to be done with this Homer Simpson?” speech is wonderful, rambling self-serving nonsense justifying an absurd act; sometimes Homer’s weirdness is a weakness, childish idiocy that makes you wonder why anyone puts up with him, but here it pushes him into someone living on a strange, alien planet, and I find myself wanting to visit (but not live) there.

Lisa’s story ends somewhere I always thought was appropriate. Lisa gives in to her pettiness, only to find her conscience simply can’t take the pressure; Yeardley Smith is on fire this whole episode (love her exasperated reading of “Me too…”) and her cry of “It’s the beating of the hideous heart!” is somehow rooted in both the classical acting the moment is riffing on, and Lisa’s genuine guilt. And when she and Allison genuinely (sorta) lose to Ralph, it really does feel like the universe properly realigning, like both girls need to experience a loss to Ralph “My cat’s name is Mittens” Wiggum. It’s a reminder that success is never guaranteed, and to appreciate when it comes to others.

Chalkboard Gag: No one is interested in my underpants
Couch Gag: The floor is water, and the family swim up to the couch.

This episode was written by the now infamous Mike Scully, who does a very good job for a first try, and may have a ball that perhaps he’d like to bounce. It was directed by Mark Kirkland. David Silverman animated Homer’s sugar rant after hearing Dan Castellanetta’s reading of it. Winona Ryder guests as Allison, and she ended up one of the most popular guests among the writers.

For a change, Marge is floating around the edge of this episode, and it’s wonderful, with “Stop blowing my sex!” and “You’re thinking of bears, Mom.” The real trick with this kind of floating-around-the-episode deal is implying a weird inner life, I think.

For the record, Lisa could have gone with RIMS ENJOYER for Jeremy Irons.

Milhouse ends up recreating an iconic moment from The Fugitive. Homer references lines from Scarface and The Wizard of Oz. The third act riffs on “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe. One of the beekeepers speaks like Adam West on the Sixties TV version of Batman. Lisa imagines singing with other also-rans: Art Garfunkel, John Oates, and Jim Messina.

Iconic Moments: 6. “Woohoo! Four day weekend!” | “Why would they come to our concert just to boo us?” | “What’s to be done with this Homer Simpson?” | “Oh, they’re defending themselves somehow!” is not a generally iconic line, but it is in the top five quotes me and my best friend use all the time, mainly in video games. | “I bent my Wookie!” | “My cat’s breath smells like cat food.”
Biggest Laugh: 4AiXzf814AiXzf824AiXzf83