The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Sixteen, “Lisa The Iconoclast”

This must be the second-most controversial Golden Era Simpsons episode. I think most people just roll with it, but there is a significant contingent of fans who are outraged not only by the characters covering up the truth for the sake of a myth, but by Lisa personally being the one to do it – she has always argued for the truth, no matter what the people who get in her way say. If you put me on the spot, I would come out against this episode, but being very sympathetic to the main argument it makes. Lisa observes that the myth of Springfield has been an active good, and I’m particularly struck be her use of the phrase “No matter who said it, a noble spirit embiggens the smallest man”. In the past five years, there’s been waves of discussion on so-called ‘cancel culture’ and ‘separate the art from the artist’ and so on, and personally speaking, I have reached the conclusion that a fundamental truth is a fundamental truth no matter where it comes from, and I’ve become comfortable taking ideas from less-than-reputable or morally compromised sources and making them my own. It’s what makes me sympathetic to Lisa’s turn being predicated on having to look into the smiling faces of the townsfolk and destroy the happiness they get from celebrating Springfield. To totally twist the wording of Anton Chigurh, if the rule lets you do good, who cares where the rule came from?

On the flipside, we’re also living in a time where the myths our society are based on are being upturned because they are hurting people; there are women, people of colour, queer people, and especially queer women of colour who were nearly lost to history and had their achievements attributed overwhelmingly to cishet white guys, and I know Lisa would be angry not just about the original injustice, but by the loss of the people who would have been inspired by them. And when you’re surrounded by people unmasking real predators and hearing their voices of their victims, it’s hard to feel like people are justified in covering up crimes for the sake of making the collective feel better. Coming back to The Simpsons, it makes me think “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone about my busy hands. Not for myself, but because I am so respected, it would damage the town to hear it.” The more I think about it, the more it feels like a rare case of The Simpsons pulling its punches. What makes the show great is that it feels dangerous – even after three decades and a million rewatches and even knowing its a Nineties television show with specific standards and a status quo, when you sit down to watch this show, it feels like anything could happen. The action never feels forced, even when it’s clearly a joke. This ending feels like they thought, “Well we can’t have Lisa actually undermine the structure of society, so we’ll just have her drop it”. It feels like the first time this show has looked into the abyss and blinked.

On the upside, the show is still top tier on a personal, character level. I’m always a sucker for either of the kids going on a Semi-Ironic Kid Adventure, and to match the Springfield Celebrity Death Conspiracy story of last week, this is a Springfield Secret History story; even if you’re not a full-tilt Space Lizards Control The Government believer, there’s always a thrill in uncovering the Real Truth Of What Happened, and I can see the connection between Lisa reading the last confession of Hans Sprungfeld and me at around the same age reading up on history. Even better, this is one of my favourite Lisa/Homer episodes, and an important next step in their relationship’s evolution. They have always loved each other but not always understood each other, and there has been a repeated cycle of them sacrificing their own happiness for each other that, like Lisa’s perpetual motion machine, just gotten faster and faster. The arc of “Lisa’s Pony” was delivered in the first act of “Lisa The Beauty Queen” and is delivered in one line here, right at the start: “You’re always right about this sort of thing, and for once, I want in on the ground floor.” Homer doesn’t understand, and he doesn’t need to, because he trusts Lisa completely, and it even backfires on him in a meaningful way when he loses his precious Town Crier gig. Much like the characters, even when the show loses its way in the world, it always has the family to fall back on.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family replicates the Brady Bunch opening, with Grampa asleep in his corner.

This episode was written by Jonathon Collier and directed by Mike B Anderson. The main plot was a riff on the exhumation of President Zachary Taylor in the 80’s. The music and lyrics of the Springfield song were written by Jeff Martin. Donald Sutherland guest stars as Hollis the historian, which was written specifically for him. I love the sense of magic and wonder he brings in, genuinely enthusiastic about the history of Springfield. He improvised the line “You had arthritis?”

The episode opens with a filmstrip of Troy McClure acting out the story of Jebediah Springfield. Aside from being a great example of narrative neatness, it’s a really great example of how far the show has come, filled to the brim with everything that ever looked terrible in a low-budget movie, and it’s always fun to see Troy actually acting. The historical society is filled with both historical references and Simpsons characters in historical situations. I really enjoy how an eagle-eyed viewer could spot the solution early on.

The episode creates a fictional backstory for Gilbert Stuart’s unfinished painting of George Washington. Hollis references American revolutionaries William Dawes and Samuel Allyne Otis, as well as the famous forgeries of Howard Hughes’ will and Adolf Hitler’s diaries. Lisa’s ‘wanted for treason’ posters are a reference to anti-JFK posters. Chief Wiggum sings “Camptown Races”. Lisa’s dream is a reference to Lethal Weapon. The response Moe’s Tavern has to Lisa’s claims is a reference to The Producers. Homer knocking Flanders over is a reference to Animal House. Lisa preserving the myth is a reference to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Iconic Moments: 3. The big one: “Embiggened? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield.” / “I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly cromulent word.” This may be the show’s biggest contribution to the English language as a whole. | “She called me a PC thug!” / “Aw, I’ve been called a greasy thug too, and it never stops hurting. So here’s what we’re gonna do: we’ll grease ourselves up real good and trash that place with a baseball bat!” | “Town crier. I’d like to ask you a few questions. One: where’s the fife? And two: gimme the fife.” There have been more efficient perfect Simpsons jokes, but I would argue this needs to be considered amongst them.
Biggest Laugh: