The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Seven, “Lisa’s Date With Density”

The recurring thing about this season seems to be how much it straddles the line between the great and awful sides of the show. I wasn’t expecting to like this episode much (especially when I saw it has the Homer auto-dial subplot, which I thought came much later), but I found myself pleased with it overall, even as it very obviously wobbles like a spinning top. Once again, it’s the show’s empathy that keeps it entertaining and interesting, exploring ideas it never did before. It’s really funny, too, that it does this by empathising with someone who doesn’t have that empathy. There’s something so delightfully kid-like in how Nelson is very smart, but in a very shortsighted and highly literal way; he’s completely unconcerned with the symbolic, emotional, or long-term effect of his actions, only interested in getting through this particular moment with as little work or fuss as possible. I remember kids like that when I was growing up and having a Lisa-like reaction (minus the crush), wondering how they could neither care about the effect they had on people nor recognise the futility of their actions, and as we see, the answer is ‘very easily’; I’m a natural Lisa who has with time learned how to be a little Nelson-like when necessary, and I think the show itself is a perfect example of a grown-up Lisa perspective, seeing things for what they mean and what they are simultaneously. 

The auto-dial subplot isn’t quite as bad as I was expecting; it has quite a few funny moments, it’s just the whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Even accounting for the bias I’d have against the writer of this episode, it feels like the first real appearance of Jerkass Homer, where the combination of callousness and stupidity doesn’t feel whimsical or absurd (like when he’s trying to sell door-to-door sugar he stole from a crashed truck) but just, you know, callous and stupid. I think it’s the implausible predictability of the plot that bothers me more than anything; the greatest of all stories about Homer being a jerkass shows him reacting to a situation with natural jealousy and resentment and saving the day by sniffing out a fast food chain on an oil rig, which makes sense in context but is also utterly bizarre. In comparison, you can see the whole story play out in your head the second Homer sees the auto-dialler in the trash – he’ll steal it, several Springfeldianites will react to the annoying calls, and Homer will face a specific amount of consequences, and that’s exactly how it plays out. The best scenes in the subplot show characters reacting exactly how they would and yet somehow going somewhere weird, with the absolute best showing Homer unexpectedly and hilariously not recognising he’s been inconvenienced by his own actions: “Will you two shut up?!”

Anyway, seeing things for what they mean but not what they are factors heavily into where Lisa’s story goes, as her puppy love evolves into a gently destructive relationship where the only thing that actually brings them together is mutual attraction. I love how the episode plays it as Lisa playing out her mother’s story again with that scene where Marge tells her to try and work to change Nelson (“Some women will tell you that you can’t change a man. Those women are quitters!”); the similarities and differences between the two couples are fun to explore, as Marge and Homer’s relationship is also one with two very different people, but in that case Marge is conservative in temperament and Homer is impulsive but both are deeply emotional people, with that usually bringing them together and a recognition and respect for each other’s differences keeping them together. To be fair, the mere existence of Lisa’s attraction genuinely brings out a less selfish side of him, but as she notes it’s based mostly on her projecting something onto him that he doesn’t have. I think this story can best be thought of as Lisa gaining just a little of that Nelson perspective – just enough to be useful.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family run in, but everything is upside down and they fall down.

This episode was written by Mike Scully and directed by Susie Dietter. It’s unfair to blame the subplot on Scully, because both it and the main plot of Lisa dating Nelson had been lying around for a while. Milhouse liking Vaseline on toast was a reference to a kid Josh Weinstein knew in school who ate Vaseline on his toast. Yeardley Smith calls this one of her favourite episodes.

I didn’t go into the Chalmers/Skinner scenes, but they feel like the next step after “Steamed Hams”, a little bit of winking irony after all these years. I also didn’t mention Milhouse, and this is the real start of his crush on Lisa, which has also always left a bad taste in my mouth; I’m not a huge fan of what TV Tropes calls the Dogged Nice Guy plot, where a whiny wet noodle of a guy pursues a woman for a long time (my only real exception to this being Fry and Leela, and even that tested my patience a lot), and I don’t like how this was used to make Milhouse the butt of a lot of cheap jokes. That said, there are a lot of great jokes scattered throughout.

There’s something weirdly #relatable in the way Nelson says “I believe you! I don’t care!”

The majority of the story riffs on Rebel Without A Cause. Lisa drops a riff on Winston Churchhill’s line “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. 

Iconic Moments: 5. “Do you find something funny about the word tromboner?” | “Nobody likes Milhouse!” | “Guess who likes you?” has become another common shitposting tool. | “Nuke the whales?” / “Gotta nuke somethin’.” | “Will you two shut up?!” is also in a lot of shitposts.
Biggest Laugh: