The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Twenty-One, “The Old Man And The Lisa”

This is another one of those episodes that I remember as feeling like a season nine or ten episode that actually comes earlier, so I had low expectations going in. Aside from remembering the pacing (which, say what you will about the immediate post-Golden Era, they were pretty good about), the combination of Lisa and Burns feels like they picked two characters out of a hat as opposed to any organic development, so I was surprised and delighted when I actually liked it a lot more than I thought I would. We’re still operating in a version of the show that is consistently gutbustingly funny, of course, but it genuinely finds something interesting and profound in bringing these two characters together. One interesting thing about the leftists is how often they’re drawn to the idea of ‘redeeming’ right-wingers – it’s something I see in the comedic Republican characters like Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock or Stan Smith of American Dad or Sideshow Bob of this show. It’s like a lot of leftist writers can recognise the intelligence or power of at least certain Republicans and find themselves thinking “how could this be used to achieve good things?”. If conservatism is based around tradition and history, then its strength is in recognising what already works; likeable conservative characters in leftist fiction tend to draw on the power of an institution in some way, even if it’s just history they’re using.

(Point of comparison: Nixon is funny but never likeable on Futurama).

This episode feels like a tweaking of that impulse. Burns is brought to his most sympathetic, reduced from riches to rags by being too big to say no to and recognising that fact; he’s genuinely open to change in a way that catches Lisa’s sympathy, and he finds a particularly Burns-like way of expressing Lisa’s ideals. His methodical, ruthless approach to recycling is genuinely clever and fun to watch in the way that competence always is. Naturally, he turns out to be evil again, but it’s in a way that doesn’t compromise who he is any more than his turn to recycling did, and it feels meaningful and true to who human beings are. The thing I find both fascinating and exasperating is the way people as a whole can absorb an action while completely missing the point of that action. It’s something you see over and over in pop culture – think of all those times something became a hit and instantly inspired knockoffs, like all the producers who saw the success of Breaking Bad and replicated its Bad White Men Doing Bad Things without replicating the propulsive dramatic storytelling that really powered the show. Outside of pop culture, I also think of the Silicon Valley guy who tried ‘disrupting’ the toasted sandwich shop market in imitation of Steve Jobs while not grasping that it’s not really a concept that translates to toasted sandwiches. That’s something that happens here with Lisa and Burns. He can understand the action of recycling but not the ideal Lisa uses recycling to express. This is something I think all idealists have to come to terms with – people who just don’t get it and maybe never will. Certainly, it’s something I still wrestle with.

Interestingly, that ties into the ending. I’ve seen people who hated that Lisa turned down the cheque from Burns at the end, because from a practical perspective it’s The Simpsons’ ticket out of the drudgery of the upper-lower-middle class and it feels selfish to turn that down. But I completely get Lisa making that decision. There are certain things you do and don’t do to preserve your sense of being a human being; there have been choices I could have made that would have made my life easier and perhaps wouldn’t even have had a negative effect on the world, but would have been soul-killing – jobs I could have taken that would have made my life tremendously easier and gained me respect and power but would have worn me down on emotional, spiritual, and moral levels. I’m not a vegetarian, but that’s a perfect example; it’s easier not to be a vegetarian, and it’s not like one person choosing not to eat meat will have any real effect on the world, but if that’s what you have to do to not feel responsible for adding something bad to the world, then I get it. Lisa might have been responsible for unleashing Burns on the world, but she can live with herself by not profiting from it. 

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Mark Kirkland. Swartzwelder was often given environmentally-themed episodes despite being vocally anti-environmentalism because the staff felt he’d give them the right amount of bite. Professional wrestler Bret Hart guest stars as himself in his iconic pink outfit. 

I lost all my notes for this episode, so I had to go back over the episode in Frinkiac to refresh myself when I sat down to write this. There’s a callback to “Who Shot Mr Burns” when Burns remarks “Ah, the baby who shot me.” Marge gets in two great burns on Burns, and it so perfectly balances being shockingly out-of-character and yet strangely in-character.

The scene of Burns shopping was based on a rumour that George HW Bush visited a store and was confused by the scanner. Burns drops a Pink Floyd reference. The hippy is based on Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. The residents in the old folks’ home dance to “Achy Breaky Heart” by Billy Ray Cyrus. The scene where Burns chases Lisa to ask for her help is a parody of the opening sequence to That Girl. Lisa trying to stop people recycling is a parody of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers.

Iconic Moments: 2. “Family. Religion. Friendship. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.” | “Ketchup. Catsup.”
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