The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Twenty-Five, “The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson”

I’m not really a critic that reviews pop culture – I’m one of those people who generally finds whether or not I liked something to be the least interesting thing to talk about when it comes to pop culture. You know, you like what you like, taste is subjective, yadda yadda yadda. In this case, though, I find that despite wildly enjoying the episode while watching it, I find myself thinking over it and going “Yeah… I suppose?” This is a very slickly made episode that powers through its story at top speed and never lets go off the laffs and keeps me caring all the way through, and yet I find myself feeling like it’s inessential, and I think it’s because despite first appearances, none of that slickness is getting us to anywhere we haven’t been before. I have to admit, the premise is totally killer; it’s obviously funny to have Bart be thrown into military school, but it’s also moving to see Lisa deliberately choose it. The thing that makes Lisa so annoying to so many people is her idealism, and the thing that makes her highly sympathetic is that she’s willing to follow her ideals to difficult, uncomfortable places; that she’ll do the hard work that comes with putting her ideals into practice. In this particular case, she’s a know-it-all who is genuinely willing to challenge herself – to be more than a big fish in a small pond. Military school was always one of the weirder bits of the American mythology to me – I was never aware of any actual military schools growing up in a small Australian town despite them being in a lot of edgier American kid’s shows – where it acts as some kind of ultimate symbol of punishment for the Bart-like boys. Bart reacts so poorly to routine and structure and even he can intuitively grasp how unhappy he’d be in a place that’s entirely routine and structure. I even like how the show zigs instead of zagging and shows Bart actually adapting really well to military school, genuinely being both challenged and rewarded in ways he responds really well too. 

Conversely, Lisa finds herself beyond challenged and straight-up wilting. Her philosophical outlook, her warmth, and her sense of individuality (in both herself and others) are all completely useless, and she’s being called upon to be brutally ruthless, resistant to taunting, and physical in a way she normally doesn’t volunteer for. I think everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses, and I think everyone can and should work on their weaknesses, but I also think there’s only so far you can fight who and what you are; by the end of the episode, Lisa has not really grown, but survived – contrast her ending, in which she’s pleased simply to have passed, with Bart, who has clearly changed and become more powerful. I know this is all a slight misreading of the intent, and I think I find myself thinking this because I’ve gone through similar experiences as Lisa, deliberately throwing myself into situations I wasn’t comfortable with in an attempt to ‘challenge myself’ and ‘grow’ that was, in retrospect, understandable but clearly misguided. Lisa could no more thrive in a military academy than I could living working a menial job in a small town. Sometimes you have to waste your time and talents to more appreciate what you do have; compensating for your weaknesses doesn’t mean doing something you hate all the time, it means providing a good underlining for your strengths. Lisa would never have made it through the literal gauntlet if it hadn’t been for Bart cheering her on; she is someone who needs some kind of positive emotional support for her actions or she can’t hold up.

I’m kind of talking myself into liking the episode more, because as usual the show is smart enough to withstand serious scrutiny. I think it’s that the surface beats are things we’ve seen a million times before on this show; we’ve seen the bad field trips and bad educational strips and square military types and Bart and Lisa working together a million times before, and it’s only the philosophical context that’s changed. The fact that this is a season finale makes it feel weaker too; contrast with the last season finale we had, “Summer Of 4 ft. 2”, which also had Lisa as a central protagonist and also pulled her out of her element but brought her and us to a new emotional experience. It feels wrong to end the season on something so unambitious, but then, I suppose that’s part of the problem that has characterised this season. I’ve been saying that season eight feels like a transitional point between the consistently high bar of the Golden Era to the grossness and thoughtlessness of the Bad Era; each showrunner before now has put some kind of a stamp on what they want to do with The Simpsons, and season eight has been bouncing around in so many directions that it feels like they’ve run out of places they can take this show and these characters and this world – like they’ve lost any sense of vision. If they don’t know why they’re making the show anymore, it makes me wonder why I’m watching it.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The room is upside down. The family run in, only to fall to the floor.

This episode was written by Richard Appel and directed by Mike B Anderson. The idea of military academy had been bouncing around since 1991, and I feel the fact that so many episodes of this season have been reaching into the old ideas barrel is a sure sign of creative fatigue and the notion that they’re running out of ideas. Willem Dafoe guest stars as the commandant, and he fits so perfectly into The Simpsons world, delivering a caricature with complete sincerity.

Love the gag that Ralph apparently sincerely took in the information presented in the moon strip; this show still shows how much humour you can ring out of characters reacting to stuff, even when it’s just on TV. Skinner telling Lisa they can’t raise the challenge bar too high or the stupider students will complain really reminds me of my own high school experience, where the teachers had insufficient resources to deal with the highest and lowest skill students at the same time. The gag of Bart taking a long time to piece together the obvious scheme of overloading megaphones is very Futurama-esque.

Marge sings “You Are My Sunshine”, a traditional folk song.

Iconic Moments: 1. “The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: to build and maintain those robots.”
Biggest Laugh:

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ANNOUNCEMENT

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As we all know, the Golden Era of the show eventually ends. Precisely where is up for debate; some say we already passed it, some manage to get to season eleven before giving up. I am choosing to end these articles at the end of season nine. You may have already noticed my increasing impatience and irritability with the show in season eight, which I imagine is going to get worse now that we’ve reached the end of my DVD collection. I write this series because breaking down how something I love works is very fun; it’s wonderful that a series that has already taught me so much has taught me so much more. But if there’s one thing on this Earth that isn’t fun, it’s falling out of love. The Simpsons is running out of things to say, and so am I, and while I do want to track some of the fall of the show – as well as talk about the many great episodes of the season to come – I want to take the lesson that the showrunners couldn’t and know when to call it quits. It’s been a hell of a journey; quite aside from all the ideas I’ve unpacked on my own, just getting up and writing an essay about something I love once a week, every week, for nearly four years straight has been a brute force upgrade not just to my ability to write an essay, but to form a coherent thought. It was all the more challenging and all the more rewarding having you beloved commentors there to live up to; I knew I couldn’t put up a thought that didn’t hold up without having any of you rip it apart like a pack of wild dogs, so I had to do the work to justify it and beat it into shape. I’m pleased that I could be a regular contributor to your lives, and I’m grateful for everything you’ve given me.

It’s not over though. The other reason I’m doing season nine and not ten is because while season nine was airing, Matt Groening and David X Cohen would be working on another show that would start airing in March, 1999 – a little program you might be familiar with called Futurama. I’ll post my last proper Simpsons essay, “Natural Born Kissers”, and the week after – on the same Drunk day, same Drunk time – I’ll post my essay on “Space Pilot 3000”. Now, we all know that “Natural Born Kissers” is a fucking terrible way to send off our yellow four-fingered freaks, so that’s the other purpose this serves – my “Space Pilot 3000” essay will be double-length, so that it can act just as much a goodbye to The Simpsons as a hello to Futurama. The similarities and differences between the shows are too great and too interesting to ignore, and I think it would be a great way to segue from one to another and a great way to introduce my read on Futurama and a great way to summarise everything I’ve learned from this show and these essays. I know many of you are fans of both shows (and I know for certain there are some of you that sneakily like Futurama better), so I hope you’ll continue on this wacky, catchphrase-ridden comedic-yet-strangely-serious journey with me.