The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Three, “Lisa The Simpson”

Here is an episode that I react to in much the same way many of you reacted to “The Principal And The Pauper”. I’ll start with the good: I always found the broad idea of Lisa’s frustration in this episode understandable and #relatable. In a specific sense, I remember many situations like the one Lisa faces here, being given a puzzle, finding it impossible, and finding my sense of identity falling apart. One way of looking at Lisa is that she is an archetypal Good Kid – working to understand both the letter and the spirit of the rules so that she can be the best Student, Daughter, Friend, and Kid she can be, and while she can be frustrated by the way the world can interfere with that kind of idealism (and the world, in turn, can be frustrated by her), that at least gives her a strong sense of identity. The flipside of this is that her identity is also dependent on being able to do things. So many ex-gifted-kids can attest to losing their sense of identity as their abilities either plateaued or, worse, became irrelevant, and they hadn’t developed the wider set of skills to compensate for their weaknesses. This episode doesn’t dive quite so far into that dynamic and because of Lisa’s age the show really can’t (The Venture Bros is the best exploration of it), but it does go into the vulnerability one can feel when their sense of self is based on achievement. I’ve seen people talk about how rewarding a child for being ‘smart’ can foster this attitude, and that it’s better to reward character, patience, and diligence, and that makes a lot of sense; certainly, a lot of those qualities were things I had to learn the long way. In this, we see Lisa so shaken by her failure that she begins to try on a new identity entirely.

It’s the nature of that identity that bothers me. On one level, there’s a classism to Lisa’s fears that I feel is never adequately addressed; it’s certainly possible to enjoy lowbrow entertainment, bad soap operas, and collapsing buildings without being an idiot or a bad person, and it’s annoying to see a show that so gleefully combines high and low pop culture be so above trashy entertainment. On another level, there’s a genuine anti-male sensibility to the plot that bothers me coming from a mostly male writer’s room. When women say ‘all men are trash’, I get it, because that’s a reaction to specific moments of men fucking up specific women’s lives; I get suspicious when men (especially straight men) say the same thing, because more often than not, it’s men trying to get women to like them, and historically speaking, prioritising men’s feelings of inadequacy hasn’t been the best path to gender equality. In this case, it feels like men justifying male inadequacy by virtue of inherent mediocrity, exactly like guys who pretend to be too stupid to do the dishes properly so they don’t have to do them. I don’t think dismissing the abilities of men is fair to men or women, limiting the potential of individual men, forcing responsibility onto women they never asked for, and hindering progress for all. Having two characters we know and love makes this all the worse; Bart’s problem isn’t that he’s stupid, it’s that he doesn’t fit into the education system.

With two inherently bad ideas in a row, I wonder if that’ll be a running theme this season. This show is characterised by its thoughtfulness, and the way it supplies enough ideas to write an essay about every single episode, and it’s as if the show has burned through all it’s great ideas and now it’s either forced to turn to ideas that don’t 100% work with the Simpsons concept, or it isn’t doing the work to make those ideas mesh. One of the limitations of the sitcom format is that eventually, the situation runs out of interesting variations; much as M*A*S*H has been derided for this, I always felt the shift in tone was a good way to counteract the stodginess of holding to the same concept for a long time, and one of the brilliant things about The Good Place was the way it used relentless plotting and fantasy plot devices to cycle through every conceivable variation on its premise and remain fresh for a long time. As much as The Simpsons was a big step forward for sitcoms, there are still ways it’s held back by being a product of its time.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family grow out as plants.

This episode was written by Ned Goldreyer and directed by Susie Dietter. This was the last episode directed by Dietter until season eighteen’s “Yokel Chords”; there’s so much great direction in this episode, like the legit ominousness of “room for one more”, the detail of Grampa using the kitchen tablecloth as an apron when getting his hair cut, the film strip detail, and Future Ralph’s hotdog hat. This was the last episode Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein were showrunners for, and they wanted to go out with something emotional, heartfelt, and funny, so I feel kind of bad and being irritated with it. Dan Castellanetta plays every single one of the male Simpson clan, and asked for the tape to run for twenty minutes so he can find every variation on Homer’s voice he could find.

I didn’t realise until the very last minute that Disney+ puts this episode way earlier than it’s supposed to be in the run, so, uh, enjoy this early edition. The whole story of Apu developing a grift on Jasper freezing himself isn’t just funny for the resourcefulness, but in turning a first-generation Indian-American into PT Barnum. There’s a tiny Jerkass Homer moment that always bothered me, when he seems to take glee in the thought of someone getting hurt in a collapsing building, although “Moochin’ war widows!” gets a laugh out of me. Neither is really an iconic moment, but “I can do that at home!” and “Great big chocolate apology cake!” are quotes I use all the time, and I’ve got to look for more uses for “conversation hat!”.

Lisa concludes that the puzzle isn’t about Prince’s names, referencing the short time he went by a symbol. Grandpa is annoyed when Marge cuts his hair to look like George Raft rather than Audie Murphy. If the painting Lisa looks at (that Kenny plagiarised and stole) is real, I can’t find what it’s based on. Lisa listens to the violinist play “Cliffs Of Dover” by Eric Johnson. Apu and Sanjay play “That’s The Way (I Like It)” by KC And The Sunshine Band in their nudie-mart. Lisa’s list of wonderful books is To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Harriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, and Yertle The Turtle by Dr Seuss.  

Iconic Moments: “Wait, that’s not how you spell dumbening. Wait, dumbening isn’t even a word!” | “Moon pie? What a time to be alive.” |
Biggest Laugh: