A new student (Lisa Kudrow) named Alex rolls into town with fashion, cell phones, and modern slang – all of which clashes with the relentlessly unhip town of Springfield, and with Lisa’s desire to enjoy childhood while still a child. When all of Lisa’s friends fall into Alex’s orbit, Lisa tries to keep up, but Alex’s proposed school dance is a bridge too far for her. “I don’t want a date!” she insists. “And I don’t want to wear perfume and cocktail dresses. Am I the only one who just wants to play hopscotch and bake cookies and watch The McLaughlin Group?” Unsurprisingly, she is the only one.
Lisa sinks into depression and nearly skips the dance entirely before Marge reminds her she volunteered to take the tickets. She sits miserably at a small card table, stamping hands and watching everyone else enter with their dates (even Millhouse) and envies them all the fun she imagines they’re having. But when Skinner needs to skip out early on his chaperone duty (“Mother has a June bug cornered in the basement and she needs me to finish it off”) Lisa takes his place – only to discover that the boys and girls are, per stereotype, huddled on opposite sides of the room, too shy to dance or even talk anyone from the other group. Lisa feels immediately vindicated in her affection for youthful innocence, and even convinces the snooty Alex to join her in a messy but joyful snowball fight (of sorts).
In the B plot, Homer and Bart fail to become rich stealing and re-selling grease.
I didn’t get to watch the Simpsons when I was a kid because my mother said it was “for adults.”
Which wasn’t entirely inaccurate. The show is loaded with references that go over most kids’ heads, and would have been particularly foreign to me, a fairly sheltered and pop culture illiterate boy. But that’s not what she meant. She meant that it was vulgar, and therefore unworthy of being seen in our house. We didn’t watch In Living Color or Roseanne for the same reason.
So apart from a few accidental glimpses (I have a distinct memory of stumbling across the end of “Homer’s Night Out” when it first aired) and hearing other kids at school talk about it, I had no point of reference for The Simpsons. I didn’t start watching regularly until I started college.
In 1998. Just in time for season ten.
I’m sure if I had more friends at that point, they would have explained to me that the episodes I was watching were mere shadows of the show’s glory days only a few years earlier. But I didn’t. All I knew was that The Simpsons was something cool kids liked, and I was ready to be a cool kid. And so I loved season ten, because that’s what I was supposed to do.
Part of me wishes I could say that all it takes to enjoy latter-day episodes is complete ignorance of the golden age – that my teenage enjoyment of Lard of the Dance was a product of not being spoiled by several years of genius, rather than me laughing too hard in a room by myself because I thought it would help make me more normal. But I can’t. It is, at best, a mildly amusing episode that doesn’t quite land any of its punches, and I look back at the person I was 20+ years ago with more than a little secondhand embarrassment.
Still, I like the idea of judging the latter-day Simpsons without holding it to a standard we all know it won’t meet. So that’s what I’m going to do. I promise: not once will I compare an episode I review to something from a single-digit season. Not once will I say “a story like this would have worked so much better back then!”
More generally, here’s the central thesis behind these reviews: it’s just a TV show.
Sometimes it has been groin-grabbingly transcendent, and other times we were on the internet within minutes registering our disgust throughout the world. But through it all, it was there for us. To quote an expert on the subject:
TV defeats its own purpose when it’s pushing an agenda, or trying to defeat other TV, or being proud or ashamed of itself for existing. It’s TV. It’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well, and for so long, you just let it be with you.
And it needs to be okay for it to have a bad day or phone in a day. And it needs to be okay for it to get on a boat with LeVar Burton and never come back.
Because eventually, it all will.
In other words, these episodes will succeed or fail on their own merits.
THE REVIEW PROPER
Unfortunately, this one fails on its own merits. I like what Lisa’s subplot is trying to do, but it doesn’t quite do it.
Somewhere around sixth grade, kids my age (late Gen-X) began to be torn between the children they were and the “cool” teenagers they felt pressured to be. (I think modern kids may not have it quite so bad, but what do I know.) They became deathly afraid of being seen acting childishly, and they absorbed all the messages sent to them by the media and their peers on what they should be: detached and ironic if they wanted to fit into the grunge/alt crowd, or vapid and preppish if they saw themselves in the 90210 clique. Most importantly: dress the right way. Watch the right TV. Listen to the right music. Use the right products in your hair. Don’t have zits. Don’t be weird. And above all else, be sexy.
I suspect I’m preaching to the choir when I say that kids shouldn’t be sexy, or feel pressured to be sexy. More generally, they should be allowed to be kids. Alex represents the impulse to rush into the trappings of adolescence, and Lisa is the small still voice saying “I would prefer not to.” Their conversation from near the episode’s end:
Alex: Well, the boys and girls are, like, afraid of each other. They’re acting like a bunch of …
Alex: I know! What is up with that?
Lisa: It’s because they are kids! And so are we! Come on, Alex, we’ve only got nine, maybe ten years tops where we can giggle in church, and chew with our mouths open, and go days without bathing! We’ll never have that freedom again.
That’s a great sentiment, and one that could have carried the episode. But the writers missed several opportunities to make that sentiment sing.
A more satirically-minded episode might have delved into how television reinforces the “hurry up and grow up” urge.
A more resonant one might have whole-heartedly celebrated Lisa’s desire to act her age rather than repeatedly joking that Lisa is just a loser (the McLaughlin Group line, being unable to get a date with an otherwise desperate Millhouse).
A more emotionally satisfying one would have rewritten Marge’s only significant scene so that, instead of playing her well-meant but clueless advice for laughs, it would have been allowed her to validate Lisa’s feelings:
“You know, honey, you’re going to be a beautiful woman one day, and you’re going to get to experience all the grown-up things your friends think they’re experiencing now. But today, the only thing you need to be is you. And if you want to play with dolls and bob for apples, then you should do that. Because the most adult thing about being an adult is that you can’t be a kid whenever you want – you have to do it now.”
But it doesn’t do any of those things, and so it doesn’t carry any meaningful weight, leaving only its jokes to make any kind of impact at all. Which brings us to our next segment:
IS IT FUNNY?
Sometimes. Enthusiastic but dopey Homer is preferable to Jerkass Homer, and we get a pretty good snapshot of the former:
Employee: Four pounds of grease … that comes to … sixty-three cents.
Bart: Dad, all that bacon cost twenty-seven dollars.
Homer: Yeah, but your mom paid for that!
Bart: But doesn’t she get her money from you?
Homer: And I get my money from grease! What’s the problem?
The grease scheme itself isn’t bad – it’s exactly the sort of thing Homer would dive into without even halfway understanding the economics of it, or having a coherent plan. Monty Burns would have convinced people to pay him to dispose of their used cooking oil, then sold it at a profit; Homer makes one half-assed effort at cooking bacon, then jumps straight into theft. It’s only a little funny, but it is at least in character. The same goes for this exchange:
Homer: Marge, if you don’t mind, I’m a little busy right now achieving financial indepence.
Marge: With cans of grease?
Homer (sarcastically): No. With savings and wise investments. Of COURSE with grease!
Intersecting with Lisa’s story there’s an amusing running gag about how what a backwards, loser town Springfield is. Alex is shocked to find out the kids there still like dolls and playing jacks; Lisa thinks the pinnacle of Alex’s sophistication is that she drinks iced tea; the school’s trophy case is empty. We even see Nelson Muntz discussing his preferred recipes for huckleberry pie, if only when he thinks no adults are paying attention. Part of Lisa’s fear that she isn’t cool enough might be that she’s also afraid her town isn’t cool enough. Just another thread with potential, if only they’d pulled at it.
Other funny moments:
Skinner: Attention, please. I need a volunteer for a thankless chore.
Lisa raises her hand.
Skinner: Shall I assume the only hand in the air is Lisa Simpson’s? Thank you, Lisa.
Homer: Lisa, I can’t imagine anyone being more likable than you. But apparently this new girl is. So my advice would be to start copying her in every way.
Lisa: But Dad!
Homer: Ah-ah, think! Is that what Alex would say?
(This one borders on jerkassery, but I choose to attribute it to Homer being uncommonly dumb, not malicious.)
- I choose to believe that Skinner deliberately forced Lisa to enter the dance to show her how uncool her allegedly cool friends were, and to alleviate her FOMO. No evidence of it, but that’s my head canon.
- Millhouse’s romantic interest in Lisa is uncharacteristically aggressive this episode. It’s intended to heighten her annoyance at being unable to get a dance date even with him, but men hounding uninterested women for dates is a trope that has aged terribly over the last 20+ years.
- I anticipate unhappiness about Lisa’s attempt to look more grown-up, with her black skirt, bleeding pierced ears, and make-up. It’s out of character, to be sure, but that’s the point – her desire to fit in has forced her to (try to) become something she isn’t. And the intended effect (IMO) was not to sexualize her, but to reinforce the idea that she isn’t ready to be playing dress-up the way Alex and her friends are. The shot of her falling off her platform shoes is an apt visual metaphor for the episode’s subtext.
- I love the idea of Groundskeeper Willie bathing himself in the school kitchen with Ajax and Brillo pads.
- Homer’s jerk-assery does show up when he mocks Marge’s suggestion that he open an emu farm instead of stewing in his grease scheme’s failure. If he were at all self-aware, he would realize that an emu farm is no less absurd than profiting off of stolen grease, and is just as plausible a hobby for him to some day briefly take interest in. But beyond the inability to introspect, the relentless mockery of her idea, seemingly only because it’s her idea, is a little unpleasant.
- I’ve elided over the nature of the climax, but it bears brief discussion: as Homer and Willie battle over the contents of the kitchen’s never-emptied grease traps (Willie’s “retirement grease”), the pipe bursts, the grease flows freely through the ventilation system, and a fan chops it into snowflake-sized grease pellets which are then sprayed all over the school dance. The allegedly fun childhood activity that Lisa cajoles Alex to enjoy is a literal greaseball fight.
It’s as disgusting as it sounds, and it undermines Lisa (like so many other gags in this episode) by showing her as the one who wants to play in cafeteria grease, even despite her vegetarianism. Bleagh. And the dialog (“the snowflake tastes like fish sticks!”) only makes it worse. I wonder if they started with the title, and then felt obligated to make the climax match the title, no matter how grotesque it became.
Homer tries his hand at invention in “The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace.”