It’s fairly easy to divide up the first twelve years of the The Simpsons, into different eras based on who served as the showrunner for each season. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon established the show in its first two seasons. Al Jean and Mike Reiss took the series to new heights in Seasons 3 and 4. David Mirkin brought a more joke-heavy style in Seasons 5 and 6. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein ran the show with a more experimental bent in its seventh and eighth seasons. And finally, Mike Scully presided over the series’ creative decline in Seasons 9-12. Each period within this time frame has its own style and sensibility that can be traced back to the individuals in charge.
After that, however, things get tricky. Al Jean returned as showrunner for Season 13, and instead of the usual two-to-three year tour of duty on the job, he has proceeded to hang onto that title for over twelve years, producing more than 250 episodes in that time.
That’s nearly half of the show’s run, and it’s much more difficult to chop up those seasons up into discrete eras. Some of the show’s most ardent fans have thrown around terms like “Early Jean,” “Late Jean,” and “the HD era.” Some have tried to use The Simpsons Movie as a dividing line during Jean’s tenure. But it’s much harder to classify the gradual, sometimes rocky, evolution of the show under a single individual than it is to note the sharp changes in direction that came when different showrunners each brought their distinct visions for the series to the table.
Jean’s first season back in charge, Season 13, is in many ways an example of the series at a strange equilibrium. No episode demonstrates this better than “Little Girl in the Big Ten.” In this episode, Lisa Simpson joins a gymnastics team to avoid a failing grade in gym. She excels and even makes a couple of new friends in the program who seem to share her interests and enthusiasm. Then, to her surprise, Lisa discovers that despite their appearing younger due to the gymnastics training, these friends are college students. With her new group, Lisa bluffs her way into college herself, but she struggles to reconnect with her elementary school pals when that ruse falls apart.
The episode focuses on one of the most consistently strong elements of Lisa’s personality – her role as a misfit. During the course of the story, Lisa finds herself rejected from the collegiate world she finds so stimulating, despite her sense of belonging there, because she is a child. She also finds herself rejected by her fellow elementary school students, because they resent her braininess as snobbery and see her aspirations for maturity as a superiority complex. She is caught between two different points in her life and cannot seem to find a perfect fit in either.
In the same way, “Little Girl in the Big Ten” seems caught between different eras of The Simpsons. It has some of the trademarks of Al Jean and Mike Reiss’s run from ten years prior: trenchant observations, creative animation, and above all else a character-driven story at the heart of the narrative. It was also a show that was still recovering from the Mike Scully administration and its overreliance on outlandish premises, one-note characters, and easy gags.1 And there’s also a preview of the ho-hum mildness that came to define Al Jean’s later episodes, with milquetoast sentimentalism, jokes aiming for polite smiles rather than big guffaws, and gentle fun in place of biting satire.
The B-Story of the episode is also a great encapsulation of the mish-mash that comprises the episode. In a wacky plot fit for Scully, (or, arguably, Mirkin,) Bart contracts a contagious virus and is forced to spend the episode in a bubble to prevent him from infecting others. In a twist, Bart goes beyond the usual “boy in a bubble” hijinks and uses his new apparatus to defend the geeky lower class of Springfield Elementary. Finally, he uses the bubble to help his sister win back the school’s affections.
By and large. the idea works. It’s out there, and hits a number of disparate comedic notes, but in the end it all comes together. That said, it’s still emblematic of the patchwork sensibility of the episode. The various bits that make up Bart’s storyline in this episode range from the irreverent (Nelson jogging around the block to squeeze in an extra “haw-haw”) to the funny but nonsensical (“That’s a bird on fire!”) to the cornball (Homer’s take on giving Bart a bath and sending him to bed) to the downright lame (an all-too-easy fart joke).
Still, despite those tonal shifts, it’s also easy to see why there was hope for a creative resurgence after episodes like this. There are small touches, like the fact that the initial impetus for Lisa’s journey–her gymnastics training–was not simply discarded once she’d reached the meat of the episode. Instead, her balance beam routine on a tree branch to rescue her brother served as a nice coda, particularly when prior and later seasons might have all but abandoned the opening act once it no longer proved strictly necessary.
By that same token, the A and the B stories managed to exist perfectly well in parallel for the bulk of the episode, but also dovetailed nicely at the end. The two plots came together in a moment of thematic relevance without feeling like the episode’s creators had simply decided to shoehorn them together.
There were also bits of that satirical take on family life that the show became so known for, like a contented Homer telling himself to “cherish these moments” with his children as he obliviously walks past their rooms, each offspring in some state of parental neglect.2 By the same token, the sarcastic college professor who overanalyzes Itchy and Scratchy cartoons serves as a far more incisive jab at yours truly and other nerds of my ilk than when the show uses Comic Book Guy as a stand-in for obsessive fans. What’s more, the episode features some beautiful animation, from a flaming feather drifting listlessly through the frame, to Skinner’s dramatic reaction as he gets splattered from head-to-toe in chocolate cake.
But there were also signs of what was to come. It’s surreal to note that more than a decade ago, The Simpsons had already started to repeat itself, a trend that has become all but unavoidable in recent years. This was not the first time that Lisa excelled at an outside activity to make up for her weakness in gym class. It’s not the first time a trip to the doctor left Bart having to bond with nerds. Bizarrely, it’s not even the first time Bart’s come down with an illness from Asia carried over in a consumer good.
And what’s more, in this episode, Ralph Wiggum cements his transition from three-dimensional character to one-note joke machine.3 He’s not alone. Random out of character quips from Springfield’s vast array of townspeople mix with non sequitur, toothless, and sometimes downright puzzling humor. To wit, Lugash and his East German-style gymnastics program provide a few laughs, but it’s also terribly broad, without any of the real insight or punch from the show’s early years. There are references that were already hokey or out of date by 2002, from Cathy to Liberace to good old Blues Clues. And Homer sings “Tubthumping” to “sing the songs that remind [him he’s] a urinating guy” with shades of the famed “Jerkass Homer” lurking in the background.
The ending is also something of a quick fix that feels out of character for Lisa. She has certainly always craved acceptance, but pulling a prank on the principal seems like a bridge too far for a renowned apple-polisher. And when Ralph yells out “looks, it’s Lisa, and she’s winning us back,” it signals another trademark of the show’s later years–the writers’ poking fun at their own use of narrative shortcuts in the hopes that it provides them cover from having to actually come up with new or creative ways to advance the story.
“Little Girl in the Big Ten” has a superb reputation among the Simpsons faithful, particular for a post-classic era episode. That reputation is well-earned. It’s a funny episode with a tightly written story and a great deal of heart. But it’s also a mixed bag, a combination of where the series had been and where it was headed. Moments of the old brilliance, moments of the show’s then recent pitfalls, and moments of the series’ anodyne future came together into a single, all-encompassing package that, with the benefit of hindsight, gave the fans both reasons to hope for a return to glory and to foresee the highs and lows of Al Jean’s next decade at the helm of the series.
- While Season 9 was technically the much-reviled Scully’s first year in charge of the show, it’s something of a patchwork quilt in terms of showrunners. The season featured a few episodes helmed by Oakley and Weinstein, a couple from Mirkin, and a two more run by Jean and Reiss. For this reason, many of the die hard fans consider Season 9 to be the outer boundary for the show’s glory years.↵
- On the same subject, there’s a hilarious darkness to Milhouse, Martin, and Database writhing on the ground after a rescue from a fencepost wedgie when Database lets out a resigned, “this is the life we chose.”↵
- Though I have to admit that I’m frequently a sucker for these jokes.↵