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Tag Archives: Lisa Simpson
The Simpsons: Reinvention, Acceptance, and Why “Summer of 4 Ft. 2″ Is One of the Show’s Greatest Episodes
When The Simpsons parodied The Great Gatsby this season, it tapped into one of the novel’s major themes — the uniquely American desire for reinvention. For centuries, people have come to the United States, or sought unspoiled frontiers within it, in the hope that new surroundings would allow them to become new people. Regardless of whether that’s an attainable goal or a false fantasy, the impulse to start anew is buried deep within the American psyche.
But it’s also within an eight-year-old girl struggling to overcome her innate nerdiness and make a few friends. As I discussed on The Simpsons Show Podcast, “Summer of 4 ft. 2,” is one of the series’s best and most resonant episodes because it captures that universal desire to remake ourselves, and yet realizes that in the personal, affecting tones of a lonely kid with the simple want of friendship. Even in a family full of unusual people, Lisa Simpson is a misfit, and that makes her quest for her first real friend(…ship bracelet) an undeniably poignant one.
The story of Lisa on The Simpsons is, in many ways, a tragic one. More than any other character on the show, she does not really fit into Springfield. That means that when she’s facing the type of complex problems that bother a sensitive young woman like herself, there’s little hope for a helping hand from someone who could address those problems with a level of understanding beyond her own.
Bart loves his sister, even if he can only admit it in a roundabout way, but he’s a brat whose bad behavior draws his parents’ attentions away from a child who needs it just as much, if not more. Homer, as Lisa acknowledges, means well and cares about his daughter, but he’s in so far over his head when it comes to the big questions nagging at her that he’s not much help beyond a good hug. That leaves Marge, perhaps the least-regarded member of The Simpson family among the show’s fans, as the only character on the show who “gets” Lisa.
Marge’s connection to her daughter makes her the emotional core of episodes like “Moaning Lisa”, particularly within the more grounded confines of The Simpsons’s first season. Even if Marge is, at times, a little too provincial to truly connect with her daughter’s world-weary concerns, she understands that Lisa is a remarkably precocious child, and that along with the insight and intelligence that will hopefully give her a better life someday, Lisa’s greater potential comes part and parcel with a greater set of challenges as well. The throughline for the episode, heavy stuff though it may be, is Lisa and Marge working through these types of challenges.
The Simpsons has never addressed Homer’s alcoholism more directly than it did in “Duffless”, and for good reason. As I discussed with the fine folks at the The Simpsons Show podcast this week, Homer’s love for beer is such an essential part of who he is to the general public, that it’s almost as synonymous with him as his dim-wittedness or his love of donuts. That essentially means the show can never truly change this facet of Homer’s personality, which, in turn, makes it pretty unlikely that The Simpsons will ever explore the issue in any greater depth than it did here. It’s a serious topic to tackle in the first place, and it’s a tough one to get right when you have to leave an iconic character the way you found him, to the point that he’s basically not allowed to make any sort of change for the better. Thus the series, as a general rule, tends to sidestep the issue.
Don’t get me wrong, The Simpsons frequently makes references to Homer’s vigorous beer consumption, but it’s generally played for laughs and never taken terribly seriously. I don’t have a problem with that either. Sure, at a big picture level there may be something mildly pernicious about depicting someone who drinks as much as Homer does never suffering any lasting consequences from it, but (1) The Simpsons is a comedy show, not an after school special and (2) Homer is, entirely independently of his drinking, already a terrible role model who rarely, if ever, suffers consequences for anything. Heck, the show centered an entire episode around that idea. If Homer Simpson is the example by which people live their lives, then they have bigger problems than one-too-many Duffs.
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.
Someday, The Simpsons is going to end.
As a diehard fan, even one who has some significant misgivings about the current state of the show, that’s a tough pill to swallow. The Simpsons has been on as long as I’ve been watching television. Even at its lowest lows, it’s been the small screen version of comfort food for me, and sooner or later our favorite family will sign off for the last time.
If show runner Al Jean is to be believed, that might not be for another twenty-five years. Still, the day is going to come, and I think it’s close on the horizon. With the recent contract negotiation, standoff, and finally renewal through Season 25, the end of the show appears to be on the minds of those who work on and produce it. Whether it’s threats to pull the plug in order to prompt salary cuts or requests for a share in the back end profits of the show, those involved seem to have a not-too-distant endpoint in mind.
This begs the question – how do you end a show that will have been on television for a quarter of a century and produced more than five-hundred episodes? How do you sum up, honor, and conclude twenty-five years worth of adventures? It’s a tall order to say the least.
The Simpsons have tangled with magic and magicians a few times before. Bart took it up as a hobby in “The Great Money Caper.” Milhouse was attacked by cats in an ill-fated attempt to pull one of his hat in “$pringfield.” Even Homer interrupted a show by Penn and Teller in in “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder,” leaving Teller worse for wear. Now, it’s Lisa’s turn to get in on the act in Season 22’s “The Great Simpsina.”
In this episode, The Simpsons take home a boatload of peaches, and in the kids’ desperate attempt to get rid of the excess, Lisa runs into an old magician. This graying illusionist named The Great Raymondo (voiced by Martin Landau) takes a shine to her, and eventually takes Lisa on as his apprentice. After he teaches Lisa the secret to his greatest trick, one passed down to him from Houdini himself, she unwittingly reveals it to his greatest rival. – Craig Demon, a thinly veiled parody of Criss Angel. From there, Lisa tries her best to make it up to her magical mentor, and stop his impetuous young rival.
I really enjoyed this episode, and it stands out as one of the finest that Season 22 has had to offer. It had an engaging story, a great use of guest stars, and laughs galore. The show was really firing on a cylinders here, and the end result is not only a funny, but a well-rounded episode that kept me laughing and invested the whole way.
The Simpsons is a television show that will forever be chasing its own shadow. I firmly believe that if your average viewer were to watch the episodes produced over the last five seasons or so, the general consensus would be that it’s generally a pretty good show. Unfortunately for showrunner Al Jean and the rest of the current Simpsons’ staff, their modern day output will always be measured against the seven or eight years when The Simpsons was one of the best shows on television, or to go one step further, if the good people at Time Magazine and your humble narrator are to be believed, the best show of all time. It can be a difficult task to live up to your own legacy.
Despite this challenge, Season 21 of The Simpsons produced a number of very good episodes, some of which even stack up pretty well against the episodes of the “Classic Era.” As has become customary, the latest season of The Simpsons consisted of a few big hits, a few big misses, and a large quantity of solidly enjoyable if unspectacular episodes in between. First and foremost, “O Brother, Where Bart Thou?” a tale of Bart’s quest for a younger brother, attained a level of quality that I did not believe the modern day Simpsons staff could reach anymore. Even with the proliferation of guest stars, usually a telltale sign of a weak episode, the story and the comedy fired on all cylinders the whole way through. It was touching, it was funny, it was well-constructed, and most of all it was entertaining from start to finish. Though Season 21’s hits managed to be a notch above those of prior recent seasons, this episode in particular stands apart as the best of the bunch.