There is a breaking point and I worry that I hit mine last night, because after 23 seasons, I’m actually ready to stop watching the Simpsons.
Why, you might ask? What was it that threw me over the fence? Lisa Simpson.
Lisa has never been my favorite character. Yes, they did try hard to mitigate her bossiness and do-gooder obnoxiousness by giving her endearing weaknesses – my favorite is her soft spot for Nelson and the Corey hotline. But overall, she’s been a character that I’ve had to learn to love instead of loving off the bat.
So the constant focus on Lisa and her self-esteem has been trying for me. It was one thing when Bart got insane-asylum Michael Jackson to write her a birthday song – he hadn’t really expressed his affection for her. But then it seems every season or so, we need another episode where Lisa doubts herself, or is made to feel uber-unpopular, etc etc etc.
I understand that after 23 seasons, the show is bound to repeat itself and then repeat those repeats. But this week’s episode was too much. It relied too heavily on Lady Gaga and her thrust of positivity and loving oneself. I did appreciate Lisa’s takedown of her, accusing Gaga of telling people that they should dream of things that they can never hope to achieve. And more so, that everything Lady Gaga says and does is mostly about her – not about other people.
That has been one of my chief issues with Lady Gaga. She talks a good game, but I feel that so much of it is self glorification. If I have to hear her tell another group of screaming fans to “put up [their] claws” or have her refer to herself as “mother monster”, I think I’ll start screaming myself. I appreciate that she is giving hope and voice to those that feel different, but she doesn’t seem to be able to do it without putting herself on high.
So when she thinks it is her job to improve Springfield’s self-esteem and tries to make Lisa feel better through a crappy song, it just rings hollow to me. It is more about her than about Springfield. And that Lisa would fall for any of this at all just strikes a false note. Lisa is supposed to be more savvy than this.
If we want to think about a time when Lisa needed to be pumped up by a guest artist, let’s look to “Lisa’s Substitute” from season 2. That was an episode that utilized a great actor – Dustin Hoffman credited as “Sam Etic” – as the substitute Mr. Bergstrom, without hammering home the actor himself. He was a means to the end, not the end itself. We didn’t get months of ads proclaiming “Oscar winner Dustin Hoffman guest stars on the Simpsons” that way we have with Gaga.
The episode spoke to larger issues in the show – Lisa needing an adult role model who inspires her and her pursuit of learning, Homer’s buffoonery and his desire to be a parent to a child he doesn’t really get, the ineptitude of Springfield Elementary, and there was a great side plot with Bart vying for class president. A subplot that again was grounded in reality, not some wild flight of fancy.
Mr. Bergstrom bolster’s Lisa’s belief in herself, putting her on the right path by giving her a note that simply says “You are Lisa Simpson” – a note that I think has more staying power than Gaga’s song and Lisa’s instant conversion to Gagaism. But true to the heyday of the show, it’s not the guest artist that has all the glory in restoring Lisa’s faith. It’s Homer who truly comforts Lisa as she mourns the loss of her sub. This then allows Lisa to have another moment of revelation, as Lisa learns to embrace her father for all he is and all he isn’t.
All in all, “Lisa’s Substitute” achieves the same goals that “Lisa Goes Gaga” does, making Lisa feel better about herself. But it does so in a larger context, with more complexity, and in a sweeter and far more realistic way, highlighting how far this show has fallen.
So, I have a summer to decide if I really want to keep watching The Simpsons. I’m not a quitter, but there is only so much I can take before I start forgetting that the show had episodes like “Lisa’s Substitute”, and begin thinking that this is the show that brought us 22 minutes devoted to glorifying Gaga.
Plus, was there any moment in “Lisa Goes Gaga” as funny as this: