The basic plot: Lisa’s depressed. Can music pull her out?
Lisa-centric episodes have a special place in my heart, and I have a tendency to gush over the richness she brings to “The Simpsons,” both as a family and as a show. Because she is so markedly different from the others, mostly by being smart, and because she’s capable of so much more introspection, her plots feel deeper, more complete than those given to most of the other characters. We’re still fleshing out the characters, and now we get to understand something more about Lisa and her world. This is the episode that reveals her as the most soulful of all the Simpsons, and the one with the greatest potential for stories. I’ve often thought that these kinds of episodes are the strongest, because they resonate so strongly with the smart, cynical viewers the show tried hard to cultivate.
Homer’s total lack of understanding about depression is amusing, but to quote Fat Tony, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Despite being nearly 30 years into the Prozac revolution, where we all know people who are “depressed” (and people who are Depressed), we still treat sadness — depression, sorrow, dysthymia, topor, whatever you want to call it — as though it’s something that you can just snap out of. It isn’t. Far be it from me to turn this into a PSA about mental health, but a lot of the well-intentioned friends and family of depressed folks come off looking a lot like Homer, and about as helpful, too. The resolution to Lisa’s depression — blues music — is a bit too pat, but it does underscore the idea that people need outlets, even in grade number two. (Also, it’s worth noting that the blues aren’t really about making yourself feel better, they’re about making other people feel worse.)
There’s a great little feminist angle to this episode as well. Marge’s advice is so bad, it’s transparently bad. And, to her credit, it backfires horribly and provides a great example of why it’s awful advice. Yet women are continually bombarded with this kind of message — smile, pretend to be happy, don’t be sad, don’t be angry… guys never get that sort of shit. It’s profoundly misogynistic, a lot of people buy into it, and Marge needs a lot of credit for acknowledging it and allowing Lisa to feel the way she wants to feel. (Can you tell I just had a discussion with someone about this very issue?)
The majority of Lisa episodes — at least the ones we’ll be looking at — are pretty women-positive, and they’re actually good messages for girls. Lisa is smart and talented, unashamedly so, and not really willing to take crap for it. As we see here, she suffers as a result of it, but learns how to manage that sadness (I won’t say “cope”) by channeling it into an appropriately creative outlet. It’s rare that we’re allowed to see really smart women on TV — it was definitely rarer in 1990 — but here in a cartoon we get to see a woman with actual story lines, emotions, feelings, and able to have conversations with other women that don’t revolve around boys. This is the Bechdel test, and I encourage you to apply this everywhere you go. (The test passes no judgment on whether a particular work — it’s intended for film, but you can extrapolate to other media — is any good, but it does raise the specter of sexism wherever you look.) You will be shocked, shocked, shocked by how many things fail it. You’ll also be shocked by how often the Simpsons actually doesn’t, primarily through the character of Lisa. And if I can make a bit of a leap here — I need to watch more episodes to confirm this theory — “The Simpsons” could be called fairly good for women in fiction.
(This may be one of those damning-with-faint-praise things — the number of strongly drawn women characters on the show, and the plots that are given to them, is notable only because the alternatives are so bad. Note to self: think about this as the project progresses.)
You gotta love the B-plot here, too; you could have taken the whole thing and made an entire episode out of it. “The saddest day of my life was when I realized I could beat my dad at most things.” God, the things you could do with that concept!
Maggie hugging the TV is pretty priceless, too.