OTH: The Simpsons- "Moaning Lisa"/"The Call of the Simpsons"

The show is still finding its footing as it starts to experiment

Aired February 11, 1990

Directed by Wes Archer

Written by Al Jean & Mike Reiss

I wish I could tell you when I first realized that I suffered with depressed. I don’t think that there was an epiphany for me. It was a burden that I carried with me for as long as I can remember, it’s one I carry today, and likely will always carry one today. I was around Lisa’s age when it started to hit me, I’m sure of that, at least.

“Moaning Lisa” hits a little close to home for this factor. Seeing Lisa struggle with a seemingly random bout of depression, and struggling to even find a way to fight it, is something I relate to far too much.

Granted, as we see, she’s not blue for entirely no reason. Lisa’s family loves her, but they also frustrate her for understandable reasons, as expressed in her song, while the school system’s oppressive reaction to creative thought stifles her. On top of her classmate’s inability to connect with her, it’s easy to understand why Lisa is so down. And she additionally earns points for acknowledging that her problems aren’t all that big in the grand scheme of things.

Credit should also go to the family for understanding that she’s so down, especially Marge, who I want to get to in a bit. First, I’d like to acknowledge that Homer and Bart do make an effort, even if Bart needs a little pushing first. Unfortunately, neither men are experienced enough in what Lisa is dealing with, Bart being a little too young to recognize his sister’s depressive episode, and Homer not being equipped to handle his daughter’s state. But they’re there for Lisa, which is what matters.

I’ll also take the quick chance to mention their subplot, which I do enjoy. The bulk of the content is about a mother-daughter relationship, so I like how this contrasts with some father-son time, showing Homer going great lengths to one-up Bart at his own game. This comes from love and support, wanting to show off that he’s the coo… nah, Homer just wants to rub it Bart’s face for once, and it generally works.

Now Marge absolutely deserves credit for being a terrific parent. Even when just focusing on her other child, she does a great job of recognizing Bart’s confession of loving his sister for what it is, and leaves it be. She knows the way he is wired, and knows a victory when she hears one.

But she really excels with Lisa, recognizing her depressive state quickly. We learn that Marge went through something similar around her age, which connects the dots. While her advice to fake a smile means well, it clearly is ineffective, which Marge later recognizes when she sees how the other students and her music teacher treat her. Marge’s apology to Lisa and her promise that she and the family will love and support her no matter how she feels shows that she understands, and that she’s willing to do anything to show support for her daughter.

I think that’s the difference for me, what puts this moment and episode over the edge. Too often in moments of deep depression, our loved ones tend to try to fight a battle they can’t win, or often even entirely comprehend, or are just as likely to dismiss your feelings. Seeing Marge admit to Lisa that she was wrong is so important. Validation is a useful tool, one I’m glad to see implemented here.

On the commentary of this episode, Matt Groening suggests that this was a popular episode with women, who he admits are the “tertiary market” for the series (talk about saying the quiet part out loud). It makes sense, as this is the first episode to really focus on the female side of the Simpsons clan, give or take Maggie, who does get a cute moment herself. In both airing and production order, this is episode number 6, which is an almost embarrassing amount of time to take to focus on Marge and Lisa. This is called The Simpsons, not Homer & Bart.

Frankly, it’s frustrating that, still somewhat now, but especially back then, that women are often relegated to being nagging voices of reason in comedy. So far, Lisa and especially Marge have tended to fill those roles while Homer and Bart get the meatier material, and it’s not fair to see that.

Apparently, James L. Brooks pushed for an episode about Lisa becoming incredibly sad out of nowhere, which I’d like to think was him trying to find a good story for her. Knowing his library of work, which includes The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment, and Broadcast News, he’s a little better with recognizing that women, well, watch movies and TV, and would like to see themselves represented. He’s pretty good at making his female characters seem real, to boot.

It may seem like I’m grasping at straws here, but consider that the first episode of the series was written by a woman whose name never appeared in the credits again. Mimi Pond, that screenwriter, suggests that was not by coincidence. Between that and this recent expose on The Muppets own history with disinterest towards female voices, it disheartens me to see how such pillars of comedy can remain such a sausage fest.

This is a bold story for The Simpsons to make so early on, as even though the series has had heartwarming moments in the past, it’s yet to go quite this emotional. I’ve seen some call the episode “syrupy”, and while I can see that, I think this is effective in almost every regard. Good on the show for finding room for a little nuance, and still being funny to boot.

Aired February 18, 1990

Directed by Wesley Archer

Written by John Swartzwelder

Ah, Albert Brooks. Your intentionally poor Texas accent is a welcome presence here, in his first of five guest appearances. He helps to make Cowboy Bob a memorable one-off , the right kind of sleaze and ingenuity to sell whatever crap he can find to someone like Homer.

Frankly, I like our time at Bob’s RV Round-Up the best. Brooks has a lot of energy as Cowboy Bob, and has some good lines. The rest of the episode has its moments, but this is a little different from the series we recognize, not entirely in a good way.

The Simpsons can always be wacky, but it tends to work best adding in bits of absurdity and spontaneity while keeping its plots grounded, such as the juxtaposition of war movie references in “Bart the General”’s training montage. Having Homer be mistaken for Bigfoot is almost pushing it in comparison.

While I understand that this was meant to be a spoof of Bigfoot specials Fox would air at the time (which I’m honestly having a hard time finding examples of- please feel free to send me something if you can), this still feels more like a plot from a forgettable Saturday morning cartoon of the show’s vintage. We’re watching the staff still discovering what makes the show and its characters tick, and this already feels above the series.

That said, another plus from this episode comes from Maggie’s material. Thus far, she hasn’t been given a whole lot to do, understandably so as she can’t talk. But her time with the bears is cute, and almost has a classic Disney vibe to it. That said, we’re still not seeing much of her personality, besides being a little apathetic. Even then, I still give this side plot credit for adding a bit of warmth into an episode that otherwise doesn’t seem to know where to land.

This is another episode where I don’t have as much to say. A promising first act delves into a modest, honestly forgettable half hour. It’s worthwhile to see the the crew try to figure out what is and isn’t working, and I think so far they’ve found that the show needs a little more balance.

Stray Observations:

  • Chalkboard gag- “I will not instigate revolution” vs “I will not draw naked ladies in class”. Well, I do want to know about the revolution, but naked ladies are nice.

  • Couch gag- Maggie jumping up and falling into Marge’s arms vs …nothing. I go for the latter. Gotta love the element of surprise.

  • What’s with the screeching sound when Bart walks through the kitchen?

  • Am I the only one who expected the cards Bart vacuum up to factor later in the episode? Maybe I’m wrong to find that framing to be anticlimatic.

  • “Oh, so that’s it, this is some kind of underwear thing.”

  • Prank call ranking- I’d give Jock Strap a 3 out of 5. Pretty basic, but it gets the job done, and Moe’s reaction is worthwhile.

  • Welcome to 1990- Super Slugger is a total Punch-Out!! spoof, which I am always here for. The most vintage things to me, however, is the callous attitude towards adults playing video games. I understand why video games were considered kid’s stuff back then, and that it took the first generation of gamers growing up to prove that it’s for everyone. And I’m glad that this is no longer the case. Although the Burger King Kids Club-esq kid playing in the arcade is as early 90’s as you can get.

  • Let’s try something new here, as I introduce New Character Column. First up is Mr. Largo, who technically has already appeared in the opening credits. He’s hardly the most interesting character, but it is interesting to hear Matt Groening explain that he was loosely based off of a Beatles-hating music teacher in the episode commentary. Of course, there’s also Bleeding Gums Murphy, who won’t appear too often or for much longer, but is undeniably forgettable. We also see Janey, Lisa’s come-and-go bff. She’s honestly doesn’t offer much here, but that’s true of her for most of the series.

  • Also, we see Ralph for the first time in production order Except, not really- he doesn’t really look or act like him. In fact, he doesn’t even really sound like him, either. Nancy Cartwright more or less recycled her Nelson voice for the character.

  • Well, this isn’t the only time Cowboy Bob appears, although he’s mostly in the background. Aside from a later episode I don’t really recall, in which Dan Castellaneta takes over for Brooks.

  • I would’ve enjoyed some more time with Marge and Lisa by the fire. Some dialogue was cut, based on the commentary, which would have been nice to add.

  • Hey, Dr. Marvin Munroe is back, and changed professions!