37. Mr Lisa Goes to Washington

"Oh Marge, grow up!"

“Oh Marge, grow up!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 26 September 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 5 January 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: George Meyer
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Wes Archer, Kevin O’Brien, Dominic Policino
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

Welcome to the start of a new era in Simpsons history: the first episode not to be produced by the founding trio of Matt Groening, Sam Simon and James Brooks. All three were still associated with the show, but now in a looser, more supervisory role. The change gave Brooks more time to develop his latest film project (which turned out to be the Nick Nolte flop I’ll Do Anything) and for Simon to develop a feud with Groening. Into their shoes stepped Al Jean and Mike Reiss, who had been with The Simpsons from episode one and who would pilot the series for the next two years. Desperate to kick off with a hit, Jean and Reiss rewrote the script of Mr Lisa Goes to Washington about seven times. It was worth it. Long hours and last-minute polishes would become the norm under the new regime, as the show began its final ascent on the summit of popular television entertainment.

Plot
As the episode title suggests, Lisa goes to Washington. The “Mr” is a nod to the film Mr Smith Goes to Washington, from which the story borrows an awful lot of plot, but which has never really been garlanded with the same prestige in this country as in America. No prizes for guessing this is because the subject of the movie – the intricacies of the US system of government – coupled with its age (it was released in 1939) means it will forever be of only limited appeal in a nation that has trouble enough dealing rationally with the behaviour of its own parliament, let alone anybody else’s. Like James Stewart in 1939, the Lisa of 1991 goes to Washington full of juvenile naivety about the virtues of government, only to discover a hefty dose of corruption and venality. This is heady stuff and several million moon(walk)s away from the previous episode. In the frantic final act, Lisa uses the reason for her trip – to compete in an essay-reading contest about patriotism – to harp on about how her homeland stinks. “A little girl is losing faith in democracy!” yells one of the contest’s judges down the phone. “Good lord!” cries a politician, and a crooked senator is brought to heel in a matter of seconds. Perhaps heady stuff is too generous a description. At least there are no celebrity cameos, and the only person who sings – a piano-playing satirist trilling topical tunes about the trade deficit – gets smacked in the head by a pebble from Bart’s slingshot. 7

Honest Abe

From Wacko to Honest Abe

Characters
We’re only at season three but already the nerves tighten at the sight of the word ‘Lisa’ in an episode title. It’s her self-righteousness that’s always so particularly wearing and it’s back again here, albeit tempered with a bit of selfless confusion at the antics of Washington’s politicians. Happily, the episode doesn’t end with her winning the speaking contest and thereby justifying her ferocious dogmatism. Instead Lisa settles for merely ending a senator’s career (“The system works!”). Homer doesn’t really seem at all interested in what his daughter is up to, dividing his time between a new-found love for the magazine Reading Digest (sic) and drifting back towards stupidity. He tries to cash a promotional cheque for one million dollars, seems unable to touch his nose when asked, and does not know what VIP means (“What does the ‘I’ stand for again?”). Along with the rest of the family, he’s just here for the ride and to make the most of simply being out of town. His glee at simply being on a plane or in a hotel room is far more touching than Lisa’s pulpit rabble-rousing. 6

Locations and design
Springfield’s regulars are pretty much junked for this episode and the same goes Springfield itself. We have never before seen this little of the town and its landmarks. But they’re not missed, as in their place comes a catalogue of beautiful depictions of Washington DC, from national monuments to plush vistas, interspersed with a procession of interiors (hotel suites, offices, function rooms) that are all, without exception, doled up to nines. The Watergate building looks gleaming:

"Money" not pictured

“Money” not pictured

The Simpsons have been to big cities before, but not one that has Barbara Bush in the bath. 8

First Lady of the loofer

First Lady of the loofer

Pardon My Zinger
One of the reasons the producers kept rewriting this episode was to jack up the quota of gags. It’s certainly true that you’re never more than a few seconds from a joke, though for every hit there’s at least another dud. When they’re coming at you at fast as this, however, there’s little time to remember the flops. A few of the best zingers: a parent at the essay contest admonishing his child: “We the ‘purple’? What the hell was that?”; Homer goading the IRS building in Washington with a full-throated “Boooo!”, at which an employee leans out of a window and fires back: “Oh, boo yourself!”; the morose talking statue of Thomas Jefferson, who informs Lisa: “I know your problem: the Lincoln memorial was too crowded… Wait! Please don’t go! I get so lonely!”; and Homer’s cry of “Bart! Get out of the Spirit of St Louis!” 7

Spirit in the sky

Spirit in the sky

Special guests
There aren’t any, and they’re not missed, so a neutral 5.

Music
“Oh, this song is awful,” moans Bart on hearing the winsome piano-player perform a honky-tonk number called The Deficit Rag. “I know, honey,” replies Marge. They are both right. The song is a spot-on pastiche of the kind of sense-sapping topical number whose existence since the 1950s has defied even the most violent reversals of fashion and will limp onwards, no doubt forever, so long as there are fingers to strike piano keys in between thumbing rhyming dictionaries. The closest modern-day example is probably that bit at the end of The Now Show that you catch by accident when you tune in too early for The Archers. Later in the episode Mr Music pops back to trill The Trading Gap Shuffle. Incensed, Bart yells: “He already sang this song!”

Sing us a song we know!

Shuffle off

Alf Clausen’s score is the perfect contrast, full of stirring Copland-esque flourishes whenever something patriotic pops up on screen like a bald eagle, interspersed with lush orchestrations of rousing chestnuts like Yankee Doodle Dandy and the Battle Hymn of the Republic. 8

Voices
Dan Castellaneta’s reading of Homer discovering a real-life shoehorn is something very special.

"Shoe goes on, shoe goes off."

“Shoe goes on, shoe goes off.”

Yeardley Smith doesn’t hold back when it comes to Lisa’s sermonising, but it’s all rather unsubtle. More enjoyable are those moments whenever Lisa gets to be quietly knowing, dropping in bon mots almost under her breath instead of at the top of her lungs, like when she studiously informs her father: “I don’t think real cheques have exclamation points.” 6

Animation direction
Wes Archer gives Washington DC a crisp, breezy look befitting of somewhere so utterly at odds with the muted, pedestrian hues of Springfield. Against the city’s trim and stylised backdrops, the family stand out like demobbed soldiers on a President’s Day parade. They ogle, titter, gasp and preen at the landscapes around them, just like you and I, except we haven’t just nearly brought down a system of government or publicly shamed a singing satirist. Archer knows that The Simpsons and Washington are both internationally recognisable symbols of America; put them together and you’ve one hell of a self-evident truth. 8

Cesspool on the Potomac

Cesspool on the Potomac

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Even if you’ve never heard of the film Mr Smith Goes to Washington, there are moments in this episode when you sense some kind of spoofing is going on, most obviously when Lisa trots off to ask the Lincoln Memorial for advice. Instinctively you know this is the sort of melodramatic, me-against-the-world gesture that is forever turning up in American movies, and which is being sent up here in the shape of pie-eyed locals enquiring of Abraham not whether their country is destined for greatness but whether they should keep their moustache. There’s more spoofing afoot in the shape of the magazine Reading Digest, with which Homer becomes briefly infatuated. At one point we see him reading it in bed, utterly absorbed in a feature titled They Call Me Dr Soybean. It’s actually rather charming to see Homer hooked on something other than the TV and beer, even if it’s being played largely for laughs. Besides, what’s not to love about Homer’s half-moon reading glasses, which make their debut here and which will forever be one of his finest looks. 8

Clever Homer

Clever Homer

Emotion and tone
The entire episode walks a wavy line between the noble and the silly. Representing the former, you get none other than George Bush Senior looking in from behind his desk, signing some decree or other and announcing: “This should make my bosses very happy – all 250 million of them.” On behalf of the latter, Homer pipes up to insist: “Cartoons don’t have a deep meaning; they’re just stupid drawings that give you a cheap laugh.” Both sentiments are absolutely fine and right and belong in The Simpsons. It’s just that here they don’t quite rub along with each other as cosily as they should. While this is a much less cynical depiction of politics than the version in Two Cars in Every Garage…, the checks and balances – no doubt to Jefferson’s dismay – aren’t quite in harmony. 6

Verdict: 69%
The same people who produced this episode also wrote the first draft of the disappointing Stark Raving Dad. But on that occasion they were just the pen-pushers; now they are in full command and, as a statement of intent, Mr Lisa Goes to Washington fills the screen with unfurled flags.