32. Lisa’s Substitute

"More asbestos! More asbestos!"

“More asbestos! More asbestos!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 25 April 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Saturday 14 December 1996, BBC1
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jon Vitti
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
  • Animation director: Rich Moore

“Bart runs for class president!” is how Fox Television promoted this episode. This was not so much downplaying all the key elements of the plot as ignoring them completely. Presumably the network thought viewers wouldn’t notice the word “Lisa” in the episode’s title. Bart-mania was still pervasive in the spring of 1991, however, and Fox was only too happy to coax the spiral of hysteria ever-higher. People tuning in expecting a classroom romp starring America’s “number one brat” would have been surprised by what they saw. Yet the passing of time has been kinder to Bart’s storyline than that of Lisa, juvenile farce ageing far better than pre-pubescent pupil-teacher obsession.

Plot
Lisa becomes infatuated with a supply teacher with unconventional attitudes towards education, only to be devastated when the man leaves to take up a post in a new school. Meanwhile Bart tries and fails to defeat Martin in the election to become class president. The second of these two plots is by far the more satisfying and is very cleverly crafted, leading you one way (Bart’s flair for stoking up popularity suggesting he’s set to win by a landslide) then the other, as our hero falls victim to the fickleness of opinion and ends up with no votes whatsoever. Lisa’s story, while packing more emotional punch, is predictable and desperately worthy, at times feeling like it’s been scripted by sociology students not comedy writers. The nadir is reached when the substitute teacher tells Lisa: “That’s the problem with being middle class: anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more.” Suddenly we’re in Play of the Week, not sitcom, and it doesn’t feel right at all. 5

Characters
Lisa’s obsession starts off fine, all childish innocence and rather sweet shyness. But then it lurches towards something a whole lot more mature, typified by when she breathlessly tells the teacher that she is captivated by “your words, your body language and your Semitic good looks.” Her subsequent pursuit of the man, and her despair at his departure, is a little too on the nose and is played with an intensity that ends up more creepy than charming. It’s actually a relief once the teacher is out the way and Lisa can return to being a plausibly naive eight-year-old instead of a pestering teen stalker.

The over-wrought plot now departing from platform two

The overwrought plot now departing from platform two

Mr Bergstrom, the teacher, is the most learned and articulate character to appear in The Simpsons so far, which makes him (as the plot demands) rather one-dimensional and earnest. But he’s a good counterpoint to Homer, who appears here at his most boorish (“Excuse me, what’s more important than popularity?”) and thoughtless – until Bergstrom has left, however, at which point Homer is allowed to enjoy one of his finest moments, consoling Lisa and Bart in their respective plights and justly celebrating his own instincts as a father (“Holy moly, talk about parenting!”). Marge is reduced to an onlooker, albeit one that has some extremely sappy lines (“No little girl can be happy unless she has faith in her daddy”). For once, though, even she is silenced at Homer’s ability to put right what has gone wrong, leaving her husband to have the last word: “Don’t say anything. Let’s just go to bed. I’m on the biggest roll of my life!” 7

Locations and design
In a throwback to the episodes at the start of season one, we don’t wander far outside the school and the Simpsons’ house. It’s a reflection of just how little concern this story has for incidental locations and characters. There’s one exception: the Springfield Museum of Natural History, where Homer and Mr Bergstrom cross paths for the one and only time, much to Lisa’s embarrassment:

"I'd rather have him chasing me that the Wolf Man." "Oh lord."

“Oh lord.”

It’s an extremely august institution, stuffed with treasures but utterly empty of people:

The whole tooth

The whole tooth

We learn it is closing in two days’ time. Given its cafe is called the AGE OF HEROS SANDWICH SHOP, this isn’t such a surprise. 4

All heros pay half-price

All heros pay half-price

Pardon My Zinger
The jokes dry up two-thirds of the way through. If only Lisa’s waterworks did the same. But up to that point there’s a steady stream of zingers, the pick of them being Bart yelling gleefully “More asbestos! More asbestos!” purely to upset Martin on the campaign trail. Bart is on fine form right from the off, when he relishes showing his class a video of his cat giving birth:

in

“When you hit reverse, I can make ’em go back in!”

All Martin can offer is the promise of a dedicated library for the “ABC” of science fiction writers: “Asimov, Bester, Clarke…” “What about Ray Bradbury?” pipes up a classmate. “I’m aware of his work,” Martin sniffs. It’s great fun hearing the schoolkids musing on Miss Hoover’s replacement with a substitute (“My God – she’s been dumped again…” “Psychosomatic? It means she was faking it!”). Homer spends most of his time being oafish, but one exchange stands out:

Marge: Lisa needs to go to the museum tomorrow and I think you should take her.
Homer: Oh why Marge, I’d love to, but I was planning on [switch to internal monologue] …sleeping? Eating a big sandwich? Watching TV? Spending time with the boy!

It’s the first instance (of many) of him holding a conversation with his brain. 7

Special guests
Dustin Hoffman gives the most nuanced contribution of any special guest to date. His delivery is so understated and his mannerisms so naturalistic, he sounds at times like he’s reciting lines in a play not cracking wise in a sitcom. Occasionally he is so hushed it’s hard to make out what he’s actually saying. It’s all a bit of a “performance” but it works in the context of the episode because Hoffman’s character is unambiguously an “outsider”: a stranger from another place who has only a fleeting connection with the Simpsons’ world, and who is therefore meant to act and sound “off-model”. Contrast this with Danny DeVito whose character was meant to sound very much part of the Simpsons’ world but never quite did. Hoffman is given some great lines, most of them when he’s teaching the class, and also some awful ones, most of them when he’s talking to Lisa. His character makes his first appearance while impersonating another character (an early 19th century cowboy), a plot-hindering idea that should have been thrown out at the first draft. But whenever he’s on screen you’re intrigued to hear what he says next, and that counts as an unqualified success. 10

Music
Alf Clausen gets plenty of chances to dip into his orchestral sack marked ‘Moist-Eyed Tunes’. As a rule, the more restrained he is, the better: for example, the very plaintive but brief cue when Lisa first speaks to Mr Bergstrom. Less persuasive are the gales of strings that swirl around the pair during their goodbye at the railway station. In the scene that follows, when Lisa screams at her father (“You, sir, are a baboon!”), there is no music whatsoever. This has more of an impact than any of Clausen’s contributions. 6

Voices
“Whenever you feel like you’re alone,” Bergstrom tells Lisa, “and there’s nobody you can rely on, this is all you need to know,” and he hands her a piece of paper which contains the words ‘You are Lisa Simpson’. Hoffman utters (and, indeed, mutters) this line very quietly and sincerely, thereby helping to dilute some of its vaulting pretension. His aversion to histrionics is the most valuable thing he brings to the episode; no Marathon Man caterwauling here. “There has to be something that you can do better than anybody else,” Bergstrom says to his class; Hoffman makes it sound like he is confiding, not ordering. Once again, all of this makes for a very pointed contrast with the decibel levels usually heard around the Simpsons’ dinner table. 8

Animation direction
Rich Moore does the most efficient job he can at turning what is essentially a sequence of indoor conversations into something that it interesting to look at as well as listen to. He’s best at details, such as the drawings that are passed around Lisa’s class:

DORK

DORK

DORKETTE

DORKETTE

– or the composition of the closing scenes between Lisa and Homer, with Homer staring out of the window while Lisa buries her head on her desk:

"This isn't going well at all."

“This isn’t going well at all.”

Although they are barely metres from one another, the characters feel like they have never been further apart. There are a few odd moments, such as this drawing of Skinner and Hoover:

Squashed faces

Squashed face

– and the generic food the family eat for dinner:

Squashed

Squashed mush

But on the few times Moore does get to go outside, he makes the most of it. 7

Sunset serenade

Sunset serenade

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
In retrospect, Hoffman spoofing his own performance in The Graduate –

"you're trying to seduce me."

“Mrs Krapabbel, you’re trying to seduce me.”

– raised the curtain on 25 years of Hollywood celebrities mocking their own best work, to ever diminishing returns. At the time, this kind of thing hadn’t really been seen on mainstream US television, being largely confined to Saturday Night Live and late-night talk shows. Bart’s campaign to become class president references the presidential elections of Richard Nixon in 1968:

Tricky Dick

Silent majority

and Harry S Truman being incorrectly reported as losing in 1948:

Yesterday's news

Yesterday’s news

– besides sending up the whole cynical, shameless, ludicrous hullabaloo of the hustings. 7

Made you look

Made you look

Emotion and tone
A lot of Jon Vitti’s original script for this episode was reworked by executive producer James L Brooks, then tweaked further by other writers. The finished thing resembles a sort of bodged communiqué from a summit of counsellors and clowns. You can isolate individual scenes – Lisa sobbing while Bergstrom reads from Charlotte’s Web, Homer pleading “Just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand” – and admire them on their own terms. But size up the story as a whole and you’re torn between applauding its ambition and regretting its scope. At its core, the episode wants to have it both ways: to milk both the pure, simple emotion of juvenile heartbreak and the messy, complex emotion of mature infatuation. The result is a patchwork of tones and styles that never quite hangs together and which leaves Lisa more pitiful than pitied. The broad satire evident in Bart’s scenes offers much safer, surer ground. 5

Verdict: 66%
Here in the UK, the earnest, trauma-mining BBC documentaries of the 1970s and 80s made by Desmond Wilcox, husband of Esther Rantzen, came to be labelled by fellow staff as Desmond’s Weepies. This episode of The Simpsons is one of Jim’s Weepies.

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