95. Lisa vs Malibu Stacey

“Ever see a sandwich that could take a bite out of you?”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 17 February 1994, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 7 December 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Bill Oakley & Josh Weinstein
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Jeff Lynch

This is set up as Lisa’s moment in the spotlight: her first big story in over 20 episodes, with a weighty, political topic – sexism – into which she can sink her teeth. A subplot is set up to run alongside, featuring Grampa and a bit of nonsense about getting old and getting a job. It’s clear who is meant to be the star of the show. But it’s Grampa who ends up the more entertaining of the two characters (7), by virtue of getting more interesting lines and doing more interesting things. Lisa is just Lisa. This serves the purpose of the plot (6) and is faithful to everything we know about her character, but on both counts isn’t quite enough to elevate a good episode to a great one.

Lisa captures your attention most persuasively when she is sparring with other people who, through their responses, reveal more about Lisa than she volunteers herself. It happens at the dinner table when she is barracking the others – nothing new here – about the need to take a stand against the sexism spouted by the new talking Malibu Stacy doll, and she is met with tart reactions first from Marge (“Ordinarily I’d say you should stand up for what you believe in, but you’ve been doing that an awful lot lately!”) and then Bart (“Yeah, you made us march in that gay rights parade!”). Bart even has a newspaper to hand, thereby giving the joke an extra beat:

It happens again at the very end when, contemplating the near-complete failure of the Lisa Lionheart doll, Lisa resorts to one of her familiar platitudes (“If we get through to just that one little girl, it’ll all be worth it!”) while Stacy Lovell offers something far sharper (“Particularly if that little girl happens to pay $46,000 for that doll”). Alone among the family (even Maggie), Lisa cannot sustain an idea or theme by herself, even when she is in opposition to something. Others need to be there to speak up and talk back, to add a bit of spice.

By contrast Grampa needs nobody to talk back. One of the absolute highlights of the episode is his long spiel about silver dollars, a monologue that lasts the duration of an entire journey from the Simpsons’ home to the shopping mall and beyond (“Anyway, on my washtub. I’d just used it that morning to wash my turkey, which in those days was known as a walking bird…”) The only response from the rest of the family is the looks on their faces: universal, unrelenting tedium. It is far funnier than any words.

The joke is compounded a few minutes later when they get back from the mall and, rather than help Abe inside, the rest of the family flee the car as if their lives depended on it. It’s even funnier animated from above.

You can tell that Oakley and Weinstein enjoy writing for Grampa; they stack his monologues with layer upon layer of imaginatively inane and unconnected zingers (9), crescendoing with just the right amount of stubborn aplomb: “Why didn’t you get something useful, like storm windows or a nice pipe organ? I’m thirsty. Ooh, what smells like mustard? They’re sure a lot of ugly people in your neighbourhood.” Abe spends the rest of the episode having more fun than Lisa (“Ever see a sandwich that could take a bite out of you?!”) and the pay-off to his story is also more satisfying, in so far that it is unambiguous and involves painful slapstick.

Other things enhance this episode by dint of not being Lisa. Smithers appears “off duty”, without Mr Burns by his side – at least in the flesh – and happy to let Lisa into his flat. Any story that spends a few seconds nosing around the living conditions of someone hitherto only glimpsed at work, especially when this involves some impressive interior design, is worth a few more points (9).

Some of the usual Simpsons garlands – vivid homages and fantasies (3), stirring incidental music (5) – aren’t much in evidence here. But Krusty has an excellent cameo, bursting into Lisa’s recording session to bark out some messages for his own talking doll (“‘Hey hey, here comes Sidehow Mel!’ Again. ‘Here comes SIDE-show Mel’. ‘Sideshow Mel’.”) And Kathleen Turner (8) does a fine job of turning Stacy Lovell into more than just someone who sounds like Kathleen Turner, though she’s helped enormously by lines that self-define her character in the space of a sentence:

“You all have hideous hair – I mean, from a design point of view!”
“They said my way of thinking just wasn’t cost effective… well, that and I was funnelling profits to the Vietcong.”
“Joe! Release me from your Kung-fu grip!”

Stacy Lovell’s former business empire has mutated into a grisly crucible of institutionalised chauvinism and greed, fringed with a load of grumpy-looking conveyor belts and grumpier-sounding workers (“There’s a clog in the torso chute!”). Both sides are brought vividly to life both in the animation (9) and the vocal performances (8); this really is one of the best episodes this season for an ear for how people actually talk, even if much of what they say is repulsive (‘Hey Jiggles – back that gorgeous butt in here”). The stuff that comes out of the mouths of the new Stacy dolls is crafted to strike a similarly hackle-raising note (‘I wish they taught shopping at school” “Don’t ask me – I’m just a girl”). There’s no subtlety to the tone (7) of this episode, but there doesn’t need to be when you’re tackling a subject as pervasive as corporate and cultural sexism. By the same token, Lisa’s solution is just as unsubtle, and the stuff she writes to come out of the mouths of the new doll sounds, from the perspective of 2019 rather than 1994, all rather idealistic (“Trust in yourself and you can achieve anything!”). Still, it’s enough to turn the heads of Springfield’s dependably fickle mob, as is the sight of the old Malibu Stacy wearing “a stupid cheap hat”, and the downbeat ending is actually a bit refreshing. There are some battles too big for Lisa to fight by herself, even with a sozzled billionairess as an ally. 71%

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