Lifetime of Simpsons

S02 E19 – Lisa’s Substitute

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Another classic Lisa episode. Man, I really forgot how consistently great Lisa episodes were. Season 2 definitely had more emotional episodes than 1, but they kept with having one strong Lisa episode. I’m thinking that that may be how the show will work for the next few seasons at least, one great Lisa episode a year. And as classic as “Moaning Lisa” is, I think this one may be even more highly regarded.

The episode starts off with the kids in Lisa’s second-grade class gossiping about what they think is wrong with Miss Hoover, which was pretty great, and certainly a thing I remember kids doing in school. I especially love that when she comes into the room weeping Lisa says “My God, she’s been dumped again.” Poor Miss Hoover. Even the eight-year-old judge her. We then learn that apparently Miss Hoover has Lyme disease, and will be leaving the class for a while to deal with that, which leads to an uncomfortable scene where Principal Skinner explains to the kids in great detail what Lyme disease is, while Miss Hoover breaks down crying. We then pop upstairs quickly to see that Bart is apparently showing his class a video of Snowball giving birth…for show and tell? Bart’s a weird kid. After that odd interlude, we go back down to Lisa’s class, where Principal Skinner is struggling to teach the kids, and Mr. Bergstrom, the substitute teacher shows up in a cowboy costume, shooting off fake pistols, which would probably get him killed nowadays.

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Mr. Bergstrom is immediately awesome, just strolling in in a costume, being loud and weird, making the kids actually engage in the learning. He then asks someone to identify the three things wrong with his cowboy costume in exchange for his hat. Lisa, who is already enamored by him, shows off her intellect by pointing out that he has a Texas belt-buckle which wasn’t a state, his revolvers wouldn’t have been invented yet, and he’s Jewish, ignoring his digital watch. We then start bouncing back and forth between Bart’s class and Lisa’s occasionally checking in on Bart’s B-plot, which is about him running for class president. Class president is such a stupid concept to me. They don’t actually do anything, and this one is even more pointless, because it seems to literally have Bart be the president of his classroom, not the whole grade. Its weird. But it’s also a great chance for the writers to make fun of politics, because after Mrs. Krabappel tries to rig the election by only involving Martin, Bart starts running his campaign like the most morally bankrupt politician imaginable. He says nonsense statements, and has the kids chant like it was a decent point (more asbestos! More asbestos!) and just being generally ridiculous.

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But while all that is going on, Mr. Bergstrom continues to be a great teacher, singing the old “Home on the Range” song, while popping in occasionally to correct facts about the old west. He also reads Charlotte’s Web to the class, and openly cries at the ending, and then encourages the kids to talk about their talents, whatever they may be. By the end of the day Lisa is pretty much in love with Bergstrom, and after she sees Mrs. Krabappel try to pull a Graduate and seduce Mr. Bergstrom, and Mr. Bergstrom reject her, she plays her saxophone for him outside the class window. Back at home we get a cute scene where Lisa is rambling on to Marge about her crush on Mr. Bergstrom, while refusing to believe that Marge actually loves things about Homer.

We pop back to the school, where Homer has encouraged Bart to run a dirty campaign, complete with ridiculous signs that will grab the kids attention, and he’s becoming super popular. We also have a scene where Mr. Bergstrom talks to Lisa about how amazing her homework is, and asks if Homer helped, to which she responds “Homework is not my father’s specialty,” setting up a theme of this episode that Lisa doesn’t respect Homer. Marge is picking up on that lack of respect, and suggests that Homer takes Lisa to the museum for some bonding time, and since he can’t come up with a good excuse, he has to. Homer I pretty much immediately horrible at the museum, and they also run into Mr. Bergstrom there, and the three have a very awkward day, where Mr. Bergstrom continues to teach Lisa things, and Homer makes an ass out of himself. Mr. Bergstrom and Homer have a heart to heart at a snack bar about Lisa’s lack of a good male role model, and Homer admits that he’s dumb, and a bad parent, but doesn’t seem to be willing to change.

Lisa is mad that Homer ruined her chance to know Mr. Bergstrom outside of school, so Marge recommends that she invites him over to dinner. Lisa gets super excited, and even is adorably practicing her speech to Mr. Bergstrom outside the classroom, but then she opens the door, and dun dun DUUUUN, Miss Hoover is back. Lisa is devastated, and decides to go to his apartment to find him, but when she gets there it turns out he’s left, and is getting ready to take the train to Capitol City. We pop in quickly to wrap up Bart’s plot, where election day has come, and Bart holds a victory party that everyone attends…instead of voting. Only Martin and Wendell vote, so Martin wins, despite Bart winning everyone over.

We then reach the real emotional core of the episode. Lisa catches up to Mr. Bergstrom at the train station, as he’s getting ready to leave, and she gives him a piece of her mind. She’s simultaneously furious and devastated that he’s leaving, without even saying goodbye. She says that she needs him, and he delivers a pretty sad line of “that’s the problem with being middle class, anybody who really cares will abandon you for someone who needs you more.” She then expresses her fear that she’s still learning who she is as a person, and he was helping her find that person, and without him she won’t know who she is, so he gives her a note, with the instruction of “When you’re alone and there’s no one to rely on, this is all you need to know.” He then leaves, and Lisa runs along with the train. As Mr. Bergstrom fades into the distance, she looks at the note, learning that the one thing she always needs to remember is that “You Are Lisa Simpson.”

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Back at home Lisa is devastated, but Homer only cares about Bart losing the election. When Marge prods Homer into asking Lisa what’s wrong, he makes things worse by saying he doesn’t care about Mr. Bergstrom leaving, and Lisa loses her cool, screaming at Homer and calling him a baboon before running up to her room. Homer goes to talk to her, and after some initial blundering, ends up having an incredibly sad scene where he tells her he doesn’t understand losing someone important, because everyone important to him is still under the roof, and that he wont deal with losing someone until Lisa leaves, because he knows she’s destined for a better life, far away from him. It’s an amazingly sad and effecting scene that legitimately had me tearing up. Then he gets her to laugh by pretending to be a monkey, and their relationship is at least temporarily fixed. Homer then goes to talk with Bart, who is sad about the election, and ends up fixing that too. He then gives Maggie her pacifier, fixing all three kid’s problems, and actually being a good parent.

This episode is tremendous. It can be such a relatable episode, especially for fans of the Simpsons, who I imagine weren’t the most popular people in school. I feel like Lisa is a little young to be going through this crisis, but you definitely reach a point where you’re trying to figure out who you are, who you’re going to be for the rest of your life, and it can be a terrifying experience, especially if you don’t have a good role model to base you decisions off. And right when Lisa finds someone to model herself after, he leaves, leaving her even more lost. But all she has to remember is that she’s Lisa Simpson, there’s no one else like her, and she can be whoever she wants. It’s beautiful. And the ending with Homer was heartwarming, and legitimately moving. Homer really came across as a tragic figure, admitting that he leads a simple life, and that his greatest triumph and destruction will be the day Lisa leaves for bigger and better things then he ever could have hoped for. It’s amazing.

The last thing I wanted to bring up was a hypothesis I have about the rest of the series that I want to think about as the project unfurls. I’ve noticed that so far these two seasons, there’s been a pretty good balance of emotional episodes, and zany fun ones. I think that’s what made the show so great. It was laugh-out-loud funny, but would take breaks to be genuinely emotional. It was a balancing act that they walked perfectly, and I’m curious if what became the show’s downfall was the balance being thrown off. I seem to remember the emotional stories start to fade away around the time I stopped watching, and the show just became all crazy, all the time. It lost it’s heart. I don’t remember prefectly, and that may end up not being the case, but for now I’m thinking that that may be one of the root causes of the shows decline. Not enough “Lisa’s Substitutes.”

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Take Away: You Are Lisa Simpson. When you have crisis of identity, just remember, you are who you are, and that can be anybody you want it to. To hell with what other people think, be the person you want to be. Way to go Simpsons.

“Lisa’s Substitute” was written by Jon Vitti and directed by Rich Moore.

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