32. Lisa’s Substitute

(originally aired April 25, 1991)
I guess it’s only appropriate we go from last episode that explored Marge’s lost potential amidst a boorish society to this one featuring Lisa in the same boat. Equally, if not more tragic a story than her mother’s, Lisa is an incredibly gifted and thoughtful young girl who is stuck in a school that undermines her and a family that is hard-pressed to acknowledge her. Plenty of episodes will give her recognition or a kindred spirit, only for the cruel rug of life to be pulled out from under her. Here is the first of many said spirits, perhaps the more famous, the soft-spoken intellectual Mr. Bergstrom. Miss Hoover’s absence brings him into Lisa’s life, and she is immediately smitten with this thoughtful, somewhat geeky substitute teacher.

Lisa’s infatuation is more than just a schoolgirl crush; Bergstrom represents the kind of father she wishes she had, a man who would enrich her, make her think and feel new things, and foster a love of learning. However, fate is a cruel mistress, and Lisa is stuck with a shaven ape who for the greater part pays no mind to her daughter’s life. It almost seems Lisa realizes this herself, which makes her tearful goodbye to Bergstrom all the more heartbreaking (as Mr. B succinctly puts it, “That’s the problem with being middle-class. Anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more.”) And of course there’s the classic scene where Bergstrom gives Lisa all she needs whenever she feels alone in the world and needs reassurance of herself and the universe: a simple note, “You Are Lisa Simpson.” Fantastic.

It’s unfortunate that due to the deep, poignant A-story, the goofy runner of Bart running a mock platform for class president is all but buried from most people’s recognition from this episode. I guess there’s not all that much to examine about it, it’s just got a lot of fun stuff in it, and also lays groundwork for the very ending. Lisa explodes at Homer’s uncaring attitude, leaving Homer to pick up the pieces. He does the best he can with who he is, and in the end, his reconciliation scene works perfectly. Homer may not be the father Lisa truly deserves, but he still loves her and supports her. Plus I don’t think Mr. Bergstrom would hoot like a monkey and make Lisa laugh like Homer does. He’s the goofy dad, leaving Lisa to acknowledge she’s got to appreciate people for who they are, not who she wishes they could be. Following this, Homer quells Bart’s anger over losing the election, but rightly speaking to Bart’s mentality, that being class president would mean more work. Between these two and quelling a fussy sleeping Maggie with her pacifier, it’s probably Homer’s finest hour, and a sweet way to end the show.

Tidbits and Quotes
– We don’t see a lot of Miss Hoover on the show, but she’s still a very strong character: a passionless teacher working out the clock every day. She also is quite disturbed, as we see with her psychosomatic belief of having Lyme disease. We get a great line as Principal Skinner explains the unsettling details of the disease to the children: “The brain!? Oh, dear God!”
– Now I can tell you, if the newly arrived substitute burst into a classroom now firing fake guns in the air, he would be arrested on the spot, no questions asked. Things were different twenty years ago…
– The challenge of naming the discrepancies on Bergstrom’s cowboy get-up is a cute and effective way of introducing his character, and Lisa’s instant connection with him. However, I always think about what Mr. B was thinking, that second graders would be able to figure out stuff about Texas’ annexation and when revolvers were invented. It’s a stretch enough that Lisa is an insanely smart wunderkind. But now I’m just nitpicking. Without it we wouldn’t get the great line about Bergstrom defending Jewish cowboys, “big guys who were great shots and spent money freely.”
– Oh man… my favorite line of the show isn’t even from the A-story: during Martin’s first speech about creating a science-fiction library when he’s class president, featuring the ABCs of the genre: Asimov, Bester, and Clarke. When Wendell asks, “What about Ray Bradbury?” Martin replies, “I’m aware of his work” in the more dismissive, condescending manner possible, like it’s a pain for him to even acknowledge Bradbury’s name at all.
– I enjoy Mr. Bergstrom’s performance of “Home on the Range” with running commentary about the accuracy of the song. I guess at this point I should praise Dustin Hoffman (aka Sam Etic) for his great, great performance, giving Bergstrom that right mellow, powerful tone he needs, selling him as a lively substitute teacher and someone Lisa could really admire and look up to.
– Lisa is very quick to begrudge her father and brother in front of Bergstrom, almost trying to distance herself from them for him. However, there’s a great moment when the two of them are witnessing one of Bart’s bombastic campaign stunts where Mr. B astutely points out that she’s going to miss Bart’s antics when she hits the big time. It almost sets the stage for the ending, about accepting and loving people for who they are. Reminds me of “Lisa’s Wedding” when she defends her oafish family to her future fiance, attesting she loves them regardless. Oh, and you gotta love Bart’s chant for more asbestos.
– We also get the first time that Homer has an internal argument with his brain, something that would happen much more as time goes on.
– I don’t feel like dissecting the ending much further; it’s one of those really great moments that really speak for themselves. I will say it’s odd that Homer talks about having never lost anybody in his life, when his mother abandoned him as a child. Seems like something that would stick with a guy…

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3 responses to “32. Lisa’s Substitute

  1. I guess that Homer didn’t want to bring that up when he was trying to make Lisa feel better about who she’s lost.

    • Exactly what i thought. Even if writers maybe didnt decided that already, the way Homer talks to Lisa has a serious tone that clearly makes you understand that there has been really something deep in Homer’s life, but in that moment he just wants to make Lisa feel better.

  2. Man, this episode has a whole new meaning now that I am a substitute teacher. It’s very sweet and touching, but I can only imagine how horrifying it would be if a sub walked in shooting off guns despite being fake these days.

    It is funny to see things that are kind of true in the life of a sub, and others that are completely fantasy. Still, the emotions Lisa goes through are fantastic and feel very natural, especially her anger towards Homer at the end.

    Oh, Hoover’s disease being psychosomatic was hilarious.

    BTW, why did the show not credit Dustin Hoffman in the episode (nor the World book), but they do so on the bonus features?

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