(originally aired February 11, 1993)
Lo, it is written on giant stone tablets, that on this date, the world was first blessed with the indelible presence of Ralph Wiggum. He had existed as just another kid on the school yard in the past, had a choice line or two, but this is when he was cherry picked to be an actual character, and also genetically tied to Chief Wiggum. Ralph would soon become one of the most popular characters on the show, and as the years progressed, as most of the cast, would become further homogenized, becoming merely a wall-eyed non-sequitur machine. What surprised me most re-watching this is that Ralph is an actual person here; he’s still eating crayons and picking his nose like we expect him to, but his emotional plight carries a big portion of the episode, and we buy it. It’s one of the sweetest episodes of the series, and by having one of the most relatable story lines, one of the most memorable.
It’s Valentine’s Day in Springfield, so we get some great customary gags to start with: a heart costumed Flanders serenades his wife with a sanitized version of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” and Homer, of course, has forgotten the holiday completely. Our story really begins at school where Miss Hoover’s class is about ready to hand out valentines. Now I remember as a kid we had to write out cards to every student so no one felt left out, but alas poor Ralph is left with an empty paper mailbox. A sympathetic Lisa gives him a renamed card, and that’s all Ralph needs to send his heart all atwitter. The scene of him walking Lisa home is perfect, with his inability to come up with conversation unrelated to the only tenuous connection between them: repeating the pun on the card she gave him. Ralph is ever persistent, however, managing to score tickets to Krusty’s 29th Anniversary Show. The Krusty stuff in itself denotes its own analysis, and once again calls into question what exactly his show is and who it caters for, as we see clips from past shows mirroring The Tonight Show and Laugh-In. It’s there that Lisa finally breaks and admits she only gave Ralph the card out of pity, and his heart is broken.
I thought it would be weird at this point to watch Ralph actually conscious of his surroundings or any emotion rather than ignorant bliss, but we absolutely buy his sorrow. There’s a wonderful scene in the third act during the President’s Day pageant, with Ralph as George Washington and Lisa as Martha. A despondent Ralph mournfully gazes into the fireplace, missing his cue to toss the valentine into the fire, then channels his emotions to give an impassioned performance. Shockingly, it works; the story has built to this point, and we not only buy Ralph in his transformation, we cheer for it. Lisa’s “Let’s Bee Friends” card is an absolutely perfect end, Lisa’s way of communicating her intentions in a way that Ralph can understand. The episode dabbles with emotion without ever become sappy, because it comes from a pure source: unrequited childhood romance. It’s a story we can all call back to, and we connect with it because we’ve all been in Ralph’s shoes at one point or another. We know how it feels to have lost love, even if we never really had it to begin with. Ashley, if you’re out there, call me. We can make it work, I swear!
Tidbits and Quotes
– The “Monster Mash” bookends are hilarious. The intro is great, as Marty feebly attempts to defend playing the wrong record (“It’s kind of a love song. All the monsters enjoying each others company… dancing, holding their evil in check…”) Then at the end when they prepare to play a presidential record, you know it’s going to play again, and in some instances like this, knowing the joke is coming makes it even funnier.
– The Valentine’s stuff at the front is great, where Grampa scoffs at the crass commercialism of the holiday until he sees Jasper got a card from his granddaughter (“Can I have the envelope?”) and Homer getting bilked a hundred bucks from Apu for his last, incredibly dusty, heart box of chocolates. After Homer vows to never shop there again, Apu must act quick to keep his customer: “Nickel off on expired baby food!” “Sold!”
– First Vietnam flashback for Principal Skinner, and a rather grisly one at that. Between his post traumatic stress and issues with his mother, Skinner is a really disturbed man.
– Lisa’s card is, of course, absolutely perfect. We all know what it is, but it bares repeating: “I Choo-Choo-Choose You!”
– I think this is the first appearance of Lunchlady Doris, voiced by the great Doris Grau. She’s a classic character right out of the box, smoking while mixing a broth and urging a truck-load of beef hearts be dumped onto the floor (“Just do your job, heart boy!”) Not quite sure what the school will be doing with them all, but it gives Bart license to pull a great prank with one.
– A particularly great Itchy & Scratchy where Itchy presents Scratchy with a valentine of the cat’s own heart. He admires it, places it on the mantle and sits to read the paper. Upon reading an alarming editorial (“You Need a Heart To Live,”) he scrambles to put the organ back in his chest, but expires before he can reach it.
– Love Homer’s eavesdropping on Lisa’s situation with Ralph (“Ah, sweet pity. Where would my love life have been without it?”) and multitude of suggestions of one-liners (“‘I no speak English,’ ‘I’m married to the sea,’ ‘I don’t want to kill you, but I will’…”) and of course: “Six simple words: I’m not gay, but I’ll learn.”
– Great quick bit where Lisa mentions the only way they could get tickets to Krusty’s show is if their parents were part of Springfield’s cultural elite. Cue Homer walking in: “Can you believe Flanders threw out a perfectly good toothbrush?” He then proceeds to use it.
– Our first, and only appearance ever, of Rex, the expert second-grade actor, who loses the part of George Washington to Ralph. Rex is incensed (“Someone’s gotten to you, you deceitful cow!”) and Hoover subtly gives the signal for Wiggum to remove the boot from her car.
– Wiggum’s story of how he got the tickets, running into Krusty at an adult theater, is pretty amazingly smutty. When Lisa mentions that story is not appropriate to tell children, Wiggum comments, “Really? I keep my pants on in this version.” That just raises further questions.
– The clips from Krusty’s show are all great: Sideshow Mel’s drunken confession, Krusty’s psychedelic 70s period (“What was I on?”), Sideshow Raheem, but the best is his humiliation of Robert Frost (“Hey Frosty, you want some snow… man?!”) Frost’s deadpan reaction under a pile of snow is priceless: “We discussed this and I said no.”
– “Mediocre Presidents” is one of my favorite songs from the series ever. It’s so absolutely perfect (“We are the adequate, forgettable, occasionally regrettable, caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!”)
– The finale of the pageant is unusually well done technically, with Washington’s bed rising to the rafters unfurling an American flag, and a gigantic Mount Rushmore lowering down in front of it. The spectacle of it is immediately dashed by Skinner’s voice through Teddy Roosevelt’s head urging the audience to buy orange drink.