178. The Secret War of Lisa Simpson

(originally aired May 18, 1997)
Sort of like last season, we had our big-time show that felt like the finale (“Homerpalooza,” “Spin-off Showcase”), but instead we’ve got one more left, and in both cases it’s a Lisa episode. We begin with one of Bart’s wacky pranks going horribly awry, creating massive damage city-wide. As a result, Homer and Marge decide to send him to military school to straighten him out. Upon arrival, the family is shocked to hear that Lisa wants to attend as well; she’s tired of how interminably slow her public education is and seeks a greater challenge. Now, I guess I can buy this premise… maybe. The lynch pin for her is one quick scene where we see the cadets studying poetry, which she very much likes to see. But would Lisa really be for, or want to do any of the war training or obstacle courses? The girl got an F in gym after all. She really sought an intellectual challenge, and then we never see any of that stuff. I dunno, it sort of makes sense that Lisa would want to take this stance, but part of it doesn’t sit right with me.

A military school allowing ten-year-olds to wield rocket launchers and other heavy weaponry seems like it should be rife for brutal parodying, but most of it kind of takes a backseat to Lisa’s story. She is immediately ostracized from the other cadets for obvious reasons. After a round of strict hazing, Bart is accepted into their clique, leaving him torn between being a social outcast and standing by his sister. You do feel bad for poor Lisa; there’s a particularly touching moment when alone in her barracks Lisa listens to a tape of her mother singing “You Are My Sunshine.” The emotional content is still present through the episode, but it ultimately feels a bit thin. This all leads to our finale featuring the final assessment the “Eliminator,” climbing across an airborne rope forty feet over beds of thorn bushes, and seeing if Lisa can do it. Will she? Of course she can. The ending reminded me of “The Canine Mutiny” where it’s all played so dramatically yet we know exactly what’s going to happen and we’re checking our watches until it’s over: Lisa falters and the other cadets cheer, then Bart steps up to cheer his sister on, which gives her the strength to finish. Hoorah.

There are a lot of bright spots in this episode though. The beginning field trip to the police station with Chief Wiggum is fantastic, with many great jokes. It also segues into Bart’s prank utilizing the dozens of megaphones, which is kind of ridiculous and cartoonish, but no more so than his shaken up beer can blowing the roof off the house in “So It’s Come to This.” Also fantastic is Willem DeFoe as the Commandant, who gives a great performance and has a fair share of hilarious lines (“Traditionally, the academy tested these virtues by pitting you against each other in a two-day battle royale. That was prior to 1957, thank you very much, state Supreme Court.”) He gives the character a share of nuance, like his quieted confusion over Lisa wanting to enlist, and the great bit where he stubs his toe at lights out and mutters to himself as he walks out with a limp. There’s a few scattered bits of humor but a fair share of it felt kind of dry; I remember seeing this one a lot in syndication so maybe it’s dulled for me. But great episodes stand the test of dozens if not hundreds of reviewings. This one’s just… alright. I guess. It’s alright.

Tidbits and Quotes
– The beginning at the police station is fantastic, particularly of course the museum (aww..) of crime (yaaay!) The first mannequin is of “Johnny Welfare,” a dirty hippie with a joint duct taped onto his mouth. Not disobedient enough? The guitar he’s playing is stolen. And? He’s playing acid rock. And his old lady’s eating a sandwich. A baby sandwich (“She’s got the munchies for a California Cheeseburger.”) A great reference to those horrible urban legends, like where the babysitter gets so high that she mistakes the baby as a pot roast or something and puts that into the oven. Horrifying. But funny here. I also love later that all the banana stickers are all vague representations of the actual logos to avert copyrights, and that the children are so impressed by “Gorilla’s Choice.”
– The movies in Lisa’s class are fantastic, brought to you by Monotone Films. We catch the tail end of the sand one, unfortunately, but “The Moon of Earth” is hilarious, showing the future colonies of the moon (by 1964) and how you’ll weight considerably less there (“Slow down, tubby! You’re not on the moon yet!”) Miss Hoover took the opportunity during the movie to book it the hell out of there. Upset, Lisa goes to complain about how slow the class is to Skinner, who quickly rebuffs her (“Of course we could make things more challenging, Lisa, but then the stupider students would be in here complaining, furrowing their brows in a vain attempt to understand the situation.”)
– I love Wiggum suggesting behavior-altering drugs to Homer (“How wedded are you to the Bart you know?” “Not very.”) In a few seasons they’d do that plot anyway.
– Homer’s childishness of throwing rocks at young children is kind of bothersome, but not so much as the fact that he throws a clump of rocks that somehow manage to hit four different kids.
– I love how the Commandant talks about the winds of change, that now there are female motorists and female singers. Progressive!
– With Lisa in enrollment, Franklin is no longer the most effeminate cadet (“Well, we’ll see about that!”)
– All the other cadets seem to be older, like maybe thirteen, fourteen? So what’s with enrolling a ten and eight year old? Kind of bugged me a little bit.
– In her loneliness, Lisa is able to wipe even Grampa out of ridiculous stories talking on the phone. He can’t even pass the buck over to his fellow housemates, especially Jasper (“I’ve already talked to her twenty damn minutes.”)
– Like the bit where Bart uses analogies based off his line of vision (“I’ll just stick by you in secret. Like a sock maker secretly working on a top secret sock that…” “Will you stop looking at your feet?”)
Really big animation cheat where Lisa’s testing the Eliminator, slips and falls… but hey, she’s on a pulley system Bart has rigged up tied to her waist. That just magically appeared. Come on, they could have framed that shot so you wouldn’t see that.
– I do like the exchange of the cadets to Bart for cheering for his sister (“We’re going to make your life a living hell for the rest of the semester.” “But, graduation’s in three hours.” “We’d better go change!”)
– The Commandant’s best line is his graduation speech (“The wars of the future will not be fought on the battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots. And as you go forth today remember always your duty is clear: To build and maintain those robots.”)

Season 8 Final Thoughts
I was quite flabbergasted to find that Dead Homers Society cited season 8 as the tipping point of the show’s quality. Absurd. It’s a classic season! Oakley and Weinstein, the people who gave us season 7, the best season! It’s in the Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family book! Seasons 1-8 being flawless classics had just been burned into my brain ever since I’ve been a fan, so I just though they were exaggerating. Well… not really, it turns out. Now, of course, none of the episodes were bad. There were just things I noticed throughout that either bothered me individually, or felt like smaller versions of things that would get exacerbated in later seasons. Lapses in story, a great number of jokes falling flat, characters acting slightly off, there were scattered problems throughout the season, though none that were that humungous and distracted from each episode. Then of course “Homer’s Enemy,” as I talked about, drew out the template for who we know as “Jerkass Homer.” But for the issues that were present, season 8 is still a fine season; I can complain and nitpick all I want, but the fact is that the episodes are still memorable. Homer’s chili pepper freakout. Rex Banner vs. the Beer Baron. Shary Bobbins. Mr. Sparkle. All classic Simpsons material. It’s kind of like seasons 1-7 were bright blue skies beautiful for sailing, and in season 8 the wind got a little blustery and the waves a bit choppier. But now we enter the Scully era, and a storm’s a brewin’. We’re in for the long haul here, folks, but don’t worry, we’ll make it through. Season 9, here we come…

The Best
“You Only Move Twice,” “A Milhouse Divided,” “Bart After Dark,” “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala-D’oh-cious,” “Homer’s Enemy”

The Worst
For the many sorted problems this season, there are only two I can point out for being specifically bad: “Hurricane Neddy” for tainting Flanders’ character, and “The Canine Mutiny” for being terminally boring.

12 responses to “178. The Secret War of Lisa Simpson

  1. So it’s all down hill from here. Look forward to it getting taken apart.

  2. It’s spelled ‘sordid’.

  3. Best and worst for season eight:

    Best: Homer vs. The 18th Amendment, Lisa’s Date with Density, A Milhouse Divided, The Springfield Files, Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious, Bart After Dark, In Marge We Trust, El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer (The Mysterious Voyage of Our Homer), The Simpsons Spinoff Showcase, Mountain of Madness

    Worst: My Sister My Sitter, Treehouse of Horror VII, Hurricane Neddy, Brother from Another Series, The Old Man and the Lisa, The Secret War of Lisa Simpson, The Canine Mutiny

    Worth It For the Jokes: The Twisted World of Marge Simpson for the Whack-A-Mole couch gag and everyone throwing pretzels at Whitey Ford (with Homer suggesting that Marge name her pretzels “Whitey Whackers”); Homer’s Phobia for the steel mill/gay disco transformation scene and the beginning where Bart breaks the dryer.

  4. You forgot the part where Bart is using the rocket launcher in the firing range. He gets all but the last target, which he misses by a mile. The instructor comes and says: “Four out of five, Simpson. Impressive. But you missed your last target”, and Bart gives a James Bond-esque “Did I?”. Then cut to the school parking lot, where we see why he didn’t peg the target: _he blew up Skinner’s car in his face._ Oh, I tore up at that scene.

  5. Season 8 was definitely a very good season, but it falls short of “perfect,” which is how I would describe Seasons 2-7. There are a lot of really great, fun episodes, but the flaws that would ruin the show in the coming seasons are rearing their ugly heads for the first time.

    We have a preview of Jerkass Homer, tons of celebrity cameos, over-the-top antics, thin plots, third-acts completely disconnected from everything previously set up. In most cases, this season is able to get away with it because it works for a specific episode (e.g., Jerkass Homer is more about how Grimey perceives him; the random party is just a nod to Rodney Dangerfield movies, etc.) and more importantly, the show has a ton of heart and the jokes are fucking great.

    Very soon, the heart starts to disappear, the jokes are less funny, and the writers start to rely on all of the negative tropes. There are still a few really good episodes to come, but we’re at the decline. It’s going to drop a little first, then nnose-dive.

  6. This episode is pretty mediocre compared to the last one. They really should have reversed the two episodes. With that said, Bart’s megaphone joke is absolutely priceless and one of my favorite jokes from the season. I do think this episode is a mixed bag, but it is funny as hell, which is what the entire season was based on.

    Yes, you heard me right. I thought this season was only good because of its laughs, not because of the stories it told. That isn’t to say there weren’t legitimately well told stories, as there were, they were just bombarded by the ones that relied on comedy to get by. That doesn’t make the season bad enough, but this is hands down the weakest season since 2.

    My top five favorite episodes include: You Only Move Twice, El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer, Bart After Dark, Brother from Another Series, and The Springfield Files.

    My top five least favorite episodes are: Hurricane Neddy, The Homer They Fall, The Canine Mutiny, Mountain of Madness, and The Secret War of Lisa Simpson.

    It’s just sad that the signs were there, as they clearly planned for this to be the final season, but by this point everyone was so greedy, they didn’t want to just let the show end.

    • I personally like the stories, but I can see why you wouldn’t. They are too different from what the Simpsons were doing before. But Oakley and Weinstein said they were “experimenting” because they assumed the show would not be on much longer. This was the same reason the Principal and the Pauper was done, for better or worse.

      And while 8 COULD have been a final season (and allowed the Simpsons to leave with all its dignity intact), it wasn’t exactly planned to be. I talked to Oakley on Twitter once, and he said that Season 8 was the start of the wrap-up, and Mike Scully would wrap up everything else and the show would end by Season 9 or 10.

      You could tell everyone thought it was coming to an end. The crew and writing staff were starting to move on. Groening left with several of the writers to do Futurama. Oakley and Weinstein left to do Mission Hill. Even Fox was grooming its successor Family Guy to take its place. While Fox screwed Family Guy in most of its original run, at the beginning they clearly wanted it to be the replacement.

      But something happened…the ratings didn’t decline and they kept making money from it. Usually sitcoms because the cast gets too old and they want to move on to other projects. But the cast is voice actors who spend only a few days a year on it. And Fox wasn’t willing to give up its highest rated cartoon. Even today (sigh), the Simpsons is almost always the highest rated show on Sunday nights. Fox probably doesn’t want to risk ending an extremely reliable cash cow in a very good time slot and replacing it with something new that, statistically, will fail after one season, if it gets even that far.

      • Kaiju no Kami

        Well yeah, the signs were there that the show was wrapping up as “Brother From Another Series” definitely proves that. It’s just a shame that it didn’t.

        The funny thing about your comment about a show failing after one season is that if Season 29 wasn’t named The Simpsons, it would have been canceled. But because it is named The Simpsons, it is allowed to slide by. I’m just trying to figure out what the show is like behind the scenes. I mean, all of the writers and actors have got to know it’s crap, but they are too busy buying their 9th house to actually say it.

      • The Anonymous Nobody

        You guys make good points in that the show became more experimental around season eight because the expectation was that it would end after that or the next season. In some ways, season eight does feel like the beginning of the end.

        I don’t know if Scully could have been the one to wrap things up, but if the show ended with “Behind the Laughter,” it would have been perfect, and almost worth the show hitting rock bottom in seasons ten and eleven.

  7. Solid end to a phenomenal season of television and my second or third favorite of the show overall. I’m quite baffled when people say season 8 shows signs of decline as it was nothing short of amazing. In fact, I’d easily rank it above the first 5 seasons and even the few weaker episodes were still watchable and if anything, just suffer from being a bit more low-key.

    Sure, you could pick out some elements here and there that would harm the show later on but only in the context of later seasons and none of them are a detriment to Season 8. It’s a season that I love to dig into and filled with tons of solid and memorable episodes/plots that never get old. I even like the more experimental nature of some of these episodes as they keep things interesting and entertaining most of the time.

  8. Season 8 is the last chronological DVD I’m going to buy (I randomly have Season 18 as well, but I’ll just consider that a non-canonical B-reel or something). There, the single greatest stretch of television ever, for animated if not overall.

    Imagine “The Secret War of Lisa Simpson” was the actual series finale. Bart got sent to military school, his biggest punishment for a prank. At the end of the episode it’s ambiguous whether he’s changed by the experience – it would be one of those things that it’s up to individuals to decide, but in contrasting with Bart of episode 1, it would be easy to at least imagine a completed character arc. Lisa likewise tackled her biggest character problem, lack of confidence, and successfully challenged herself. Realistically, probably not enough parents, especially Homer, for it to be the actual series finale, but still,

  9. Yeah, this episode is pretty eh. It’s not awful or anything, but for a finale, it’s pretty low-key. It’s not like having a lower key Lisa episode to finish off doesn’t work, as season 7 proved it could be done well. This one’s just free of laughs and doesn’t have much going for it. Not many of the jokes made me laugh aside from a few (such as Bart blowing up Skinner’s car and “the winds of change”). It’s pretty meh.

    Season 8 as a whole was a very… interesting season. On one hand, it has a ton of amazing episodes that feel right at home with the best episodes of seasons 2-7. On the other hand, it has a lot of episodes that aren’t very good, and plenty of overall good episodes that show bad signs of what’s to come in the future seasons. Jerkass Homer’s introduction, random third act plot turns, crazy wacky action sequences that are treated seriously despite how silly it is, jokes falling flat, thin stories, etc. There’s probably a few I missed. In other words, it’s one of those transitional seasons that every show that turns bad has: you can tell something’s changing and not for the better, but there’s still enough classic material to make it worthwhile. That’s a perfectly apt description of season 8. Despite my issues with it, it’s still a good season, and I do think it’s slightly better than season 1, if only because 8’s best episodes are on par with most of seasons 2-7 for me.

    My top 5 favorite episodes this season are “You Only Move Twice”, “Bart After Dark”, “A Milhouse Divided”, “Brother from Another Series”, and “Homer’s Enemy.”

    I only disliked one episode this season, but if I had to choose the five weakest, they would be “Lisa’s Date With Density”, “Hurricane Neddy”, “My Sister, My Sitter”, “The Canine Mutiny”, and “The Secret War of Lisa Simpson.” (If you can’t tell, the Lisa episodes this season weren’t the best overall. Just something I noticed.)

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