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.

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5 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.

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