651. The Girl on the Bus

Original airdate: January 13, 2019

The premise:
Lisa befriends a girl and her intellectual, worldly experienced parents, and builds up lie after lie to hide her own disappointing family from them.

The reaction: I’ve been a bit surprised how quite a few episodes this season tread upon some original ground that somehow, over thirty years on the air, hasn’t been already thoroughly covered. How they actually executed those ideas is an entirely different story, but I certainly appreciated the effort. This episode, however, is absolutely nothing we haven’t seen before, and done so much worse. At first I thought this was a “Lisa gets a new friend” show, with Lisa wandering into the house of this girl she saw out the bus window, and immediately bonding over ecological concerns and Stan Getz music… man, Lisa is fucking boring. I’m sorry, but of the core family, her characterization slippage has hurt most of all. She was always wise beyond her years, but through it all, her childlike sweetness always kept her grounded and believable. But after years of the writers using her as a vessel for easy jokes on liberals and self-absorbed artsy types, writing her more as a 30-year-old grad student than an 8-year-old, any attempts to recapture that childlike innocence ring completely hollow. Her reactions to this new family and their mindful living and high-minded interests have her come off as smug and self-satisfied than any kind of wide-eyed awe. Anyway, the core of the episode is about Lisa sneaking out to the Monroes each nothing and lying about her family, feeling ashamed that they’re a bunch of lowlife slobs, which recalls both “Lisa’s Substitute” and “Lisa’s Wedding,” which is some pretty tough company to be sitting between.

Lisa is caught sneaking out by Marge, who is immediately hostile towards her daughter, sneeringly guilt-tripping, “I’m just someone who devotes every day to making your life a little better!” We earlier saw her yelling at her daughter during their nightly ritual of watching trash TV whilst eating frozen microwave dinners (“Why do we have to eat dinner together every night?” “Because it’s good for the damn family!!”) I understand this set-up is to sharply contrast with the Monroes, and when the show highlights the shittiness of the Simpson family, it’s always an issue how to portray the sweet, always sympathetic Marge in a bad light, but I’d much rather see her exhausted and ineffectively scolding Homer and Bart or something than just screaming at Lisa. There have been far too many episodes featuring Marge being cold and cruel to her daughter, and vice versa, for my tastes. But her attitude immediately flips when the Monroes are invited over, and Marge bends over backwards to make sure they all make a good impression. She specifically gives Homer a cue card with only four things to say and to never deviate, and at the night of the dinner, everything seems to be going swimmingly until Mr. Monroe probes him on his thoughts further (“I want to know what’s in your head!”) Dramatic music plays as the rest of the family looks petrified and time stands still as this reckless, mindless dullard ponders what to finally say. He eventually croaks out, “Uhh, you like beer?” Mr. Monroe emphatically says yes. I guess the joke was supposed to be all this suspenseful build-up for nothing, but it didn’t really feel like it. I’d rather things spiraled out of control as Homer put more and more of his foot in his mouth, exposing the family for who they really are; instead, Lisa just by her own sense of guilt comes clean and admits she lied and this was all a ruse. It all just feels so utterly empty. “Substitute” and “Wedding” deeply examined what Lisa craved in her life and what she valued, and how that completely clashed with the rest of her family (mostly Homer), and in the end saw how much they all truly mean to her, and how she’ll love them no matter what. We get none of that here. Instead, any kind of emotional resolution is bulldozed in favor of an out-of-left-field ending where Bart turns his bedroom into a nightclub. I thought my brain might have stroked out and I forgot something that happened earlier in the show, but no, he just invites everyone to his tricked out room, everyone hugs and that’s the ending. What a load of trash. Before when the show used to cover old topics, they felt like hollow mimicries, but now, they seemingly get too distracted by random nonsense they can’t even make a simple photocopy.

Three items of note:
– Homer texts Lisa asking where his phone is, to which she replies that he’s currently texting her on his phone, to which he replies back with the “Homer-sinks-backwards-into-the-bushes” gif. How deliciously meta. This show has never shied away from breaking the fourth wall, but it was always best when they were making some joke about television itself or the medium of animation. Here, using the popular gif is just the show telling its audience they know this meme exists, and that’s about it. Just like when they reference or namedrop popular movies and TV shows, it’s just them trying to get brownie points to skate by with minimal effort. And I barely care about this sort of thing anymore thirty years in, but stuff like this breaks the show’s already flimsy reality, that the writers care more about making a real-world reference than making their own fictional world believable. I’m actually kind of shocked they haven’t made a “steamed hams” reference yet; I feel like by the end of the year, we may get one. The couch gag is of a similar crowd-pleasing vein, featuring Thanos using Maggie’s pacifier as one of the Infinity Stones and dusting four-fifths of the family in the Great Snappening. Everyone and their mother has already made their Infinity War jokes online, but here comes this shambling dinosaur way past this cultural moment’s relevancy to get some brownie points. And for both of these examples, it works! Several sites and blogs, including TIME (!!!), talked about the Homer-in-the-bushes gif, and the original creator of Thanos posted how enthralled he was to see his character used on The Simpsons.
– The Monroes offer to drive Lisa home, who is petrified that her lies about her family will be exposed. She impromptu leaps out of the car and hugs Ned, whispering to him to play along, which he winks back and proceeds to help her out (“God bless you, and as I like to say, a hearty ‘Woo-hoo’!”) It’s the only cute moment in the whole show, and silly me, I thought it was going to actually build to something that Lisa would conspire with Ned to keep this ruse up, who would act as her moral compass to eventually want to come clean with the truth. Would they need to come up with a lie about Lisa’s “mother” and “sister”? A new wife to pose with Ned? Rod and/or Todd dressing in drag? But woah woah woah, that situation sounds like it would require way too much writing. Let’s just completely drop it. When she catches Lisa, Marge mentions that a guilt-ridden Marge told her about her whole charade, and we get a cutaway gag wherein Ned is dressed like Homer at the power plant, unable to stop his impression. Am I supposed to laugh at Ned saying Homer’s catchphrases? Instead I’m worried he has a brain hemorrhage or something. He also apparently told Marge what Lisa said about each one of the family members, a conversation she only had with the Monroes, so I guess they actually did have a conversation off screen that would have been interesting to see. But, again, way too much thinking would have been required for that.
– There’s a small moment that bugged me way too much, the act break when Marge emerges from the shadows to catch Lisa about to sneak out. Lisa screams (“Aaaaah!! Sideshow Mom!”) So… thinking about it more, Marge does say, “Hello, Lisa,” sort of like how Bob sinisterly says, “Hello, Bart,” but it’s not easily identifiable through Kavner’s reading. And the show has made a joke or two out of Bart and Lisa yelling “Sideshow Bob!” again and again before, I believe. But this little moment speaks to what I’ve decried over and over about this show, the complete lack of believably in these characters and them acting like real fucking people. As crazy and exaggerated as situations would get in the show’s first ten years, all the characters still talked and behaved in line with their personalities, and reacted how real people would react. Here, Lisa’s giddy about sneaking out and being deceptive to her family, but part of her must be pretty freaked out about getting caught. So she’s about to bike away from the backyard, when she hears her mother behind her. She’s caught, she’s done for. The ruse is over. So what does her brain tell her mouth to say? “Aaaah! Sideshow Mom!” Like, maybe if after she said it, she sheepishly was like, “Oh, sorry, just a reflex,” but even then in this non-Sideshow Bob episode it’s completely incongruous. Bob’s not exactly a main character; any casual fan watching this episode would be like, “What’d she say? Sideshow Mom? Is that like her nickname? What the fuck?” In the writer’s room, someone thought that ‘Bob’ and ‘Mom’ sort of sounded similar (they really don’t), and that it would be funny for Lisa to say this. Within the story and the emotions wherein, it’s completely ridiculous that Lisa would just blurt out this joke line when this very serious thing has happened, but, as always, none of that matters. These characters are hollow joke machines vaguely resembling actual people going through a story with the illusion of emotional stakes. And as I have said countless times, if the writers don’t care enough to treat a story seriously, why the fuck should I?

One good line/moment: I got absolutely nothing for this one. This feels like the worst episode of the season so far, it would feel right at home in season 28.

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21 responses to “651. The Girl on the Bus

  1. “but of the core family, her characterization slippage has hurt most of all”
    I couldn’t agree with you more, Lisa is the character that has been damaged the most with these post-classic episodes. Any Lisa-focused episode is a chore to watch (well, more of a chore at least).

  2. Decided to watch out of curiosity and was greeted with more bland noise that leaves virtually no impression on me.

    Remember when episodes used to be memorable, entertaining and funny? Ones you could watch countless times over and never get bored of or ones that you actually remembered anything about after viewing them. Watching these newer seasons, I’m struck by just how sterile and lifeless this show has become. I wouldn’t even say the show is bad anymore, just empty.

  3. Better late than never! About time we got an aggressively terrible episode. Feels like this episode and “Friend With Benefit” should switch seasons. Would make things a lot more balanced.

    This family is named Monroe? Really? Like that one dead guy from the very early seasons?

    • Oh yeah, I remember seeing the articles about the show using the classical “Homer Loves Flanders” gif. I cringed about 20 times upon discovering that.

  4. Despite the clunkiness, I was kind of enjoying this episode and I was curious where it was going. Then came the (non-)ending and it just felt like pointless garbage.

    I got a couple chuckles out of it, but I don’t remember a truly funny moment.

  5. Nice write-up, Mike.

    Any chance on getting an update on what your current worst episode ever is?

    • It’s hard for any episode in particular to stand out anymore… Season 28 definitely felt like the worst season ever, so something in there would probably fit the bill. Looking at the list, I remember “Monty Burns’ Fleeing Circus” and “Friends and Family” being a particularly awful one-two dick punch.

      • matthewchard83

        Thanks. It’s been interesting to read through the seasons and see which episodes have grabbed the “worst episode thus far” crown.

      • Wouldn’t it be cool if once Season 30’s over, you did a best and worst of list covering seasons 21-30?

      • I don’t see much point in doing a whole article about it, since so much of the past decade has run together in my mind for me. Some episodes are more egregious than others, but all of them are suffering from the exact same problems that have hampered this series for years. I’ll say the only two episodes that actually stood out as good to me were “Halloween of Horror” and “Friend with Benefit.” I also give the show some credit for having a handful of shows in the past two years that actually have had somewhat intriguing premises and ideas, albeit with botched executions.

  6. I honestly have no idea what I watched with this one. I turned on the TV at 7, the show started, stuff happened, it ended, and then I turned the TV off.

    Like I did laugh at the scene of Homer sending the meme to Lisa even though it was kind of dumb. I also know I liked the bit when Lisa jumped onto Ned asking him to pretend to be her dad. Everything else is kind of like a blur at this point other than what you mentioned here in this review.

    I also don’t understand the musical number from Beauty and the Beast at the beginning either. What was the point when it was random and there was never a song done in the rest of the episode?

  7. Did anyone else notice Lisa’s fork during the dinner scene clipping through her tray when she started to talk?

  8. “I’m actually kind of shocked they haven’t made a “steamed hams” reference yet; I feel like by the end of the year, we may get one.”

    – Couch gag for “Bart’s Not Dead”.

  9. The worst part of the Homer-sending-the-gif scene was the timing. Lisa responds to her dad, and then he immediately replied with the gif. Like there’s no way he could have replied in any capacity that quickly, let alone with a perfectly appropriate gif (of himself). How are you a comedy writer if you don’t understand or care about the basics of comic timing?

    • Big John's Breakfast Log

      It’s because timing is something the writers have long forgotten about. In a scene like that, there would have been a delay for Homer to send the GIF (because Twitter would require you to look up said GIF) and he could send something incorrect, then respond with the correct GIF.

  10. Big John's Breakfast Log

    Didn’t they do this before with Lisa showing how great someone else’s family is only to do a scene where she goes home and the rest of the family is eating TV dinners to drive home how terrible they are?

    Lisa episodes are typically my least favorite because they often divulge into two types of episodes; morality plays or Lisa fawning for a better life. Luckily, this isn’t a morality play, because hoo boy, I’d be ranting. That said, episodes where Lisa wants to live a different life because the life she sees has culture and want to go to museums that don’t have barnyard oddities and have a desire to explore the horizons just get boring because the structure is always, as you put it, “This new world is better, The Simpsons suck, but in the end, everything’s okay”. It also didn’t help that Marge got angry at Lisa, because, again, as you put it, Marge should put all of her anger on Homer and Bart due to them being ne’er-do-wells, and in the off chance Lisa DOES make her upset, she’s too tired to put up much of a complaint, which then makes her sudden turn around to make the Monroes see their phony act even more confusing.

    Lastly… it’s still weird seeing these abstract characters with indefinable hairlines and basic features interacting with these nitpicky designs. Matt Groening pissed and moaned about how ugly characters turned out early on with the lack of quality control at times, but the style clash just makes these episodes even less fun to watch when you look at how established characters just look like refugees that fell from a time warp.

  11. Homer is given cue cards with a limited number of things to say ?

    ” YES !!! ”

    ” NO !!!”

    ” That would be. An Ecumenical. Matter !!!

  12. The review omits an important, very major screw-up in the script: Lisa has said about not having a brother, then at the dinner Bart is sitting with all other members of the family. Did Lisa explain off-screen that she lied about not having a brother? And in this case, why didn’t she say right away that she lied about everything? I could go on proposing other hypotheses, but I have made my point. Plus it’s not worth wasting words on this horrible, flat mess of a script.

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