“Homer, just where were you planning to keep this horse?” – Marge Simpson
“I’ve got it all figured out. By day it’ll roam free around the neighborhood, and at night it’ll nestle snugly between the cars in our garage.” – Homer Simpson
“Dad, no!” – Lisa Simpson
“That’s illegal!” – Marge Simpson
“That’s for the courts to decide.” – Homer Simpson
As is typical in Season 11, the first act of “Saddlesore Galactica” has basically nothing to do with the rest of the episode. The twist here is that as the show makes the turn to its main story, the writers have Comic Book Guy show up in a childishly passive aggressive prebuttal to their critics and fans:
Marge: Should the Simpsons get a horse?
Comic Book Guy: Excuse me, but I believe this family already had a horse, and the expense forced Homer to work at the Kwik-E-Mart, with hilarious consequences.
Homer: Anybody care what this guy thinks?
This scene is funny on two levels, though I strongly suspect that the second was unintentional. It’s funny on the surface because, let’s face it, if there is one thing on which the entertainment industry and the public at large agree, it is that the geeks are best ignored. Below that, however, it’s also funny because it demonstrates how narrow minded and out of touch the writers had become by Season 11.
This, after all, is the Jockey Elves episode, one of the most iconic moments in the fall of the show, something that has spawned an uncountable number of disappointed and angry conversations on-line and off. By comparison, the repeat of the horse gimmick barely rates a mention. In other words, the show had become so untethered from what made it great in the first place that the people making it couldn’t even correctly identify the worst failing of their own self-admittedly shoddy work. For a show that once operated with precision and ease at the beating heart of American culture, that misguided defense bespeaks a terrible fall.
Does anyone care what this show thinks?
But since it was a repeat, and since there isn’t much more that can be said about the magical elves, let’s set aside the underground kingdom and take a look at what made one of these horse plots a disaster while the other is a beloved classic. For starters, “Saddlesore Galactica” suffers from a slew of typical Zombie Simpsons problems: it makes no sense, it relies on Homer concocting multiple zany schemes, and Bart and the rest of the family act as Homer’s enthusiastic accomplices instead of even remotely like real people. More fundamentally, however, is the way that “Lisa’s Pony” is about the Simpsons, while “Saddlesore Galactica” is just a bunch of stuff that happens to involve a horse.
In “Lisa’s Pony”, the horse comes into the Simpsons’ lives because Homer has once again failed rather miserably as a father. He inadvertently humiliated Lisa in front of her entire school, and then compounds his error by thinking he can make it up with half assed gestures like ice cream and tea parties. For her part, Lisa cracks after being let down by Homer one too many times. Worse than hating him, she gives up on him, which is why she endures all of his pathetic attempts to please him with the resigned affectation of someone who just wants the other person to go away.
“I forgive you.” – “D’oh! You didn’t mean that.” – “No. I didn’t.”
The scenes between apologetic Homer and apathetic Lisa are another example of just how thoroughly well constructed The Simpsons was. Lisa is treating Homer with the same contemptuous dismissal that she’s always felt from him, which is both funny to watch and perfectly in character for both of them. When Homer hocks himself further to Mr. Burns to buy her the pony that has always been her fondest desire (all the way back to “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire”), his moon shot present so astounds Lisa that her earlier humiliation is instantly forgotten.
Again, both his actions and her reaction are exactly what you’d expect. For Homer, Princess is a last gasp shot at saving his relationship with his daughter when he feels he has no other options left. For Lisa, it’s the ultimate display of affection that every naive eight-year-old (more on this in a second) wants from their parents. By contrast, in “Saddlesore Galactica”, the Simpsons get a horse because they happened to walk by when it needed a new owner.
More than any other single factor, that’s the difference between Princess and Duncan. She’s a complex and meaningful part of the lives of characters that we the audience care about. He’s a prop that has about as much meaning as a pair of oversized glasses or a bottle of seltzer water.
Since Duncan has no substance and no story, the only thing the episode can do with him is treat him like the novelty item he is. They run him through a few goofy scenarios, give him a nose ring (which I’m sure he loved), and try to make him into some kind of bad boy horse in a hapless attempt to get a few shock laughs.
That same core emptiness is why Bart has basically nothing to do in this episode despite ostensibly being the Simpson closest to the horse. He rides Duncan, and he goes along with Homer’s idiotic plan, but Bart has no real story here. He doesn’t care about horses per se, he just feels bad for Duncan, adopts him, and then rides him. It’s about as interesting as a kid riding one of those mechanical penny horses at the supermarket. It’s so hollow that I could’ve easily done this post with “Bart Gets An Elephant” instead.
Compare that sterile, going-through-the-motions non-story to what happens to Lisa in “Lisa’s Pony”. There, after getting what she always wanted, Lisa finds out how childish it is to prioritize her wildest dreams over everything else when the full implications of what her pony is doing to her father become clear.
“All the years I’ve lobbied to be treated like an adult have blown up in my face.”
The above scene sets up not only Lisa’s tearful goodbye to her pony, but also her true reconciliation with her father. It’s a great ending because not only do we get to see Lisa grow up a bit, but we also see her get the one thing that really is more important to her than a pony: the knowledge that her father loves her and cares about her above even himself. He’s a forgetful, selfish buffoon, but at his core, Homer loves Lisa, and after seeing what he’s willing to put himself through for her, she knows it.
Princess comes into and out of the Simpsons life in accordance with what’s going on with the family. Duncan ends his episode checking out horse photos with Homer and Bart before Bill Clinton walks into the living room.