Forgiveness, please, for some pointless nostalgia right off the bat. Just like The Simpsons, I turned 25 this year. Being a kid without ‘the channels’ [i.e. cable] in 90s Ireland turned me into discerning Simpsons fan. For one thing, our state broadcaster, RTE, was ridiculously behind in broadcasting ‘new’ episodes. In 1998, I remember enjoying ‘Bart’s Friend Falls in Love’ for the first time. The episode was already six years old; so as a result I didn’t see anything from the newer seasons until well after I’d developed my critical faculties.
Secondly, RTE never cut anything out of the original broadcast. Watching “Sideshow Bob Roberts” on prime time on Channel 4 or Sky 1, the lack of Kelsey Grammer’s marvellously-delivered “Is that what you want, you smarmy little bastards?” jars every time. The generous might say the Irish didn’t believe in censorship (ha!). More likely, the RTE mandarins were terrified to cut up expensive tape from America. You should have seen them inserting ad breaks mid-sentence in BBC programmes before the advent of digital.
Saved by cheapness.
What I am getting at here is that I loved The Simpsons, and it’s shaped me in quite a few ways; my sense of humour, my cynicism, my love of rich creamery butter, all owe a little something to Groening, Brooks, Simon and co. And then, when I was about 12 or 13, and RTE finally caught up with Zombie Simpsons, it was over. But unlike other things that are over, it kept going.
Many who have given up on the show have their own tipping point. It might be as far back as Armin Tamzarian or Frank Grimes, or it might be Season 22. For me it was a little thing called “Homer Simpson In: Kidney Trouble” when he ran out on his own father who needed a transplant. I was done with the show; it wasn’t what I used to love. Any Zombie Simpsons I’ve seen since have failed to win me back to the fold. And while the movie was alright, it was only alright by the standard of Zombie Simpsons.
I’ve watched an awful lot of the classics lately, and they hold up. The references may be a little dated, but the jokes are so good you don’t care. One of my old college mates made the point that he only knew the names Lee Majors and Eudora Welty through The Simpsons, and he had no intention of finding out more about the people themselves. When Mr. Burns compares a puppy to Rory Calhoun, it doesn’t matter who that is, it matters that a) this old, heartless man spares lives due to his ridiculous whims and b) he’s so out of touch he doesn’t realise that dogs stand up on their hind legs on quite a regular basis. Zombie Simpsons, like Family Guy, assumes the viewer knows something about the figure being joked about, and the joke relies on this knowledge to be funny.
But the biggest problem I have with Zombie Simpsons is that the characters are no longer real people. It’s too simplistic to say the problem with Homer is that he’s now a jerk. In Season 6’s “Lisa on Ice”, for example, he behaves appallingly. He bullies his kids, rides roughshod over everybody and everything, and values victory over all else. But he’s a jerk in a realistic way. He’s relatively low down the ladder of a society where winning is everything. His kids are the only way he can taste some success, and he just loses the run of himself. We can see why this is happening. He’s still a fundamentally decent (and therefore normal) person underneath.
Bart and Lisa (and Maggie) were real children too. The writers in the classic era understood kids: their misconceptions (“reverse vampires”), thier fears (“can’t sleep, clown will eat me”) and their utter confusion regarding the adult world. When you’re ten, you can’t understand why you’re not allowed to spend an afternoon smashing mustard sachets with a hammer.
Why are you doing that? I dunno.
As a kid, I could identify with Bart’s pain at not being allowed to see The Itchy and Scratchy Movie and his disgust at Milhouse and Samantha’s little relationship. But it was Lisa I ‘got’, seeing her was like seeing myself on screen. Like her, I was a clever child who sometimes found it hard to fit in with my peers. I got excited over history and books and I soon found out that that made me a bit weird.
Lisa would later become a mouthpiece for whatever views the writers wanted to put across to their audience (environmentalism, etc.), but in the classic seasons she was a real kid. She fell out with Bart regularly and could be petty (“That’ll learn him to squish my tomater”). Her inner fantasies were sometimes bitter and vengeful. At one point she daydreams about kicking Bart and impaling him on her Nobel Peace Prize. Yet the sibling love of the oldest Simpson kids was palpable too. In later seasons they’re almost strangers sharing the same house, but in the classics they were a little team.
The arrival of Alison in “Lisa’s Rival” would teach Lisa that she would not always be the smartest person in the room. It was the first challenge to the arrogance that can come with being a clever kid (luckily, I had my mediocrity in Maths to save me from that fate), and Lisa reacted like a real eight-year-old would. She got jealous and angry, and concocted a pathetic revenge scheme before feeling horribly guilty.
In Zombie Simpsons, Lisa is a forty-year-old left-leaning feminist in an eight-year-old body (apt, really, because if she was real she’d be 34). But in the classic era her precocious intelligence was tempered by her youth: she worshipped actors called Corey and played with dolls.
Back to “Bart’s Friend Falls in Love”, the subplot of which involves Lisa becoming concerned about Homer’s weight. Throughout the episode she reads from Eternity magazine about various improbable ways science will improve our lives. It’s all hokum, but it’s precisely the kind of hokum I fell for when I was eight.
“Lisa’s Substitute”, which I just watched and hadn’t seen in years (it seems Seasons 1 and 2 are never shown on TV anymore) is just like it. It’s a beautiful piece of TV: heart-warming and funny. Ms Hoover, Lisa’s teacher, develops psychosomatic Lyme disease (“Does that mean you’re crazy?” “No, it means she was faking it!”), and during her recuperation, the second grade gets a Dustin Hoffman-voiced substitute called Mr Bergstrom. He’s funny, good-humoured and has a genuine passion for teaching. Lisa falls – hard – and it’s through her childish adulation and insecurities (like refusing to play the sax in class, which would be unthinkable in later seasons) that we see her as she is: a bright little girl, an outcast in a family where the boorish Homer and incorrigible Bart dominate.
Homer and Lisa argue when he dismisses her heartbreak at Mr Bergstrom’s departure. The structure of the argument (Lisa snaps, calling Homer a baboon, who wins her round by impersonating one) would be unthinkable in Zombie Simpsons. Reflecting a realistic father-daughter dynamic isn’t what they do. Mr Bergstrom’s final note “You are Lisa Simpson” would be mocked in a fifteenth season episode, where Marge gives her the same handwritten note, only to be dismissed; “I already have one of those”.
It only works once.
Mr Bergstrom would not write a Zombie Lisa Simpson a note. She isn’t anything, just a collection of poorly-thought out gags and outdated political issues.
Girl nerds were an endangered species on TV when I was a child, and they are still a rarity. I wonder if nerdy little eight-year olds see anyone they recognise on the box now. It’s sure as hell not Lisa Simpson, that’s for sure.