“Well, I guess this is it.” – Lisa Simpson
“You mean, like, goodbye?” – Nelson Muntz
“Let’s just call it, smell you later.” – Lisa Simpson
Around the edges of “Lisa’s Date with Density” you can see the problems that, given a few years, would swoop in and eat the show from the inside out. The emotions are a bit contrived in places, Nelson’s not quite the bully we know, and the plot has to cheat a few times to wrap itself up. But in Season 8 those things are peripheral, the core of the story and the episode fit in with the place we know as Springfield and the characters who inhabit it. Just as importantly, while there’s no denying that Lisa and Nelson are acting a bit more adolescent and less kid like than they should, there’s still a recognizable childishness and humanity to them that makes the story work.
Lisa doesn’t, for example, develop her crush on Nelson because of some cliched contrivance. He doesn’t save her from something; nor does she glimpse him in a candid moment of tenderness when he thought no one was looking. She just laughs at him being him, in this case tormenting Groundskeeper Willie. This is one of those things that just works in The Simpsons. We in the audience get to laugh at Groundskeeper Willie; Nelson (in detention) and Lisa (in band practice) are being themselves (and so are the other kids with their “x likes y” refrains); and the main story moves along without resorting to nonsense.
“And that’s how Willie waters.”
By contrast, in “The Daughter Also Rises” Zombie Simpsons employs a “meet cute”, one of the more hacktacular ideas ever to come out of the entertainment industry. (It’s a concept so durably overused that it has its own article on TV Tropes and Wikipedia.) That they call it a “meet cute” isn’t a joke, it’s just them describing what’s happening. Where’s the joke in Lisa gushing and her new beau throwing a fork in the air? Or their stilted flirting as they instantly anticipate a love for the ages? There isn’t one, the whole thing is dead-eyed, paint-by-numbers crap. Hollywood is littered with writers and actors who can do this scene in their sleep, because it’s not just a trope, it’s an adult trope for adult performers and adult characters.
Things just get worse from there. Lisa and Nick go through three goofy set pieces, each one the same kind of sly, fake-clever horseshit. First they’re at an outdoor cafe, where this supposed kid is looking all charming and suave in a gray suit. Then they’re in a montage where they hang out a balcony, on top of a climbing wall, and Moe’s (of all places) as they go through a few vaguely Hemingway type situations. And finally, Nick shows up at the Simpson home with a bottle of wine before he charms both Marge and Maggie (we’ll get to the after-dinner fiasco in a second). None of these scenes make any sense for them as kids, for them as characters, or for Springfield as a location.
I think this kid’s dad is Andre from “Homer’s Triple Bypass”.
In Season 8, Lisa and Nelson go through a much more believable childhood flirtation. Lisa likes Nelson despite herself, and Nelson eventually finds himself doing the same. They don’t have that instant and nauseating sense of destiny that you get in formulaic romantic comedies. Instead, we see them move through it believably, with Nelson initially just going with the flow while Lisa does the “getting to know you” stuff. It’s funny because of what happens (the cat, “Nuke the Whales”, Milhouse getting brained), but it’s also genuinely plausible. Nelson’s not exactly boyfriend material, and Lisa has a hard time seeing that her caring for him isn’t going to magically turn him into boyfriend material. And none of it requires anyone to look right at the camera and say “meet cute” as a way to shrug their shoulders at mediocrity.
The endings work (or don’t) in similar ways. After Nick (who I keep wanting to call Colin since he’s just as non-descript) comes over for dinner with his bottle of wine, impeccably tasteful suit, and robotically precise manners, he has nowhere to go as a character. He’s confident, handsome, and oh so perfect, and all as (apparently) a little kid. Which is why the next time we see him he’s a completely different person.
Left, At Lisa’s house (12:50); center, on screen but silent (16:40); right, next time he speaks (17:40).
After the scene in the family living room, he literally doesn’t say a word for two commercial breaks. He does find himself in a senior shuttle with Lisa and Grampa, where – for the first time ever – he’s nervous and jerky. What the hell happened? It’s so out of the blue as to be disorienting. The last thing he says at the Simpsons’ house is:
Nick: Mrs. Simpson, I’d like your permission to take your daughter to the Doritos Nutrition Fair at the school gym.
He’s still Mr. Smooth. After he thanks Cletus, it’s this:
Nick: I don’t know, this water’s a little choppy.
Lisa: I thought you rode up the Zambezi without a guide.
Nick: Right. Right.
After that he complains about her cold hands, that his lips are cold, and then just walks away because he’s suddenly sad. This is supposed to be the same kid who confidently flirted with Lisa, took her lots of places, and aced the dreaded first meeting with her parents? They could, of course, have shown us why this change came about. They even had a chance to do it when he was sitting in the living room and Marge demanded that Lisa stop spending so much time with him. That could’ve given him the jitters or something. But, by longstanding Zombie Simpsons convention, he simply wasn’t in that scene even though he was sitting right there. So not only do we get a kid who doesn’t make any sense when we first meet him, he manages to change into a completely different – but equally nonsensical – character before the end.
“Lisa’s Date with Density” doesn’t have anything remotely that clumsy. On the contrary, Lisa and Nelson’s little relationship implodes when it becomes obvious to both of them that they aren’t right for each other. Lisa can’t change Nelson completely and he’s not willing to change enough; so they part on good terms because that’s all there is to it. It’s not the world’s most original idea, but it follows nicely both from who they are outside of this episode and how they act during this particular story.
Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned the elephant in the room, which is that in Season 8 it’s the first time we see Lisa really become involved with someone. From all those Corys to the boy at the library to Langdon Alger, we know she develops the occasional childhood crush, but “Lisa’s Date with Density” was the first time we saw her go after someone. It was also . . . drum roll please . . . her first kiss.
A moment with actual emotional relevance! Careful, Zombie Simpsons might be allergic.
By Season 23, Lisa’s been through four or five relationships. There was the time she fell in love with the environmentalist guy, there was the dude ranch thing, there was the movie, and I think I’m missing a couple. So when she spouts hopelessly naive, romantic comedy gibberish like “The person you kiss under a mulberry tree is someone you’ll love for the rest of your life”, it falls even flatter than it otherwise would. It’s a dumb statement to begin with, but it just doesn’t do coming from someone who used to be mature enough to let Ralph Wiggum down gently and have a successful breakup with Nelson Muntz. “Smell you later”, on the other hand, is great.