How Lisa Simpson Became Her Own Substitute

By Roisin Peddle

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.

Smarmy Little Bastards

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”.

Read the Note

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.

35 Responses to “How Lisa Simpson Became Her Own Substitute”

  1. 1 Joe
    16 January 2015 at 11:19 am

    An interesting article, it addresses one of the major issues of Zombie Simpsons – the characters don’t act like real people anymore, and are completely unlikeable.

  2. 2 Residents Fan
    16 January 2015 at 3:08 pm

    Nice article. I’m also a Irish person who grew up with the Simpsons, although since
    we had Sky One we were able to follow the show closer to its US broadcasts.

    “I wonder if nerdy little eight-year olds see anyone they recognise on the box now. ”

    Dipper Pines from “Gravity Falls”, maybe? “Bob’s Burgers” is aimed at an older
    demographic, but you can see elements of Lisa in both Tina and Gene Belcher (Louise,
    by contrast, is basically Bart as a girl).

    • 3 Son of Stan
      16 January 2015 at 9:54 pm

      Anais Watterson from “The Amazing World of Gumball” (a Cartoon Network show from the UK that airs in America and other countries) is a lot like what Lisa used to be (very book-smart, but also a child [she has her Daisy the Donkey doll] and the sane one in the family when the mother figure isn’t there or goes screaming off the deep end), even though she’s half Lisa’s age (Anais is 4, even though it’s established that she goes to junior high with Gumball and Darwin). In fact, I recommend “The Amazing World of Gumball” to anyone who’s a fan of The Simpsons back when it was good. If you can get past how weird it is, that is.

  3. 4 turlet
    16 January 2015 at 3:25 pm

    The success of having Lisa as a cause fighter in Lisa the vegetarian has made the writers go to the well too often with the concept. It’s just like how the success of ‘Homers enemy’ lead to a permanent jerkass Homer.

    Lisa has always had strong morals but back in the day she was more objective. In ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’ she finds out that the heroic town founder was in fact a cowardly murdering Pirate. However for the greater good of town morale she decides not to share this information. It’s a very mature reaction but she shows lot’s of signs of still being a child in the episode such as being impetuous.

    Her character jumped the shark when they gratuitously made her a Buddhist. I have nothing against the religion but how realistic is it for a lower middle class 8 year old to join a religion of which a tiny minority of the country follow?

    The Simpsons used to write an episode and see if they could sprinkle a bit of current affairs on it. Nowadays they look at a big news stories and try to write an episode around it. This leads to disjointed episodes with weak plots.

    • 5 torbiecat
      16 January 2015 at 3:39 pm

      Oddly, I remember there being something about how Lisa acts in “Lisa the Vegetarian” that felt different to me from her crusading in the past and I felt as if that had set president for what she has become–something I can’t quite place finger on. But, considering that it has been quite some time since I have watched some of these episodes, maybe my view has changed.

      • 6 torbiecat
        16 January 2015 at 3:40 pm

        Ugh, I meant, “set precedent.” Stupid spell check and me not catching this “correction” sooner.

      • 7 Jack
        16 January 2015 at 7:45 pm

        Lisa’s vegetarianism (or at least the permanency of it) was a condition for Paul and Linda McCartney to appear on the show, so that may have had an impact? Personally I thought her antics in that episode were perfectly in character, and really worked well. The problem was when they made it a plot formula to be used repeatedly regardless of whether it’s been earned, just like “Homer gets a new job” or “The Simpsons go on holiday to a place”. The formula being:

        – Lisa learns about a cause, gains a new hobby, or joins a new group.
        – Fighting for this cause is now the most important thing in her life.
        – Her forcefulness and/or obsession with the cause leads to conflict with the rest of the family.
        – She does something extreme for the cause, and it goes badly.
        – The immediate issue resolves, and she agrees to tone it down or compromise on the issue in the future.
        Bonus points if her new obsession is really just to make friends or a boyfriend.

        • 8 Kodos
          17 January 2015 at 5:31 am

          There are many episodes from The Simpsons that set precedent for Zombie Simpsons.

          For example, the Frank Grimes, Burns’ son and the boxing episodes in Season 8 were the first signs of Jerkass Homer. Homer’s characterization works in Homer’s Enemy as an special episode, but that’s it.

          Lisa the Vegetarian could be one of those episodes. Although to be honest I don’t have a problem with Lisa being the liberal, leftist voice she is in Zombie Simpsons, even if she’s no longer acts as a 8 year old kid.

          • 9 Sarah J
            17 January 2015 at 7:20 pm

            One of the big issues with Zombie Simpsons is overuse of certain themes and jokes. For instance, the one letter/word changes for “parody” products. The Simpsons did that sometimes, but not to the point where it was stupid or obnoxious. Zombie Simpsons is rather… formulaic, too, using similar plots over and over again.

        • 10 Charlie Sweatpants
          17 January 2015 at 11:17 am

          “The problem was when they made it a plot formula to be used repeatedly regardless of whether it’s been earned, just like “Homer gets a new job” or “The Simpsons go on holiday to a place”.”

          Don’t forget “Bart gets a girlfriend” and “Marge gets a hobby”. At this point even the minor characters have repeatable templates. How many “Moe is lonely but kinda finds someone” episodes have there been?

          • 11 Jack
            17 January 2015 at 12:30 pm

            Sadly, this is too true. Also, “Homer screws up astronomically and endangers his marriage, but wins Marge back with a grand gesture.” is used so often that they re-purpose the same basic story beats for the Homer/Lisa dynamic.

          • 12 turlet
            17 January 2015 at 12:31 pm

            In the Simpsons heyday, Lisa getting into trouble/causing trouble was a rarity. Now its at least 8 times per series.

            Bart barely had any girlfriends in the first 8 seasons but now he’s a 10 year old Charlie Sheen.

            Essentially they have to let the characters age in order to open up new plot opportunities or better still just end it.


            • 13 Sarah J
              17 January 2015 at 2:05 pm

              A lot of people think that letting the kids age would allow for new stories and thus keep the show fresh, but obviously the writers have no qualms about doing older storylines for the kids. Hell, they even had a teen pregnancy episode with Bart!

        • 14 Anonymous
          22 January 2015 at 7:59 am

          Thanks. For me the issue isn’t Lisa’s feminism or politics – the Simpsons always was a work of social commentary, from Homer losing his bonus in s1e1 – but how they’re constructed. I thought Lisa becoming a vegetarian was realistic, and it gave us Troy McClure’s infotainment – but compare it to her fight to save a giant tree, (forget the episode), where it’s just a backdrop to a crush. It manages to diminish her cause and her character.

    • 16 January 2015 at 6:47 pm

      Yes I did mean to add something about Lisa The Vegetarian but I felt it was long enough. I completely agree with you, it’s a great episode and Lisa became the victim of its success.

    • 16 Charlie Sweatpants
      17 January 2015 at 11:14 am

      “The Simpsons used to write an episode and see if they could sprinkle a bit of current affairs on it. Nowadays they look at a big news stories and try to write an episode around it.”

      That’s a good way to put it. That super-hackneyed episode with Jon Stewart where Ralph runs for president springs to mind.

      • 17 Sarah J
        17 January 2015 at 2:06 pm

        It’s the show desperately jumping up and down and screaming “WE’RE STILL RELEVANT! LOOK HOW HIP AND COOL WE ARE! BIG NEWS AND GEEK REFERENCES”

  4. 18 torbiecat
    16 January 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I think I would actually be able to deal with the other shortcomings of Zombie Simpsons if the characters were somehow able to be their former selves–to be human–once again. While people sometimes argue that the characters were stereotypes even in the classic era, they often subverted certain expectations rather than fell victim to them and were allowed to be multi-dimensional. The characters often were the sorts that you would not see on other programs, but saw in real life.

    And while I have come to understand and identify with certain characters of the Simpsons’ earlier years that I didn’t have as much of an appreciation for as I do now, and that their transformations have bothered me, too, there’s something about Lisa’s transformation that effects me a bit differently. I think Lisa’s personality changes often strike a certain chord with a lot of viewers who watched the show during its infancy and during their childhood because they had actually found a character who largely represented themselves, a character not found in pop culture at the time, and perhaps had a little more hope for themselves because they realized that they weren’t the anomalies that people often saw them as. As they grew up, they saw that representation of their hope being twisted into something unreal, into an anomaly.

    • 19 Sarah J
      16 January 2015 at 7:17 pm

      Yeah, intellectual female characters were, and still are, something of a rarity on TV. Lisa was someone that a lot of people could identify with. Zombie Simpsons change, she’s no longer that. Tina Belcher on Bob’s Burgers represents some hope.

  5. 20 Joe
    16 January 2015 at 4:30 pm

    Good article. Another Irish reader here and even though non satellite viewers were very behind on new Simpsons episodes, the fact that they were shown uncut was a real blessing. I remembered Treehouse of Horror V was butchered beyond belief on Sky One and when I seen it on RTE, Willie being axed in every story was a brand new gag that I did not see before. For example, in the Time and Punishment story when it was shown on Sky One, Willie offers to help Homer out of his predicament and the very next scene Homer is just going crazy attacking everything back in prehistoric times. Huh? How did Willie help him out? Then in the uncut version I see him being murdered by Maggie and the story makes a whole lot more sense. Sorry, bit of a tangent but thought it might be interesting to some to see how badly some channels meddle with episodes.

    • 21 Residents Fan
      16 January 2015 at 6:27 pm

      ” I remembered Treehouse of Horror V was butchered beyond belief on Sky One and when I seen it on RTE, Willie being axed in every story was a brand new gag that I did not see before.”

      On that topic: RTE was thinking of buying the Simpsons around 1990, but apparently
      RTE honchos were puzzled by a cartoon that resembled a live-action sitcom, and decided
      there was little audience for it in Ireland.

      It’s the station’s “Groups with guitars are on their way out” moment.

      • 22 Joe
        16 January 2015 at 6:45 pm

        Heh, I did not know that at all! The Simpsons was the reason a lot of people subscribed to Sky so that really ended up kicking them in the arse. RTE did always make stupid decisions in relation to comedy though, they also turned down Father Ted when Graham Lineham and Arthur Matthews pitched it to them.

    • 16 January 2015 at 6:50 pm

      Thanks Joe- I don’t ever remember seeing that episode on satellite before or since and it’s ridiculous they butchered the story so much that it didn’t even make sense. Kinda like what the Irish censor did with Casablanca back in the day.

      Of all the things I was allowed watched I think the Simpsons was both the mildest, yet the most subversive.

      I can believe RTE being baffled by the Simpsons, but gonna have to correct you about Father Ted, Linehan has said they took it straight to Channel 4 as they knew RTE would ruin it!

      • 16 January 2015 at 6:52 pm

        Ahh watch! Not allowed watched. Oh it’s too hot today.

      • 25 Joe
        16 January 2015 at 8:20 pm

        Cheers for the correction about Father Ted, Roisin. I guess it was just the version of events I heard back in the day. Much appreciated. Very good point about the Simpsons being very subversive despite being “just a cartoon”. It could get away with stuff a lot of live action programmes couldn’t. Of course, Zombie Simpsons has sucked that cleverness away to a shrivelled husk.

  6. 26 Sarah J
    16 January 2015 at 6:45 pm

    My realization that Zombie Simpsons sucked was a pretty slow process. Eventually I realized that the show wasn’t very funny, but I had a hard time explaining why. The first thing I was able to explain was that the characters didn’t act like themselves, and I think that’s the biggest flaw of the show. It causes a lot of problems, one of which being, the writers don’t write for the characters. They write for the story/plot and put the characters in whether or not it makes any sense. One recent episode involved Milhouse acting like a bad boy to get Lisa to like him, and it works. It’s something of a stock plot for sitcoms and teen dramas and such. The Simpsons didn’t rely heavily on stock plots, and even when they did do them, they subverted many aspects.

    While the show was exaggerated and cartoonish, it mocked TV cliches and in some aspects, more closely resembled real life than many live-action shows. Zombie Simpsons writers seem to take popular scenarios and playing everything straight, even though that kind of thing doesn’t work for the characters OR the story universe. Even if Milhouse could act like a convincing bad boy, Lisa isn’t the type of person who would go for that. She’s not only aware about sexism and bad relationships, she’s a sweet 8-year old girl who prefers non-threatening prettyboys who might be members of boy bands and sing about how they’ll do everything for you. But Zombie Simpsons wanted to do a stock sitcom plot without care as to whether it made sense.

    I’ve mentioned before on this site that I’ve recently been watching the older episodes, for the first time since I was a kid, (when my family moved, the local TV networks at our new place preferred to air reruns only of episodes from the past few years, only airing older episodes for special occasions. Same situation when I moved for college) and remembering how great it really was. One thing I’ve definitely been enjoying was Lisa’s character. ZS turned her into a mouthpiece for the writers’ political views, she has little personality of her own. Like the other characters on the show, she just follows the story rather than lead it. In The Simpsons, she was an intelligent and gifted child, but still very much a child. She had some of the problems that smart kids face, not helped by the fact that her home environment wasn’t always understanding. Like any kid, she interacts with her sibling in positive and negative ways, and she has typical interests for a girl her age. She’s a character I can describe, and one I can enjoy.

    • 27 Oscar
      16 January 2015 at 11:14 pm

      I seriously think that the writers are projecting their women issues into the show, especially with Milhouse’s crush on Lisa.

    • 28 turlet
      17 January 2015 at 12:35 pm

      It wouldn’t be so bad if just occasionally we were reminded that she is still an 8 year old girl.

      I mean even Family Guy still make Brian Griffin exhibit dog like characteristics.

  7. 29 Son of Stan
    16 January 2015 at 8:05 pm

    “it seems Seasons 1 and 2 are never shown on TV anymore”

    –Maybe not network TV, but over in America, if you have cable TV or satellite and it carries FXX, you can get every Simpsons episode from “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” to the current crapfest of Zombie Simpsons (though most will stop at either the season finales of seasons 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, or 11…maybe 12, since “Simpsons Tall Tales” wasn’t that bad [it probably would have been better if Jim Carrey were voicing the hobo as originally planned, but life doesn’t always pan out the way you want it to]. If they ended season 12 with the one where they go to Africa, that would have been enough for fans to give up on the show), meaning you do get to see such moments as Homer become a safety inspector after launching a town safety campaign, Mr. Burns run for governor and spit out Blinky the Three-Eyed Fish, Bart cheat on an intelligence test, Homer take a job as a Mall Santa so he can get money for Christmas, Bart cry over getting an F, Lisa bond with the substitute who sounds like Dustin Hoffman, and Marge nearly cheating on Homer with a French bowler (among others).

    • 21 January 2015 at 7:28 am

      Another reason to visit the States! In Ireland you have the Irish terrestrial channels- largely showing ZS now I’m afraid- and many people have satellite subscriptions to British channels. Sky 1 (Fox) do show a lot of the classics but they are edited, and it only seems to be Season 3 on.

  8. 31 Stan
    17 January 2015 at 4:20 am

    lol “tomater”

  9. 32 K
    17 January 2015 at 4:01 pm

    Speaking of RTE, I’m fairly sure that they broadcast the barrel-on-head, “I’m the Prime Minister of Ireland” line from the Patrick’s Day/ Rex Banner episode while Sky cut it out.

    • 21 January 2015 at 7:26 am

      Oh definitely they did. Don’t think anyone took any offence at that episode here. I spent sometime in Australia and they had no problem showing Bart vs Australia there either.

      • 34 K
        22 January 2015 at 2:09 pm

        I’d like to think RTE saw it as an accurate portrayal of the Taoiseach of the day. But no, I don’t think there was ever any offence taken. In fact, we used to quote that line all the time in school.

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