Recently, my partner got season nine of The Simpsons on DVD. Perhaps suggesting our age, this was the last season either of us watched in its entirety upon original broadcast. We’ve caught episodes from season ten on in syndication, and I marvel at how the show has maximized high definition’s potential. We also saw The Simpsons Movie, which was more remarkable for the assuredly bombed woman who sang loudly to herself, yelled at Maggie for being a “cunt,” and called us “asshats” for telling her to be quiet before being escorted out of the theater. But for both of us, the ongoing series peaked 13 seasons earlier. The show may be sporadically hilarious and subversive, but like many successful television shows that go on for too long, it has also exhausted premises, developed a frantic tone, got further away from the family’s class struggles and feelings of mediocrity that made the show especially poignant in the early seasons, and dispensed with much carefully-crafted character development.
This last point seems especially true of Marge and Lisa Simpson to me. The show was never especially savvy with what to do with the tower-coiffed matriarch, who has dumbed down considerably in my estimation. The show’s predominantly male, Ivy League alum writing staff admit as such in several episode commentaries, noting that they rarely provided her with friends, struggled with ideas for a character so doggedly sensible, and sometimes relied upon female personnel to give her character development and narrative action (ex: season seven’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” was written by Jennifer Crittenden).
But the family’s spiky-haired middle child prodigy was always the show’s center for me growing up. What’s more, Lisa episodes were penned by male writers and rank among the best of the series for me, though they tend to focus more on her relationship with Homer than with Marge. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my absolute favorite, but it’s in rich company with Jon Vitti’s “Lisa’s Substitute,” Dan Greaney’s “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” Mike Scully’s “Lisa’s Rival,” Greg Daniels’s Emmy-winning “Lisa’s Wedding,” and David S. Cohen’s “Lisa the Vegetarian” (note: Oakley and Weinstein were show runners from seasons 7 and 8 and were replaced by Scully for 9-12 to develop the animated series Mission Hill; Greg Daniels went on to co-create King of the Hill and adapted the American version of The Office). So you’ll excuse me if I get snotty and say that Lisa has no business lip-syncing Ke$ha’s butt-stupid “Tik Tok.”
Much of why these episodes work so brilliantly, apart from the writing, is to do with the animators and animation directors working in accord with voice actress Yeardley Smith, whose distinct performance captures so much nuance around the heartache, loneliness, and ironic detachment that often comes from being the kid sister of a popular kid and is too smart for her surroundings. As creator Matt Groening often points out, Lisa is the only character he envisioned leaving Springfield. He and many other show personnel counter this by claiming her as the show’s tragic character whose ideas and actions are often thwarted or go unnoticed. Several smart girls can relate.
However, while I have noticed a slight lapse in Lisa’s all-too-precious perspicacity as the series has gone on, I recognize that she’s still a smart girl committed to change. To echo Jonathan Gray’s claims in Watching The Simpsons, Lisa remains the longest-running feminist character on television.
One thing I especially like about Lisa is her interest in music. Assuredly, she’s motivated in many other areas, including environmentalism, writing, and film-making, among others. But I always delighted in seeing Lisa strut out of Mr. Largo’s band practice while belting out a saxophone riff, as the director clearly doesn’t know what to do with free-thinking talent who have exceeded his teaching abilities. She has also used her musical aptitude toward political change, rallying her father Homer and his co-workers with her acoustic guitar and an impassioned protest anthem when they staged a strike at the power plant for better health benefits.
Having recently watched season nine’s “Lisa’s Sax” (written by past and current show runner Al Jean), I was touched while relearning the origins of how Lisa came to the jazzy woodwind instrument. Unable to afford admission into a ritzy private day care for their accelerated toddler, Marge wracks her brain for a way to encourage her daughter. Homer ends up forking over money he was saving for a new air conditioner when a chance visit to a music store presents Lisa with her artistic calling. I think it was a wise investment.
Check out my penultimate “Tuning In” entry, where I look at how Lady Gaga and Kiss inform Glee‘s “Theatricality.”
I’m in Eugene and will be here for a few days. Thus, I’ll be infrequent. In the mean time, check out today’s Tuning In entry on Glee‘s “The Power of Madonna” episode. Feel free to “express yourself” in the comments section.
I’ve always had a special place in my heart for King of the Hill. It kind of lost its footing after being on the air for so long, but I stand by season twelve’s “Lady and Gentrification” (aka “the hipster episode” aka “what happened to Austin’s East 7th Street”). I also stand by a touching finale, which left us with the image of propane salesman Hank Hill grilling with his son Bobby. Other reasons are as follows.
1. I’m a Texan. And while, like Friday Night Lights‘ fictitious Dillon, the location of Arlen is flexible — while the name of the town comes from Garland, sometimes it seems like Temple, other times Nacogdoches, other times Elgin, and other times Waco — both shows do a great job capturing the culture, values, and pace of life in small town Texas. By the way, I grew up in Alvin, which sounds a lot like Arlen and was filled with dudes just like Hank Hill. Some of them were my friends’ dads.
2. Bobby Hill might be the queerest ostensibly heterosexual pubescent boy American prime-time network television has ever offered us. That he was voiced by Pamela Adlon definitely adds a layer of queerness that, say, Nancy Cartwright can’t offer Bart Simpson. Also, Bobby cracked me up.
3. In the wake of Brittany Murphy’s tragic death, hearing her voice come out of Luanne Platter is strangely poignant. And while she eventually became woefully underwritten in the service of creating more screen time for her husband Lucky Kleinschmidt (and Tom Petty, who played him), I always liked Ms. Platter. Especially whenever she was fixing cars or skating in the derby.
4. Señora Paddlin’ Peggy Hill. While her skills as a substitute junior high Spanish teacher were questionable, her hubris got her into trouble, and she never owned the term “feminist,” I always admired her. For one, she was voiced by avowed feminist Kathy Najimy. Peggy herself had formidable Boggle skills, was a professional muser, and had a mean pitching arm. She jumped out of a plane with a faulty parachute and lived. And she never took any guff from her misogynistic father-in-law Cotton, but made friends with just about anybody, including prostitutes and drag queens. For a list of other awesome things Peggy did during the show’s thirteen-season run, I highly recommend checking out the Consumed issue of Bitch.
Best of all, Peggy was always trying to gain professional skills and broaden her personal experiences. This led her to become a successful realtor later in the series. But she was always trying to better herself. For example, in season two’s “Peggy’s Turtle Song” she picks up the acoustic guitar and takes lessons from a feminist instructor played by Ani DiFranco.
Now, I think this episode takes an unfortunate turn. As was often the case with King of the Hill, Hank tended to know best. So what was originally an episode about Peggy trying to find her own voice and growing critical of her marriage becomes a retreat from feminist dogma and back into her husband’s arms.
But I don’t think we should discredit Mrs. Hill’s angst, as she never lost it. Throughout the series, she proved herself to be a peer to her husband and never let herself settle. She stayed restless and opinionated. And I’m pretty sure she kept that guitar.
After last night’s assessment of Nine, I’ve still got screen musical adaptations on the brain tonight. So I thought I’d draw our attention to one more, and add music video that references screen musical stars from the genre’s golden era, and another that recreates an 80s blockbuster many believe to be a screen musical of sorts (and whose protagonist shares a version of my namesake).
If you want to note that all three of the artists are women of color and international pop sensations praised for their dancing and maligned for their limited vocal ranges, gold stars for you. If you want to weep over the slurred, siliconed mess Paula has become and hope that Glee does an all-Janet episode, shake your fists at FOX. If you want to posit what it means that these movies seem to have influenced the performers and may tap into their dance training and on-screen personae, let’s chat in the comments section.
First up is an oldie but a goodie from my youth. While I hadn’t seen Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz when Paula Abdul’s “Cold Hearted” started its rotation on MTV, it’s pretty clear that its takes its from the movie’s “Take Off With Us” section. As if the direct mention wasn’t enough in the clip’s introduction, let’s compare the two. Warning: contents hot, and sexy.
Forever Your Girl
Directed by David Fincher
And here’s the source material, created by a director and choreographer who seems to have gotten women like Abdul, Madonna, and The Pussycat Dolls dancing (the last act going so far as to take cues from Sweet Charity‘s “Hey Big Spender“ for “Buttons“). Also, something tells me warm nuts are served on this plane. (Rimshot) Acid probably is too.
The next one is also from my youth, released at around the same time from a woman whose early video work Abdul choreographed. Janet Jackson’s “Alright” is an homage to the film musicals of Cyd Charisse, the Nicholas Brothers, and Cab Calloway. I especially love Janet in a zoot suit. Click on Ms. Jackson’s name and enjoy.
Rhythm Nation 1814
Directed by Julien Temple
And here are the pop star’s and music videos’ influences. The first one comes from Singin’ in the Rain, while the second one is from Stormy Weather.
Finally, we have a clip from former In Living Color fly girl and Jackson back-up dancer who makes an appearance in “That’s The Way Love Goes.” Jennifer Lopez’s “I’m Glad,” a song about her big feelings for then-boyfriend Ben Affleck, retells the entire story of Flashdance, focusing on four dance sequences from the movie, especially the climactic audition scene. Unlike the source material, which utilized two trained dancers (one male) as actress Jennifer Beals’s doubles, I believe all J.Lo does all the dancing.
This Is Me . . . Then
Directed by David LaChappelle
And here are some of the dance sequences in question.