Scullyfied Simpsons: “Make Room For Lisa” (Season 10, Episode 16)

Cellular service is all about communication and unity. Community!” – Omnitouch Executive, trying to convince Lisa that having a cellular tower in her room is a good idea. She’s not the most infuriating character in that scene.

Airdate: February 28th, 1999.

Written By: Brian Scully.

Plot: Lisa undergoes a day from hell when her trip to a traveling history exhibit goes sour. All thanks to Homer, who manages to damage the Constitution, because comedy. To pay for it, he has to put a cellular tower on top of the roof – taking out Lisa’s bedroom for the machinery. (Turns out the government privatized our nation’s treasures.) And it all goes down for her from there…

Review:

Wow, it’s been a while since I took a look at the start collapse of The Simpsons. Now that we’re in the depth of the show’s decline, may as well come back to see if it’s still falling over…

…yup. Still falling over. Alright, everybody – tuck your pants into your socks, cos this is gonna be a whopper of an episode. And by whopper, I mean my god, is this one a trainwreck.

OK, before we start, I think I should disclaim that I absolutely get where this episode is coming from. From the start, the Homer/Lisa relationship has been defined by this great divide – Homer representative of the working class man with working-class tastes, and Lisa an intellectual trapped in a world of incessant idiocy. It was touched upon in episodes from Season 3’s “Lisa the Greek”, all the way to the recent “Lisa the Simpson”. In years past, it’s served to create the show’s more moving, brilliant moments – showing that while our favorite father doesn’t necessarily comprehend his daughter, he still cares for her deep down inside.

To put it in perspective, I like to look back at a scene from “Lisa the Greek”. Let’s set the scene – it’s Sunday, in autumn, in America. Football is on the television, and our hero is snacking around and watching the television. Lisa comes in with one of those shoebox apartments you make when you’re a kid…

Lisa: Look, Dad. I made an apartment for my Malibu Stacy doll. This is a kitchen. This is where she prints her feminist newsletter… Dad, you’re not listening to me!
Homer: Lousy, stupid Denver. (Notices the shoebox project) Oh, look at that, a shoe box house. Lisa, you’re so clever!

Yeah, he’s selfish here, but it’s not out of any sort of malevolence or callousness – he’s just a simple man with a one-track mind, and that mind is stuck on his favorite sport. And while their relationship later on in the episode is for a more self-serving purpose – Lisa has a passion for the sport of football and Homer uses her predictions to make money – there’s genuine remorse at the end, as Homer has to recognize what his family means to him. It’s an emotional undercurrent to my favorite football-related episode of all time.

Unfortunately, though, the writers became slacker as the years went on with characterization. Take the intro to the plot being reviewed (not episode, because pointless shenanigans);

Homer: D’oh!  But we did a Lisa thing last month… and I’m glad we did.  But now I think we should do something that normal people would like.
Lisa: Why do you assume that I won’t pick something fun?  Let’s see … oh, this looks very educational.
Homer: (groans)
Lisa: Well, this could be quite enlightening…
Homer: (groans)
Lisa: Fine. How about…
Homer: (groans)
Marge: She didn’t say it yet!
Homer: Go ahead.
Lisa: The book fair?
Homer: Oh, no. I’m not falling for that again!  If it doesn’t have Siamese twins in a jar, it’s not a fair.
Lisa: (looking back at the paper) Oh! This is perfect.
Homer: (grabs paper) We’re going to go see Marmaduke?
Lisa: No, the Smithsonian travel exhibit. It encapsulates America and makes history come alive!
Homer: What, and Marmaduke doesn’t?
Lisa: No, Dad. My mind is made up.
Homer: (to Bart) This is all your fault for trading away your turn!

As that huge block of quotes hopefully showcases, the tone is much more callous – almost as if Homer loathes Lisa. Yes, there’s been a distance between the two for some time, but to imply that there’s a resentment towards the kid is a complete misfire when it comes to his characterization. Not helping matter is that Homer destroys the constitution at the privatized traveling History museum, and has to pay for it by setting up a cell tower on top of 742 Evergreen Terrace. Take a lucky guess as to what room he selflessly sacrifices for the internals…

…that’s right, Lisa’s. The episode was going for a “misguided father” angle by having Homer explain that Lisa liked “that sciencey-stuff”, but given that opening salvo above, it feels emptier. Callous. At the very least, idiotic even beyond the standards of Homer. Not helping is that the scene after has Lisa moved in with Bart – because that’s always a good idea – and showcases that Homer taped over her favorite movie for his favorite movie. That, and he ignores Lisa’s (reasonable as hell) requests to leave her the hell alone. What’s supposed to be silly idiocy, again, comes off as selfish and irritating.

Between this, plus having to room with Bart, plus Homer egging him on, Lisa begins developing a stress-related stomachache. In this franchise, this is utterly bemusing and horrifying. Like, why is this being played for laughs? This isn’t South Park – it’s The Simpsons. And besides, we’re talking about our once-lovable protagonist possibly giving his kid stress-related ulcers because he’s a jackass. I’d almost prefer it if the writers overlooked the emotional trauma. Instead, it makes our protagonist come off as needlessly callous – especially when he suggests that antacids are good enough. (Hey, I’m no Miss Information type, but come on!)

But wait! The episode drifts away from Homer all but abusing his daughter and decides to twist into the two “drifting further apart”, for some reason. They’ve tackled this several times before – “Lisa’s Substitute”, “Lisa the Greek”, and “Lisa the Vegetarian” all have tackled the great divide between the three. However, what united those episodes was how the characters were treated – in that they actually felt human. Here, it just feels forced – like these characters are going through the motions.

Still, there is a chance to rescue this plot. Let’s take a look at what happens in the new-age store – an attempt to bridge the cultural gap between the two.

The two are put in sensory deprivation tanks. There, Lisa undergoes an out-of-body experience as Homer. Alright, nothing too stunning there. In this experience, “Homer” is disinterested in a ballet that he and Lisa have wound up at, and remarks in “his” head that “I only came to this stupid dump so I could be with her.” OK, slightly dodgy from a storytelling perspective (refer to the quote above), but I guess I could let it slide? Once she leaves the experience?

“Oh!  Boy, I can really be a pain in the butt. Gee, I should cut Dad some slack. After all, he did take me to the ballet, and the Smithsonian exhibit.  In fact, he takes me lots of places he hates.”

OK… let me count the ways in which this one piece of dialogue, and the few minutes surrounding it, turns an already dodgy episode into an episode that placed 27th in NoHomers 2003 “Worst Episodes Ever” list.

First off, explaining what we could see or otherwise infer. Weak writing 101. Keep your exposition limited.

Second, and more damaging, is this concept that it was Lisa‘s fault for the distance between her and her father. Nevermind that the latter played favorites, damaged his daughter’s health, and has acted like a maniac for the past season through the episode. But, no. It’s Lisa that caused Homer to belittle and embarrass her at the traveling Smithsonian. It’s Lisa that caused the ensuing sellout of her room, rather than, say, the attic. Lisa is in the wrong here, because “he tries”. Might I refer you to the constant groaning at the start of the episode?

But I could forgive this if there was something at least a little similar on the other side of the spectrum. What do we get?

That’s right – much like the last Homer and Lisa episode, our “hero” goes on a journey that should leave him dead or substantially injured, or otherwise should not happen by the laws of basic physics. Yes, this show has stretched realism before, but it was usually for a joke – or at least handled well enough that I loved it. This time? It’s the third strike on this plot, and one that transforms it from “aggravatingly misfired” to “infuriatingly toxic”. Nothing of consequence results from this, other than constant idiocy.

Maybe this episode was trying to be subversive? Honestly, though, it didn’t work – the message felt completely and utterly sincere. It’s supposed to be cute when the duo are at the Demolition Derby. It instead comes off as infuriating, unnerving, and a sign of inept writing. Homer got off scot-free, Lisa’s health was trashed and may very well continue to be sunk, and nothing of consequence occurred. They tried a character piece here, and from every indication, they failed miserably.

Now, I know what you’re probably thinking – well, this can’t get any worse, right? Well, let’s meet the writer of this episode – Brian Scully.

Yes, Mike Scully’s brother wrote this episode. He also wrote such classics such as “Lost Our Lisa” and “Sunday, Cruddy Sunday”. The fact that the showrunner gave his brother carte blanche to interpret the character as horribly as he did really shows just how little he nor his brother nor the staff cared at this point – they were willing to overlook any sort of faults for whatever reason. (It’s worth noting that Brian hasn’t penned an episode of The Simpsons since.)

What could’ve been an interesting – if worn – plot winds up being an utter catastrophe. “Make Room for Lisa” might be my least favorite episode of the Scully era, and we’re only 3/8ths of the way through it. Hell, although “Lisa Goes Gaga” might be the worst episode of the show overall, all that episode did was convince me there was no hope saving the show. This, though, might be the most downright infuriating. It desecrates one character, provides horrific implications for a second, and still lacks quality in other areas such as dialogue and plotting. It’s 22 minutes of cruel and unusual punishment.

Taken from frinkiac.com, because I already clicked out of the episode on FXNow before posting this, and I didn’t want to spend another minute watching this.

Tidbits:

  • Oh, right, the B-plot! And it actually ties into the episode! As the cell tower is on the roof, Marge is able to pick up signals through the baby monitor – this being just when cell phones were becoming ubiquitous. Bart and Milhouse take advantage of this, and play a prank – only for it to go slightly wrong. Hey, they got the characters pretty right there, so it’s already a mile ahead of the A-plot.
  • Why is it that Tress MacNeille suddenly began getting all of these roles starting during the Scully era. Yes, I know there was a contract dispute that eventually cost one of the voice actresses their job for a couple of years, but… c’mon, couldn’t hire anybody else?
  • The fact that Homer damaged the constitution while on Archie Bunker’s chair is mildly amusing… in a cosmic way. Doesn’t make his behavior any more tolerable, but still.

Wrap Up:

Zaniness Factor: 3. Why didn’t Homer get ejected, or suffocate, or otherwise die in that pod? Speaking of which…

Jerkass Homer Meter: 5. We have a winner for the first episode to get the 5 score, and it’s for our protagonist being an unlikable jackass, getting away with it, and devastating his daughter’s health! Congratulations, Brian Scully.

Favorite Scene: I guess Bart and Milhouse pulling the prank on Marge was sort of interesting.

Least Favorite Scene: I haven’t got all day. Worst of the worst, though, has to be the demolition derby – the perfect coda to this catastrophe of an episode.

Score: 2. Yes, I did give it a very slightly higher score than “Kidney Trouble”, for two reasons.

  1. I expect far more from a seasoned veteran such as Schwartzwelder, and;
  2. There were a few choice laughs, the B-plot wasn’t too bad, and I did like some of Lisa’s experiences in the tank.

However, those aren’t nearly enough to make up for the episode’s extreme faults. It will be a long, long time before I watch it again.

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