“Oh, a sarcasm detector. That’s a real useful invention!” – Comic Book Guy. Standout quote. Glad it came in this wonderful season!
Airdate: May 9th, 1999
Written By: Matt Selman
Plot: Springfield’s culture, never particularly highbrow, hits a low point when a contest asking contestants to embarrass themselves collapses into a full-blown riot. In response, Lisa pens an open letter begging the townsfolk to better themselves. That letter catches the collective eyes of Springfield’s MENSA chapter, who encourage her to join. Despite a bit of terseness in the group, their concerns about Springfield’s culture gain more prominence when they inadvertently cause Mayor Quimby to skip town. Following the town charter, they take over as a quasi-junta.
OK, 21 episodes down, two to go in the tenth season. Only took me about two years to do so. And after that complete and utter debacle of the last episode, these next two might close the season out on a high note.
There is a sort of bizarre coincidence, though, that I’ve noticed. Despite this season overall being quite focused on Homer’s increasingly bizarre antics, the debut and penultimate episodes of the season take a closer look at Springfield’s favorite intellectual, Lisa Simpson, and examines just where she fits into this strange society.
Springfield has, through the series (at least, the golden years), been a microcosm of everything wrong with America. The churches are apathetic and two-faced, the government is corrupt, the schools are failing, the energy company is run by a miser, and nobody seems to give a flip. Highbrow entertainment and discussion is relatively few and far between in the town.
Springfield’s more… lowbrow tendencies reach their peak in this episode – the family is watching “Ethnic Mismatch Comedy #644”, the townsfolk are attracted by a “how low can you go” competition, and that descends into a pudding-fueled riot. Years of being the lone girl out finally boil over, and she goes on an incensed rant against the town in the paper.
An Open Letter to Springfield:
Today, our town lost what remains of its fragile civility, drowned in a sea of low-fat pudding.
We are a town of lowbrows, no-brows, and ignorami. We have eight malls, but no symphony; thirty-two bars, but no alternative theater; thirteen stores that begin with Le Sex.
I write this letter not to nag or whine, but to prod. We can better ourselves!
It’s clear that this letter represents years of frustration being taken out on a lower-class citizenry, one that takes pride in tastes tailor-made to the common man. There is a sense of paternalism, but more in an optimistic way – one that encourages those to improve their behavior, even if they take on a somewhat patronizing tone in doing so. It really fits into Lisa’s role as the misfit, albeit somewhat pushy in her intellectualism, and doesn’t take it too far.
This letter, surprisingly, manages to get the attention of a few people… albeit, not those that Lisa is targeting, trying to prod into the middle brow. Rather, the letter gets to the Springfield chapter of MENSA, who welcomes her in with open arms. The irony that only the people she sides with actually read her letter – kind of an “echo chamber” effect, eh? Eh, maybe they just saw it and welcomed her in with open arms.
And MENSA’s Springfield Chapter is actually rather diverse, so to speak. Sure, there’s Professor Frink and Hibbert – not too much of a surprise there. But there’s also the quiet, as we see with Principal Skinner; and the Snobs, as we see with Comic Book Guy and venture capitalist/generic 90s businesswoman Lindsay Nagle (who, as we will see, is one of the writers favorite characters.) While putting the show’s more recognizable characters in situations such as MENSA could be mishandled, I could totally see most of these characters being intelligent enough (at least in terms of IQ) to qualify for MENSA, as well as taking the actions they take over the second and third acts.
Their concerns regarding Springfield are prudent – they do complain about how the town sacrifices intellectual resources to please the masses, one example involving the library being stripped down to reduce literary value. And when they do get into power, they do try and appease the masses by bringing them into the fold of modern society – as per the jury duty letter.
Here’s the problem with some intellectuals, though… they’re annoying. Rather than choose to promote intellectualism for the masses, even in a paternalistic way, some intellectuals tend to (or at least appear to) support the suppression of blue-collar pursuits, even going as far as to hold those that enjoy them in complete contempt. You do that enough, though, people with blue collar tastes are more likely to return the favor, so to speak.
And just because you fancy yourself an intellectual doesn’t mean you’re incorruptible, as this episode showcases. As soon as the intellectual “junta” gets in power, schisms begin to break out within the group. Their “State of the City” address consists of ideas that either strip out the blue-collar ideas (they get rid of Football, for cripes sakes), advance their own interests (“Breeding will only be permitted once every seven years. For you, this will mean much less breeding. For me, much, much more!”), or just plain insult each other (“My IQ is 199! – bangs head – 198… 197…) Even Stephen Hawking arrives and calls them out for their arrogance – despite carrying a somewhat self-important streak himself, ironically enough.
In short, the issue here is threefold – their ideas are paternalistic, their attitude haughty, and their motives selfish. They don’t want to advance a new culture as much as wipe the old one out. Again, you can try and get people to take up more intellectual pursuits… but forcing them is a fools errand.
I really can’t say much more, but I will give this episode props. Outside of some choice scenes and the rather over-the-top ending, I could really see this episode fitting into Season 7 or 8 or something. It has a great plot, rather spot-on characterization (for the most part), and I actually did laugh through the episode. This might be the best episode of Season 10.
Let’s see if a trip to Tokyo can top it…
- There’s a B-Plot involving Homer “winning” second prize in the riot – one that involves him posing for suggestive photographs. Not only does it tie into the idea of culture in Springfield, but I do like the portrayal of Homer as pretty much his old self – a goofy, quirky average joe, in contrast to the “center of the universe” maniac over the past several episodes.
- This isn’t Stephen Hawking’s first television role – he did guest star in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing poker with great minds in the Holodeck – but I think this might be his most recognizable role on American TV. The only other roles that might compare are those in The Big Bang Theory (most popular sitcom in America) and Futurama (“I call it a Hawking Chamber.”)
- One more note… Lindsay Nagle never goes away. Ever. As far as I can recall. Also, this is the start of Tress McNeille taking over every new female on the show. (Except for the “girlfriend of the season” episodes of the Al Jean era.)
Jerkass Homer Meter: 1.25. Outside of the riot, this whole episode felt like classic Homer.
Zaniness Factor: 1.5. Hawking flying out of a collapsing gazebo during a riot aside, this might be the most grounded episode in a long time
Favorite Scene: The “State of the City” address – from top to bottom, a hysterical display of how power corrupts.
Least Favorite Scene: I can’t really point to a particular scene that I disliked in this episode. Kinda rare, eh?
Score: 8.5. I was pleasantly surprised with how this episode turned out.