I thought a lot about The Simpsons when I wrote up a Frank Capra box set a while ago. In Capra’s screwball comedies, the crowd is a major character. Depending on the scene and the context, the hot-blooded crowds of Capra’s films could be a band of angels or a lynch mob.
Crowds play just as central a role in The Simpsons. Matt Groening has joked in audio commentaries that the default response for any Springfield crowd is a riot. Springfieldians don’t even need much of a reason to riot; it’s more or less a way of saying, “We exist and are willing to break, loot, and steal shit to prove it.” The mob is always ready to believe the worst in everyone; every action demands a crazed over-reaction from the mob.
There are other ways The Simpsons echoes Capra’s oeuvre as well. Neither is afraid to tell big stories on huge canvasses or to use the elliptical language of rocket-fueled montages to tell a giant story in 22 ridiculously dense minutes. That was true of “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,” the show’s alternately reverent and cheeky homage/parody of Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. With Washington, Capra didn’t just set out to tell an American story: He set out to tell the story of America through the archetypal tale of a wide-eyed innocent who triumphs over a corrupt system through purity, conviction, rightness, and pure, indomitable will.
At first, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” doesn’t appear to be about politics at all. The show’s first act is dominated by Homer’s gloriously uncharacteristic infatuation with, of all things, a magazine. Ah, but this is no mere magazine. As Homer explains with the zeal of a convert, Reader’s Digest isn’t just a magazine; it’s every magazine, since it gleans the gems from each publication while cutting out all the crap.
Reader’s Digest is a magazine for people who don’t like to read or at least want the world condensed into bite-sized nuggets and facts, so it makes sense that a ferociously anti-intellectual slob like Homer would embrace the magazine. Homer even broke out his reading glasses to finish his transformation from semi-literate boozer to lover of the written word.
In his beloved Reader’s Digest, Homer spies an essay contest with an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., as its grand prize but angrily throws it away once he sees it’s for children. Lisa is inspired and writes an appropriately patriotic essay about our nation.
In perhaps my favorite joke of the episode, Marge badgers Lisa while she’s trying to write her essay by suggesting she try riding a bike, then wonders aloud if riding a bike was still considered cool and whether, finally, kids still used words like “cool” any more. Marge was trying to forge a meaningful connection with her daughter the way parents often do: by peppering them with painfully arbitrary questions that irritate rather than ingratiate. There’s nothing mean about it, but good lord is it ever annoying.
It’s a testament to the respect The Simpsons has for its audience’s intelligence and frame of reference that it includes dead-on parodies of Reader’s Digest and Mark Russell in the same episode. The Mark Russell parody was particular cruel and awesome; I loved that they brought him back three times to sing minor variations on the same clattering ditty about current events.
Like James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Lisa learns that Washington, D.C., is a lovely town with a rich, honorable history that’s also a seething cesspool of corruption after stumbling upon rank corruption in her midst. Like Capra, “Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” is able to ultimately play it both ways: It’s cynical and sincere, idealistic and jaded, filled with affection for our country’s virtues and constitution but filled with contempt for flag-waving, jingoism and empty bromides about our nation’s glory.
“Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” ultimately delivers a viciously sarcastic happy ending. In order for the system to work, everyone becomes a saint. A Senator stops what he’s doing to deal with a matter of utmost urgency, a little girl losing her faith in the American system. President H.W Bush signs a law that will make his employers happy, all 250 million of them: the American public.
It’s a happy ending in air quotes, a tribute to the American can-do spirit so ridiculously over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously. The show can’t deliver a happy ending without sneering just a little bit.
“Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington” was one of the first “The Simpsons Are Going to _____” episodes in the show’s history. It set the bar prohibitively high, though I am super-excited about an upcoming vacation episode. Rumor has it the Simpsons are going to Delaware!