For a family comedy, The Simpsons can be a remarkably cynical show, and it can also be a remarkably sweet one, but “Lisa On Ice” is that strange episode that is both shockingly callous and gooily heartwarming. The whole premise—Bart and Lisa on opposing hockey teams—doesn’t even work without Homer behaving as he does, with utter disregard for his children’s feelings, belittling them when they lose, encouraging them to compete for his love, placing total emphasis on sporting achievement and saying Maggie has never done “nothing for nobody” (as she catches a bottle flying at his head, of course).
But the episode, scripted by Mike Scully (his second credit after “Lisa’s Rival” earlier this year) and apparently based in his childhood memories, ends on a lovely note as Bart and Lisa recall fond memories (newly-written ones, all from early childhood, formed from typical tableaus like sharing ice cream and stealing cookies), throw down their sticks, and embrace. Marge is proud; Homer sobs, bemoaning them both losers, and the town of Springfield, egged on by Chief Wiggum himself, tears the hockey arena apart, as only they should. “We paid for blooood!” Hans Moleman shouts, although at least Snake is moved enough by the kids’ selflessness before taking a crowbar to nearby seats.
Does the moment work? Sure. It’s pretty much the only way the episode can end without it being completely madcap, especially considering how dialed-up Homer (and to a lesser extent, the town’s) mania has been for the prior 20 minutes. The saccharine touch might be a bit much without the violent carnage that erupts around the children, and Homer’s lack of redemption (he is ruined, perhaps, by his kids’ loserdom, but he doesn’t accept it happily).
Like all great Simpsons episodes, “Lisa On Ice” papers over any slight flaw by being incredibly funny. Yeah, Homer’s parenting is bad even by his standards in this episode, but just look at him threaten Bart with death if he doesn’t continue his successes on the rink. Just that brief look of menace is enough for one of the episode’s biggest laughs.
“Lisa On Ice” also does a good job of setting up the whole town’s mood as unusually aggressive. We begin with Kent Brockman reading the “Action News,” where he dives in front of his desk and shouts things like “President Reagan dyes...his hair, says Garry Trudeau in his new musical comedy revue!” Then, at school, everyone is gathered at the Butthead Memorial Auditorium (“Damn, I wish we hadn't let the students name that one”) and publicly handed pink slips of failure, including Ralph (“Me fail English? That’s umpossible!”) and Lisa, who has an F in gym.
Combined with Homer’s veneration of Bart for his hockey skills, it’s enough to make Lisa’s mortal terror of failing believable. Her flash-forward to a future where she is sent to “Monster Island” rather than be sworn in as President begs so many questions of the world Lisa imagines for herself as an adult, but it’s completely hilarious.
Lisa is quickly revealed to be a gifted goalie, eclipsing Bart’s success and leading the Kwik-E-Mart Gougers to, uh, the championship? It’s not clear, nor does it need to be, since the focus is just on the sibling rivalry. Hockey is the perfect sport for the melodrama, given its reputation as a bone-breaking contact sport and associations with rioting (not that Springfield needs much excuse in that regard). While Bart and Lisa often butt heads on the show, they’re rarely competing in the same field, which makes their big hockey showdown especially involving.
The last act of the episode is pure ridiculous spectacle and I love every second of it. Homer’s irritating dad behavior becomes a full-on mania, living up to Lisa’s assessment of pee-wee sports as existing for parents trying to “compensate for their own failed dreams of glory” (“Look, I don't need this, I inhaled my favorite whistle this morning!” her gym teacher replies). Wiggum behaves irrationally even for him, letting the city’s convicts attend the game for no particular reason other than it sets up the climactic riot, but so what. Moe even invades the Simpson home to try and assess the kids’ injuries, calling Marge “Midge” and then “Blanche” before moaning, “they’re gonna take my thumbs!” (a Pope Of Greenwich Village reference) as she kicks him out of the house.
It’s enough of a maelstrom of hatred that the opposing crowds chanting “KILL, BART! KILL, BART!” and “KILL BART! KILL BART!” don’t even feel out of place. Bart and Lisa’s shared memories are maybe a little cookie-cutter but they’re sweetly animated. I think my mom, who had little patience for The Simpsons in general, liked this episode. I really think the conclusion wouldn’t land if Homer was also granted fatherly redemption, but he isn’t, so it works.
I prefer Bart and Lisa as a team, and so does Mike Scully, I think. This is technically a Lisa episode but unlike some of her real classics (like “Lisa The Iconoclast” or “Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington”) it’s squarely focused on her relationship with her brother, and less on her intellectual distance from her family and the rest of the town. That makes it memorable in its own right—it’s an episode that brings Lisa down to everyone else’s level and concludes that there’s nothing particularly unusual about that. The moral of the story is just that everyone should relax, and it’s delivered as the town ice rink is set ablaze, so it’s laced with enough sarcasm for the episode retain some bite even after we see Bart making shadow puppets for his baby sister. Aww.
- Jimbo laughs at Bart's PJs. “Did your mommy buy them for you?” “Of course she did, who else would have?” “Alright Simpson, you win this round.”
- I will always remember the Newton, an otherwise forgotten piece of technology, simply because of this episode. Beat up Martin? “Eat Up Martha.” “BAH!”
- Homer trying to innocuously eat the pie is something we've all done at one point in our lives, right?
- Apu ties Milhouse to the goal and still shouts orders at him. “Defense, defense! Come on, you call that blowing?”
- Lisa will only ride in the front if it's a fatherly gesture of love. “Sucker! Competitive violence, that's why you're here!”
- Bart plays hoops with his mom. “Watch out for the Shaq attack!” she says, throwing the ball at his face. “I told you to watch out!”
- Grandpa objects to a chant saying he reeks of gin. “Hey! That's Obsession for Men!”
- This week in Simpsons signage: Homer gets a 44 oz “Big Lush” beer from Marge.
- Next week: I'll be covering Homer's brush with media frenzy in “Homer Badman,” then Erik will grab the next two episodes.