To be a film critic is to exist in a state of perpetual disappointment. To be the smart, socially aware, rigidly moral daughter of Homer Simpson is likewise to exist in a state of perpetual disappointment. Lisa has lowered her expectations to suit her father’s well-intentioned incompetence, but he nevertheless finds ways to shimmy under the very low bar she has set for him.
Lisa and Homer’s relationship consequently constitutes an open-ended negotiation to determine exactly what Homer must do at any given moment to simply maintain the low-level world-weary disappointment that constitutes Lisa’s baseline attitude towards him. For all his good intentions, Homer is never that good of a father. But when he really exerts himself, as he does here, he is almost always a good enough father. Until the next crisis calls for him to redeem himself in Lisa’s scolding eyes all over again.
Lisa and Homer’s relationship has seldom looked as overtly like an open-ended negotiation for Lisa’s approval as it does in “Lisa’s Pony.” Given the episode’s title and the well-established nature of the dynamic between Homer and Lisa, it pretty much writes itself.
It's easy to imagine the writer's pitch: "Let’s see. Lisa’s got a pony. Why? Because Homer fucked up, of course, and wants to bribe his way back into her heart. Great. Lisa’s thrilled, of course, even if she feels guilty because deep down she knows the family can’t afford a pony. And of course Homer’s got to get a second job to pay for the pony and the stable and the upkeep, so why doesn’t he work at Kwik-E-Mart? So of course he’s exhausted, but Lisa is thrilled, but of course she realizes that her dad is killing himself for her, and on some level, she knows she shouldn’t have gotten the damn thing in the first place, so she gives back the horse, so Homer can quit his job, and they ride off into the sunset, literally, with Lisa playing horsey on his back."
Bada boom, bada bing. The writer would then dip his head in a giant tissue box of cocaine. Actually, I know the writers for The Simpsons probably don’t use cocaine, but I am a joke purist, and all stories of writers pitching something must involve the writer using a comically large amount of cocaine.
I also realize that’s a pretty damn solid, if obvious, template for a Simspons episode. It’s so solid and obvious, in fact, that it more or less was also the template for the very first Simpsons episode that ever aired, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire,” only instead of Homer trying to redeem himself in the eyes of his family with a pet dog, Homer is trying to redeem himself in the eyes of Lisa with a pet pony.
One of the elements that lets “Lisa’s Pony” transcend its somewhat hacky “Homer Redemption ” structure is how hard Homer genuinely tries to make Lisa happy at every juncture. The show understands our expectations enough to fuck with them. In every other sitcom, Homer would screw up by getting drunk instead of going to his daughter’s talent show. That’s the cliché. That’s the convention. That’s also “Lisa’s Pony,” but the show adds a bunch of interesting new wrinkles. For starters, Homer’s task isn’t just to attend the talent show. No, he must get the exact right reed for Lisa’s instrument beforehand, so that she will be able to perform at peak potential. That’s actually asking an awful lot of someone who has historically proven himself capable of very, very little.
Homer unsurprisingly botches the assignment. What’s surprising is how close Homer comes to succeeding: He remembers he has to get the reed, he convinces the insulted music store proprietor to re-open his store, he even remembers what instrument his daughter plays (a formidable accomplishment in Homer’s world), but he fucks up the landing.
Lisa is angry, but her anger manifests itself in seething passive-aggression, rather than outright rage. This is a Lisa episode, so we adjust our expectations accordingly. Lisa episodes are less “Funny ha ha” than “Funny in a bittersweet manner that acknowledges the frustrations and sadness of life as they relate to life as a precocious feminist intellectual in a world that broadcasts its contempt for the intellect at every juncture.” “Lisa’s Pony” is no different.
Everyone knows Homer is making a terrible mistake in buying Lisa a pony. It’s an ostensibly permanent solution to a passing problem. So it’s really only a matter of time until Homer’s impossible solution proves unfeasible. In tracing the path from Lisa’s excitement over her present to her gradual realization that she must sacrifice her own needs for Homer’s sake as Homer had sacrificed his needs for hers, “Lisa’s Pony” favors nice little low-key character moments over big setpieces or wacky gags. I especially liked the way Homer cheats by answering Marge’s demands that he promise not to buy a horse with weird little noncommittal noises and the way Marge understood and commented upon what he was doing in a way that didn’t make it any less successful a tactic. And I enjoyed the sad, slightly diminished way Homer said, “D’oh!” when informed that horses can live 30 years, so there would be no immediate end to his trials.
And if the ending for “Lisa’s Pony” was pretty much preordained, it also hit just the right notes of sticky emotion undercut with bracing cynicism. It wouldn’t be golden-era Simpsons without both Lisa gazing at her dad with newfound respect and appreciation and Apu looking at him wistfully while uttering the immortal words, “He slept. He stole. He was rude to the customers. Still, there goes the best damn employee a convenience store ever had!”
- “Well this is a whole lot of nothing.”
- “I’d rather be watching the boilers!”
- “That young man just became the boy of a thousand days detention.”
- “Sounds like the gopher I caught in my lawnmower!”
- “No, my freakish little friend, that’s a seagull.”
- I like how enraged everyone became about Lisa’s performance. Apparently, they take talent shows very seriously down in Springfield.
- “Even when you yell at me, I see love in your eyes.”
- I found the part where Homer holds Bart and Lisa’s love for him against them weirdly perceptive. There is something terrifying about the prospect that someone we genuinely love, someone in our immediate family in particular, will genuinely stop loving us in a way that makes us have to win their love back. The episode plugs into that fear in a very smart way.
- “You pet it, you bought it.”
- I loved the throwaway gag of Johnny Carson flashing that shit-eating grin before saying, “Milli Vanili was just arrested for impersonating a McNugget,” and Bart, with wisdom beyond his years, consoling Lisa with, “Well, it’s still fun to be up late.”
- “Though there is no change in my patrician façade, I can assure you my heart is breaking.”
- “Apu, you can take this job and restaff it.