It’s been said that a writer who’s a genius at ending sketches will never be out of work, as that’s such a rare and useful trait. Similarly, a Simpsons writer skilled at writing Lisa and/or Marge episodes has to be a huge asset to the show, since they are few and far between. Homer and Bart must be a blast to write for. They personify anarchy. They’re parties in human form, lovable, fluid monsters of id and ego.
They go through life issuing a silent plea of “Party! Party!” everywhere they go, in sharp contrast to Marge and Lisa’s more sober-minded appeals, “Shouldn’t Springfield be more diligent about recycling?” and “We should all think rationally and engage in a strenuous cost/benefit analysis before making any major life decisions.”
“Lisa’s Substitute” is technically a Bart and Lisa episode, but Lisa’s tragic, unrequited romantic and intellectual crush on an exquisitely geeky substitute teacher with a flair for playing dress-up and inspiring students dominated the proceedings to such an extent that Bart’s slick campaign for class President against Martin Prince registered as little more than an afterthought.
It didn’t help that the Bart/Martin race reminded me of the “All the Duke’s Men” episode of The Critic—maybe my all-time favorite episode of The Critic and one of my all-time favorite episodes of any television show ever—to suffer by comparison. It did prompt one of my all-time favorite Simpsons moments, however.
I, and by extension everyone else in the world, will always treasure the moment when Ray Bradbury’s name is bandied about as one of the all-time science fiction greats and Martin replies with an exquisitely condescending, “I’m familiar with the man’s work,” as if merely acknowledging that Bradbury exists was already giving him far too much credit. We did a Simpsons Inventory a while back on things we’ll always associate with The Simpsons. That’s certainly one of them.
Ah, but the meat of the episode lies in Lisa’s doomed crush on the substitute and the big, beautiful, boundless outside world the crush opens, then cruelly and abruptly closes. Mr. Bergstrom is Lisa’s kind of crush: a geeky iconoclast, proudly out of step with the outside world, a man who derives an almost sensual joy from attaining and disseminating information.
He first appears in Lisa’s class dressed like a cowboy, an emissary from another, much smarter world dispensing bits of cowboy trivia to a class with little use for his peculiar proclivities. To the rest of the world, Mr. Bergstrom is an egghead and a Poindexter. To Lisa, he's a God, the father figure she deserves but has been cruelly deprived of by the fickle hand of fate.
Last week’s episode mapped out a possible alternate future for Marge if she hadn’t been shackled to the big clumsy oaf whose care and feeding takes up the vast majority of the Simpsons' resources, emotionally and otherwise. We got to see the same for Lisa’s today. We got a brief, heartbreaking glimpse of what Lisa’s life would have been like if she had a father with a cheesy sense of humor and love of learning and history and keen, nuanced appreciation of human intelligence.
In other words, we got to see what Lisa’s life might have turned out if she’d been born Jewish. I know Jews aren’t the only people in the world who treasure those qualities, but Mr. Bergstrom has an unmistakably Jewish sensibility and sense of humor. Mr. Bergstrom should have been Lisa’s dad—her substitute dad as it were—but that was not to be, so it’s absolutely heartbreaking watching Mr. Bergstrom and all he represents vanish from Lisa’s life as quickly and unmistakably as he arrived. Such is the tragedy of the substitute teacher who actually cares. They, too, are rare and glorious creatures.
I know some of you feel the sentimentality of the first two seasons of The Simpsons can be a much, but I got a lump in my throat when Lisa opens the note Mr. Bergstrom gave her to remind her why the world is a beautiful place, regardless of who your parents might be, that reads simply, “You are Lisa Simpson.” God damn am I turning into a pussy in my old age.