“Lisa’s Wedding” (season six, episode 19; originally aired 3/19/1995)
There are plenty of “What if?”s scattered throughout The Simpsons’ run—hell, in “Treehouse Of Horror,” it has a show-within-a-show excuse to annually indulge such flights of fancy. “Lisa’s Wedding,” however, introduces a new type of theoretical to the series’ vocabulary: A peek into Springfield’s future. Like many Simpsons standbys, the device has cheapened with time—but in “Lisa’s Wedding” it generates easy laughs while simultaneously fortifying one of the show’s most important relationships.
Yes, there’s a romance at the center of the episode, though it’s just as much of a red herring as the layers of futuristic foofaraw. Beneath the Jetsons-inspired wardrobe updates and the clever “Where are they now?” gags, “Lisa’s Wedding” is truly about the unconditional love a daughter feels for her father. (No, gross, not like that. What kind of show do you think this is? Family Guy?) As portrayed by Yeardley Smith and the Simpsons writers, Lisa Simpson is a character driven by a fundamental tension: Her conflicting desire to be and not be a Simpson. No one person embodies what she fears about her last name like her old man, and that makes their unbreakable connection all the richer. Lisa doesn’t seem the type to take her husband’s name, but her climactic decision in “Lisa’s Wedding” resonates just the same: Lisa is a Simpson, she can’t be anything but a Simpson, and any man who loves her must accept this just as she has.
That message would be nothing without a solid story, however, and “Lisa’s Wedding”—with a script by Greg Daniels that hints toward the incisive humor and sitcom warmth he’d later bring to King Of The Hill and the American Office—succeeds in that respect as well. The episode hinges on a definitively timeless tale, one that details the screwball romance between Lisa and Hugh Parkfield, a collegiate and collegial dream guy played by Mandy Patinkin. Patinkin’s melodious voice is a natural fit for animation, and he breathes just the right type of upper-crust life into Hugh in 22 short minutes. (That he doesn’t do this kind of work more often is a shame; that the two other TV voice credits on his IMDB page are The Wonder Pets and Disney’s unjustly forgotten Hercules spin-off is amazing.) And Hugh is just the right character with which to pair Lisa the co-ed, because only she would have a meet-cute that involves a reading race.
The time-honored nature of the plot provides a lot of hooks on which to hang the episode’s built-in running gags, the basic “it’s the future!” jokes (many of which come off like a dry run for Futurama) as well as those that catch up with the characters 15 years down the line. It’s a showy episode, but one in which the showier elements are achieved with a lesser degree of difficulty thanks to animation. There’s no old-person makeup to cake onto the cast, no expensive props to fabricate in order to the build the world of tomorrow today (which, in 2013, is the world of yesterday’s tomorrow today). It’s easier to draw a new set than it is to rebuild one, but the extra work on the part of the art department doesn’t detract from the basics of “girl falls in love, girl brings boy to meet parents, girl learns she loves parents more than boy.” Near the end of a year when Fox was putting the screws to The Simpsons, the extra effort required of “Lisa’s Wedding” was justly rewarded, earning the episode the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Animation. (The competition was suitably tough that year, with the episode besting the Dexter’s Laboratory pilot, the final Tiny Toons special, “A Rugrats Passover,” and the Dr. Seuss adaptation Daisy-Head Mayzie.)
The future stuff rarely gets in the way of Lisa’s nuptials, distracting only when it starts enforcing the sense that the writers and producers wanted a cameo from every major secondary character. (Blessedly unmentioned: Various vacancies at the Springfield Retirement Castle, though Mr. Burns is thawed out thanks to Professor Frink’s discovery of the cure for
17 15 stab wounds in the back. Presented with an opportunity to go off the rails, the show stays small and focuses on the characters and relationships as we know them, acknowledging the passage of time only when it suits the comedy of “Lisa’s Wedding.” (For instance, the darkly hilarious illustrations that not everything’s coming up Milhouse in the years between 1995 and 2010. Still: That’s certainly our Milhouse getting rebuffed in the driver’s seat.) The most important moments occur not between a guest character and a regular, but between two characters who’ve been here from the start: Lisa and Homer. For a story about identity, “You know I always felt you were the best thing my name got attached to” is a fitting epigram.
After six years of working with characters who changed only as the art direction saw fit, the chance to age the citizens of Springfield must’ve come as a tremendous relief to The Simpsons’ creative staff. It must’ve also presented a challenge; the entirety of “Lisa’s Wedding” could’ve been “Remember how this? Well now this!” sorts of setups. The show exists in a static world, and “Lisa’s Wedding” uses that to its advantage, altering the surface of the show while retaining its core components. Everything changes, but some things remain the same—one of those things being the unbreakable bond between Lisa and Homer. Like the Simpson family cufflinks and a tuxedo, they shouldn’t fit together—and yet they do. Capturing that sense in such humorous, heartwarming fashion is part of the magic of vintage-era Simpsons.
- The framing device of the Renaissance Faire is a sneakily deployed joke: In order to go forward in time, The Simpsons must first go backward.
- In the spirit of its titular character, there’s a nice animal motif running throughout “Lisa’s Wedding”: Chief Wiggum’s menagerie, the cow that carries Hugh’s proposal, the cufflinks.
- Arrested future celebrities include Dr. Brad Pitt, Infamous Amos, and, of course, George Burns. Ralph Wiggum isn’t a guest at the wedding because he’s facing charges in his latest guise, “Sideshow Ralph Wiggum.”
- Let’s start calling this type of joke an esquilax: “A horse with the head of a rabbit and—the body of a rabbit”
- Reverend Lovejoy saw the episode’s unfortunate ending coming from a mile away: “This is very sad news. And it never would’ve happened if the wedding would’ve been inside the church with God, instead of out here in the cheap showiness of nature.”