Lisa is the conscience of The Simpsons. Like most consciences, her role is to be ignored and/or mocked. She is one of the strongest, most endearing, smartest female characters in television history and perhaps the most overt feminist in TV land since the lead character on Maude. She is also, perhaps not coincidentally, kind of a drag.
Simpsons writers often talk about how fun it is to write for characters like Mr. Burns or Homer but writing for Lisa has to be difficult and borderline thankless. She is by definition a killjoy, a spoilsport, a inveterate do-gooder who exists to rain on others’ parades. And those folks are much less conducive to big laughs and wacky hijinks than a rampaging id and an idiot everyman.
Besides, Lisa stands for something. She demands to be treated with respect. The show has oscillated between reverence for her intellect, iconoclasm and insistence on being on the right side of every issue, especially if it’s unpopular, and using her as a springboard to lampoon the excessive piety, self-righteousness and smug intellectual superiority of self-satisfied Liberal intellectuals.
Lisa is also perhaps the most human character in The Simpsons. Where her family members tend towards outsized caricatures, Lisa is adorably, poignantly, unmistakably life-sized.
This brings us to “Moaning Lisa”, the first Simpsons episode to focus almost entirely on the least popular of all Simpsons. True to form, it’s an episode with an unusually tight focus, extraordinary emotional depth and very few big laughs. It’s far and away the least funny episode to date but it has more on its mind than mindless chuckles. Much more.
The episode finds Lisa once again at odds with the conformist, shallow, narrow-minded world around her. She is a square peg in a world of round holes. As is often the case, a tendency towards melancholia and persistent low-level depression is the price she pays for possessing a formidable intellect and ferocious conscience.
Lisa sinks into a deep depression. In a great bit of voice acting, Yeardley Smith, who has become so associated with Lisa that it’s incredibly distracting hearing her voice in any other context, squeezes a vast universe of pain and resignation into the line, “I’m too sad.”
It’s incredibly rare to see a television comedy take depression seriously, especially if the comedy is animated. But The Simpsons allows Lisa’s malaise to linger realistically even if the ultimate antidote to Lisa’s existential crisis felt a little hacky.
In the not so glorious tradition of Adventures in Babysitting, Lisa ends up moaning the babysitter blues after she encounters a Magical Negro type named Bleeding Gums Murphy who gets Lisa to channel her sadness and frustration into a blues song and some sorrowful sax riffs.
In the episode’s almost perversely inconsequential B-story, Homer becomes obsessed with beating Bart at a Mike Tyson’s Punchout-style boxing game. He trains covertly at an arcade but betrays a virtual glass jaw when it’s time for the big rematch. In a casual way, the story continues Homer’s ongoing attempts to impress Bart and prove himself as a man.
Like the Lisa story, the video-game subplot is rooted in character and behavior rather than jokes and gags. It’s also a reminder that The Simpsons started out as an animated family sitcom before evolving into a wildly ambitious, all-encompassing satire of every aspect of American life. Pretty much everything in today’s episode could have happened in a live-action sitcom, which certainly can't be said about later episodes.
So while “Moanin’ Lisa” was short on laughs and big on sentimentality it did a fine job fleshing out the characters and relationships of all the Simpsons, especially poor, sweet, ever-suffering Lisa, the Job of Springfield, doomed to be ignored and ridiculed by those she tries to show the light. That’s a big part of what makes Lisa such a great character: we laugh, but we feel her pain.