“’Round Springfield” (season 6, episode 22, originally aired 4/30/1995)
Even though (or perhaps because) it ends with Lisa playing a sax duet with a dead man made out of clouds, “’Round Springfield” is a less manic, more plainly touching episode of The Simpsons that recalls its earlier seasons. Sandwiched among the rest of season six, the difference is pronounced, and there’s a reason why—this episode was scripted by Al Jean and Mike Reiss (along with Joshua Sternin and Jeffrey Ventimilia) who ran The Simpsons’ third and fourth seasons before moving on to create The Critic.
I don’t mean that to sound like a complaint about the sixth season of The Simpsons, but there’s no doubt that things had gotten more fanciful and ambitious at this point. Bringing back Bleeding Gums Murphy (Ron Taylor), star of the season one episode “Moaning Lisa,” emphasizes the slight throwback style. More important, I think, is the fact that this episode centers around Lisa. So many Lisa-centric stories, like “Lisa’s Substitute” and “Lisa’s Pony,” have a grounded tone, partly just because Lisa isn’t the character to do really insane stuff or get into really crazy adventures. She’s a misfit, but she feels out of place because she’s less crazy and more rational than everyone else in her family, so her episodes can reflect that.
Bleeding Gums Murphy is a cool character, but outside of his crippling Faberge egg addiction, I’ve never found him particularly funny. It’s just fun to see a grizzled old jazzman jamming with an eight-year-old girl—the image is enough to carry both “Moaning Lisa” and this episode through, and enough to forever cement Lisa’s saxophone playing as crucial to her character forever and ever. It’s something she can be nerdy about that’s very cool and still inherently kinda nerdy. Is everyone picking up that Lisa is one of my favorite characters in TV history? And probably one of the most nuanced and clever portrayals of adolescence ever? The fact that she’s intellectually stifled, but can be a real pain about it, it something you rarely see portrayed properly in television.
“’Round Springfield” has a B-story that gently spurs the action, in that it puts Bart in the hospital where Lisa can run into Bleeding Gums one more time. Bart eats a jagged metal Krusty-O, which ruptures his appendix and leads to a lawsuit that nets him $500 after legal fees (Lionel Hutz sadly only gets one scene in this episode, but the lawsuit isn’t really the story here, so I suppose it’s okay). That makes for a lot of Krusty scenes, all revolving around my favorite recurring Krusty joke—his tendency to lend his name to any product and his absolute disgust with all of them.
Anyway, once Bart is in the hospital, Lisa runs into Murphy and gets a more complete picture of his life, including his guest spot on The Cosby Show that perfectly skewers the obsessive lionizing of the past Cosby could be guilty of on that show.
The episode has a slightly strange, stilted structure. Lisa only runs into Bleeding Gums about seven minutes in, and just a few minutes later, he’s dead, having expired in the hospital off-screen, leaving only an empty bed for Lisa to mourn. Despite the implication that Dr. Hibbert is his long-lost brother, no one attends his funeral and Lisa is left in a miserable state, confronting mortality for the first time outside of losing a pet (which Homer helpfully reminds her about).
All of this material is very sweet. I always enjoy it when the Simpson family tries to engage with Lisa even though they know she’s operating on a different level from them. Homer shows her a tattoo of the Starland Vocal Band that he regrets. Bart says he believes in reincarnation and wants to return as a pyromaniac butterfly. Grandpa is probably the least useful, since everything in the world reminds him of death.
This episode is lighter on laughs than some of season six’s best efforts, and as I mentioned, it has a very muted feel to it, spending most of its time on Lisa’s quiet grief. But the ending packs a nice punch. Bart, shopping with his $500 settlement, does the right thing and buys Lisa a rare copy of Murphy’s jazz album so that she can play it on the radio in tribute. The convenience of the ending might feel a little pat, but I like the detail that loops back to the beginning—Lisa was the only family member to believe Bart was actually in pain after he ate the tainted cereal. It’s a very smart little touch.
So Lisa gets her tribute, and the episode gets to have one, big silly moment where Bleeding Gums returns in the clouds and shoos away three James Earl Jones-voiced specters (Mufasa, Darth Vader and, well, James Earl Jones) although none of them are actually voiced by Jones (which is weird because he worked on three other episodes, including this year’s “Treehouse Of Horror.”
It’s a bit gooey, and the “Jazzman” song (by Carole King) that they jam out to isn’t the coolest jazz number in the world, but the episode is heartfelt in the right way and takes care not to rub the emotional stuff in too forcefully. “’Round Springfield” is not the funniest episode of this season, but it’s nonetheless a very memorable 22 minutes.
- Krusty does storytime. “I'm going to tell you the story of Krusty's expensive new suit. His sexual harassment lawsuit!”
- “It wasn't my fault! It was the Percodan! If you ask me, that stuff rots your brain! And now for a word from my new sponsor. Percodan!?”
- This is the episode where Willie, teaching French, says the phrase “cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” which entered the cultural lexicon forever.
- “I contend that those tourists were decapitated before they entered the KrustyLand House of Knives!”
- Barney checks out of hospital detox and goes right to retox, where Moe pours him a Pabst for his five-minute chip.
- A hot dog vendor appears whenever Homer wants him, be it at a surgery, or a funeral. “What do you do, follow my husband around?” “Lady, he's putting my kids through college!”
- K-Jazz has a pretty dire morning show. “This is Moleman in the morning. Good Moleman to you. Today, part four of our series in the agonizing pain in which I live every day.”