“There’s a lot of great stuff here.” “Really? Because that’s what I was going for!”
The Simpsons is often about the journey, and “Springfield Splendor” gets from story point A to story point Z with entertaining originality and grace. Sometimes the show tries something gimmicky, daring, out downright weird to push the boundaries of the show’s Springfield, and that can be fun and rewarding, or out-and-out infuriating and awful. But the heart of the show is the family, and an episode that explores the Simpsons’ dynamic is often more memorable than something flashier, no matter how entertaining.
“Springfield Splendor”’s journey has a lot along the way to perk up the eyes and ears of the jaded Simpsons viewer. The plot, about Lisa and Marge teaming up to tell Lisa’s American Splendor-esque miserablist life story in graphic novel form, allows for an arresting visual style in those scenes where Marge’s pencils are animated to illustrate their comic vision. Accompanied as the stylized images are by a melancholy jazz score (as any real Lisa narrative would be), these sequences have a life of their own that suggests how well the mother-daughter team has captured what’s going on in Lisa’s head every damned day in the yahoo-infested halls of Springfield Elementary. The sequences’ lovely and evocative mix of the internal and external are impressive without being flashy, less a gimmick than an expansion of the show’s capabilities. They’re super.
In contrast, the predictable mess made of Lisa’s story (titled Sad Girl, with pitchperfect indie comic flatness) by eccentric theater impresario and “impish genius” Guthrie Frenel (Martin Short, in the role he was born to play) illustrates how such stylistic experimentation can go horribly, garishly wrong. Eschewing Lisa’s heartfelt, eight-year-old’s plea for understanding, kindness, and school lunches not consisting of bloody animal parts, the flamboyant Frenel sweeps into the Simpson home (“I think he came in through the window,” marvels a baffled Homer), wows Lisa and Marge with visions of “a three-person toboggan ride down Mount Collaboranjaro” (he’s impish), and then transforms Sad Girl into a puppet-filled visual extravaganza, complete with the director entering on a flying carpet. Which is great for the delighted Marge, who sees her drawings brought to life (after being shunted to the side at the “women in comics” panel at the Springfield Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con in favor of all the Lisa “fanboy-girls”). For Lisa, however, it’s a tragedy mirroring that of her comic, as the big, boorish, bead-bedecked world casts her as the inconsequential side character in her own story. (Frenel, obsessed with his opulent spectacle, says that Sad Girl’s whole deal will be dispensed with by one line in the opening narration, while Sad Girl herself will be represented by “a voiceless red light projected onto a seat in the balcony.”)
For a lonely little smart kid like Lisa, her betrayal by Frenel (and, briefly by the swept-up Marge) is doubly crushing because she’s being doubly belittled—the second time in the imaginary world she created (as art therapy) to escape from the first. As Marge happily goes along with Frenel’s all-visuals, no-substance plans, we see that the experience has broken Lisa, her explanation to Bart that it’s all fine because it’s good for the family emerging in a bitter little monotone. Parroting her “you get what you pay for” student therapist (guest star Rachel Bloom)—who, to be fair, is clearly suffering from some sleep-deprived postpartum depression issues when Lisa returns for her follow-up—Lisa assures the oblivious Marge about the stage production, “It was like our baby, and you can’t control what your kid turns into.”
Marge can’t control what her daughter turns into (most likely President one day), but she can see when she’s screwed up in the parenting department. The happy ending, where Marge, seeing Lisa’s pain, draws Sad Girl on one of Frenel’s spotlights (or “Fresnel lights”—get it?), projecting Lisa back into her own life once again. Sure, the resulting temper tantrum from Frenel (“That’s not one of my brain-babies!”) causes a near-riot that wrecks the theater and, worse for him, nets him a bad review. But Marge and Lisa rebuild their relationship, each recognizing the wrongs they’ve done to the other.
It’s about the journey, though. We know that—barring a particularly lousy and irresponsible episode that misses the damned point of the show—any conflict within the family will be resolved in this sort of feel-good rapprochement. And if there’s a criticism of this overall fine episode, it’s that the Marge-Lisa story could have used more time to breathe. But that’s more a function—this time—of the show setting up a promisingly rich, character-driven story and running out of network-mandated time, rather than (as is too often the case these days) that promise being squandered with bafflingly random and underdeveloped B-stories. Here, credited writers Tim Long and first-timer Miranda Thompson cannily comment on that trend, as Lisa and Marge’s bonding and then success sends Homer and Bart off on a series of aborted goofball adventures. Homer and Bart take off on an Andy Griffith-style fishing jaunt (complete with music cue) and are immediately beaten up for stealing another father-son duo’s poles. Homer plans to quit his job and buy a sailboat as soon as the big Broadway bucks start flowing in. That sort of stuff—except that the episode cuts each subplot off as soon as it looks poised to distract from the main story. The script signals its intentions with a little visual joke as the rest of the family overhears Lisa’s frustration at not being able to draw her life story. Homer and Bart (already engaged in a silly squabble about Homer treating Bart like his dog) are dismissively waved off by Marge at Lisa’s door. The episode simply isn’t about the boys this time.
The Bi-Mon-Sci-Fi-Con panel amusingly doubles down on that idea, as, after Comic Book Guy and manga artist spouse Kumiko find Lisa’s comic and illegally run with it, Lisa and Marge take part in the aforementioned all-female comic panel alongside Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, and moderator Roz Chast. (Who assures the audience that her New Yorker cartoons are both “funny ha ha ” and “funny ah ha.”) There are some decent jokes alongside the writers’ sincere advice for girls to follow their artistic dreams, with my favorite being the Jumbotron-style animation that Bechdel deploys every time something either passes or fails the Bechdel Test. (Marge gets the razz after replying to Bechdel’s explanation about the Test’s criterion that women speak about something other than a man by asserting excitedly, “That’s so interesting! I’ll have to tell my husband about that!”) In a world where Gamergate MRA jerks willfully and abusively misrepresent female representation, some good old Bechdel Test jokes are most refreshing.
- Homer, politely to Guthrie: “And I ask this just for clarification: What’s your deal, weirdo?”
- Dan Harmon (voicing himself) is shown teaching a Springfield Community College class on ambitious TV production, utilizing a chart about what to do when you are inevitably fired.
- Bloom creates a memorable minor character as Lisa’s therapist-in-training. (“Hey, who’s almost a therapist here?”) I especially liked the little mini-drama running through the episode about the fact that her professor (hiding behind one-way glass when he remembers to turn the light off) is the father of her baby.
- After the professor lectures her from behind the glass, Lisa informs the very visible observer that she can see him, and he wordlessly clicks the light off.
- I loved the little joke where Lisa, after seeing what new motherhood has made of the therapist, quietly slips out of her office—and slips a few bucks in her donation shoebox by the door.
- It’s also nice that Marge’s artistic bent resurfaces, and that it’s the vehicle for her bond with Lisa. Sure, it’s fun when Homer is suddenly a chess prodigy for an episode or whatever, but Marge has always been a good artist, you guys.
- She does warn Lisa out of nowhere that, should Sad Girl require turtle feet, she’s really bad at drawing turtle feet.
- The episode’s end title card says goodbye to season 14 guest star Tom Petty.
- “I want to talk about myself for a few minutes and then pretend it was about Lisa.” Someone in the writers room has attended a fair share of Comicon Q&As.
- Another fine joke is that Lisa and Marge have a permission-based, multi-tiered system of allowable profanities, depending on the impetus of said profanity. Seeing Sad Girl being sold without her permission, Lisa asks for and is granted permission for one “Dammit!” Despite the fact that that doesn’t do the trick, her request for tier 2 access is denied. Dammit.