Season 1: Episode 6. Original airdate: February 11, 1990.
In the interest of full disclosure, I need to get this out in the open: I love Lisa. She’s probably my favorite of the Simpson family, and as a character, few can rival her depth and humanity. Even most of the best late-period Simpsons episodes are Lisa-centric, like Season 21’s “The Squirt and the Whale.” In a family full of eccentrics, Lisa has always been a voice of reason, a tie to reality even when the show detoured into flights of fancy. However, she has her noted critics, who believe she’s a buzzkill, a downer, and a toxic influence on any funny story.
Their arguments aren’t entirely unwarranted—take Family Guy’s Brian, for example. Brian was conceived as the animated version of creator Seth MacFarlane, and despite him being a dog, dealt with the most real and true-to-life issues of the early seasons. After the show returned from cancellation, though, Brian became a mouthpiece for MacFarlane’s political stances, and became a character that brought down the spirit of any episode. Most animated sitcoms have a token academic character, one who is philosophical and meditative. In most cases, like Brian, these characters become disliked for their preachy nature, an antithesis to good comedy. But every one of those characters owes their due to the pioneer of their kind—Lisa Simpson.
Lisa has joined so many causes and been an activist for so many groups over 23 years that it’s hard to recollect most of them. She is a constant for the series, as there will never come a time when we run out of causes to champion. So far, the first season has ignored Lisa, painting her in broad strokes as “the smarter kid.” The writers finally get around to building her character in “Moaning Lisa,” but the results aren’t as satisfying as the past five episodes have been. It’s not because the episode itself is bad by any means, but rather that the episode feels more a necessary development in the growth of Lisa. It doesn’t hold up so well on its own, but when placed in the greater context of Lisa Simpson, it’s a heartwarming introduction to the character.
Rather than serve as a typical Lisa episode in which she embarks on a crusade à la “Lisa the Vegetarian,” “Moaning Lisa” is simply about her being sad. That really is the central conceit of the episode—Lisa feels the blues, quite literally. She can’t seen to fit in at school, where she is seen as strange, intellectual, but not nearly on the level of Bart’s colleagues from earlier in the season. Lisa is not an academic in the pretentious sense; she is merely a girl who thinks for herself instead of following her peers blindly. That distinction puts her at odds with the schoolyard world around her, and eventually causes her to fall into a serious depression.
How serious? It’s actually incredible how truthfully the episode portrays Lisa’s depression. It makes no concessions to the fact that The Simpsons is supposed to be a comedy— in fact, this episode’s A-story is, for the most part, completely humorless. It’s a bold choice, but then again, what hasn’t been a bold choice for these early episodes of the show? It’s effortless in its assured pace, and it’s fine with sacrificing those laughs for the sake of a story’s heart.
Lisa’s main conflict in the episode is simply trying to make her family understand her sadness. Meeting a mystical blues player named “Bleeding Gums” Murphy gives her some slight hope, but Marge soon arrives to whisk her daughter away from the stranger— although she does admit the act is nothing personal, just stemming from a “fear of the unfamiliar.” Even Murphy recognizes that for a person with so few problems, Lisa is awfully sad, but her woes are still resonant to an audience. Lisa almost feels, much like Brian Griffin, like the voice of the writing room. They undoubtedly suffered the same isolation and confusion Lisa does, and can’t access those emotions through any character. The honesty channeled through Lisa is likely a direct meditation on the childhoods of everyone involved with The Simpsons.
This episode also features what I would consider the show’s first B-story. Looking back over the past week, I’m almost shocked that I didn’t realize earlier that the series has been so focused in its storytelling that there hasn’t been any time for subplots. This time, the B-story serves as a reprieve from the sadness of the Lisa plot, with Homer struggling to beat Bart at a Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out! clone. It’s a cute take on all fathers’ fears of the day when their sons are able to beat them. However, it’s also ludicrously slight, serving mainly as a tiny diversion from Lisa’s troubles. In the end, I do like the payoff of Bart still remaining undefeated despite Homer’s relentless training, but the scenario pales in comparison to the A-story.
On the note of the A-story, before nearing complete hopelessness, Lisa is comforted by Marge. Throughout the episode, Marge flash backs to her childhood, and her mother’s insistence that she put on a happy face. After trying the same on Lisa, Marge discovers that her daughter’s troubles aren’t internal, but a result of not fitting into the world around her. She snatches Lisa from school before she is subjected to any more ridicule, and tells her that even if she’s unhappy, as long as she’s true to herself her family will stick behind her. Lisa is not only consoled by this, she bursts into a wide smile, which she informs Marge really is genuine. The family later goes to a blues night featuring “Bleeding Gums,” and get to hear Lisa’s version of the blues. It’s a moment of understanding for the whole family—Lisa seeing her family appreciate her more, and vice versa.
While “Moaning Lisa” doesn’t rank among the most classic Lisa episodes, it’s an important foundation for the character. Without having the kind of depression that forced her to evaluate her life, Lisa would never have gained the courage to engage her community in the way she eventually will. A strong character such as Lisa needs that kind of background, so an audience can better understand how she became the outspoken, forward-thinking girl she becomes. It’s not often as funny to watch these characters being carefully constructed, but it might just be even more enjoyable.