#32: Lisa’s Substitute

Season 2: Episode 19. Original airdate: April 25, 1991.

We don’t get to pick our parents. They don’t pick us either, and despite their influences on us, we don’t necessarily grow up in their image. The genetic lottery can be particularly cruel, as truly awful people can be born into wonderful homes, and potential geniuses can have their talents squandered by an inadequate family life. Yesterday, we explored Marge’s similar situation, though hers was a choice driven by true love. However, the focus here switches to Lisa, an even more tragic character than her mother, as she had no choice in how and where she entered the world. Just as Marge got a taste of an alternate universe in “Brush With Greatness,” Lisa here gets a heartbreaking look at a life that could have been hers.

Before I jump into Lisa’s home run of a story, I should briefly talk about the thin Bart plot that serves as a runner. It’s the class election, and Bart is urged to run against Martin. It’s pretty typical, as far as Martin stories go, but I absolutely adore Martin’s dismissive “I’m aware of his work,” when Ray Bradbury’s name is merely mentioned. This is a pretty light story, but it’s enjoyable enough, which, with an A-story as amazing as this episode, it doesn’t even matter.

When Mrs. Hooper comes down with a case of lyme disease, a substitute teacher named Mr. Bergstrom takes her place, and he makes a grand entrance dressed in full cowboy garb with a guitar in hand. It’s immediately clear that this is a man unlike any we’ve met in Springfield before, and not just because of his overt Jewishness. Like all great teachers, Mr. Bergstrom aspires to instill something more in his students beyond just what’s expected of them. He wishes for them to truly love learning, and to relish life’s infinite possibilities. Of course, he’s met with little enthusiasm at Springfield Elementary, but his vigor catches the attention of Lisa, sending her deep into her first crush.

I hesitate to use the word crush, because Lisa’s infatuation with her new teacher feels less grounded in romance than an intellectual love, if that makes remotely any sense. When she describes her obsession to Marge, she shoots down any comparisons to Homer, as her affection is nothing like Marge’s. At face value, I see this as a little girl so possessed by something that any comparison falls short, but I also see it as evidence that Lisa’s crush on Mr. Bergstrom is not a typical romantic longing. On that note, right now seems as good a time as any to talk about Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Bergstrom. He recorded his lines under the alias “Sam Etic,” a reference to both he and his character’s Jewish heritage, but from Graduate references to his distinct mumbly speech pattern, it’s very clear who’s behind the voice. He owns the role, and gives it the perfect blend of artsy liberal enthusiasm and intellectual politeness. Fantastic.

Mr. Bergstrom represents not just a substitute in the classroom, but a substitute in life. This is apparent in the museum scene, when Homer is dragged there with Lisa and makes an ass of himself while making sure he doesn’t pay a donation. Mr. Bergstrom shows up and generously donates to the museum, and throughout the tour of the exhibits exudes a completely different aura from Homer’s boorish ignorance. He is an intellectual in every respect, and truly the ideal father figure for Lisa, far moreso than as a mere crush. When Mr. Bergstrom asks Homer if Lisa has been missing a role model, Homer is visibly shaken as he recognizes his shortcomings as a parent, but that realization can’t fix eight years of mediocrity.

Lisa, still reeling from her father’s behavior at the museum, goes to school the next day to invite Mr. Bergstrom over for dinner. To her horror, he is gone, having even left his apartment for another teaching gig in Capital City. Lisa’s encounter with his apartment’s new tenant is a nice little touch, revealing just how impactful one brilliant man can be in so many people’s lives. When she finds Mr. Bergstrom at the train station (oh so fitting for his character), she confesses that her life will lose its newfound direction without him. He tells her, in one of the show’s most pointed critiques of life, “that’s the problem with being middle class. Anybody who really cares will abandon you for someone who needs it more.”

Wow. I talked a little bit about sentimentality in my “Old Money” post, and I defended the sappy ending of that episode. Having seen something as poignant and moving as this episode, I now understand why some people have a problem with episodes like that one. While it’s still not bad by any means, this show didn’t need to go for those notes, because it could play a scene as beautifully and subtly as this one at the train station without a dash of sappiness. Mr. Bergstrom has to depart from Lisa’s life, as is the brutal way of the universe, but before he leaves he gives her a note, which she opens to read, “you are Lisa Simpson.” It’s as touching as something can get, but it never departs from tragic realism, because once the train disappears, Lisa has to go home to a family, and especially a father, who will never understand her the way Mr. Bergstrom did.

In fact, that night at dinner, Homer explains to Lisa the difference between not caring and not understanding. He claims to understand her grief, but he’s missing the boat. Lisa calls him on his BS and explodes, calling him a baboon repeatedly before running to her room. I see this as a turning point for Homer, even if the effects may wear off by the next episode. When he goes to Lisa’s room to comfort her, he’s not doing it because Marge told him to (even though she did), he’s doing it because he’s genuinely concerned about his daughter.The Homer/Lisa relationship can be incredibly moving, and it is in this final scene, as Homer not only succeeds in helping Lisa, but also aids Bart and Maggie, giving him his first 3-for-3 day of parenting.

Homer and Lisa don’t, or perhaps can’t understand each other, but they share a bond that surpasses their differences. It showed in some earlier episodes, and it’s abundantly clear tonight. Even though nobody decides who their family is, there’s an unequivocal love there that transcends everything else, and that’s something these early Simpsons episodes understood on an incredibly profound level.

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