Season 3: Episode 2. Original airdate: September 26, 1991.
As foreign as 1991 seems to us in 2012, 1939 was a time even more distant and archaic at the time this episode premiered. That year, of course, is when Frank Capra released his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, on which today’s episode is heavily based. Mr. Smith was controversial at first, as it challenged the integrity and conduct of those in power in Washington in a manner that had yet to be tackled. Corruption was always in American politics, but Capra’s cynical AND optimistic outlook has made that film a seminal favorite.
Likewise, this episode uses a sweet innocence to the madness along with a typical sarcastic attitude to the whole affair. Using Lisa as the beacon of dew-eyed optimism about the spirit of democracy seems obvious, but it’s an inspired decision nonetheless. Her intelligence combined with her passion for justice make for a powerhouse of an episode.
Of course, it doesn’t start out centered on politics. In what may be the most surprising aspect of the whole thing, Homer becomes a reader when he gets himself a
Reader’s Digest Reading Digest. The real-life Reader’s Digest prides itself on easily digestible, diluted writing, so actually, it’s a perfect fit for our hero. His disappointment at not being able to enter an essay contest for a trip to Washington, D.C. is tempered when he discovers he can use Lisa’s talents to bum a free trip to the capital.
Lisa wins the contest because of course she does (but not before the judges question the authenticity of the essay, and interrogate Homer as the potential offer. For obvious reasons, they in fact award Lisa extra points as a handicap for her inadequate upbringing), and the family embarks on their all-expenses-paid trip. Now, “Crepes of Wrath” added some international flavor to the Simpsons world, but that was focused on Bart and featured little of the sightseeing that the “Let’s All Go to ______” episodes have become known for. In those episodes, the family visits various sights in an exotic location, commenting on the artifacts or monuments, giving the episodes a bevy of one-liners and clever observations, but little in the way of plot. This episode shows the early signs of that dangerous trend, but there’s luckily a wonderful story to connect the tourist bits.
The family visits Congressman Bob Arnold, who just before meeting the Simpsons accepts a bribe from a timber lobbyist in order to chop down the Springfield forest. He puts on his PR face for the Simpson family, but once outside the office Lisa runs into her congressman and overhears the nature of his corruption. She is devastated, and tears her essay up in an act of defiance after losing her faith in democracy.
I have to imagine there was more trust in the government in 1991. Granted, not as much as in the pre-Watergate era, but at least something resembling a belief in the power of democracy. Now, most people deride the government, but that’s mostly of the institution’s own doing. This episode obviously doesn’t believe in the virtue of the federal government entirely, but like Capra’s film it harbors a longing for some sort of decency in the public sector. However, the biting satire overrides any cliche, best represented when Lisa visits the Lincoln Memorial. As she humbly asks Abe whether there’s any goodness in Washington, she finds herself overrun by Americans asking their own questions of the Great Emancipator. Their questions are nowhere near as eloquent as Lisa’s, nor as noble, mostly focusing on the trivial banalities of life rather than the big questions.
Frustrated, Lisa visits Jefferson Memorial, where Thomas Jefferson recognizes that the only reason someone would visit him would be overcrowding at Lincoln’s place. Lisa is inspired by her visit though, and writes an entirely new essay to read at the national competition, titled “Cesspool on the Potomac.” She reads the essay, which alerts a low-level government employee of possible corruption at work. That intern calls his senator, who calls the FBI, who arrest Congressman Arnold, and the news eventually reaches President Bush himself.
The Bush sequence is so silly. I honestly don’t even know what to say, because it’s just so ludicrously over-the-top. He signs a bill that he says will “make his bosses very happy.” When a visiting diplomat asks him who his bosses are, he replies “all 250 million of them.” Come on. The writers probably had a giggling fit while writing this scene, because its snark reaches a new level for the show. Word of justice reaches Lisa, who regains her hope in the system, even if she lost her essay contest in her act of service to her country.
Fun fact: The two episodes that bookend this one are holdovers from the Season 2 production cycle, so this is the first one of the Jean/Reiss era for the show. I’m greatly looking forward to their influence on the show, and there’s a deeper level of satire here that I don’t know whether to attribute to them or the show merely being older and wiser. Either way, we’re in for a real treat in this era of the show.