Season 3: Episode 8. Original airdate: November 7, 1991.
The life of Lisa Simpson is one of carefully managed expectations. She is more talented and aspirational than anyone around her, but her ambition is continually brought back to earth by the realities of her home life. Her mother supports her and gives as much help as could be expected from a middle-class household, but the central plight of the average young girl is not to impress her mother, but to gain approval and affection from her father. It’s a universal truth that The Simpsons undercuts boldly in its interpretation of Homer. For all his faults, perhaps none is greater than his inability to consistently be there for Lisa, which forces her to always be setting the bar for her father lower and lower.
This isn’t necessarily of Homer’s own doing, at least consciously. We’re always reminded that deep down, Homer is a caring father who genuinely wants the best for Lisa, but his good intentions are usually pushed aside by his impulsive tendencies. Even with his intentions taken into account, it’s important to recognize that even in his finest hours, Homer is never that good at being a parent—he usually just breaks even. Tonight’s episode tweaks that formula, in making Homer try, and not just try a little bit, but do whatever it takes to hear his daughter say she loves him.
Of course, he has to royally dick himself over to reach that point of self-awareness. Lisa calls him in a panic after trying to reach nearly any other responsible adult first. She needs a new reed for her saxophone for the school talent show, a cultural event at which failure means ridicule from the volatile and harsh Springfieldian crowd. Homer mobilizes unusually quickly, and drives to the music store, but takes a pit stop at Moe’s, misses his opportunity to buy the reed, and luckily barters with the music shop owner to reopen the store. He barely remembers the instrument his daughter plays, but he comes remarkably close to getting to the school and saving the day. Arriving seconds too late, Lisa is already mid-awful-performance, and Homer realizes his failure to meet his daughter’s colossally-low expectations.
Homer is nothing if not a dreamer, and he immediately goes overboard in his plans to earn Lisa’s love. He tells Marge of his plans to buy her a pony (every girl’s dream, because PONIES), Marge reminds him they can’t afford it, but he jumps through hoops to do it anyway. Lisa wakes up, Godfather-style, to find not just a horse’s head, but an entire horse in her bed. After the horror wears off, she becomes the happiest girl in the world, telling her dad how much she loves him. Once the euphoria of a daughter’s affection wears off, Homer is faced with the harsh realities of keeping a horse, which don’t corroborate with his plan to let it “by day, roam free around the neighborhood, and at night, nestle snugly between the cars in the garage.”
Stable fees mount up, and Homer finds himself taking a graveyard shift at the Kwik-E-Mart to make ends meet. It’s an unexpected amount of dedication from the man, but Lisa’s joy keeps him (barely) going. He is stretched too thin between his two jobs, illustrated hilariously in sequences of his drowsiness and brief interludes of narcolepsy. His overworking also leads to the beautiful scene today’s screencap is taken from, an homage to Little Nemo featuring Homer’s car floating through Slumberland, set to the tune of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” (which cost so much to license that the song is only featured on DVD releases). It’s a stunning scene, one of those that could make any skeptic of the show a true believer.
Along with his newfound work ethic, Homer also shows a great deal of integrity and pride in this episode, refusing to let Bart and Lisa know why he disappears for hours every night. When Lisa does find out, she chooses to sacrifice her happiness with the horse for her father. Her selflessness is far beyond her years, but her respect for her father’s efforts is worth at least as much as a pony. She saves him from the Kwik-E-Mart job, at which he was a massive failure, but not by convenience store standards, as Apu notes sagely. As a final, touching moment of father-daughter connection, Homer even lets her ride him out of the store. Like a pony.
This is one of those episodes that nearly grasps perfection, and there’s so much I can’t even begin to talk about. I barely mentioned Apu’s fantastic bits, neglected to talk about the Johnny Carson reference, and had to leave out the pitch-perfect 2001 homage at the episode’s opening. This has become true of nearly every Season 3 episode. I worried at the beginning of this project that I’d have to stretch to fill an article a day, but there’s so much gold in these episodes, I’m more concerned about how to fit it all in. That’s The Simpsons, though—I’m sure I have at least 7 more seasons before it stops surprising me.