This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 34 Episode 9
When The Simpsons brings back old characters for new scenarios, the series commits. “When Nelson Met Lisa” is a future episode which hits all the beats of When Harry Met Sally while capably translating it to the recognizable world of the characters of Lisa and Nelson. It also dips deep for a secondary character to highlight.
Hubert Wong (Simu Liu) was introduced in a “Treehouse of Horrors” episode, has been fairly quiet when not being falsely accused of cheating, and now comes back to haunt the future episodes. With all apologies to Mark Zuckerberg, Hubert Wong could use a little more Artie Ziff and a little less Jeff Bezos. We don’t really get an idea of what powers or defuels his relationship with Lisa, and the vagueness takes away from the overall tension. He is not a strong enough antagonist, and is a missed opportunity. He’s the most successful guy in the world, and Lisa needs to fix someone.
Lisa and Nelson aren’t exactly Springfield’s most unlikely couple, because they do have consistently good chemistry. Nelson is more than just a vest with fists. His background, his mother’s profession, his father’s absence, and his incessant need for affirmation make him one of the most well-rounded secondary characters in the series. Nelson’s inner processing is best revealed when he makes the distinction: “I told you, we were the secret family.” When he says he tried sushi but didn’t like it, we accept his life is as he presents it. At least Lisa tries new things. The scene where she learns to properly pronounce “haw haw” is sweet.
The relationship between Lisa and Nelson has been a long and complicated one, and the sequence which shortcuts their history is equally involved. Using clips from season 8’s “Lisa’s Date with Density” and other past pairings in a very short span, the years of The Simpsons fall away. But the bit also highlights the evolution, or de-evolution as some believe, of the animation. I prefer the sloppier, rougher animation to streamlined straight lines and pristine coloring. The juxtaposition of the disparate styles is more effective here because “When Nelson Met Lisa” is set in the future, and The Simpsons are forever under pressure to reset the present.
As a commentary on the future, the installment makes ironically prescient observations, and gets in quite a few good lines. The AI countdown to world peace or human extinction is very cartoony, timed so that even the brilliant Lisa is no match for computer generated shenanigans, but also mostly likely to be inadvertently correct. They probably are the same date. The other futurist predictions about being able to plug in to someone else’s core being, and interacting through direct cables. are slyly spooky, and creepily hysterical, even if they barely touch on the paranoia in the HDMI cable. At least we can look forward to runaway bride insurance. That will come in handy for future romcoms.
Natasha Lyonne returns as Krusty the Clown’s daughter Sophie, and is emotionally evocative at her wedding to Jimbo, but hearing a sample of Jackie Mason’s Hyman Krustofsky is more jarring than comforting. The best man and woman understudies, however, are just a split second of joyous comic perfection. The Wiggum family makes a mixed appearance tonight. Chief Wiggum’s expansion only really has one good laugh line, but Ralph’s single half-sentence explaining where he is in life is the funniest of the episode. We can only feel sorry for Millhouse.
Most of Homer’s narration has the magic required to propel the story while keeping the family involved, but it occasionally slips up, and is thankfully contained just as it is about to go for one too many beats. Bart is a variation on most of his other future selves in similar episodes, but we have no clue what his story is. He’s there, with Marge and Homer, and that’s about it. He’s just a messenger, and really no more distinguishable than the bully with the hat. At least Nelson, the adult, can clean up well, even shopping at a store called Sleeveless in Seattle. The vest turns out to be an all-occasion running gag, equally appropriate on a motorcycle or at a wedding.
Nelson’s bellringer gig also makes this a The Hunchback of Notre Dame story, and Lisa is a strange choice for an Esmerelda, even if she does ring too many bells. For all the dreams she speaks about in her graduation speech, Lisa is not quite the fiercely independent, informed, and dogmatic woman the series brought her up to be. This doesn’t mean she has to be president in every future episode, but she is a little too easily led in this installment.
The opening sets up a very reasonable promise: Lisa is drawn to the danger in Nelson and wants to change him, but she breaks off from that like the loaf of French bread in her breakup fantasy. The extra cheese in that scene, however, makes it a minor classic moment. Lisa also seems to be too lost in the too perfect Hubert. Nelson grows in the episode. He comes to understand the pain of the wedgie. Although played as a positive outcome overall, Lisa does not get her groove back. The lesson is severely damaged people need just a little more wear and tear for happy endings. This is a sound foundation for a relationship in Springfield, where nothing is up to code.
“When Nelson Met Lisa” works best as an homage to the original film. It is not a satire or a parody, but a fully repopulated take from a different perspective. The episode adheres to the timing, follows the unlikeliness fully, the mixed emotional arcs throughout, and lays down an appropriate soundtrack. The pains of the past, which for Nelson are a plus because he was usually the one meting out the punishment, are well paired with missed possibilities. The episode skips any semblance of the “I’ll have what she’s having” humor, however, replacing it with coffee in an unexpected and perfectly executed punchline. None of the episode is canon, but it makes for interesting personality fodder.