This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 30 Episode 12
The Simpsons Season 30, Episode 12, presents a French farce on “The Girl on the Bus,” and Lisa puts the fab in fabrication. The Simpsons’ middle child tries to obscure her family but winds up exposing both the series and family’s most recent flaws in a funny and effective episode.
The Simpsons‘ “The Girl on the Bus” starts with hardly any theme music at all and a couch gag that’s over before it starts, disintegrating the family before Lisa gets a chance to let her sculptor father reconstruct it. That’s one of the lies Lisa commits to when she first drops into the character she always wants to be. The opening sequence is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, the girl who is living the fun life on the other side of the window even plays clarinet, something Allen did regularly while making his films. Even the title cards take the shape of Allen’s 1980 homage to Federico Fellini’s 8½.
The Springfield Elementary school bus has played its own sad part in the history of the town, which was purposefully ignored by the aeronautic Wright Brothers and made newsreels when Montgomery Burns gleefully fired all female employees following World War II. Bursting with American technology before Ralph Nader had anything to say about basic safety features, the Springfield school bus is a relic of higher learning and it is now in its saddest stage, driven by Otto. The kids are in charge and they keep a chaotic rule, enforced in a lunch box gladiator arena.
In the game of Hamster Handball, Lisa counts as floor, and she creeps through the boards to find what she believes is perfect happiness. Of course it begins with a crying girl, named Sam. But it’s what those tears are for that cements the bond between the two girls. They are equally concerned with the wellbeing of pretty much everything. It appears the episode will be a musical, because of the artful framing and Lisa’s opening aria, but Kearny won’t let his life be relegated to a lonely song so the music is dropped until Lisa meets her new friend Sam and they blow reeds.
Family dinners are two different experiences entirely at the Simpsons or at Sam’s house. Besides the cuisine, they have a miniature pony genetically designed to get cuter as it ages, and Sam’s parents regale each other with a chamber music duet of “It had to be you.” Sam’s mom picked her occupation based on an improv group suggestion. Patti LuPone hasn’t played such a giddy character since her turn as the witchy midwife on Penny Dreadful.
Meanwhile at the Simpsons, the family eats in the living room while Ninjas slay beast for their buddies and rollercoaster marriages leave newlyweds bedding down on a hammock of human hair on TV. Sam’s family doesn’t live far from a cruelty-free stationary store, and bring that dainty manner with the table cloth, actually asking the vegetarian Lisa if it bothers her that they are eating meat. Lisa pours on the sugar.
Lisa’s first deception is lying about her family at dinner. She can barely contain her embarrassment. How could she be so embarrassed by her own family? Maybe she’s just flinching under memories of the past few seasons. She erases Bart entirely from the chalkboard, this is fine because he’s got his own thing brewing behind velvet ropes. But she double downs on deception when she actually picks Ned Flanders as her patriarchal stand-in. The Flanders deception is delicious. The god-fearing Ned has a major aversion to even the whitest of lies, so when he has to come to the aid of his young neighborino, it breaks his brain. Ned internalizes the whole essence of Homer Simpson, and there’s quite a weight discrepancy. Ned admits to hating the Flanderses, give a few annoying grunts and then goes to work at the nuclear plant.
Marge and Lisa’s “Sideshow Mom” scene is the high point of the episode as far as unexpected laughs. Marge pulls off the ambiance of Sideshow Bob in a gravelly underplay, while Lisa’s scream is irresistible. The “What is in Homer’s head?” sequence works on as many levels as a football in the groin. Even Santa’s Little Helper and whatever number Snowball the show is up to know enough to make themselves scarce. We’ve had trips into Homer’s head and historically never know where we will wind up. The scene gets the suspense it needs from our collective Simpsons memory. We can see dancing farm animals, or the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey playing behind his eyelids at random. He can blow at any time.
The episode also had quite a few visual and subversive gags. At one point we learn that the secret to long life is to either drink a lot of coffee or no coffee at all. This takes on how news is skewered to confuse us because nobody really knows anything. A case could be made for either, but since nobody knows how to check, they both lose. Another snippet you might have missed is the flashback to Springfield in 1961 where a small plane is carrying a sign that reads “JFK is still alive.” Nelson also moons Springfield.
This is going to end badly, Lisa predicts at the start of the episode and her relationship with Sam. It’s exactly what her friend is thinking. Who are we to disagree? “The Girl on the Bus” gets caught in crosstown traffic by the ending. While we always know the family is going to work things out, lately things have been working out too well for the Simpsons. The comfort of the smooth animation now couches comfier endings. There is no additional twist to the loving outpouring. It is a feel-good episode that should have felt a little bad. Lisa learns how exciting it is to deceive all the people she loves, but she can’t sustain her enthusiasm.
“The Girl on the Bus” was directed by Chris Clements, and written by Joel H. Cohen.
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum, Professor John I.Q. Nerdelbaum Frink Jr., and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Guest stars: Terry Gross as herself and Patti LuPone as Sam’s mother.
The Simpsons‘ “The Girl on the Bus” aired Sunday, January 13 at 8:00 p.m. on Fox.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.