This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons Season 33 Episode 5
With “Lisa’s Belly, The Simpsons presents something the series used to avoid, a very special episode. The Simpsons family has had their share of issues, therapeutic and otherwise, and while they always come together as a family, it is usually from a skewed angle. When Bart and Lisa overcame sibling rivalry on a hockey field, Homer’s takeaway was “they’re both losers.” Marge once commented how the Fox Network became a soft porn channel so slowly no one realized it was happening. Over the course of the past few seasons, The Simpsons have gradually been morphing into educational programming, a lateral move from the edumacational fare they used to peddle.
Thank goodness for Patty and Selma. If they gave a crap, the episode may have been too soft, but their common sense flouting of the need for approval is the true moral, and the most subversive way of getting the message across. They and Homer have owned their jeers, but, more importantly, keep their wit about them. The episode is very effective because of the contrasts.
Like most of the best offerings of The Simpsons, the main theme comes after a wild ride which has little to do with the unfolding drama. The episode begins when Homer brings the family to a vacation spot he loved when he was a kid, Riot Rivers. It looks like it is loosely based on New Jersey’s Action Park, a lawsuit factory masquerading as a flume ride. The sequence works on several levels. One, it is hysterical, and ludicrous. Homer’s memory of the amusement park’s glory days are twisted by the rambunctious teenager he will always be. He is horrified that it’s turned into a kiddie park, scoffs at the safety features, and questions whether or not the kids in charge are even high. And then he does the most Simpsons thing of all, engages in reckless endangerment.
Homer takes Lisa and Bart on the Devil’s Tower, renowned because it accounted for 90 percent of the hospitalizations of the park. A very impressive average for one ride. When the family trio’s mini-excursion leaves them no exit but the big drop, his sage fatherly advice is to “punch death in the face.” It’s better than his later ill-advised financial advice, and far more exciting. Bart sees his life flash before his eyes, and declares it awesome. But the sequence also works as an allegory to the episode: Things which used to be dangerous and fun are now treated with the utmost care and a modicum of respect.
The lingering shadow of The Devil’s Tower is actually felt at Dr. Hibbert’s office, where we learn the long-abandoned ride was infested with longer-festering bacterial dangers which have to be taken care of with a four week regimen of intensive steroid intake. Steroids mean two things to growing bodies, they are associated with bodybuilding, but actually cause extreme weight gain. While Bart goes off on what seems to be a fun ‘roid rage trip, Lisa’s rage turns inward and comes out as a very public tantrum.
It is somewhat incongruous that the limiting beliefs which cloud Lisa’s self-esteem come from Marge. She has always been the most accepting and enabling character in the household, and at first it might even seem like she is still doing this, as Marge is blissfully ignorant to what her words mean to Lisa. But it also gives those words, and that parental disappointment, more emotional punch, because it is coming from the most nurturing parent.
Marge singsongs how Lisa is getting a little “chunky,” and the word gets stuck in her head. Chunky used to be a chocolate bar, but now it is a concrete barrier to self-acceptance. Lisa experiences a Simpsons standby, the obsessive repetition found in every conversation about the very thing which is driving the character to distraction. It is a well-used short fuse for detonation. “Chunky” comes out of every mouth, replacing even Nelson’s “haw haw,” until Lisa causes a scene at the mall.
Homer really does earn his “World’s Greatest Dad” cup during the episode. In the season opener, “The Star of the Backstage,” he sang about tiptoeing around bad news, and now he untangles mixed messages. Homer knows, intimately, the problems Lisa is going through, but also knows that is not going to be a big help. Because the true damage was done by Marge who did the one thing parents should never do: acknowledge what their kids really look like. This is extremely sound Simpsons style advice, and then he does something remarkable. He lets Patty and Selma take on the song.
“When the world hurts your feelings, and on certain words you tend to dwell. Live life like your aunties, and tell those jerks to go to hell,” the Bouvier sisters sing to the tune of “The Age of Aquarius,” and Lisa joins the age of who gives a crap? It is exactly the answer The Simpsons should be giving, and Lisa’s takeaway is perfection. She feels a lot better about herself and much worse about everyone else. The sequence is the high point of the episode, and a testament to Julie Kavner’s versatile vocalizations. With the three characters, she captures a wide emotional range, and is both villain and hero, insensitive and empathetic, contradictory and healing.
Kavner inflects each of these many traits into all the voices. Patty and Selma are obviously insensitive. They’re singing about not giving a crap while dismantling a park. But they are also giving Lisa exactly the kind of emotional support she needs. It is an excellent use of the Bouvier families’ talents. Even Marge’s mother gets into the act, as the first destructive voice to bring disharmony and misunderstanding to Marge, but which also provides the empathic puzzle piece she needs to understand her daughter.
Bart’s education is similar, but slightly sadder because it comes from a place of mischief and mayhem. He lives the dream of being accepted by his tormentors, and even learns valuable street lessons like how you’re supposed to insult cops, because they expect it and respect it. He also learns that pubes are any new hair growth. But sadly he also learns he’s still a kid, and when he crawls out the window away from the cool, bully kids, he’s actually crawling away from maturity. Good for him. Nothing swoll can last.
The episode was not without its silly asides. Principal Skinner’s standoff with the praying mantises is good for a chuckle, as is the revelation that Jimbo and the gang’s weight room used to be a padded cell for left-handed students. Marge’s reaction to Luann Van Houton enthusing over how similar the two of them are is also a great underhandedly wicked retort: “are we, though?” It is not exactly in character, but it is very satisfying.
The hypnotherapist, Dr. Wendy Sage, voiced by Renee Ridgeley, actually provides the strongest non-verbal message. She is obviously a breast cancer survivor who has taken control of how she defines herself, proudly uni-boob, which is subliminally as effective as her spinny thing. The hypnosis session itself breaks the walls between Lisa and Marge, but this time it’s their attitude which could use adjustment, having nothing to do with body issues. Lisa thinks hypnosis is a little “woo-woo,” scientifically, and the word which has been lodged so uncomfortably in Sage’s subconscious is “quack.” This has two meanings as well. It is the word skeptics use to describe the wacky world of mental health professionals, but it’s also the thing hypnotists are supposed to make their clients do after the most clichéd sessions. This makes her as universal a victim of bad words as any major character.
Everyone in town has that one word drilling holes in their confidence. For Chief Wiggum, it’s “Big Baby.” Marge’s trigger word is “plain.” Homer is the most well-adjusted. Not only does he have a true and unabashed love for both plain and chunky, in his case peanut butter, he has also taken possession of the words which have been hurled at him, like “lazy.” Not only does he own that word, but instead of bottling it up inside him, he’s learned it already comes in bottles of beer. And if there’s one thing The Simpsons have taught us, it’s alcohol is the cause of, and solution to, every problem.
“Lisa’s Belly” works because her healing and acceptance comes from the most unlikely of places. Homer, Patty and Selma are what they are and don’t care how other people see them. This is valuable and the message is much more effective coming from them. This is a very sweet, and mature episode. It is just such a shame what happens to the Powerpuff Girls.