Why I Love Lisa The Iconoclast
"A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man."
"Embiggens? I never heard that word before I moved to Springfield."
"I don't know why. It's a perfectly cromulent word."
When it comes to The Simpsons, I am in a state of near constant conflict over which season and showrunners I love the most. Sometimes it's Seasons three and four with Mike Reiss and Al Jean producing. Sometimes it's seasons seven and eight with Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein running things. The reason why it's hard to pick is because these four seasons are arguably the greatest in the entire run of the show and seeing as we have just recently concluded season 29, that is saying something. Josh and Bill, both of whom I have had the pleasure to talk with on Twitter, took the task of running perhaps the greatest comedy show of all time fiercely seriously. They believed, quite rightly, that there was a heavy responsibility to not diminish the quality and reputation of the show. They arguably did more innovative, adventurous and brave work than any other showrunners in the history of the show. I still love The Simpsons, and I still believe it to be a quality show that can make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time. As Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie showed us though, there is often no way to overcome the fact that when a show does something for the first time, there is a thrill that is not there, even if the show is still high quality. Today my favourite showrunners are Bill and Josh, and my favourite episode is Lisa The Iconoclast, perhaps the greatest exploration of the mythology of Springfield ever to occur on the show.
Lisa episodes are harder to write, according to most writers who have worked on The Simpsons, because they are emotionally complex and are, much like Diane from Cheers, demanding because of the need to be filled with incredibly sharp and witty dialogue. Lisa The Iconoclast pairs Lisa up with Homer, and like the sublime third season episode Lisa The Greek, allows the two most opposite characters on the show to bond. Lisa The Iconoclast was written by Jonathan Collier who also wrote another of the historical shows, the brilliant Raging Abe Simpson, and directed by Mike B. Anderson. Credit goes to Mike B. Anderson for the beauty of the animation here. The direction is full of vibrant colours and details. Without such confident, inspired direction, the viewer might not get so wrapped up in the story. Lisa The Iconoclast follows Lisa's uncovering of the true history behind Springfield's found Jebediah Springfield. Lisa The Iconoclast is hilarious, first of all and perhaps most importantly, but boy does it pack an emotional punch! The way Homer supports Lisa - "You're always right about this type of thing, and for once I want in on the ground floor," - just makes me heart so full. Those who forget that Homer is the hero of the show, and that he is, in spite of his many flaws, a good, decent man, are at risk of just plain not getting why The Simpsons has lasted so long. As David Mirkin says on a commentary, when Homer is your supporting character, he is your greatest asset for raising chuckles, deep from the bottom of your person. The bell ringing and town crying creates so many laughs that when I go asleep listening to The Simpsons - something which has been a nightly ritual for well over a decade now - I often wake up to find myself laughing, a feeling that gives me strength to get through the day.
Donald Sutherland plays Hollis Hurlbut, an historian who just can't come to terms with the fact that he has dedicated his life to a fraud. Sutherland is excellent here, and fits in perfectly with the regular cast. It is a shame that Sutherland couldn't have hung around for more episodes, as his character is so sharp and well observed that I would have loved to have seen him appear again. The story of the episode is perhaps the most complex and intriguing of any Simpsons show, and deals with an area that has almost never been tackled in television: that of the power of mythology and the line between honoring an ideal vision of the power of creation and that of following the truth, no matter how uncomfortable. Given the current state of the United States' government and the discarding of truth that contradicts weird notions of patriotism, the message behind Lisa The Iconoclast couldn't be more resonant and significant. The secret of this episode though is that both the truth and the mythology are respected. I find the unwillingness of the people in Springfield to accept that their founder was a bad man to be irritating, but also understandable and as with so many Bill and Josh run shows, close to reality. People need something that is bigger than them; something to believe in and to give meaning and direction in life that is so often cruel and without reason.
The twist in the episode is sublime, that Lisa, in spite of going through all of this hardship and adversity, decides in the end to leave the people of Springfield with their ideal, because of the power and goodness that the myth of Jebediah has brought to the town. This pursuit of truth and conflict with accepted, comforting though probably untrue beliefs is something that would be further explored in the underrated Mike Scully ran episode Lisa The Skeptic. By denying her right to have the last word, she acts as true to character as anything in The Simpsons' history. This is a truly brilliant bit of writing, and adds so many complex layers to Lisa's character. Lisa's struggle to be accepted is in constant conflict with her need to tell the truth and stand by the principles that define her. Whether this is following the truth no matter where it leads, as in Lisa The Iconoclast, or the moral awakening that defines her becoming a vegetarian, the tragedy of the character is that she is perhaps just built in such a way that is destined to alienate those around her. She would be completely alone here if not for Homer, and the fact that perhaps the most impulsive, instinctual character in the show, is the one who stands by Lisa brings more than a tear or two.
Lisa The Iconoclast is then one of the best episodes in season seven of The Simpsons, and is therefore one of the best episodes in the history of the show. The story is supremely well told and reaches new depths of character for both Lisa and Homer, and like the great Lisa/Homer stories - Lisa The Greek, Lost Our Lisa, Homr - shows The Simpsons at its best. I am in awe at the level of artistry that it takes to craft an episode as good as this, and I am so happy that I am able to, in my small part, pay back the many moments of joy that I have experienced because of this episode. Nobody took the task of running The Simpsons as seriously or as reverently as Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, and their hard work paid off with perhaps the two greatest seasons in the long run of The Simpsons. In spite of the shameful fact that comedies almost never get the credit they deserve when it comes to awards - good comedy is not just disposable entertainment, it is the highest of high art - the artists who have given us nearly three decades of The Simpsons can take comfort in the fact that it has resulted in generations of fans whose lives wouldn't be nearly as meaningful without this beautiful, brilliant and big time chuckle inducing show. Oh and the Jebediah song that closes the episode is one of the funniest damn things I've ever heard!