Classic Simpsons Reviews: “Moaning Lisa” renders your “Parenting 101” book obsolete.

1.6 Moaning Lisa

A depressed Lisa meets Bleeding Gums Murphy, who teaches her to express herself through music.

The episode opens with a close up of Lisa’s face in the bathroom mirror, distraught, though we don’t know why yet. It’s morning, and the Simpson household moves at too fast a pace for her.

If I have to pick the two most underrated aspects of early Simpsons, acting would be one, and the other would be direction. Look at the composition of this shot:

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Here Marge tells Homer, Bart, and Lisa she only has two cupcakes left, which Lisa says to give to the others, as they will bring her no pleasure. Lisa is isolated and boxed in, and the two openings in the shot are both obscured. Subliminal things like this are persuasive in establishing tone.

Lisa gets in trouble for improvising in band class, and she reveals the source of her depression, saying, “I’m wailing out for the homeless family living out of its car, the Iowa farmer whose land has been taken away by unfeeling bureaucrats” etc. Lisa is an empath, and she’s upset for the same reason we should all be.

Lisa comes home with a progress report that says, “Lisa refuses to play dodgeball because she is sad.” The way Lisa’s lack of adjustment to a sick society is framed as pathological and non-compliant is so on point, and still timely.

Lisa asks her dad, “How can we sleep at night when there’s so much suffering in the world,” and Homer has nothing. I can’t find it in my memory bank, but I’m sure I’ve had a similar conversation before.

In the opening shot of the episode, Lisa was too sad to even brush her teeth. Now who does she meet? Bleeding Gums Murphy. The writers don’t really draw attention to that, but it’s a nice little subtlety.

Yeardley Smith singing the blues with Ron Taylor on a moonlit bridge is gorgeous stuff.

I’d forgotten about Marge’s dream where she’s sad as a child, and her mom forces her to smile because “people will know how good a mommy you have.” The next day Marge gives Lisa basically the same advice, and it is so bad:

“Take all your bad feelings and push them down, all the way down, past your knees, until you’re almost walking on them.” OOF.

Lisa puts on a fake smile and immediately gets attention from a boy on the school steps. Then her music teacher says he hopes she won’t be having the same creative outbursts as the day before. Marge swings the car around, grabs Lisa, and says, “You know what, if you wanna be sad, be sad, and when you’re finished, we’ll still be there.”

And of course Lisa smiles for real this time. And yes, sap alert. Looking at the POV shot, the dream sequence, and what I think is best parenting moment in the entire series, this is really a Marge episode every bit as much as it is a Lisa episode.

Besides setting an example for how to deal with generational pain (i.e. heal yourself and you’ll heal others), this episode is also a remarkably good take on mental illness for 1990. Where another show might be invested in a “cure” narrative, The Simpsons is smart enough to acknowledge that depression just comes with the territory for some people, and that accepting that in someone is step one, whatever the action you take after that.

Having people around you who are willing to just let you be sad is so helpful.

The episode ends with the Simpsons taking in a Bleeding Gums performance at the Jazz Hole (heh).

Reviewer, Colin Jacobson said of this episode that “Lisa lacked the strength at this point to carry an entire show,” to which I say, “Said the DUDE.” Lisa is great in this episode.

“Moaning Lisa” isn’t without comic relief, too. The B story is hilarious. Bart schools Homer at video boxing, so Homer trains at the arcade and then is about to beat Bart, but Marge turns off the power at the last second. Bart decides to retire undefeated. Bart and Homer represent a more maladaptive and less self-aware response to generational pain. It’s a nice contrast.

Best Moment: Marge tell Lisa it’s okay to be sad. Memo to hippie parents. MEMO TO HIPPIE PARENTS!

Best Quote: “The blues isn’t about feeling better, it’s about making other people feel worse!” -Bleeding Gums Murphy (Holy fuck that is perfect.)

Sap Alert! This episode made Taylor cry. During Lisa and Bleeding Gums’ duet, as well as the car scene with Lisa and Marge.

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