2.19 Lisa’s Substitute
Lisa is enamoured of her substitute teacher, Mr. Bergstrom.
This might be the best example of an intellectual crush I’ve seen on television. It’s so smart. Lisa and Mr. Bergstrom (played by Dustin Hoffman) connect over Texas not having been a state until 1845. I had a huge crush on my English Lit teacher in uni, who was more than 30 years my senior. Same shit. I always sat at the front of the class, wanting nothing more than her approval, but also to have really earned it through my willingness to learn.
I love love love how the writers choose an absurd-sounding illness like lyme disease, which Ms. Hoover only thinks she has, to justify her absence. It perfectly sets up the utter absurdity of Lisa’s impossible position as an exceptional person in a system built by and for the ineffectual.
I remember the first time a teacher came right out and said that the system was never intended for me. My Grade 7 art teacher, Mr. Ciccone, had the unlikely personality of a grizzled baseball umpire, and yet one day, when I was more visibly shaken than usual from the constant bullying I received, said, “School isn’t built for people like you. You’re a sensitive kid who wants to learn, and it’s because of this that you aren’t going to find your niche until you’re in your twenties.”
He might as well have given me a note like Mr. Bergstrom’s. Sure I’ve edited myself down a lot in order to fit in, but things like this have always lived in the back of my mind.
That’s the real tragedy of this episode. The writers make no bones about the fact that Lisa is screwed for at least another decade. Like Lisa with Bergstrom and Bleeding Gums Murphy, my truest mentors have all briefly come into my life and gone, so “Lisa’s Substitute” feels like it was written for me.
I’m gonna say something controversial: Yeardley Smith (Lisa) doesn’t just match Dustin Hoffman in this episode, she acts circles around him. Her rehearsing asking Mr. Bergstrom for dinner is crushing. When she runs to meet Bergstrom at the train station she’s angry, heartbroken, understanding, loving, trying to be strong; everything.
(Yes it wouldn’t be as powerful if Hoffman wasn’t so good too, but you get the idea.)
The B story of Bart’s candidacy for class president is pure fun, but also a great antithesis to the Lisa story in its examination of how the lowest common denominator beats sophistication and progress. Martin gives a speech to the class about eliminating asbestos, and Bart whips up the crowd, getting them to chant “More asbestos, more asbestos.” One needs only to watch a Donald Trump rally to see how not outlandish this is.
My favourite moment is when Martin puts up a sign saying “A vote for Bart is a vote for anarchy,” and the camera pans to Bart putting up the exact same sign. “Lisa’s Substitute” is a prime example of a B story serving as an exclamation point to the A story as opposed to being something totally extraneous.
I really get Lisa’s difficulty accepting how her mother feels about Homer. She’ll have made peace with it by the time she’s thirty.
I’m of two minds about the very end with Homer dismissing Lisa’s feelings and then being redeemed so quickly and without much effort. On one hand, Lisa’s “Oh well, he’s the only dad I got” even as Homer doesn’t come close to understanding the magnitude of her loss is something of a tacit acceptance of patriarchal mediocrity, and a premise that I reject. Sometimes you just don’t have a decent male role model in your home, and it sucks, and that’s that.
On the other hand, I can totally appreciate the writers’ desire to go with a happy ending, and having Homer legit make his kids feel better and then comment on how he’s on a roll is very sweet. I just wonder if the writers really needed to make this Homer’s episode in the end. It’s like they realized in their creation of Mr. Bergstrom that Homer really is a dud of a father to Lisa, so they needed to pull back and give Homer a few decent parenting moments in order to maintain his likability.
That, and they were afraid the episode would be too tragic.
Writer, Jon Vitti has said that he is haunted to this day by his forgetting to include an exclamation mark in Mr. Bergstrom’s letter, which reads, “You are Lisa Simpson.” I don’t get it. The message is “You are enough.” A period is all you need for that shit. I love how one’s perceived fuck up can be another’s perfect moment.
Best Quote: “That’s the problem with being middle class. Anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more.” -Mr. Bergstrom