With the big Simpsons marathon on FXX starting tomorrow, we decided to take a look at Lisa Simpson, the voice of reason within the chaotic Simpsons family. To some, she’s an irritating liberal scold, to others, she’s the glue that holds the family together (her and Marge, anyway). No matter where you fall on the Lisa spectrum, no one denies these fifteen episodes showcased the growth of the smartest Simpson.
“Moaning Lisa” – Original Air Date: February 11, 1990
This was the first episode that gave us the indication that Lisa might feel things a bit deeper than the rest of the family. In the first few episodes, she was barely distinguishable from Bart, but here we see her emotions start to be explored as we find her hit by a deep sadness for reasons that even she doesn’t totally understand. Marge tries in vain to cheer her up, but it’s when she tells her it’s okay to not smile, and that she should let her feelings out, that Lisa actually starts to feel happy again. Plus, we get the first appearance of Bleeding Gums Murphy, who tells Lisa that she’s a pretty good saxophone player “for someone with no real problems.”
“Homer Vs. Lisa And The 8th Commandment” – Original Air Date: January 31, 1991
When you live in a family like the Simpsons, having a moral compass can be rather difficult. That becomes true here, when Homer steals cable, and Lisa wrestles with the idea of her father doing something immoral. Lisa’s nightmare of the family burning in hell is truly disturbing, and gives us a strong idea of the anxiety she’s feeling. In the end, she stands by her beliefs and convinces Homer to uninstall the cable, but not before he laments missing the big boxing match, thereby saving his soul “at the worst possible time!”
“Lisa’s Substitute” – Original Air Date: April 25, 1991
Probably the most famous Lisa episode, and one of the best of the series. Lisa feels a deep emotional connection to Mr. Bergstrom, primarily because he seems more like the father she should have than her actual father (it’s also a bit of a crush). It’s painful to watch every dumb thing Homer says in this episode, because you know his intentions are completely good, he’s just clueless. When he finally gets it right at the end, and Homer and Lisa make up, it’s hard not to tear up just a bit.
“Lisa’s Pony” – Original Air Date: November 7, 1991
One of the paradoxes of being such an intelligent 8-year-old is that while Lisa is aware of many of the world’s harsh realities, there are times when she’s just as much of a dreamer as any kid. And like many eight-year-old girls, she would really like a pony. Homer buys her one to make up for not getting her a new saxophone reed in time for her big recital. In this episode, you feel heartbroken for both of them. You understand Lisa’s initial anger at her father, as well as Homer desperately wanting Lisa to love him. Eventually, when Lisa understands just how much Homer is going through (his scenes working at the Quik-E-Mart are hilarious), she does the only logical thing and gives up the pony. But not before she and Homer become a lot closer.
“Lisa The Beauty Queen” – Original Air Date: October 15, 1992
For the most part, Lisa has a fairly positive view of herself. In this episode, a terrible drawing of her on roller skates gets the better of her, and she begins to believe that she’s ugly. This is yet another episode that focuses on the relationship between Homer and Lisa, as Homer is desperate to make Lisa feel better about herself, so he enters her in a beauty pageant. Later on, the episode changes tone and becomes about Lisa using her influence to take a stand against issues that matter to her. Naturally, this annoys the powers that be, and Lisa is forced out thanks to a convenient error on Homer’s application (“In the area marked ‘do not write in this space,’ he wrote ‘okay.'”), but while Lisa loses her title, she regains her self-esteem, and learns a lot about herself.
“Lisa’s First Word” – Original Air Date: December 3, 1992
You could argue that this is more of a Bart episode than a Lisa episode — it shows how he dealt with Lisa’s arrival into the family — but it’s an important origin story nonetheless. Plus, it’s heartening to know that even when young Bart hated Lisa’s guts, she was still crazy about him.
“I Love Lisa” – Original Airdate: February 11, 1993
In this episode, Lisa’s empathy gets the better of her. When she sees poor Ralph crying on Valentine’s Day because no one will give him a Valentine, she feels awful, as any caring person would. But when Ralph develops an intense crush, and Lisa lacks the ability to let him down easily, it boils over until she explodes telling him she never liked him at the worst possible moment (“You can actually pinpoint the exact moment where his heart rips in half”). Naturally, all is well at the end of the episode, as Lisa and Ralph become friends, and after a stirring performance as George Washington, Lisa realizes that while Ralph isn’t the smartest kid around, there’s actually a bit more to him than we thought.
“Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” – Original Air Date: February 17, 1994
We already saw Lisa’s activism take shape in the second half of “Lisa The Beauty Queen,” but this is where that aspect of her character really begins to take shape. When she’s disappointed by the sexist catchphrases delivered by the new talking Malibu Stacy doll (“Don’t ask me. I’m just a girl.”), she decides to take action. Her epic rant about what this doll will teach young girls is one of her best moments in the history of the show, and it’s heartening to see the amount of work she puts into creating her own toy doll. While it naturally gets destroyed by the next Malibu Stacy (“she has a new hat!”), she’s encouraged to know that at least one little girl will be inspired by its message.
“Lisa’s Rival” – Original Air Date: September 11, 1994
One of the most sobering pieces of advice Homer Simpson ever gave was “no matter how good you are at something, there’s always at least a million people better than you.” This is not a problem that Lisa encounters very often, but in this episode she has to confront the harsh reality that a classmate is smarter than she is. Not only is Allison Taylor a slightly better saxophone player, she was even skipped ahead a grade. This drives Lisa so mad that it begins to corrupt her moral compass, as she plans to sabotage Allison’s entry in the school diorama fair. Naturally, her guilty conscience wins out, and she comes clean. But it doesn’t matter because Ralph’s collection of Star Wars figurines crushes them both anyway. He bent his wookie!
“Lisa’s Wedding” – Original Air Date: March 19, 1995
This episode gives us a look at the Future Lisa, who, unsurprisingly, is not that different from her current incarnation. She still fiercely intelligent and headstrong, and now matter how embarrassing her family can be, she will always defend them. It’s a shame of course, Hugh Parkfield is basically the perfect guy on the surface: rich, handsome, and British! But while he’s patient on the surface, he wants to get away from the Simpson family as fast as possible, and drag Lisa away from them as well. Naturally, Lisa is having none of that, and as her vision of the future ends, she and Homer walk off into the sunset.
“Lisa the Vegetarian” – Original Air Date: October 15, 1995
Lisa’s moral compass has come up a few times in this list already, and this time she faces another crucial question: is it okay to eat meat? When she hugs an adorable baby lamb at Storytown Village, she feels like a hypocrite for eating the same animal that kissed her. But her plans to stop eating meat run into a problem: Homer Simpson, carnivore extraordinaire. Neither Homer nor Lisa is perfect in this episode; Homer is extremely insensitive to Lisa’s concerns, but Lisa tries to force her opinions on the rest of the family. Happily, they both learn the error of their ways, and make up while “Maybe I’m Amazed” plays in the background. If you play it backwards, you’ll hear a recipe for a really ripping lentil soup!
“Lisa The Iconoclast” – Original Air Date: February 18, 1996
This episode poses a question than most historians likely deal with at some point: is it right to tell the ugly truth about the beloved historical figures of the past? When people are genuinely inspired by a legend, is it worth it to let them all know that the person they love is actually a fraud? It’s a thorny issue, and it causes quite a bit of problems for Lisa when she learns that town founder Jebediah Springfield was actually a vicious pirate named Hans Sprungfeld. In the end, even with the ugly truth proven beyond a reasonable doubt, she relents, and decides to let the people of Springfield keep believing the legend. Perhaps most importantly of all, this episode is notable for introducing “embiggens” and “cromulent” into the vernacular.
“Summer Of 4 ft. 2” – Original Air Date: May 19, 1996
Lisa has never been one of the popular kids in school, but it doesn’t seem to bother her much. Heck, in “Lisa’s Rival” she becomes jealous that the other girls start making fun of Allison instead of her. But after a fateful yearbook giveaway at the last day of school, she confronts how unloved she is by her classmates, at decides to change her image. When the Simpsons go to Flanders’ beach house, Lisa reinvents herself and befriends a group of Cool Kids, who also reject Bart because they see him as trying too hard (“My friendship: you know you want it.”). When Bart exposes her for her nerdy past, the other kids couldn’t care less: they like her for who see is. It was wonderful to see Lisa meet some friends who actually appreciate her, even if poor Homer’s car is destroyed in the process.
“Lisa’s Date With Density” – Original Air Date: December 15, 1996
It’s hard to say exactly why anyone would be attracted to Nelson Muntz — which is probably what draws Lisa to him in the first place. She chuckles at Nelson’s pranks on Willie, but she wants to bring out his sensitive side. As it turns out, that doesn’t really exist. He likes Lisa well enough, but he’d much rather hurl rotten eggs at Skinner’s house than hang with a girl. They break up at the episode’s end, but they seem to stay on friendly terms. Best moment: the other bullies’ reaction to Nelson kissing Lisa (“Dude, you kissed a girl!” “That is SO gay!”).
“The Secret War Of Lisa Simpson” – Original Air Date: May 18, 1997
When Lisa is bored by Ms. Hoover’s endless string of filmstrips from the 1950s — including a hilariously dull entry about sand — she craves a challenge. Fate intervenes as Bart’s latest prank lands him in military school, and Lisa decides she’s going to tag along as well. Naturally, the arrival of a female cadet is not handled well by the rest of the school and she quickly becomes an outcast. Bart becomes one of the popular kids, while quietly supporting Lisa when no one’s looking. At the end, however, when Lisa is struggling to climb the Eliminator, Bart yells words of encouragement that allow her to power through. I’m heard some folks describe this scene as being to sappy, but I could care less; I tear up every time.