Compare & Contrast: Lisa’s Rivals

“What do you guys, like, do for fun?” – Alex Whitney
“Well, you’ll definitely want to get yourself a good doll.  The new Malibu Stacy has an achievable chest.” – Lisa Simpson

Back in December, I pointed out that in the Katy Perry Incident, surely one of the low points of the entire decade plus debacle that is Zombie Simpsons, Perry herself was given nothing to do.  She showed up, looked nice, and talked about her boyfriend.  In total, she was given twenty-seven words of dialogue.  A few episodes later, the same benign neglect fell upon Alyson Hannigan, who showed up to play a girl who had a crush on Bart.  All of her lines were about him, for a grand total of forty-two words.

To give you an idea of just how small those parts are, the preceding paragraph is ninety-three words.  Continuing the tradition of tacitly insulting their female guest stars, this week Zombie Simpsons brought us Kristen Schaal in the thankless and miniscule role of the girl who falls for Milhouse, then breaks up with him and exits stage right, never having uttered even a single punchline.  Her character, “Taffy”, is so thinly conceived and her story so flat that she’s only in three scenes.  Here’s everything she says in the entire episode:

Scene 1:

I thought that was beautiful.

Yeah.  It was romantic and it rhymed.

I’m Taffy.

It’s a date.

Scene 2:

You know so much about body mechanics.

Scene 3:

Here, my love.

Anything for my silly-Milli.

Not her again.

You’re not over, you never were.  Milhouse, you’re a great guy, but we’re not gonna work out for one reason.

That wasn’t a great day for us, but it’s because you’ll always be in love with her.  He likes his apple pie warm and his a la mode cold.  Good luck.

That’s eighty-five words, and way over half of them come during the break up.  There’s nothing wrong with a good break up scene, they can be a lot of fun, but this particular break up is preceded by nothing.  As you can see above, there isn’t a single scene, nor even a single line of dialogue, where Milhouse shows himself to still be in love with Lisa.  He never mentions her in front of Taffy; he doesn’t even let out a swooning sigh when Lisa intrudes on them at the end.  If we take the episode at face value, counting only what it shows us, Taffy decides that Milhouse is still in love with Lisa because Lisa stalked them.  Huh?  Even the most formulaic romantic comedies give the spurned girlfriend role more characterization than that (they also usually spell the actress’s name right).

Too Lazy to Google

“Kristin” I could understand, but no one took the time to check “Schall”?  (Thanks to bhall87 in comments.)

It wasn’t always this way.  In its prime and past it, the show routinely had guest stars voicing actual female characters, both kids and adults.  They’re too numerous to list here, but I’d like to point out just two of them.  Like Taffy, they’re students at Springfield Elementary and Lisa is threatened by them; unlike Taffy, they’re more than a few dozen wasted words.  They’ve got plots, backgrounds, motivations and everything.  Most importantly, they get to be funny.

The first one is from Season 10’s “Lard of the Dance”, when Lisa Kudrow voiced “Alex”, the fashionable second grader who wows the other girls with how grown up she is.  For starters, let’s take a look at some of the dialogue.  Here’s what she says in just her first scene:

Your name’s Lisa?  Shut up, I love that name.

Oh, don’t be such a Phoebe.  It’s Pretension, by Calvin Klein.  Wanna try some?

Kay, so what’s the haps in Springfield?  What do you guys, like, do for fun?

Dolls, really?  Okay, what else you got?

You mean that game with the little rubber ball?

Isn’t that trophy case supposed to have trophies?

If you’re counting, that’s sixty-two words right there, which is almost as much as Schaal’s whole part and much more than Katy Perry or Alyson Hannigan got, all in one scene with many more to come.

Treating a Guest with Respect

She’s a pain in Lisa’s ass, but Alex Whitney is actually in this episode.

But the point isn’t to just count words and say “J’accuse!”.  It’s to note that not only are these Season 22 parts tiny bordering on nonexistent, they aren’t even developed enough to be called one dimensional.  “Lard of the Dance” isn’t exactly the show at the peak of its powers, but look at Alex’s dialogue from that first scene.  It’s got a couple of jokes in it, and it establishes Alex’s character as the new girl in town who isn’t happy with how unsophisticated Springfield Elementary is.

But who is Taffy?  All we ever find out about her is that she’s popular and in the fifth grade (not that we get to see any of that, it’s exposited by Lisa).  She never takes any actions or expresses interest in anything other than Milhouse.  Even her attraction to him, the reason she exists, is never explained or explored.  We don’t know if she’s got a thing for glasses or theremin playing, she’s just smitten right up until the moment she isn’t.

Giggling Is the Only Thing She Does

This is one of only two shots – not scenes, shots – where she’s alone.  The other is right after it.

It’s bad storytelling, but it also cripples her for comedy purposes.  She has no foibles to tweak, nor does she have any interests the show can satirize.  The closest thing she has to a joke in the entire episode is when she hands Milhouse an inhaler from a bandolier of them.  The ficus plant in “Bart of Darkness” has better jokes attached to it.

Going back further than Season 10 to (as the title of this post indicates) Season 6’s “Lisa’s Rival”, we find another well realized Springfield Elementary girl in Allison Taylor, voiced by Winona Ryder.  While I could do a word count of everything she says, there’d be no point.  She appears throughout the episode, and in a lot more than three short scenes.  Her description of her “Tell-Tale Heart” diorama alone is much longer and more descriptive than anything poor Taffy gets to say.

Lisa's Rival6

Look, a girl with interests and hobbies.  The show used to think this was worth screen time.

Far more important is who Allison is and what she does.  We know right away that she’s smart.  She gets the question about Columbus right, she plays the saxophone, and she nails “Genuine Class” as an anagram for “Alec Guinness”.  Moreover, there’s no mystery as to why Lisa is threatened by her.  Everything Lisa values about herself, Allison does better.

But creating a real character in Allison isn’t important for its own sake.  Because Allison bears an actual resemblance to a real person, one who wants things and does things as opposed to just standing there, she slides seamlessly into the overarching story about Lisa and Lisa’s insecurities.  When we see them in a scene together we know what each of them is thinking and trying to do.  For example, at the end of the episode, after Lisa has tried and failed to make peace with being second to Allison, the audience doesn’t need to be told both girls are trying to win the diorama competition, we already know.  That neither of them does win, Allison for being her usual overachieving self and Lisa for being, as the French say, “Bartesque”, makes the whole scene work in a very funny, very Simpsons way.

Both girls care deeply about winning the competition and have worked very hard to do so.  But the arbiters of victory, Skinner and Hoover, don’t care at all.  Skinner goes gaga for Star Wars characters and Hoover just wants to go to lunch.  Lisa and Allison both lose to Ralph, the dimwitted kid who tries to cheat off their tests, doesn’t know what the word “diorama” means, and is their polar opposite in every way.  Not only does it fit the story, but it puts a nice little twist on all the stress the girls put themselves through.

Lisa's Rival7

We have a winner!  Chewbacca and the little boy with the blank stare.

Neither Allison nor Alex are real people, but they’re recognizably human for reasons beyond colored lines on a screen and a familiar voice on the soundtrack.  Their personalities and their actions give a plausible reality to their dealings with Lisa, which in turns allows all three of them to be funny.  Taffy, like her predecessors in Season 22, has none of those things.  She is a prop far more than she is a character.  Since props don’t usually get much dialogue, in the eyes of Zombie Simpsons she doesn’t merit much of that either.

[Pop culture note: I didn’t remember until I was halfway through this that Winona Ryder was in Edward Scissorhands, for which Taffy’s sad episode was named.]

[Edited to fix typo.]

13 Responses to “Compare & Contrast: Lisa’s Rivals”

  1. 1 PR
    10 May 2011 at 4:26 pm

    Because Allison bears an actual resemblance to a real person, one who wants things and does things as opposed to just standing there, she’s slides seamlessly into the overarching story about Lisa and Lisa’s insecurities.


    • 2 Charlie Sweatpants
      10 May 2011 at 6:18 pm

      Fixed, thanks. I may be a picker of nits, but I am not a hypocritical picker of nits.

  2. 3 Derp
    10 May 2011 at 5:22 pm

    Well done, both for the comparison and exposing some of the fatal flaws of the latest episode.
    The break-up without justification was one of the worst F Us to the audience in a good while.

  3. 4 Bryan
    10 May 2011 at 6:18 pm

    I’d say that Elizabeth Taylor’s one word on the Simpsons has infinitely more value than all the collected dribble of female guest stars on the Zombie Simpsons.

    Counting words isn’t always the best way to go, but you would think that someone would have had the idea to actually use the talented guest star for something.

  4. 5 Stan
    10 May 2011 at 7:08 pm

    It’s a good point. Those later B-plots just seem like scrapped paper from the recycle bin. I mean, I can understand the one they had with the pig and truffles, at least there they tried to implement some clumsy twist. In this episode, their b-plot is similar to a joke without the punchline. As if someone tried to make the point and utterly failed. In that, it is the only way how it compares to “everything being Milhouse” – the ending didn’t make its point. But the writers aren’t so clever, their joke was the magic eagle.

    Seriously, this kind of shit feels like it comes out of Monty Python where everytime they made a stupid joke without the punch, they had to either do a silly dance, or to show a funny horse or something. Funny thing, this is even lower than Monty Python actually, because it ends on an absolutely dim-witted note, like Teletubbies or something. It’s as if they excepted the audience to go “awwwww” after all the shit they’ve managed to pull through to get there.

    With this said, I bet watching the b-plot backwards ca make as much sense as this (not the say the whole episode too…).

  5. 6 lennyburnham
    11 May 2011 at 11:07 am

    You’re right that “Lard of the Dance” is definitely not the show at its peak, but I was in elementary school when it came out and I was really amazed to see that a real show– meaning, something that my parents watched, not something on the Disney Channel– was treating my problems like they actually mattered and going to the trouble of capturing the specificity of what I was going through. I don’t currently know any elementary school girls, so I can’t say for sure that recent episodes wouldn’t speak to them, but Lisa plotlines always feel very condescending to me now.

    • 7 Lovejoy Fan
      11 May 2011 at 3:36 pm

      I agree with you; when I was in school, I really related to Lisa in that episode. In fact, I actually quoted it the other day (after reading an article about how young girls “grow up too fast” or something similar).

    • 12 May 2011 at 4:24 am

      My favourite part of this episode is Marge’s well-intended but hugely unhelpful suggestion that, instead of going to the dance that she’s dreading, Lisa could stay at home and they’ll have their own party, “Every Simpson dance now!” It so perfectly captures how cringe worthy mothers can be – Season 10 is definitely not without its moments. Looking forward to this summer’s session of Crazy Noises.

  6. 9 Mr. Incognito
    11 May 2011 at 6:31 pm

    The more and more that I read about any comparisons between Seasons 20+ and Season 10, the more and more Season 10 comes out looking better to me, and that’s saying something.

    While the jokes might have been light compared to past seasons, there are still some, and they are tied into the story, for the most part. Can’t say the same of anything post Season 20.

  7. 10 D.N.
    11 May 2011 at 6:34 pm

    That “Kristen Schall” thing is pretty bad. Is this the first time the show has fouled up on the spelling of a cast-member?

  8. 11 Matthew
    12 May 2011 at 6:07 pm

    The people making zombie Simpsons care as much about fully developed characters as Prinicpal Skinner and Mrs.Hoover cared about the diorama contest. Ralph put more effort and detail into his winning diorama than Zombie Simpsons puts into most of its episodes. And we loyal fans have essentially become Lisa and Allison, continually disappointed that no in charge really cares.

  9. 12 Chris
    31 July 2011 at 5:56 pm

    I don’t watch the new episodes (because I know better than to put myself through that disappointment), but as far as I can tell, every word of this article is true. It’s also a darn good read.

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