As we continue with the new, condensed version of “Perfectly Cromulent Analysis,” we arrive at an episode that’s pure genius in how it explores Homer and Lisa’s fraught father/daughter relationship. Blending powerful drama with physical and verbal comedy, “Lisa’s Pony” has the best of both worlds, and a sophisticated analysis of the Simpson family’s internal dynamics. It gets so much comic mileage out of its inherently absurd premise—Homer buys Lisa a pony in a bid to redeem himself as a father—but keeps itself grounded in stark emotional reality. It’s about the disastrous personal and financial consequences of rash decisions, all rooted in the basic irony of trying to realistically represent a preposterous situation.
It’s also crammed with great character moments for a panoply of Springfield residents. Early on, for example, we witness the Springfield Elementary talent show, which sets the episode’s events in motion; as usual, Principal Skinner is being something less than a model of patience and academic authority. While watching Milhouse’s underwhelming attempt to play the spoons, he groans, “You know, they seem to get worse every year.” Then as the act ends, he walks onstage, and proclaims to the gathered parents: “You know, I think this is the best batch we’ve ever had! I really do!” This is in line with the usual jokes about the school administration being jaded and hateful (like Skinner’s fantastic “We both know these children have no future!” from “The PTA Disbands”), but takes it a step further by having him turn around and, without missing a beat, lie to the parents’ faces.
Read more about Skinner, Apu, and Homer’s parenting after the jump.
This joke shows how Skinner’s chameleon-like hypocrisy is also a carefully cultivated professional skill. His illusion of optimism is fundamental to the Potemkin village that is Springfield Elementary, and he can switch gears between reality and façade on a moment’s notice. Another two-faced public figure, who features heavily in the third act of “Lisa’s Pony,” is Apu, who hires Homer for the Kwik-E-Mart’s night shift. Apu is affable to customers, but amoral and self-interested, with his perfunctory smile hiding a total disregard for the health or happiness of others. (This dual nature would be limned further in “Homer and Apu.”) He gets a horde of delightfully mean lines here—”[These hot dogs] are strictly ornamental”—as he plays the demon leading Homer through his sleepless financial hell.
But the episode’s real focus is inward, to examine how Homer can be a miserably bad father while still loving his daughter dearly. It’s loaded with too many cutting jokes to count about his lazy, irresponsible parenting and how incompetently he tries to fix his mistakes. A few examples strike me as especially brutal: consider the scene where Homer, aching to reconnect with Lisa, watches videos of her as a baby; he sees himself ignoring her first steps and pleas for attention in order to watch TV and abuse Bart. Yes, it’s funny that he sets her aside to watch Fantasy Island, but his sobs as he realizes what a worthless father he’s been, when he acquires that elusive self-awareness, are just heartbreaking.
Of course, realizations like this don’t stay in Homer’s head all too long. A few scenes later, after Homer’s bought the pony and plunged his family into debt, he debates cost-cutting measures with Marge. He advocates doing away with Maggie’s vaccinations; Marge suggests cutting back on his beer. Homer’s instant, nonchalant response: “Nah, we’re not gonna be doing that.” It’s an unconscionably selfish thing to say, especially after his poor decisions have brought about this crisis. He’s happy to squander thousands of dollars on what amounts to a paternal band-aid, but he refuses to let it infringe on his self-satisfied hedonism. To be frank, he’s delusional. (Homer similarly refuses to engage with the real world in “Homer Badman” when he lays out plans to live under the sea.)
Everything reaches a head toward the end of “Lisa’s Pony,” when Homer learns that his “perfect crime” of working most of the day and night is absolutely unsustainable and Lisa learns of his foolhardy sacrifice. It’s a very sweet, sentimental ending, with father and daughter reunited for a piggyback ride into the sunset… but it’s only reached through severe physical and emotional pain. Homer endures days of sleepless agony, becoming completely numb and nonfunctional. The daughter’s love he once sought no longer matters—Lisa says she has something for him, and when she gives him a kiss, he sighs, “Aww, I was hoping it’d be money.” It’s a bitterly depressing yet honest joke.
This episode also contains an example of one of my favorite Simpsons habits: using pathos to undercut brilliant, perfectly timed slapstick. Homer tries to leave the Kwik-E-Mart, but collapses asleep between the automatic doors, and they slam repeatedly on his head. It’s funny, sure, but the humor is drained out by the underlying emotional weight, and the fact that he’s reduced himself to this humiliating condition for his daughter’s sake. The same goes for the scene after Homer drives home, as one power tool after another falls on his head. It’s the cruelest kind of slapstick.
In the middle of all this sadism is a beautifully animated sequence as Homer falls asleep at the wheel and imagines himself in a Little Nemo-style dream world. His car, buoyed upward by angels, turns into a bed, all accompanied by an acoustic version of the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.” The sequence is both artistically exceptional and a gentle reprieve tucked in the middle of Homer’s extended breakdown. I’m endlessly impressed by how the episode’s frenetic pacing can slow for a moment of surprising beauty, all within the context of a life-threatening situation.
The moral of the story is a harsh one. Homer can’t do anything by degrees, but only understands extremes: it’s either utter neglect or self-destructive sacrifice. He sincerely loves his children and he’s a dependable breadwinner, but he’ll never be a “good” father. The episode never whitewashes his flaws; instead, it foregrounds and critiques them. But he’s only human, and he still gets some sympathy. He puts himself through hell for his daughter, and at least that’s something. “Something,” after all, is all Lisa can ever really hope for.