It’s not easy to bottom out as an eight-year-old, but as The Simpsons’ Season Seven finale opens, it looks like Lisa Simpson has found a way. Her schoolmates can barely contain their excitement that the last day of school has arrived. Perhaps confused by the ice cream trucks warming up outside, her brother Bart’s best friend Milhouse beats a retreat at the sound of the opening bell. But for Lisa, the day’s more notable for the arrival of Retrospecticus, the school yearbook she’s poured her heart into editing.
“When the kids see these layouts and fonts, you’re going to be the most popular girl in school!” Lisa’s fellow yearbook worker Beezee tells her. But as the day draws to a close, Lisa’s learned otherwise. The only section of the yearbook anyone cares about are the blank pages reserved for signatures, and no one has cared enough to sign hers. Not even Beezee.
Written by Dan Greaney (though he self-deprecatingly refers to himself as the “credited writer” on the episode’s audio commentary, in acknowledgment of the show’s communal approach), “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” first aired on May 19, 1996, just in time to send viewers off on summer vacation. But the spirit of the episode — and its primary setting — belongs a little later in the summer season. It plays out a quietly profound story of reinvention and self-discovery against the backdrop of Independence Day. In the process, it captures a bit of how the day can mean as much on a personal level as on a political one. (All that and it features the best ever name for a fake porno magazine.)
It sometimes seems as if there are two Independence Days. There’s the commemoration of the ratification of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a high-principled kiss-off letter announcing that 13 British colonies in North America would now be ruling themselves, thank you very much. Then there’s the holiday as it’s celebrated, usually lazily and in hot weather by people happy to have a day off and attempting to spark some fun with family members and whatever friends happen to be around. (If there’s fireworks, all the better.)
But the two can be as united in essence as they are by the calendar, and all that downtime can lead to moments of reflection. It’s hard not to think about where you were this time last year, and if you’re the person you want to be, while surrounded by reminders that you live in a country defined by reinvention, and the promise that you can be whoever you want to be. And for Lisa at least, that takes the form of cut-off shorts, a baggy shirt, granny glasses and a backwards cap.
Lisa’s troubled not only by the lack of signatures in her own yearbook but by the demand for Bart’s autograph, which requires him to have his adoring fans line up for a few moments of his time and agree not to ask for a personalized message. In the middle of a decade defined by ironic distance, The Simpsons interrogated the nature of coolness more than once, most famously in the episode that immediately preceded “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” “Homerpalooza.” For Bart, at least in this episode, being cool means being kind of a dick: He’s brusque with those who want a moment of his attention and defines his friendship with Milhouse as one in which Milhouse must always know his place. (To be fair, Milhouse kind of invites that sort of abuse just by being Milhouse.) He’s everything the sensitive, open-hearted Lisa isn’t, but being sensitive and open-hearted has left her friendless and alone with her microscope and massive Gore Vidal novel.
So maybe — Lisa decides when the family unexpectedly gets the chance to spend a few weeks in the Cape Cod-esque town of Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport at the beach house owned by their neighbors, the Flanders — it’s time to be someone else. Leaving behind her old familiar clothes and the microscope she planned to take to the beach, she maneuvers her mom into buying the hippest clothes she can find at Teejays Zaymart, then befriends some fellow kids by putting on the coolest pose she can manage, mixing feigned indifference with bits of her brother’s above-it-all attitude.
You probably know what happens next. Not only has “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” aired in reruns for decades, it regularly turns up on lists of The Simpsons greatest episodes. It’s a product of the years in which the series seemed virtually untouchable, a stretch when nearly every episode featured a dense, dizzying variety of gags and nearly all of them worked. In one stretch of “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” Homer walks into a convenience store that’s essentially Springfield’s Kwik-E-Mart in all but name, pays homage to a famous American Graffiti scene, then walks out with a magazine later revealed as American Breast Enthusiast, shortly before an inspired bit of physical comedy involving an attempt to dispose of a potent firecracker.
Yet “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” stands out not in the ways it typifies The Simpsons golden era, but the ways it diverts from it. Without slowing down the comedy, it delivers a character study of a kid reckoning with loneliness and second guessing the choices that brought her where she is. Plenty of Simpsons episodes explore the inner lives and hidden complexities of its central characters, but few as poignantly as this one.
The episode might work in another setting, but it’s fundamentally a summer story, driven by the lazy rhythms of vacation, and it’s specifically an Independence Day story, one locked into the notion that part of the promise of America — however hard it can be to realize — is the ability to write your own destiny. But there’s a poignant twist built into that: Lisa discovers that those who reinvent themselves still have to make peace with who they used to be.
The episode ends with Lisa becoming comfortable with who she’s been all along after her new friends — alerted to her identity as an overachieving “teacher’s pet” by Bart — let her know they like the bits of her real personality they’ve seen, like her warnings against drinking seawater and the hermit crab’s ability to change its appearance by abandoning an old shell for one that fits it better. In the end, she’s learned she can do the same, reinventing herself while staying true to who she is, an opportunity that’s her birthright. It’s sneakily patriotic in a way that has nothing to do with the loyalty oath one of Lisa’s new companions recalls being forced to take by his father.
It’s the curse of sitcom characters to remain fundamentally the same no matter what happens to them, especially those on animated shows, doomed never to age, to play out the same conflicts and work through the same problems forever. Lisa will return from the trip only to find herself facing another year as a second-grader, as if this last day of school had never happened. “Immortalizing your awkward phase,” reads the door of the yearbook club’s office. It’s Lisa’s fate to remain stuck in that awkward phase, whatever happened during that one summer at Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport.
Soon to enter its 32nd season, The Simpsons has kept her story going (and going, and going). Yet this feels like its true ending — one that points her in the direction of the person she could become and gives her the confidence to become it, even if we’ll never get to see it.