New amongst the WGF Library’s collection of TV show bibles and development materials is a thin packet entitled, “The Simpsons: Episode Guide and Storylines (Season 8).” While this 1997 packet consists mostly of brief synopses of every season 8 episode, it also features vivid character profiles as well as rules for writing the show. Looking over this document, I internalized one thing — that the creative possibilities for The Simpsons are literally endless so long as the characters are true to their nature and to their relationships with one-another. In fact, it’s this particular notion that inspired my cavalcade of musings this week.
As any prolific writer knows, having a solid understanding of as many stories as possible can be supremely helpful. Why? Cultivating a reservoir of plot points, characters, arcs and themes that move you can only give you more to draw on when you embark on your own pen-wielding excursions.
The Simpsons is proof of this. Using their titanium-solid characters and staying true to them, the writers have been able to draw on myths, legends, other TV episodes, plays, tabloid stories, hearsay, current events and anything else you can possibly think of to create their own funny and poignant episodes of television (and for nearly thirty years). The idea of creating sturdy, compelling characters and putting them through a wealth of tried and true plots and stories is what I really want to focus on here.
For me, a script that really illustrates the power of this phenomenon is Moaning Lisa.
Written by Mike Reiss & Al Jean as a part of the show’s first season, the episode dates back to when the series had an imperative to, in addition to lampoon current events, establish meaningful relationships within the Simpson family.
The first beat of the first scene tells us exactly what this particular episode is drawing on.
Using the bleakness of Ingmar Bergman, the writers weave the tale of an existential crisis. What makes this episode inventive is the character experiencing that crisis. I’m not sure how many sitcoms about families up to this point ever featured a 2nd-grade girl in a funk over the emptiness of the American dream or life’s ultimate meaninglessness, but in this episode, Lisa Simpson has some big weighty questions getting her down — questions that nobody in her family or at school can seem to answer.
This blogger appreciates centering the story around a young girl who is experiencing depression — and not just depression over something like being rejected by a boy or failing to be popular — but a real experiential pickle, which young women can experience just as acutely, as, say, men approaching mid-life.
The episode finds movement in how Lisa fails to stumble upon anybody who can help her. The kids at school think she’s strange; the teachers don’t get her desire to be-bop on the saxophone during band practice or her inability to dodge balls in gym class. She eventually meets the great Springfield jazz musician Bleeding Gums Murphy who encourages her sax playing, but can’t offer her a cure for her blues.
As in any great coming-of-age story, it’s the character who seems to understand the least who ultimately ends-up helping out the most. Marge, at first, has advice that seems hopelessly destructive to what Lisa is going through:
What’s brilliant about this monologue is that even as we’re reading it, we can tell it hurts Marge to say these words and that perhaps she relates to Lisa on a greater level than she lets on — that she doesn’t believe this advice even though it was passed down to her from her mother. What a fantastic screenwriting lesson that Marge never outrightly states: Lisa I know what you’re going through. Rather, we as the audience infer it. We especially infer it in the action that Marge takes next.
She watches how offering a fake smile and repressing her true feelings actually hurts Lisa when she interacts again with peers and teachers. With not an ounce of hesitation, Marge whisks her daughter back into her car and offers her some of the greatest parenting ever:
And that’s the essence of rock-solid character — doing right by somebody else even if it runs counter to the philosophies that were imprinted on you when you were a young Marge.
Oh, and Homer experiences his own Bergman-esque version of playing chess with death as he keeps getting pounded by Bart at a boxing videogame, leading him too to contemplate getting older and his own mortality.
Moaning Lisa is the perfect read if you have but 30 minutes to spare in the library for it inspires asking big questions of yourself like: If I were going to write my own version of an existential crisis story, who would be my subject and what would they learn? Who would they learn it from?
The WGF Library exists to help you do what The Simpsons does so well — develop your own poignant, true characters and draw on a pantheon of stories and storytelling to create relatable adventures to put them through.
Search our catalog and stop on by, won’t you?
Here’s what’s new:
- The complete first season of Animal Kingdom on TNT
- John Carpenter and Nick Castle’s Escape from New York
- A handful of scripts from Disney’s Doug
- Season 2 scripts from HBO’s Ballers