Ostensibly, The Simpsons is about Homer Simpson and the cruel hand-three kids, lack of ambition and a very small brain-that fate has dealt him. Of course, the series' focus is also shared predominantly by Bart, the skateboarding, mooning, hell-raising 10-year-old. But over the course of the show's 18 seasons, as the characters have evolved and the writers have changed and the show has matured, it is clear that the heart and soul of Springfield's least favorite family is 8-year-old Lisa Simpson.
You see, Lisa is almost 20 years of our national conscience-smart and talented, sensitive and decent. She is absolutely the John Edwards of The Simpsons: qualified, presentable and totally overshadowed by the more glamorous members of her pack. We feel superior to Homer because he's so dumb. Bart's schtick played better in the '90s than it does in the new millennium. Marge has just never been all that interesting, and Maggie has said just one word in almost two decades of toddlerdom. But Lisa? She's the only family member to have actually evolved in almost 20 years and the one who represents the best qualities in all of us. We've just been too busy watching Bart and Homer to notice.
I can say this with at least a modicum of authority. I started watching The Simpsons in 1987 when it was just a segment on The Tracy Ullman Show, just before Married With Children, two scandalous offerings from the then-fledgling Fox network. I watched the debut episode on Dec. 17, 1989 (not so impressed), and bizarrely, I've seen every single episode since. All 400 of them. I spent years popping Simpsons eps like candy, or Quaaludes, watching them whenever possible. First run, rerun, it didn't matter, once Danny Elfman's theme song started playing, I was planted in front of the TV, moving just a little closer to Springfield and its motley population. Principal Skinner, Comic Book Guy, Mrs. Krabappel, Lenny, Carl, Crazy Cat Lady, Mayor Quimby, Bumblebee Man, Itchy, Scratchy, even the unnamed judge and the now-deceased Frank Grimes, I've spent some couch time with all of them. I've even made my own Flaming Moes. And that's how I know that Lisa is the greatest character of them all.
Now, before you tell me that this makes me geeky and old, I say, “Duh. Tell me something I don't know.' Even though it isn't the show it once was (experts agree that the years when Conan O'Brien was on the writing staff, 1991 to 1994, were actually the best of the bunch. And by experts, I mean me), it has remained a pop-culture tent pole, and a large part of that goes to Lisa, because rarely on the idiot box is there a character so completely developed-and this one has only four fingers and is drawn by some guys in Korea.
The world of the Simpsons isn't all that different from ours, but it's held up to a funhouse mirror and separated by a degree or two of animation. And Lisa is that world's voice of reason, the character the rest of us can most easily relate to.
In some ways, she's the quintessential middle child, overlooked and lonely, but we admire her because she overcomes. Those in her place in the birth order often lack drive and a sense of identity. Not Lisa. She finds herself through appreciation of music, art, poetry, literature, history, ecology and politics, despite being routinely dismissed by adults and failed by the public school system. But there's a downside. She is shy, socially awkward and particularly vulnerable to the insensitivity of others, and she can be a bit self-righteous. One day, she'll be a beauty, but for now she's stuck in a place where the only two people taking notice of her are the school principal and class geek Milhouse Van Houten.
Her best moments-her first kiss (“Lisa's Date With Destiny,' Dec. 15, 1996), her conversion to vegetarianism (“Lisa the Vegetarian,' Oct. 15, 1995), her embrace of Buddhism ('She of Little Faith,' Dec. 16, 2001)-are all sweet and sincere. We appreciate her rebellion against incompetent authority, whether that means stealing all the teacher's editions with the answer keys ('Separate Vocations,' Feb. 2, 1992) or outing her corrupt congressman ('Mr. Lisa Goes to Washington,' Feb. 26, 1991). Even when she's petty or mean, like the time she sabotaged Winona Ryder's diorama ('Lisa's Rival,' Feb. 11, 1994), her integrity and overdeveloped capacity for feelings of guilt will eventually persuade her to do the right thing. She has never had a catchphrase, never dumbed down her rhetoric and certainly never garnered the same kind of merchandising dollars as other members of her clan.
Above all, she's compassionate and well-intentioned. Remember when she dashed off a valentine for poor, lonely Ralph Wiggum ('I Love Lisa,' Feb. 11, 1993) and the poor guy fell head over heels for her? She's the kid who wants to free Tibet ('I'm Spelling as Fast as I Can,' Feb. 16, 2003), who pushes recycling ('The Old Man and the Lisa,' April 20, 1997), who sponsors a Brazilian orphan ('Blame It on Lisa' March 31, 2002) and who designs her own Barbie knock-off, Lisa Lionheart ('Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy' Feb. 17, 1994) in hopes of inspiring young girls to stand up and think for themselves. Her appreciation of the arts is mocked, and long before Maude Flanders toppled off a set of bleachers in 'Alone Again, Natura-Diddly' (Feb. 13, 2000), Lisa had already been forced to deal with death when her musical mentor, Bleeding Gums Murphy, died in ''Round Springfield' (April 30, 1995).
Hell, 14 years before Little Miss Sunshine cast a spotlight on children's beauty pageants, Lisa gave up her Little Miss Springfield crown ('Little Miss Springfield,' Aug. 15, 1992) because its sponsor was a cigarette company. And as she struggles through life, attempting to make the world a better place, even though she is constantly abused, ignored, picked on, insulted and made fun of, she never permanently loses her faith in her family and the rest of the world-it's happened often, but always temporarily.
When The Simpsons Movie finally comes out on Friday, July 27, it's certain that Lisa will be a part of it, but once again the spotlight will shine on Bart (who does a full-frontal scene, by the way) and Homer (who is forced to save the world from a peril born from his own stupidity). Lisa, again, will play second saxophone, forever the girl who doesn't fit in-with her family, her friends, her school. But we can all rest assured in the knowledge that if we're lucky, one day The Simpsons will be canceled, the kids will grow up, and, unlike John Edwards, Lisa will become President of the United States (whether she'll be the first woman to hold that office remains to be seen). When that happens, however far into the future it actually is-in the terrible episode 'Bart to the Future,' March 19, 2000, it happened in 2030)-at least we know we'll be in good hands.