For fans of the show, this might be a controversial statement, given the justified popularity of "Marge vs. The Monorail," "Last Exit to Springfield" and "Homer's Enemy," but do hear me out. While "Lisa's Rival" may not be as hilarious as the "Monorail" episode or as innovative as "22 Short Films About Springfield," it best encapsulates what made The Simpsons so great in its prime--said prime lasting a roughly seven year period from season 2 through season 8 (just less than a third of the show's actual run, you might be interested to know).
At its peak, The Simpsons contained some of the best writing on television, and not just for its era; we're talking all time. During that seven year period, writers like George Meyer, John Swartzwelder, Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein brought a level of sophistication to animated television that hadn't been seen since the epoch of Looney Tunes, mixing snappy, wonderfully-timed dialogue with pop culture references ranging from the mainstream to the esoteric. Throw in some great character development and the most talented bunch of voice actors on TV and you have a show whose quality is easily on par with that of The Wire (or so it was from 1990 to 1997).
"Lisa's Rival" showcases this combination of elements in what's effectively a "how-to" guide for writing The Simpsons. Written by Mike Scully and first broadcast on September 11, 1994, it primarily depicts Lisa Simpson's jealousy toward and competition with new student Allison Taylor (voiced by Winona Ryder). Normally the intellectual guide and voice of reason for not only her second grade class but the show's entire cast, Lisa finds herself outclassed on almost all counts by Allison. The new girl is a year younger, can come up with anagrams on the fly, and becomes the go-to source for answers in their class, all the while being humble and genuinely decent towards Lisa. To boot, she plays a mean sax.
The episode eventually climaxes with Lisa attempting to sabotage Allison's entry in the school diorama competition, only to be driven to confess and apologize in a wonderfully on-the-nose parody of Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart." Both she and Allison lose to loveable doofus Ralph Wiggum's Star Wars action figure set, Lisa comes to accept her own intelligence and the two end the episode as friends.
Lisa's situation strikes a pretty personal chord with me. Like her, I was the "smart kid" in my class for most of grade school, being more knowledgeable about the solar system and the human digestive tract than any first grade student ever should and walking away with four academic awards at our Grade 8 graduation. The role wasn't anything I aspired to, just the natural consequence of watching a lot of The Magic School Bus and absorbing every trivial bit of information like a sponge left next to a decent size puddle. I never grew cocky, just content, satisfied with the knowledge base I'd accrued and taking my status for granted.
But then came high school, and with it a veritable boatload of borderline prodigious classmates. Like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, I came to know my limits in a manner both sudden and (in my case egotistically) painful. Some knew more about inclement weather systems better than I could ever hope to. For others, transposing a musical score from one key to another was second nature. And to add insult to injury, math, hitherto my friend, turned traitor and stabbed me in the back with the twin daggers of polynomials and the quadratic equation.
Now, my situation isn't comparable to Lisa's on a 1:1 level (I was never a genius and I never tried to academically sabotage someone else) but the episode's emotional resonance helped to put that earlier insecurity into perspective and ultimately exorcise it. And that's one of the episode's key strengths. It's one thing if a comedic work makes you laugh--any decent humorist can do that. It's another if it leads you to reconsider or reevaluate some aspect of your life. In the words of Adrian Veidt from Watchmen, "only the best comedians can accomplish that." "Lisa's Rival" is far from being the only Simpsons episode to work in such a moral but the craft with which Mike Scully executes it puts it at the top.
Of course, "Lisa's Rival" isn't all inferiority complexes and Poe analogues. As with pretty much every Simpsons episode--or Hell, every sitcom ever aired--it contains a tangential 'B'-plot played entirely for laughs, like Bart's factory in "Homer's Enemy" or Maggie's escapades in the Ayn Rand School for Tots during "A Streetcar Named Marge." In this case, it's not just funny, but hands down one of the most hilarious, balls-to-the-wall insane plots in the entirety of animated comedy. And it all involves Homer getting his hands on hundreds of pounds of sugar.
Driving around town with Bart, Homer stumbles across Hans Moleman's crashed sugar tanker, and offers to "protect" its contents while the feeble old man goes for help. He and Bart immediately shovel the "white gold" into the family station wagon and Homer starts up a lucrative but ultimately fruitless door-to-door sugar business. Further complications arise from bees, a pair of Adam West- and Burt Ward-inspired beekeepers and that horrifying solvent, rain. The subplot also results in what is safe to say the most bizarrely hilarious minute and forty seconds of television known to man. I'd describe, but I feel the clip speaks for itself.
Courtesy of 20th Century Fox Entertainment
Tea-drinking aristocrat interlopers? Homer ranting in defence of his nouveau riche status? That's mathematically hilarious. Furthermore, the B-plot's a good example of what made Homer a great character early on in the show's run. While stupidity has always been a key aspect of his personality, during the show's golden age it served as a means, enabling all sorts of harebrained schemes on his part, rather than the instant punchline it's been pretty much ever since. Old Homer was stupid for the purpose of setting off a chain of increasingly amusing events; new Homer is stupid for the sake of being stupid, like a milder take on Family Guy's Peter Griffin.
And as a cherry on top, there's an even less tangentially related C-plot where Bart for whatever reason frames Milhouse in a brief (two scenes) but great parody of The Fugitive.
While "Lisa's Rival" may not qualitatively be the funniest or most memorable episode of The Simpsons, it is manifestly what made the show such a hit for all those years, a pitch-perfect balance of the poignant and the absurd. It's "great" in the same way that the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's is great, perhaps not the absolute best but everything that made it wonderful distilled in an easily accessible package.