30 Years Ago, The Simpsons Told The Greatest Love Story Of a Generation
This Valentine's Day episode is much more than just a cautionary tale.
Everybody uses the word “greatest” too much. But The Simpsons episode “I Love Lisa” is the greatest love story in American history. Okay. Maybe not. The greatest love story in American history is probably Moonstruck, but this unassuming Simpsons episode had a bigger impact on pop culture than most other pop culture love stories of the ‘80s or ‘90s. While aspects of “I Love Lisa” may seem cringy or outdated, this episode is much smarter than you remember and worth another watch with older, wiser, eyes.
The importance of “I Love Lisa,” — which debuted on February 11, 1993 — is almost certainly due to it being the debut episode of Ralph Wiggum, Meme God, in his most recognizable form. While the character had been present since the first season of the show (“Moaning Lisa”), he was always relegated to the non-speaking background. When he did get the occasional line, it was always with the wrong voice. His dialogue in “Lisa’s Pony” is particularly weird. The 8-year-old, in a hoarse voice only achievable after seven packs of cigarettes, wonders what man could possibly “tame” Lisa. It wasn’t until this season 4 Valentine’s Day AND President’s Day-themed episode that the sweet and oblivious police chief’s son (now voiced by Nancy Cartwright) came into full view.
Ralph’s very first scene establishes him so perfectly. He reveals he can’t use scissors, that he already ate his red crayon, and that he somehow glued his head to his shoulder. He’s a mess, but he’s not unruly about it, and he’s tremendously open-hearted. When it comes time to give valentine's cards out to his friends in class, he’s beaming with joy. It’s interesting to rewatch this 30 years on, knowing that at the time Ralph was just That One Kid Everyone Has In Their Class, and knowing that in the present day, a thoughtful teacher would immediately arrange educational assistance for him. Instead of, you know, telling him that his classmates are correct to laugh at him. (Imagine how furious you’d be if you found out your child’s teacher said that!)
Unfortunately, Ralph’s love is not reciprocated (establishing the theme of this episode) and he starts quietly crying to himself. (That he does it quietly destroys me upon rewatching “I Love Lisa”. It’s a brief but incredible acting choice that speaks volumes about Ralph’s life.) Lisa notices and cheerily hands him the most meme-able valentine in recorded history.
It says choo-choo-choose me and there’s a picture of a train!
You wouldn’t know it through a casual watch, but a real “Choo-Choo-Choose You” Valentine’s card was the initial inspiration for “I Love Lisa”. Then-showrunner Al Jean received a valentine just like this when he was in the third grade. While telling his showrunning partner Mike Reiss about the moment the duo tossed around the idea of Lisa giving that same card to Ralph Wiggum, with him subsequently taking it too far.
While his sweet and unassuming demeanor takes the sting out of a situation that could rapidly turn creepy, the position that Lisa is put into really makes you squirm. Not only because you know she can’t get out of it without destroying his self-esteem (which is on life support as it is, considering the opening of “I Love Lisa”), but because you the viewer can actively recall when you did the very same thing in grade school or middle school: pursue a crush that clearly wasn’t interested in you.
The episode does not shy away from the inevitable collision between Lisa’s reality and Ralph’s doe-eyed fantasy. On live TV, on one of the most popular shows in the Simpsons universe, Ralph declares that he loves Lisa and will marry her someday. And Lisa explodes with the truth: She never liked him and the only reason she gave him the valentine “is because nobody else would!”
Ralph is so hurt that you can hear this freeze-frame.
“I Love Lisa” has already delivered two iconic moments deeply into the psyche of humanity, but where the episode really earns its legendary status is in what happens after Lisa rips Ralph’s heart in half. The two kids must now play husband and wife in a short play about George Washington, to be performed in the elementary school’s President’s Day pageant. (Police Chief Wiggum arranged this before everything went sour if you’re curious.)
Ralph is understandably wounded by just being around Lisa during rehearsals, and when the big night comes he seems overwhelmed with sadness. Ralph has trouble focusing even at the best of times, and he has an exceptionally hard time identifying how other people feel and how his actions affect them. It is all but certain that he will embarrass himself in front of an audience yet again. This time in front of everyone he knows.
But he doesn’t, and his uncharacteristically sterling performance as George Washington comes off as largely genuine within the confines of the story. It wasn’t until I rewatched this as an adult that I realized why: Ralph has spent nearly the entire episode focusing. On Lisa. And that focus granted him the clarity to learn–painfully but inevitably–how pity can be mistaken for love and how his perspective isn’t the only one.
Ralph pours those realizations and that sadness into his performance, and the adulation he subsequently receives is far more real than any valentine’s day card. Finally, Ralph is respected by his classmates. Lisa tells him he did a great job and is clearly happy for him, and offers an olive branch. Can they still be friends? (I won’t go into how she requests Ralph’s friendship, but it says “bee” on it and there’s a picture of a bee.)
In the end, “I Love Lisa” offers its viewers a surprisingly mature take on unrequited love. Ralph suffers heavy consequences by not heeding Lisa’s wishes, in a moment so iconic that it probably got internalized by all the kids, children, or teens, watching the episode back in 1993. And that’s a cautionary tale that serves us well into adulthood when forming relationships becomes far more complex than exchanging pun-filled cards. On the other side of the coin, Ralph also finds a way to heal and improve himself without anger, without lashing out, and without shifting the work of his self-improvement onto others. Another lesson that is key to navigating adulthood.
“I Love Lisa” isn’t actually the greatest love story of our generation, or American history, or even the greatest love story on The Simpsons (that would be the whirlwind courtship between Troy McClure and Selma Bouvier, obviously). But it’s an extremely worthy and surprisingly important episode of the show, and it has more than earned its place amongst the classics.
“I Love Lisa” is Season 4, Episode 15 of The Simpsons. It is streaming on Disney+. You can also purchase the episode on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon, and elsewhere.