Homer takes Lisa and Bart on the Devil’s Tower, renowned because it accounted for 90 percent of the hospitalizations of the park. A very impressive average for one ride. When the family trio’s mini-excursion leaves them no exit but the big drop, his sage fatherly advice is to “punch death in the face.” It’s better than his later ill-advised financial advice, and far more exciting. Bart sees his life flash before his eyes, and declares it awesome. But the sequence also works as an allegory to the episode: Things which used to be dangerous and fun are now treated with the utmost care and a modicum of respect.
The lingering shadow of The Devil’s Tower is actually felt at Dr. Hibbert’s office, where we learn the long-abandoned ride was infested with longer-festering bacterial dangers which have to be taken care of with a four week regimen of intensive steroid intake. Steroids mean two things to growing bodies, they are associated with bodybuilding, but actually cause extreme weight gain. While Bart goes off on what seems to be a fun ‘roid rage trip, Lisa’s rage turns inward and comes out as a very public tantrum.
It is somewhat incongruous that the limiting beliefs which cloud Lisa’s self-esteem come from Marge. She has always been the most accepting and enabling character in the household, and at first it might even seem like she is still doing this, as Marge is blissfully ignorant to what her words mean to Lisa. But it also gives those words, and that parental disappointment, more emotional punch, because it is coming from the most nurturing parent.
Marge singsongs how Lisa is getting a little “chunky,” and the word gets stuck in her head. Chunky used to be a chocolate bar, but now it is a concrete barrier to self-acceptance. Lisa experiences a Simpsons standby, the obsessive repetition found in every conversation about the very thing which is driving the character to distraction. It is a well-used short fuse for detonation. “Chunky” comes out of every mouth, replacing even Nelson’s “haw haw,” until Lisa causes a scene at the mall.
Homer really does earn his “World’s Greatest Dad” cup during the episode. In the season opener, “The Star of the Backstage,” he sang about tiptoeing around bad news, and now he untangles mixed messages. Homer knows, intimately, the problems Lisa is going through, but also knows that is not going to be a big help. Because the true damage was done by Marge who did the one thing parents should never do: acknowledge what their kids really look like. This is extremely sound Simpsons style advice, and then he does something remarkable. He lets Patty and Selma take on the song.
“When the world hurts your feelings, and on certain words you tend to dwell. Live life like your aunties, and tell those jerks to go to hell,” the Bouvier sisters sing to the tune of “The Age of Aquarius,” and Lisa joins the age of who gives a crap? It is exactly the answer The Simpsons should be giving, and Lisa’s takeaway is perfection. She feels a lot better about herself and much worse about everyone else. The sequence is the high point of the episode, and a testament to Julie Kavner’s versatile vocalizations. With the three characters, she captures a wide emotional range, and is both villain and hero, insensitive and empathetic, contradictory and healing.