The calendar has turned to July, which can only mean one thing: Time to celebrate the greatest summer episode in the history of television.
The television season, like the school year, pretty much runs from September to May, meaning that most shows never explore the summer as in-depth as the other seasons. For The Simpsons, “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” is a rare episode that dives into what goes on between one season’s finale and the next’s premiere, and it does so with near perfect execution.
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The finale of the seventh season — originally airing May 19, 1996 — is centered on Lisa’s often quixotic quest to find friends. The final day of school reveals that overseeing the layouts and fonts of Retrospecticus, the Springfield Elementary yearbook that excels in “immortalizing your awkward phase,” doesn’t make Lisa the most popular girl in school. The family’s trip to the Flanders’ beach house in Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport offers her a chance to try on a new personality and win over friends, which she does for a time. It’s a sweet episode.
Yes, I know I’m prone to the charm and realism of Lisa episodes. But what makes “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” so groin-grabbingly transcendent is its absolute embrace of its setting—both the Independence Day time and the Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport place.
It does this through sensational animation throughout the episode. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on like a six-month Simspons hiatus—probably the longest I’ve had since 1992 or something—but “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” jumps out as a landmark of animation excellence. So much of the humor in “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” is derived from subtlety and precise execution. Take the scene in which Flanders offers up his beach house to Homer. Homer’s posture at the beginning of the scene—hand on hips, legs crossed, his eyes half-closed*—transfers a wealth of information about his relationship to Flanders. If you’ve never seen an episode of The Simpsons, this posture alone would communicate how Homer feels about his neighbor.
*Some of the greatest animation in The Simpsons comes when characters’ eyes are half-closed. I’m thinking of Bart not being invited to Lisa’s optics festival, and Homer “watching the fish” in the cat burglar episode.
Further, in what’s really a throwaway part of the scene, Flanders describes one of the most ridiculous cases ever brought before a jury: “It’s a corker of a case. Seems a man drove up onto a traffic island and hit a decorative rowboat full of geraniums. Now they’re trying it as a maritime offense…”.
Note also how the expressions invert by the end of the conversation, when Flanders has not only offered his beach house, but to check out Homer’s septic tanks, as well.
The animation shines in this fashion throughout the episode, which is particularly notable given the influx of new scenery in an episode set outside of Springfield. Lisa’s solitude is illustrated twice, first in the long hallway at school and second at the dinner table, after everyone leaves and the camera pans out to an unrealistically wide shot.
Marge’s talk with Lisa on her daughter’s bed mimics every sentimental sitcom conversation ever held between a parent and a child; that animation, though, is undercut by the emptiness of the conversation itself.
Homer’s gradual grin when Bart gets the dud in “Mystery Date” served, in 1996, as a preemptive argument for the creation of the GIF.
The body language of Lisa’s friends wordlessly accentuates their stance toward her and Bart at various points throughout the episode. There are several excellent reveals, from Homer driving in the low tide to Milhouse hiding behind a box of cereal while Bart and Lisa argue. Pay attention to how well shadows play out throughout the episode, most prominently when Homer discovers what Lisa’s friends have done to his car. And there’s the spectacular animation of Lisa trampolining into the sky with Bart coming over the sand dunes, yearbook in tow—the slow burn as one of the best moments of her life is about to be ruined.
The scenery of Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport is perfect, with the Flanders’ beach house the encapsulation of every beach house my family ever rented down the Jersey Shore (even if the commentary of the episode makes it clear that summers in Cape Cod provided the main inspiration). Every store is named after a terrible pun.
This speaks to the surplus of jokes stocked into the background of the episode, epitomized by the continued wreckage done when Homer throws the M-320 into the dishwasher. In the subsequent scene, Marge is cleaning the kitchen while speaking to Bart and Milhouse on the porch.
Some time later, she’s cleaning broken dishes while Bart and Lisa argue at the kitchen table. What could have been one gag sustains itself throughout the remainder of the episode. This is economic joke-telling, and it’s what The Simpsons did all the time at its best.*
*This is neither the time nor the place to bemoan what it’s become. Let’s celebrate what it was. Which is actually the exact opposite of the lesson in this episode.
“Summer of 4 Ft. 2” also does a marvelous job using its secondary characters. This is as good a Milhouse episode as there is. He bookends the action with his imitation of various sprinklers and his yearbook message to Lisa: “See you in the car.” Both serve as reminders that we’re dealing with immature kids here.
It’s also a terrific showcase for Marge in a limited role. Her interactions with Lisa show the gap that develops between a mother and her socializing child, and how difficult that can be for both of them. (Obviously, how difficult it is for Lisa gets the bigger spotlight.) She also delivers one of her funniest lines, when she tells Homer that, “Whatever you’ve got planned for tonight, count me out.”
There are three scenes in the series that I’ve always thought best represented Marge’s personality, and two of them are in this episode. The first is her excitement at making a new set of beds, and the second is her belief that “there’s no need to bump” in bumper cars. (I also love how she just thinks potatoes are neat.)
Overall, “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” creates a remarkable summer ambience; it captures what that time means to a kid. Milhouse’s premature “Up yours, Krabappel” to end the school year is an easy laugh, but man the last day of school is the longest day of the year, isn’t it? There’s all the excitement of ice cream trucks and sprinklers and vacations where you can take a friend juxtaposed with meandering adventures and time spent doing nothing and playing board games with your parents. Summer is all these things.
It also explores the strange ephemerality of summer friendships. Summer friendships are different from our school-year friendships. There’s an urgency to them not present during the other nine months of the year because of the lack of permanence—a desire to speed through the various stages of a friendship as quickly as possible. I never went to the weeks-long summer camps many kids attend over the summer, but this is a dynamic I experienced in five-day basketball camps and three-day school programs.* So while it’s tempting to dismiss the connections Lisa makes with Rick, Dean, Ben and Erin, they’re not exactly unrealistic.
*I miss you, Stephanie.
One of the things that surprised me when viewing “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” now, as a 26-year-old, is how applicable it is to the development of friends after school. The obstacles Lisa faces in creating relationships with others and balancing who she inherently is with how she wants to be perceived aren’t exclusive to kids. Move to a new city without many acquaintances and tell me that this doesn’t immediately become your No. 1 concern. You will remark to yourself, at some point or another, that it is really difficult to make friends.
And we’ve gotten this far without dissecting what has to be on the short list for the greatest scenes in Simpsons history:
It’s a satire of the hilarious scene from American Graffiti—itself one of the best summer films of all-time—but it turns the conceit of that scene on its head. In American Graffiti, Toad tries to hide his order of Old Harper’s in a list of innocuous items—batteries, a ballpoint pen, etc. In The Simpsons, Homer obscures his order of some illegal fireworks in about as embarrassing a list of purchases as possible: a porno magazine, a large box of condo, TWO disposable enemas, and of course, a bottle of Old Harper’s as homage.
It is a transcendent moment from a transcendent episode. Happy 4th of July. Celebrate the independence of your nation by blowing up a small part of it!