Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment

Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment

My Recollection

Lisa being really Jesus-y. The whole idea of “cable” which was TV but loads more. Drederick Tatum.

Religions are shaped by the societies that spawn them. Their deities are a reflection of their needs, fears, and cultural worldview. Farmers have gods of the seasons; warriors have gods of battle; city states have aloof politicians. That sort of thing. Even imports get adapted to local customs. This is why the Germanics had a kind of Battle Christ, because and all-loving, pacifist saviour depicted wielding spears and killing monsters makes sense for a society built around using weapons to take things. The gutter Christianity of the outer suburbs undergoes a similar flavouring.

Actual faith is so hard it’s typically managed only by the genuinely mad and madly genuine. Maniacs and monks can manage the mindless focus or intellectual energy to believe without the nagging human need for even a primitive standard of evidence. Most have faith in the social structures, buildings, books, important hats, and other verifiably real components of their religion. This is also why people wildly defend things like this even though they are trivial in the face of omnipotence. Real faith is hard, and it’s the kind of hard the anxieties inherent to a borderline existence make impossible.

Feeling like you are part of a community, even one that nominally wants you, is tricky when you are otherwise choked by a sense of alienation, so it was only the outer suburban fundies that regularly attended church. A more organised protestant approach was thwarted by a literacy level that made any reading a challenge let alone a deep reading of an already convoluted mass of thrice-interpreted nonsense. So the outer-suburbs had a kind of Christ by osmosis whose resemblance to the Christ of the Church was more an accident of proximity rather than any liturgical similarity. A little like when someone’s your childhood friend because they live on your street.

Without the luxuries of regular meals, education, and structure; without the reliable leash of pulpit or book; with only the dehumanising effects of being the dirt the economic ladder stands in, the Christ of the gutter becomes an animal Christ, a near shapeless Alpha tuned to whatever sensation is coursing through the believer at any given time.

Most of the time, Gutter Christ is a stern parent. Not too far from the mainstream interpretation, itself a reflection of the way humans struggle to understand power through any other lens than the one’s they’re born to, this one is a vague threat who exists to maintain a thin strand of social cohesion. There is little compassion to Gutter Christ because there is little compassion in the lives of its faithful. There’s only a cycle of desperate animal grasping for the brief moments of joy brought by objects and prestige, and the want for revenge when those aren’t forthcoming. Gutter Christ is a genie to be begged for wishes, the older brother who’ll bash you up later, the father who’ll be mad when he gets home even if, like in real life, he never does.

I’ve heard this exact quote, “If this car gets towed, God’s own angels will come for you”. A double-parked hick lady summoning the awesome force of THE CREATOR OF THE UNIVERSE to punish anyone for towing her fucking car.

It’s easy to see Gutter Christ as a peasant degeneration, because it is, but I’d always thought it quite a long one from the outwardly respectable Church Christ I saw on TV and elsewhere. Then I went to some local quasi-scout thing.

Before the internet, cutting things, hitting things with other things, and fire were among my top hobbies, so when neighbours said that there was some kind of youth group that did all this, I was fairly up for it. It was the evening on a weekend and we traipsed through the bush land behind the housing commission strip toward the special school at the top of the hill. Walking toward the special school at all was weird for the local kids. Legend had it that going there made you retarded. Or that going there meant the retardeds would get you. Or we’d all just call you retarded for being seen in the vicinity of it because it’s important to single out and abuse people if only to keep from being a target yourself.

This particular evening, the school was haunted by the weirdness of existing at night and the weirdness of the hypersmile friendliness common to Christian youth groups. There’s two types of Christian youth workers: People who look like a Wiggle and people who look like a groundskeeper. These were the groundskeeper types which made me happy as I didn’t want to hear a song about Jesus or acoustic guitar. They organised a game of touch Bullrush and then took us inside to explain their fun group of normal fun.

Say what you will about Gutter Christ, at least its relevant to the problems of its believers. Completely Normal Youth Ministry’s presentation on the benefits of faith started odd and got batshit at a pace remarkable even for religion.

I think there’s something in one of the books about moving mountains with prayer which I always took to be somewhat allegorical. Not Completely Normal Youth Ministry! Nope, spent a whole bit on how you could actually mind-hadoken a continent nipple out of the way with the power of CHRIST as though he were the X-gene. No evidence was presented. The rest of this section presented CHRIST like a Jewish sham-wow, capable of doing all this and more, only without the demonstration. It was the same genie functions of Gutter Christ, just instead of the sad but ultimately feasible wishes of the underclass it was the deranged and impractical wishes of dingbats with food and two cars.

The great thing about CHRIST is that he’ll defend you from all the dangers common to the modern first world, like witch-doctors and their bone curses. A witch doctor could point a bone at me and tell me I’m going to die, but CHRIST will stop that curse. There was no evidence presented for this, not that I was expecting any because I had never, and have still never, personally seen a fucking witch doctor. These people are meant to be Building Christ, the smarter one, and I’m sitting here watching the Jim’s Mowing sign tell me that I should cast my lot in with their nut-club because it guarantees me protection from witch-doctors. Why not spiders? I’ve seen those around, fucking gimmie a Christ that shoos huntsmen out of the corner of the house for me. Nope. He moved on to how CHRIST can use his Aegis Reflector to shield me from Devil Magic.

After the evening turned out to be 30 minutes of Bullrush with the tackles taken out and 40 minutes of yammering about how CHRIST has frame advantage on hobgoblins, I opted to never return. Even the Gutter Christ folk stopped going after a while, as they’d little use for protection against bone curses when Gavin was at the end of the street throwing rocks again.

The Episode

I’ve written about the primary skills of critique more extensively here, but it always helps to harp on about important things when a good example comes up so I’ll do it again now. A critic, to qualify as one and not just a reviewer or entertainer, must be able to separate things they like from things that are good. I fucking hate the religious moralising in this episode. At the very least, it’s built from a lie. Religion is not the source of any human morality and presenting the ten commandments as that is measurable lunacy. Rape’s not in there anywhere. There’s a whole thing about not making images for worship because god’ll get jealous but nothing about rape. The idea that there is any level of relevant moral education one can draw from the scrawlings of primitive desert morons is a joke and yet it’s the seriously taken foundation for this episode.

Foundation points like this are tricky as there’s a proportional relationship between how much a work can get away with overt preaching and how much that preaching is related to demonstrable reality. This relationship has some nominal subjectivity in the form of whether the receiver agrees with it or not. I say nominal because it’s either true or not, in this case not, but that is a separate problem to the one of reception of the work. “We should all get along” is both broadly accepted and based in reality so it tends to pass by unnoticed. “Look out! Niggers!” may be positively received in certain circles but those are circles divorced from reality.

Of note here is the fact that reality asserts itself. Arguments that one thing may or may not have been seen as real at some point in our history are irrelevant. That people thought ear goblins caused toothaches doesn’t matter because it isn’t the case. The real can be misunderstood, covered up, smeared in relativism, even denied, but never changed. If you believe it can be, try leaping from a building and disagreeing with the fall. Report back with the results.

Part of the critical understanding of these foundation elements is to reduce them to their lowest terms. The above mentioned, “Look out! Niggers!” is phrased in a way to cause maximum discomfort to audiences raised in the modern western grasp of race. It’s basic component is simply “Look out! Others!” with the other being whatever a society happens to feel like making an enemy of. This is a good way of understanding the core idea of a work (or element thereof) and being able to correctly contextualise it. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs provide useful contrasting points for this understanding. I.Y. Yunioshi is a joke where “Ha, Japs” is the punchline, and one so grotesque even reviewers of the time regarded it as racist. Conversely, the (to modern eyes) frighteningly racist caricatures of Coal Black were not built with “Ha, Blacks” as the punchline. They were caricature absurdities that fit within their animation style, they were made for a black audience, and even featured black artists as voice talent. Whether you feel the end result trumps the intent is irrelevant to whether or not the intent was there, and deliberate xenophobic othering is wildly different to slights and slurs one must construct from post-fact interpretations. One has a lasting negative intent at its core, the other is of its time.

Religion co-opts and monopolises human kindness as a threat to ensure its own survival and this episode’s basis supports that threat. Lisa hallucinating eternal torment because her father is stealing cable (of all fucking things) is presented as a positive source of moral instruction and not the result of cult brainwashing. But it’s still a good episode because it’s not the lowest term of the narrative, just the structure the term is hung on, and most of the rest of it lives within temporal contexts like the humble ear goblin.

Now this is not to say that the moralising doesn’t cause actual problems, it does and these stem from the weakness of the core immorality. Nobody cares about stealing cable in the same way one would care about burglary, if they care at all, which is by design as this shifts the conflict to a matter of principle. This conflict shift is necessary to drive the narrative toward its strongest, and most sensible for a family sitcom, point: how Homer and Lisa interact. The problem is that this shift to a matter of philosophy and principle is something the Homer character is not specced to deal with, particularly as any combative interaction with Lisa frames him as an unreasonable buffoon or oaf. So what is a story mostly about character winds up with some lazy narrative points needed to drive the philosophically weak Homer toward the narrative’s goal.

This sticking point comes in the form of the cable repair guy, who degenerates from realistic scumbag to ridiculous cartoon villain because STEALING BAD. It’s as based in reality as a school talk on the dangers of marijuana use and is emblematic of the problems inherent in whining about something that isn’t really a problem. Nobody cares if you steal cable any more than someone would disown you for pirating Game of Thrones. One marijuana won’t make you a junkie so the very real, character appropriate conflict between Homer and his daughter gets polluted by the nefarious Cableburglar and his moustache twirling criminality. His amorality can’t stop at something simple and understandable or the moralising will look like what it is, petty whining, so the story makes a ridiculous leap and turns him into a monster. All because of one joint, kids.

Homer is not equipped, at all, to notice or care about the moral implications of stealing cable. He’s a sad animal grabbing at joy. What he is very capable of picking up on, though, and what this episode does extremely well, is the feelings of his children (eventually). He’s not a great man, but he does try as a father, and the episode doesn’t even try to present him as having changed his mind in regards to the morality of what he was doing, he buckles because what he does is threatening his relationship with the daughter he loves.

The Cableburglar, and Homer’s paranoid reaction to him, detract from this both by being divorced from reality and by weakening the reason for Homer’s eventual change. Is he buckling to his daughter because he loves her and believes in her so much that he trusts her moral instincts over his, or is he frightened out of it by criminals and prison dream sequences? These are at cross purposes and sadly detract from what is an otherwise quality Homer/Lisa episode.

The religiosity of the episode annoyed the hell out of me for years. The Simpsons were always a religious family, but more the kind of pragmatic deists whose churchgoing was a combination of habit and community interaction. A characterisation hammered home by its juxtaposition to the Flanderseses’ comic fundamentalism. But this episode was so insistent on making religion the source of moral pressure that it may as well have been written by Ned.

But it has focus. It’s paced well. The narrative is, largely, structured to pit an adult’s knowledge that this theft is okay against a child’s crude but honest view of right and wrong, and it turns this into a wonderful character dive. I don’t like Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment (I mean, the title alone is a mess), but it is good.

Yours in hiding the stuff I borrowed from work, Gabriel.

Jokes, lines, and stray thoughts.

The opening “10 Commandments” gag features another feature of early Simpsons, non-Springfield characters. Modern episodes wedge side characters in wherever they can and I’m looking forward to finding the tipping point.

“Sneaky Pete” being Flanders’ go to insult is funny.

 

Cable companies ARE big faceless corporations and every Australian has an obligation to damage anything owned by Murdoch.

“This is where Wall St gets arrested” is another decent rule of 3 joke.

Bart excited about hell even though he saw it a few episodes ago.

Our first time meeting Troy McClure!

The natural absurdity of Lisa’s 8th commandment madness is emphasised in the supermarket scene. It needs to be irrational, because the episode is about Homer yielding to his daughter, not realising stealing cable is wrong.

Other churches have the stealing thing as their 7th commandment. The commandment itself has undergone growth over the years, starting with basic interactions between neighbours, presumably to help maintain social cohesion, but it grew into a form of basic consumer rights law under Martin Luther.

Homer knocking Lisa over as he jumps up at the TV is funny.

Lenny and Carl’s dismal way of catching the fight is a similarly good joke in an episode a little short on them

“I can picture it now. The screen door rusting off its filthy hinges, mangy dogs staggering about looking vainly for a place to die” Burns’ line is mean but accurately describes the underclasses.

“I don’t watch him every minute” a lot of the good jokes in this episode are the kinds of little, missable lines that, like salt, are seemingly small and meaningless but you’d notice their absence.

Bart’s porn is barely relevant to the episode but it eats time and produces one excellent joke.

 

Yup, that’s vaginas alright

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two scenes sum up so much activism.

Our first time seeing Tatum! He’s a little more sensible here, but the idea of dedicating the fight to his opponents dead manager is fucking hilarious.

Perspective in animation is tough. A lot of shows will basically never show characters in certain ways because the stylised animation style gives them a physiognomy that looks monstrous from a lot of angles. Lou and Eddie here, both look like weird birds.

Who’s the random skinhead in the bottom right corner?

5 Replies to “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment”

  1. Your story made me realize that almost all my childhood knowledge of religion came from television. The Simpsons especially seems to be where I absorbed most of what I knew.

  2. Re-watched this episode recently, for the first time in about 20 years and only just realized the porn subplot, always funny what seems to go over your head as a child. Then again, all I really remembered was Lisa being very annoying , especially about that grape.

    I’ve been having a very ’91 week: from rediscovering Primus’ Frizzle Fry album, to being reminded of the Clarence Thomas scandal, and now this episode recap

    1. It’s an odd little addition as it doesn’t really factor heavily into the rest of the plot. But it does give Bart something to do and it does connect to the reality of cable television so it’s a benign growth at worst.

  3. A nice little touch I noticed on rewatch was when Lisa gets on Marge’s case about the grapes, Jimbo is in the background shoplifting. Adds another nice layer to Lisa’s narrow minded righteousness.

    That static TV gag at the end (which I think comes back in another couple of episodes) is a nice meta one, but something I feel it would be hard to explain to young people today. Definitely a surefire way to date an episode of a show.

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