Homer the Heretic

By Gabriel, 22 Aug 21, 5

My Recollection.

I remember this one having some solid lines. Reverend Lovejoy’s incredibly patronising, “Aw, that’s just super” regarding the Hindu faith became one of those borrowed lines you’d use on a brother or other kid whenever they were telling you about something they cared about. Flanders’ backflip off the mattress stuck out too, partially because it was unusually athletic for him, but also because I’d tried something similar dozens of times and never gotten anything close to that kind of bounce.

Aside from god being in it, there’s not much else there, so I’m expecting a kind of mid-range ep.


The Episode.

There’s an almost appreciable level of open Catholicism to the Conjuring movies. A lot of films will try to maintain a wider demographic reach by appealing to the broader ethical concepts behind the common faith of the presented culture. Not The Conjuring. The witch lady wasn’t consumed by some vague evil, angry over mistreatment, or possessed by an unspecific demonic concept. She married Satan, and baby corpses were the dowry. I say appreciable as the “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Papal” approach wears thin quickly as it’s only ever a thin veneer to begin with, and I say almost because the Catholic church is a nightmare institution of torture, oppression, and baby slaughter.

The Simpsons operates with that thin veneer. The family are religious in the same way Homer likes fishing, it’s less as genuine factor of their character and more an inevitability stemming from their archetype. They’re not Presbylutheran—a sect that’s made up, unlike Moe’s legitimately real Snake Handlers—because of any deep belief, they’re there because any other option would be distinct enough that it may require addressing or otherwise clutter up a plot.

Navigating this veneer is a relatively simple process of avoiding the deep end. Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment managed to largely succeed through a combination of two factors. The first was that the religious elements were filtered through the eyes of a child. The good, innocent, and pure Lisa makes a good vector for the kinds of Ten Commandment religious moralising of the episode because she strips it of any of the myriad possible hypocrisies that would usually taint it. She can be the fundamentalist the story needs without looking like an obnoxious, placard waving maniac. Secondly, religion wasn’t the story, merely the driving force for a narrative about the relationship between a father and his daughter. The resolution had nothing to do with god, the bible, or Lisa’s interpretations thereof. This avoided any direct thinking about the validity of the 8th commandment, the value of Biblical ethics, or any number of other deep-end topics that would force an awkward confrontation between elements of the series.

Religion is front and centre with Homer the Heretic, the episode guest stars Yahweh, and this is a critical misstep. Homer skips church and has a great day, so he decides he’s never going to church again. This isn’t the catalyst for a conflict between Homer and Marge, perhaps about how he doesn’t support her enough or something, but instead a theological argument about the utility of weekly sermons wherein Homer is presented as his standard, incorrect buffoon self. This puts the show in the position that, for Homer to be wrong, going to church has to be right. This creates several problems the show can’t handle.

Firstly, Homer’s right. None of the broadly positive elements of human morality that narratives usually appeal to stem from religion. We are a social species with neural structures and instincts that create things like compassion and empathy, the idea that these are inculcated is laughable on its face. Religions will assert the contrary, with no basis, but also in a manner where their thin “evidence” functions only if everything good you do is the result of the religion, leaving you as little more than a terrible person on a leash. The reality is most people are mostly what we’d call good because our basic function, let alone success, requires the group. The cruelty is there when we are afraid, de-socialised from the group, or have the absolute morality of god on our side. Gatherings like church do serve meaningful functions, but these are also social, so these meaningful points are exactly the ones churches can never bring up. Naturally, they don’t come up here.

Not only is Homer right, but the show agrees with him. The Conjuring can solve problems using metal recreations of Roman torture devices touted by institutions that regard mass child graves as ball pits because all that nonsense is established within the film series’ lore. Aside from the overt jokes at the expense of religion and the religious, characters like The Flanders—with their creepy fundamentalism—and Reverend Lovejoy—through his withered cynicism—are core structural components of the show’s worldview. A worldview that has the actual Christian god agree with Homer about how boring Church is and have no comeback for his basic question about why he should bother.

Lastly, there are a lot of Christians, but not a concomitant amount of Christian programming, because even they know that most of that stuff is deranged garbage. Having been a stoner before the internet was good, I have watched a lot of Christian programming and from purely storytelling perspective, that shit doesn’t make for a good plot. Main characters being actual angels doesn’t allow for any narrative tension and stories about how Christ is king get repetitive fast (spoiler: Jesus did it). There’s a reason none of the last 3 decades of popular sitcoms involve extremist vegetables or a white guy playing a Palestinian hippy.

Simpsons episodes don’t end with crude assertions that the degenerate skidmark of American Baptism is a meaningful source of morality, because it isn’t true, it’s bad storytelling, and because that’s a form of specific religiosity antithetical to the show’s voice.  

Part of where Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment failed was in how it dealt with forcing Homer to side with his daughter. A smarter man may relent, measuring the value of how he’s seen in his daughter’s eyes as worth more than cable TV. A smarter show would have not used something so fundamentally trite as the 90s equivalent of pirating Game of Thrones. But Homer’s an idiot who grabs selfishly at things that make him happy and early Simpson moralising was a clumsy thing. The cable thief, then, went from a believable guy to the kind of parody you’d see in a show where the superhero quotes the bible a lot because the alternative route to the destination they wanted to get to needed either a much smarter man or much more time.

Homer the Heretic puts itself in a similar position by making its oaf character be right, and then running the standard “Homer wrong” rhythm. Rather than rewrite or ditch the story, it grabs for whatever straw is around to steady its fall and makes Homer start his own religion. The idea of Homer becoming some kind of holy man is not the worst idea for a plot and would probably fit in amongst the lesser but still reasonably funny later first decade, but here it’s both awkward and still doesn’t quite do the job it needs to do.

Firstly, not going to church doesn’t mean you start your own. You can just not go. You can still believe in the bible and not go to church. You can super do this if you happen to be of the protestant bend. Had the holy vision and subsequent new religion preceded and motivated the decision to stop going to church, then it and the story’s resolution would have at least logically fit. Secondly, what Homer is going through is how religions start and precisely how the seemingly endless subdivisions of American congregations start. Ask Joseph Smith. So, even the ridiculous behaviour the writers use as the source of dramatic fault isn’t faulty.

The result is a final act that fails on every front. Marge gives Homer an ultimatum regarding his church attendance, which the episode validates as being the correct choice by spending the next scene mirroring parts of Lovejoy’s firey sermon with Homer’s implied negative behaviour. There is an attempt to be clever by having Homer exhibit behaviours related to the seven deadly sins leading up to his eventual fall from grace, but this is exactly the kind of Conjuring level morality that the show can’t do. As a perfect summary of how stupid this is, in the next scene actual dick behaviour, like not giving to Krusty’s charity exclusively because it’s religious, is put side-by-side with the heinous crime of not keeping the sabbath. Krusty was raising money for people who were injured, this is broadly agreeable morality because we can all be injured. Not drinking on the sabbath is ridiculous nonsense relevant only to specific spectra of the Abrahamic triplets. Imagine if it had been buying pork, not having a beard, being a woman with a job, or any number of other piddling regulations concocted by terrified primitives. Every religion has these, and they’re ridiculous to anyone who wasn’t indoctrinated with them, which is why few narratives, and nearly no good ones, are so ham fisted. Even C.S Lewis toned it down a bit.

This unsurprisingly leads to a garbled final scene that accomplishes little save exemplifying the point I made earlier and all but explicitly saying that religion is the answer in a way that’s bad even for type. Homer was a dick, but people still stopped him from burning to death in his own home, and some of those people were religious. So? Without his faith, would Flanders have happily watched Homer burn? Is he a sadist on a leash? God was working through the people who rescued him? Which one? Was protestant Yahweh on this one or was Ganesh removing all obstacles between the volunteer fire department and the old Simpson place. What about people who somehow manage the apparently impossible task of being selfless or good without the threat of damnation?  All of this is bad enough, but in an act of logical disconnection emblematic of the faithful, the solution is for Homer to go back to church.

What this is solving is not clear. Had the episode bothered to manage a causal connection between Homer no longer attending church and his behaviour then there’d at least be a shred of meaning, but Homer’s an uncharitable jerk even when he is listening to Lovejoy drone on. Homer’s sin isn’t anything against the broadly moral, the things that even different faiths can agree on, it’s a faith-specific technicality.  

The reason atrocious religious programming is made is because the people who consume it are broken fundamentalist zealots who can’t handle the mind-blowing idea that anything can be moral outside of their wafer-thin delusion. I can happily engage in media that believes it’s using Christian (or whatever) ideas as a foundation because the good parts of those are the broad moral points. There are fun or interesting stories with decent morals in most religions, because believe it or not, none of them invented being nice. Lovejoy saying that being good is good, even if he’s doing it from a religious perspective, is fine because being good is good. Lovejoy saying good is going to church is leaving the broadly moral and delving right into obnoxious proselytization.

The Simpsons is not a religious show by any means, and their depiction of Flanders, Lovejoy, and their institutions, along with numerous specific anti-religious lines within the show confirms this point. Softly deist with local flavouring, maybe, but not religious. Directing people to specific religious doctrines or rituals as inherently moral is shit, which is why Kevin Sorbo’s career sucks. The show dabbles in religion a bit, sometimes even seriously, and these episodes are perfectly capable of being good, so it’s not the subject matter that’s the problem. But when you make your right character wrong, and make church attendance—not being nicer, not even learning to be nicer via church attendance—the correcting resolution, you have written something that belongs in a Chick Tract.

Yours in being miscellaneous, Gabriel.


Jokes, Lines, and Stray Thoughts.

1:25. This womb scene is odd and reminds me of an earlier animation era when the children’s designation retroactively made depictions of things like suicide unproblematic. Sure, it’s just Homer in the womb, what’s odd about that. Hell yeah, we’ll start an episode with his mum getting fisted, we had Smithers’ cum a few episodes back, what are they gonna do?

1:30. No penis. This is day one of Simpsons PENISWATCH that will end when I eventually get up to the movie.

1:36. Some great freeze frames from this moment, though.

1:38. That hand’s just IN there, too. One frame.

1:38. Git ‘em.

1:43. “I’m all naked and wet” is a goodun that has seen a bit of stray use. Only from me and I was the only one who got it, but still.

1:47. Marge always represented the real unthinking element of all this. You go to church because you go to church. This is the kind of thinking that creates pogroms, baby pits, and Brian Houston.

1:51. At this rate, polar bears will be eating from American trash cans pretty soon.

2:14. The graphic match of Marge’s face is a nice transition visually and a great way to maintain her focus and emotional state while skipping the minutia of her argument with Homer and leaving the house.

2:21. It being cold enough to snow is a weird thing for a Brisbanoid. There were about a fortnight’s worth of days this winter where I wore a long sleeve shirt, otherwise I get about in the same as my summer wear.

2:30. I love this shot of Homer in bed. A friend sent me a version of it someone had edited where Homer’s head was shrunk but the rest was the same. Still makes me giggle.

Ha, tiny

2:37. I’ve thought about rigging some kind of bed urination system involving a hose to outside more times than I’d care to admit. The part that keeps stopping me is the idea of having to clean it out.

2:43. “Thinkthinkthink” yeah, never works.

2:49. Simpsons PENISWATCH: Ooh, so close.

2:54. I whistle in the shower like a goddam lunatic.

3:02. Turning “no soap – radio” into an actual joke that’s contextually appropriate is the comedy equivalent of a Mandelbrot set. A brilliant nerd gag.

3:08. “Ass” was barely a swearword where I grew up, so this moment never really connected with me

3:18. The contempt on Lovejoy’s face here is sweet ambrosia.

3:23. The Lamentations of Jeremiah are an Old Testament collection of, of all things, acrostic poems about the destruction of Judah that probably weren’t written by Jeremiah.

3:25. Bart and Lisa look as excited to hear this shit as Lovejoy is to say it. See, weekly is too often for church. It’s like how WWE has a pay-per-view every month, none of it is special and all of it is shit. Sermons should be like the old days, Wrestlemania, Summerslam, and then two others you can kind of experiment with a bit. Then people would show up, give a shit, and you won’t be so out of things to say you’re reading a fucking acrostic.

3:41. That this dancing scene is the broadest cultural spread of Risky Business makes me think David Geffen should have let Brickman do his original ending. The song used here is “Short Shorts” by The Royal Teens and is such an obnoxious piece I’ve never managed to listen to the whole thing.

There are a lot of filler moments in this episode that I’m only really noting now.

3:49. This thing Homer makes, I can’t use the words “waffles” or “cooks” without throwing up, is fucking vile, but credit to the animators for really selling it. Cartoon food has a way of looking appealing, even when it’s meant to be grotesque—the Good Morning Burger comes to mind—but the Moon Waffle never gets close and that’s before the whole stick of butter.

4:14. The sound design over these few seconds is similarly great. The sizzle of the iron, the tear of the waffle, the sound of the butter being lifted, the wrap, and the toothpick take on uncomfortably biological notes that veer it toward body horror or hentai foley.

4:17. I know Binging with Babish made one of these monstrosities, but I need to believe nobody produces and consumes anything like this because they genuinely enjoy it.

4:22. Lovejoy breaking the now frozen plant is a nice touch.

4:25. One of the more creative descriptions of a hell I ever read described it as being very cold and filled with snakes that wanted to get inside you to get warm.

4:33. Like, I am pro stuffing foods with other foods. Love it, do it a lot myself, but a whole fucking stick of butter just kills me to even think about.

4:36. I feel like there’s a slight evolutionary difference in people who regard dog slobber as clean.

4:55. I get that using Flanders as the one freaking out about the door being stuck is to emphasise that nobody wants to be there, but he’s such a fundie I don’t buy it.

5:01. Bart and Lisa have very little to do this episode and this moment isn’t much. The gag’s premise just doesn’t hold together. Why would Bart say that in the first place?

5:06. Johnny Calhoun doesn’t exist.

5:28. Homer getting the title wrong in the way he does, even as he looks at it, is such a marvellous piece of accurate borderline illiteracy it makes me think it was written by someone with education experience.

5:30. I wonder what Homer won? I bet it was an elephant.

5:55. I tend to find fake 3 Stooges bits funnier than actual 3 Stooges bits.

6:00. “Moe is their leader” is the first of a form of Homerism that combines an observation made humorous through its mundanity with a kind of near robotic delivery. The combination is natural to Homer, but sounds like an automatic factlet spoken by a museum exhibit. It and the more sinister, “Clowns are fun-ny” fit into wrinkles in my brain and I can’t get them out of there.

6:14. Bart being able to run across crowds of people comes up enough to be a trait. A lot of unique character designs in the church crowd, too.

6:20. Ah, the archaic tradition of hoping something is on. The new tradition is being beaten into inaction by a daunting amount of choice and watching something you’ve already seen.

6:26. The difference between redistricting and reapportionment is important, dammit.

6:31. The running gag of weird local TV title cards fades after a few years. I always wondered if they were based on things you’d actually get on local channels in the US. Australia’s smaller population meant the regional variations between stations were minor, so aside from the community access networks, there wasn’t much local character.

6:35. The joke here being that American football is basically a series of meetings to discuss rules and distances.

6:38. Love this zoom through the winter air onto the car. Mood in a shot! Amazing.

6:42. Marge’s car-like grunt always made me chuckle.

6:49. Marge 100% right to lash out. Even Bart knows to shut the fuck up.

7:01. Look, Americans, I’m begging you, try watching some rugby league. Union is a fine enough sport, but degenerates into a colossal dudepile which is boring to watch. League has resets after the down, but they’re active gameplay. Also, there’s no armour, meaning the debilitating concussions are actually harder to get.

7:05. I had to look these up. Jim Brown is just a talented former player, but the kissing bandit thing was actually real. Her early life is a little sad, but the whole kissing bandit thing was legit if tolerated as she brought a lot of eyes to the product. Australia has a lot of streakers, including this guy, whose bizarre hobby has resulted in some amazing photos.

7:07. Isn’t a penny like 1 cent? Assuming that’s the point of the gag.

7:24. Some borderline canonically accurate hair in Homer’s wedding memory there.

7:26. Running around under a wrecked beer truck is rookie shit. Get up there and put your lips over the hole.

7:27. Am loving Homer’s thinking face, too.

7:50. “Like fun I don’t” is an odd line but feels like a genuinely used phrase for non-swearers.

7:54. Love, LOVE this still of Marge.

8:02. We are social creatures, so social gatherings have innate value to us. This is an area faith based groups still excel in, actually, being a place where a person can go and basically have a friend if all other forms of social outlet are dry. The genuine utility of this is kind of drowned out by the rest of the nonsense, though.  Like a lot of rituals, it’s that there’s a ritual, not what the ritual is.

8:04. Marge struggling with Homer’s waffle abortion is a nice piece of minor continuity that creates a more cohesive reality and functions as a humorous callback.

8:06. I honestly don’t know what we did before everything was 8 shades of non-stick silicone. My mother was still buying stainless steel fry pans up until 2 years ago when I finally snapped and bought a proper non-stick set. Fucking thing would grip whatever you put in it like hot superglue.

8:28. “And what if we picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making god madder and madder” This is the point that lets you know anyone seriously using Pascal’s Wager is a submoron. If the only two states were religion and no religion, it still wouldn’t be a good argument toward the overall point, but it would at least be structurally sound. The odds aren’t so favourable when there is no religion and thousands of permutations of religion, many of which specify singular worship as important.

8:34. It’s one thing to treat some kind of deity as a conceptual focal point for motivational energy or emotional strength but I can’t take anyone who prays like god’s a write-in advice column seriously. A: you constantly do this and get no answer for obvious reasons but plough on anyway without ever having an epiphany or B: you get an answer and think you can talk to god. The latter is weirdly unpopular among even the faithful, which is tacit admission that it’s all bullshit.

8:45. “He doesn’t mean to be sacrilegious” Part of what bothers me about religion is the general level of internal inconsistency in the narrative. Why is Marge telling god this? Does god not know? You don’t get this problem with the polytheists because their gods have actual personalities. Zeus will turn into a swan and rape you because he’s horny and finds the idea hilarious. Yahweh, whose name got coughed up after he was tapped out in a wrestling match to an ankle lock, has been on the receiving end of some unfortunate developments in how humans conceptualise their gods regarding technology creating broad and invisible authority.

8:55. Homer trying to horny his way through Marge’s prayers is funny.

9:05. I can’t wait all night, but I have found that the hormones do a surprising job of energising me when woken up by a drunk, horny girl at 4 AM. Actually a little bothered by the accuracy of that stereotype.

9:17. “UH-OH!” should be periodically broadcast during today shows.

9:21. Ya gonna fix that, god?

9:27. A lot of the craziness of faith actually began as ways of keeping people from being crazy with their faith. Things like preventing representations are precisely to keep people focussed on the teachings, and historically, as a way of separating some new religions from the more location-based forms of the real early ones. Probably the coolest thing to come out of this is the geometric mosques that are truly astonishing works of art. It also doesn’t really take, holy sites abound, white Jesus is everywhere, and the worship of various saints/holy men is basically polytheism. The thing about all this is a vast, complicated, contradictory Alpha/Omega is confusing and hard, which faith is meant to be relief from.

9:52. Fun ideas to think about regarding being created in gods image considering the finger disparity.

9:59. Some may argue that the god Homer sees is a mere dream, but the narrative doesn’t question the moment, even if characters within it do. The dream is a cover to avoid offending people by having god literally appear to Homer, which would potentially cause trouble for the show with the nutjobs.

10:17. The cat purring at him is a nice touch, though the sandals are weird if thought about for too long. I feel like these days he’d be in crocs. Oddly enough, my preferred depiction of Yahweh was in Dogma of all things, as there is a way in which absolute power circles back around to a carefree childlike demeanour. God trying and failing to do a handstand against a tree, entirely unselfconsciously, is the kind of honest inscrutability that clever can’t manage.

10:35. The thing about the dream is that it’s honest. Of course he starts his own religion after having that dream, many have been founded on less. Had they made the pursuit of his own religion a more cynical one, prompted by realising he could use it to get out of work or something, that would have given the return to church more to validate it than simply adherence to religious custom.

10:38. Ah, still religious Lisa

10:42. “If I’m wrong I’ll recant on my deathbed” is the sort of self-aware exploitative attitude that would better warrant punishment, but it’s left dangling.

10:45. The dot eyes on the squirrel are from a bygone animation style.

10:49. Channel 10 used this “animals in the shower” gag in the local episode promo, and at the time I thought it had been cut to fit. It has the same problem as Bart’s church line, in that it’s a funny ingredient, but getting it to pay off in the moment is missing pieces. The edit is way too fast, almost cuts off Homer’s “peace be with you” line, and there’s zero logical connection between one moment and the next. Had there been a trigger for the animals that also happened in the shower, or they were present in more scenes, then there would be more to it than just the loose idea of Homer’s Disney critters in the shower.

11:09. It’s funny watching a faith’s leadership try to deal with numinous revelation among the flock as it’s forcing them to deny the very thing they’re whole deal is based on.

11:15. Like this truck over to disapproving Marge for the stumble on Homer’s dream.

11:22. Perfect teeth and nice smell are good choices as they’re the kind of odd things one wouldn’t say about a regular person.

11:32. Lovejoy is quoting a bit of Matthew regarding listening to Jesus’ teachings, which I sorta get but it’s more arguing Homer should listen to one thing over another. Some lines earlier are about false prophets and disciples, or reasons Homer shouldn’t listen to one thing over another, which would be the better tac here. His adherence to the local church has foundations in his culture, social context, and wife, he can be convinced to go even if he doesn’t really believe. Giving him reason to doubt his own religious experience is less work.

11:43. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at any religious scriptures, pointless when the most fundamentalist adherents don’t either, but I always forget how funny some of the shit is in there. Homer’s reference here is just a line about where Jesus crashed after flipping the banker’s tables, but right after this is a whole chunk about how Jesus kills a tree with God powers for not having any fruit. As with any situation where one starts at their conclusion, people fall over themselves to validate this as sane. Some go for the superficial point about the power of prayer, others catch the out-of-character tantrum aspect of the scene and try to make it about fruitfulness or any other thing they can think of.

11:59. The Feast of Maximum Occupancy should have happened earlier to give Homer’s development of his own religion more inherent dramatic fault. Apparently, people celebrate it as a gag.

12:07. I wasn’t lying about the Snake Handlers. They’re a weird Appalachian subset of the Holiness subset of the Pentecostal subset of the Protestant subset of Christians, if I’ve got that lineage around the right way. I honestly don’t care to look it up, as the taxonomy of American Christianity reminds me of this giant map of various metal styles and influences a friend showed me once. The Pentecostals are the kind of real insane fundamentalists who take all the supernatural crap seriously, and the Snake Handlers include, surprise, a line in the Bible about being able to pick up snakes among the normal things like speaking in tongues. This sorta thing helps demonstrate a funny quirk about American Christianity that now threatens to doom us all, without any central authority, every time a group started doing something too nutty they’d just splinter off into their own nutty group. This kept happening until we got the highly refined lunatics, like the Quiverfulls, today.

12:10. There is next to no logical flow to any of these sequences. Homer’s being an idiot at Lovejoy and the scene doesn’t resolve. He’s at the bar for a joke. Now he’s at home again for another one. This kind of thing can work, but it needs supporting tissue which this episode is also missing.

12:12. Some of the weaker, but still functional, supporting tissue is if the joke is worth it, and the Flanders’ singing that awful Heritage Kids song is a fairly solid sequence. Heresy is if it’s against religious dogma, whereas blasphemy is against something holy itself: now you know something!

This is one of those uses of the word “heritage” that makes me uncomfortable

12:24. There’s plenty of fairly blatant Christian media that doesn’t suck, but it works because the creators mistake broad morality for something they invented. It’s like how people thought My Name is Earl was Scientologist because it was about clearing one’s karma.

12:39. A detail I love here is Flanders doing the “roll down window” gesture.

12:40. This 70s chase sequence is solid because the escalation maintains for a while in an episode that is otherwise haphazard in its moments. It’s also an interesting in that the car chase, while starting at the window scene, is its own fourth escalation. The Rule of Threes thing is largely true, but in this instance the 3 escalation sequence of the door, the phone, and the car is chunked into a setup for the even more absurd car chase. Comedy is rhythmic because it is based on patterns, and patterns can be part of other patterns in the same way we can chunk phone numbers to remember them as three things instead of 9 or 10.

13:00. There’s a lot of general bullshit in action media, but one thing that always did bug me was cars getting air when there was nothing there.

13:01. Everyone in the car is freaking out or closing their eyes, but Flanders isn’t. A staggering piece of detail for a sequence that takes up a few frames.

13:02. Homer bashing the wheel when he sees that Flanders made the jump is a nice genre detail.  

13:23. The chase is an interesting case study because it’s a goal-oriented moment whose genre reference based goal struggles to resolve within the world, story, or structure, which is why we get a garbage island joke that cuts to nowhere again. By itself, it wouldn’t bother, but this episode is leaning on it too much. Seeing the car outside for the next establishing shot with garbage on it would have been a good way of covering a seam.

13:26. Jumping straight into an Itchy and Scratchy episode is exacerbating things.

13:43. There’s often some thematic or otherwise connection between the episode’s plot and the Itchy and Scratchy plot.

14:18. Marge here is basically exhibiting dangerous cult behaviour of cutting her husband out of her and her children’s lives over a matter of church attendance. The alcoholism and violence toward Bart she’s okay with, but the building thingy is important.

14:23. Homer leaping into the classic “It turns out it’s Jesus” routine but fucking it up by not even remembering where he was going is solid. The twist is extreme, but I’ve noticed things like this with Homer as I’ve been doing these so it’s more a part of his character. Probably untreated concussions.

14:30. He’s also right. Both Christianity and Islam began as reinterpretations of the existing Abrahamic tradition, and that’s before you even get into the myriad American splinters. Marge’s whole religion exists because of something Homer is doing.

14:58. The list of other people Marge has taken the side of is great. Adding “the water department” between Flanders and god is a great bit of specificity that’s ridiculous in it’s placement but also more sensible than either.

15:03. Marge really makes it about the attendance specifically and not any of the other things that attendance is supposed to bring. She could bring up community, or any of the senses of connection one could have at such a gathering. She’s not addressing the core components of why Homer isn’t going. This rote, unthinking approach to church is sad.

15:07. “Make your own ladder” is a goodun, I bet I could find something that stupid on one of those godawful craft channels.

15:16. That this was the last time that bearded fellow attended this particular church means this horrid act of persecution really got to him.

15:25. See, the thing about absolute morality is it’s purely authority based and can’t be argued with. This is why the zealots can convince themselves of whatever the fuck, label it “Devil” and commit atrocities. Even rational hatreds are open to discussion about the greater morality of their means of their solution.

15:27. The old gag about Playboy and the articles obscures the fact that the articles were often really good. I’d read a long form interview with Lorne Michaels.

15:42. Homer No Soap-Radio-ing himself.

15:59. Losing so many Jewish clowns to tornados is fucking weird. This moment highlights the difference between religious action and religiously motivated action. The latter can be anything, even something real, whereas a raindance never summons rain. Krusty’s soliciting donations for people who’ve suffered meaningful loss, not asking for donations to build a Mega-Synagogue, the religious element isn’t relevant.

16:17. Again, there is social utility to things like keeping the sabbath holy, but they aren’t useful anymore as secular reality understands not working a human being to death. Stripped of their meaningful value, religious tradition grows insular and paranoid, as the only thing keeping it alive is irrational.

16:24. I don’t know a huge amount about the specificity of Hindu worship practises. I vaguely remember something about Ganesh getting the elephant head after his dad knocked his regular head off, which sounds like an episode of Home Improvement, but there are usually a lot of different stories around these things. An interesting component of early, particularly pre-literate, religion is the way people weren’t bothered by canonical contradictions or entirely different versions.

16:32. There are plenty of reasons to make fun of Hinduism, but when you worship a Jewish tradie, you don’t get to use any of them.

16:47. “Everyone is stupid except me” is a good line, similar to the “Moe is their leader” delivery, but had the sentiment been expressed earlier in the episode, the house fire could have been connected to a meaningful fault or behaviour. Here, Homer just fell asleep smoking a cigar. Connecting that to some gibbering nonsense Lovejoy is shouting from the pulpit takes pure religion, which the show shouldn’t be dealing with.

17:00 MY OILY RAGS AND BLASTING CAPS! The blasting caps are delightfully ridiculous, but I always enjoyed how the box is labelled “oily rags”.

17:14. I enjoy the danger music here. Will have to keep an ear out for it in later episodes as it’s standing out as unique off the top of my head.

17:29. The electric arc way Homer’s two hairs go up makes me chuckle because it suggests that thing has always been one hair he combs over.

17:44. Homer smiling as he sings the little fire jingle is a good touch. His stupidity is soul deep, lets him move wherever his current thought is, which is definitely a part of his character. Forgetting the details of it, causing him to pass out from smoke inhalation is another good way of covering basic questions of why he doesn’t just run out the door.

17:52. I can think of no job worse for a volunteer fire fighter than Apu’s, considering he is always at work.

17:58. Here’s a plan, Apu, just kick the teenagers out of your store while you’re gone.

18:06. Huh, see, this is what I’m talking about. I looked Jamshed up, only to find out he shows up as an adult way later in the series. Fucking crazy. The bit of food falling from Kearney’s mouth is a good gag, dropping the box didn’t add anything and should have been cut.

 18:12. I thought this was Hans Moleman on the truck, but the moustache means it’s his brother, Jan Burrowingrodent.

18:14. Otto flapping in the breeze is funny, but I like the inaudible Barney burp as they tear past.

18:21. The near infinite duck line is funny.

18:33. Impressive form from Flanders, but a front kick is a better option for booting a door in.

18:42. There is way more structural damage here than the final scene suggests. This whole sequence has some solid Flanders work from Harry Shearer.

18:45. The final scene even acknowledging there was a fire is impressive for a cartoon, but they still cheat on things like the collapsed beam and floor.

18:51. I get why Flanders is doing this, and I don’t know for sure, but I will bet that “don’t go upstairs” is probably one of the big fire safety points.

19:04. This whole sequence is great, but Flanders slumped, blinking at what he’s just seen before the “Oh-kay” of acceptance is a gem.

19:08. The thing about establishing Ned as being buff under that outfit, is it’s a keyhole that you can add things like side-kicking a door or backflipping through a window through.

19:27. A thing that I see missed a lot with people talking about stories, is that what characters say about themselves is not necessarily accurate or the show making a statement about that character. I saw a lot of this with Jamie at the end of Game of Thrones, when he said he hated the people. It’s an understandable mistake to make, given this moment was surrounded by a cosmically significant quantity of garbage, but this wasn’t either he or the show making a definitive statement about his arc. Jamie hated himself for being weak and going back to his sister, so he was saying the worst things he could think of about himself. Any arguments that he shouldn’t have given in run into the problem of the show’s claim to realism and that, in reality, most people give in to weakness.

When Flanders Failed showed us that Homer’s hatred of Flanders is the result of feeling insecure next to him and this fades immediately when he sees Flanders in actual pain. He wouldn’t let Flanders burn.

19:32. I always thought it odd that Flanders was there with Homer as the family run up in their church clothes, because obviously Flanders would have been at church. I didn’t know that churches have different sermon times and the like to accommodate people who maybe work on Sundays. That said, Flanders wasn’t working, and it isn’t addressed, so I’m still calling this a fuckup.

19:39. Magazines and roach traps is funny. There’s the obvious fact they’re valueless, but that roach traps are so much less so adds an extra bit.

19:58. Someone forgot to draw Lisa’s lines in, and the effect is pleasantly creepy.

An interesting part about comic communication is in working out what parts of a multi-layered, parodic message are the parts meant to be taken seriously. Lisa’s line, “Truly this is an act of god” is part of a setup for the fire leaping from Homer’s house to Flanders’, Homer objecting to the assertion because of Flanders’ faith, and the tiny cloud to rainbow joke. While the raincloud is absurd, it’s not the joke, merely a multiplier. The joke is Homer looking stupid, which requires the surrounding material to be true to function. In this, Lisa’s line and the godly rescue, are expressions of the episode’s actual point. The rest of the episode’s context makes this abundantly clear, too, but it’s useful to understand that jokes can be parsed in such a way.

20:24. The moment with the insurance guy is so overt and simple it becomes an anti-joke. The delivery of “well that’s just great” from Homer is good, blurring the line between actual dismay that such an obvious fraud would be discovered with it being a statement that the list of insurance items was a joke he’s playing along with.

20:27. Kent Brockman, smeared with soot even though he didn’t do anything. The Simpsons predicts the German flood reporter 30 years early.

20:33. With Kent, the show has something it doesn’t usually have, a diegetic camera to think about. Having Wiggum’s “Hey, it’s out” line come from offscreen and the Channel 6 News camera pull out for the full shot, as opposed to cuts that show this, is smart.

20:38. For the record, springly clothes pins, although here they’re called pegs.

20:44. Homer slumps in a chair under the weight of existential questions he can’t bear very well.

20:48. Marge is about the last person I’d want telling me what the moral of this story is. Also, being told a thing doesn’t teach you it nearly as well as discovering it yourself, so Homer’s on the right track. That said, this is used to get out of having to openly state what the narrative is saying.

20:59. “God didn’t set your house on fire” yeah he did, as an inevitable result of this being a micro universe that used Judeo-Christian religious concepts as the operant dramatic faults the fire was punishing.

21:12. “N’aaaw that’s super” is brilliantly sarcastic. That kind of dismissive treatment of another religion he doesn’t understand is also a measurable fault with Lovejoy and his religious institution, which backs up the overall series view and clashes with the episode’s point.

21:25. The lesson from “I was rude to every one of you and you saved my life…” is don’t be rude to people, not go to Protestant Christian Church on Sunday. You can fix this by having the missed sermon be about how not to be rude to people, but they fucked that up.

21:32. And Homer’s sleeping in church because he was right, and the sermons are boing rambles that don’t meaningfully apply to his life in any way. The end.

The First Annual Gabriel Morton Awards for Outstanding Achievements in the Field of Simpsonness.

Best Line.

As fundamentally dumb as this episode is, the series 4 writers are still guns, so this episode has some solid entries. “Another beautiful day in the womb” is good because it’s a baffling sentence to get to make sense. “Everybody is stupid except me” is a solid entry for it’s “this is fine” level of opposition to reality. “N’aaaw, that’s just super” is beautifully delivered and a great stab at small world ignorance. But the winner is…

The thing about this line is that it isn’t funny. The womb line is weird, “everybody is stupid” is a setup, and “that’s just super” is inappropriately condescending for the context. Japanese comedy has a kind of extremely refined version of the patterns that the Western tradition expanded into more complex forms, and it’s proven an educational comparison point. Like catchphrase sketch comedy series The Fast Show in the UK, jokes will be based on minimal patterns of speech, sound, and context, often repeated to the point of absurd semantic disintegration.

The closest local cousin to this is the kinds of in-jokes between long friends or family that become so abstract over time that a simple word, sound, or look is enough to be hilarious. Getting this to translate to third parties is hard as the relevant contexts are so esoteric, but this moment has enough for the idea of Homer saying this line, to himself, in this tone of voice becomes funny. The tone becomes a part of Homer’s diction and shows up again to great effect.


Best Sight Gag.

Animation is fun because it can represent human bodies in familiar ways, but also in the entirely unfamiliar. Anime is full of this, particularly for facial expressions, as even the more realistic forms of animation can frequently find the expressiveness of the less realistic forms irresistible. And so we get to Flanders, slumped at a window, having just watched his struggle to rescue Homer, a struggle that has almost cost both their lives, be undone in a single moment of cosmic absurdity. We will experience moments like this ourselves, maybe not so cartoony, but moments where we do everything right only to have a ridiculous coincidence undo everything with Rube Goldberg flourish.

In these moments, the slump is one of totality, a totality that the human body cannot really represent. His cartoon body curls around a defeat so total it can only be accepted. His longer than a human head curls with him. His moustache is sad. It is so unnatural, so familiar, and so funny all at once.


Best Overall Joke.

One of the more wearing problems I noticed over this episode was that the humour was mostly disassociated punch-up. There are some real missed swings with Bart’s line and Homer’s menagerie being focal points that aren’t worth the focus. The car chase is good, and filled with little details, but is still just a homage that doesn’t connect to anything else whether is theme or plot. The funniest thing in the episode, then, is naturally related to the Best Sight Gag because it’s Flanders shoving Homer out the window.

While the still of Flanders won for the visual, there’s more to the moment than just that, and specifically this award goes to how Homer is shown going from the second story window and back into the ground floor.

There are a lot of ways to approach this, and the comedy of pain would have been a solid choice too. A more ragdoll approach, akin to Peter falling down the stairs in Family Guy (or any number of earlier bits) has worked well for that series. The show creates space between the cartoonishness of Peter and the realism of his depicted injuries. His body will twist, fall, and break in realistic ways, often landing with an arm jammed behind him, and this realism is all the funnier in the animated setting.

Homer’s fall is the opposite. He flies perfectly from the window in a T pose, bounces off the mattress and back through the window with not a single hint of animated warping. The most that happens is the mattress squishes a bit. Homer’s no stranger to animated pain, not quite as severe as Peter, but still beyond anything human. But this moment is really about Flanders, so Homer’s just an unthinking Sisyphean boulder whose torment of his saviour can only be funny if ignorant. This perfectly opposite absurdity is enhanced by the slight vocalisation he makes as he goes. The way it matches the movement but is still believably just a noise an unconscious being may make when thrown onto their stomach from a height lets it further mock the moment without being deliberate.


Best Shot.

The three-camera sitcom isn’t known for thrilling cinematography because it’s cheaper to build some sets, grab some big network TV cameras, and never think about anything more expensive than a closeup. Animation can do far more but is often so rooted in the genre that the shooting style is a necessarily similar affair. The Simpsons doesn’t dabble too much, but the zoom in on Marge trying to start the car is a shot that demonstrates what you can do when you feel like doing it.

Shots like this work as subconscious cues to the emotion of the moment. Starting high, zooming down onto an isolated point, and rotating the camera to unnaturally tilt the shot, all work to convey the stress Marge is feeling. Things like this can add meaningful filler to scenes without having to lengthen them.


Freeze Frame Fun.



5 replies to Homer the Heretic

Larger, More Powerful Alex on 01 Sep 21 said:

Your observations about the Game of Thrones final season really highlights why it is so hard to have a good critical discussion on the internet, most people can't differentiate between a bad idea, a good idea executed poorly, and a good idea surround by a sea of bad. The same issue all so applies to The Last Jedi.

Cliff Excellent on 03 Sep 21 said:

A related point of frequent bad internet criticism is the idea that it's bad writing if a character does something illogical but fitting with their established flaws. And that good writing is when characters just do whatever the most sensible and correct action would be. It's so obviously wrong yet it pops up everywhere.

Larger, More Powerful Alex on 09 Sep 21 said:

Hell, some people seem to believe characters having flaws period is a example of bad writing.

Cliff Excellent on 03 Sep 21 said:

The ending says a lot about the writer, I think, because somehow they can write a message about religious tolerance alongside Homer being pressured into changing his religion just to make other people happier, and they apparently don't see the contradiction here.

It just genuinely doesn't occur to them that Homer might choose to have no religion at all, and that this might be as valid a choice as any other religion. Curious.

Well, that's how I see it not actually knowing anything about the writer(s), maybe I'm wrong.

Gabriel on 04 Sep 21 said:

The writer is an atheist, which is probably a contributing factor as a well intended counterswing would explain some of this.

They're sorta trapped in a hole regarding the resolution, as making Homer an atheist or making any other major changes is a bit outside this period's capacity, but the obvious solution is the classic broad morality everything else uses.

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