The Simpsons, Season Two, Episode Thirteen, “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment”

We’ve discussed what makes something Classic before – if I recall correctly, Ruck made the case that seasons one and two were part of Classic Simpsons because they laid the groundwork for the brilliance that followed, both in terms of developing technique and character and in terms of building the audience. That’s a sensible definition, and I see the value of it to a creator, but for me as a viewer, I think of Classic as “does exactly what it intends as perfectly as can be done” – a Classic episode of television fires on all cylinders all the way through, and a Classic season of television is entirely composed of Classic episodes (indeed, might even be sequenced perfectly). If it can only be criticised on conception, not execution, that’s Classic to me.

The reason I go into all of this is because I believe, with “One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Bluefish”, “The Way We Was”, and “Homer vs Lisa and the 8th Commandment”, we now have three Classic episodes in a row, with this episode lacking the high emotional stakes of the first two but not their urgency, necessity, and general NOT OPTIONALness (to quote ZMF). The episode opens with a flashback to Biblical times, with Homer as a random thief, hanging out with an adulterer and a guy who carves graven images, only for the three of them to be disappointed when Moses comes down with tablets forbidding exactly those actions (the writers picked exactly the right sins there for maximum comedy. Also, the adulterer resembles Jacque from season one).

We then fade into modern day Homer, who sees Flanders telling off a guy for trying to sell him stolen cable, and rushes to get it hooked up for himself. The first act pretty well captures the initial rush of hooking up pay TV: after initial reservations, the family discovers all the different amazing shows available and find themselves practically addicted to the TV – Homer gets it the most, being implied to have stayed up all night watching TV, but even Marge finds something to like – only for it to set in (for the viewer at least) how inane and repetitive it is. But the family as a whole enjoy it until they go to church Sunday morning. As Reverend Lovejoy laments people chasing hedonism over spirituality, Bart and Lisa are taught about hell, and Lisa is horrified by the discovery that stealing is one sin that send you there. She finds herself unable to look at the stolen cable the same way, getting a firey vision of hell.

Watching this episode, it hit me how Lisa’s qualities as a character come so much from her being both principled and a child. At her worst, obviously, she’s a humourless scold who acts as a self-righteous expression of the writers’ beliefs. But when she works, it’s because she has a righteous sense of goodness that comes not from experience but from an innate desire to be good, and her stories come from that innate quality bumping up against a messy real world. The very first scene in act two says this way less stuffy than I did, when she gets upset with her mother for stealing two measly, stinkin’ grapes, and after turning to Lovejoy for guidance (which is scene of the episode, for my money), she settles on peaceful protest.

Bart, of course, goes the other way, with his innate hedonism leading him to discover the joys of pornography. When Homer catches him, he promises not to watch it anymore, only to go full huckster (my favourite version of Bart) and start selling tickets to other kids in the neighbourhood. He gets frustrated when Homer tells him off, grumbling under his breath how he wishes he could be an adult and get away with things. Despite seeing the effect illegal cable has had on his children, Homer literally puts his foot down: he loves cable too much to let it go.

The last act of the story covers Homer’s decaying interest in cable. He’s become bored with all the repeats, the cable guy comes back and reveals an even deeper level of corruption than Homer is interested in, and on the night of the biggest boxing match in America, he’s forced to run around covering up all the petty theft he ever committed against everyone he ever met. When he finally manages to settle things down and sits down to watch the fight, he becomes consumed by guilt, until finally he walks out with Bart to Lisa and Marge.

“Excuse me, I hate to interrupt your judging me, but I wanted you to know I’ve made a couple of really important decisions.Number one, I’m cutting the cable as soon as the fight’s over. And number two, I’m not very fond of any of you.”

There’s a simple moral truth that holds many Classic Simpsons episodes together, right from the first episode: the rewards of doing good are mostly spiritual. In The Simpsonsconception of the world, being a decent human being means missing out on all the wonderful pleasures of hedonism and corruption, and the show constantly reminds us that this really, really sucks. But at least we can get a few laughs out of it!

Chalkboard Gag: I will not make flatulent noises in class.
Couch Gag: The Simpsons dance for us before sitting on the couch.

This episode was written by Steve Pepoon and directed by Rich Moore, who wrings some goddamned hilarious facial expressions out of everybody. The shots of Homer getting hit by a truck are a parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. Drederick Tatum is a parody of Mike Tyson and named after an actual boxer. Mr Burns talks about seeing boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett, in a rant that more resembles the kind of thing Grampa would say later.

First Appearances: Troy McClure, “Hi, Dr Nick!”, Drederick Tatum (though with a different face)
Biggest laugh:

lisa8thcommandment2.gif

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