The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Three, “Homer The Heretic”

I’ve repeatedly said that Golden era Simpsons isn’t so much leftist as it is bitter with conservatism, fundamentally getting why we turn to family and such but understanding that it’s a lot harder and a lot less happy than it’s cracked up to be, and nowhere is that clearer than in its treatment of religion, and nowhere is that clearer than in “Homer The Heretic”. It almost makes classic-era Simpsons feel archaic; I can’t really imagine other sitcom families actually going to church every Sunday, if they believe in God at all. Despite being an atheist and despite having grown up in a place where religion was something that happened at your aunt’s house, I actually really like it as a distinct morality that the show engages in.

Zooming out a bit, one of the things I personally get out of fiction is being exposed to new and different ways of thinking; given the choice between atheist propaganda and a story about a Christian struggling with his faith, I’ll take the latter, because the former tells me nothing new while the latter has a chance to expose me to ideas I’d never consider and decide how I would feel and what I would do in that situation (obviously, Christian propaganda and a story about an atheist would be the worst and best things respectively). The Simpsons combines a clear-eyed sense of morality with a deep enough understanding of storytelling to create genuine moral conflicts that give me a lot to think about.

In this case, a lot of what I was thinking was ‘hahaha’; Homer chooses to stop going to church, and finds he now has a few hours to indulge in whatever hedonistic whim he cares for. This works on three levels: firstly, I do actually nod along and think “yeah, those are all great things about not having to go to church!”, where I imagine it’s much like how gangsters like Goodfellas – my favourite is Homer’s absolute comfort in bed giving way to the need to pee (“Think man. Think think think. Ugh, I guess I’ll get up.”). Secondly, it works for the same reason spending time in Homer’s imagination is hilarious – the man’s truly ridiculous sense of priorities gives us things like his patented space-age moon waffles, and he gets an infectious amount of joy from it.

This gives way to the pleasures of storytelling. Homer’s argument for dropping church boils down to “why would God want me to do things I don’t want to?” and one of the consequences for it is being hounded by the Flanders – an early example of them being not just Good Christians but the really annoying kind, which turns into a hilarious chase scene. The third act twist is when Homer falls asleep with a cigar, starting a fire, and he’s saved by both the multireligious fire department (it’s a little inexplicable that Krusty would have the time to be a volunteer firefighter, but I suppose a clown with a three hour and ten minute TV show is inherently inexplicable) as well as a quick-acting Ned Flanders.

There’s room to read this as “go to church or you’ll burn down your house and die”, but what I prefer to take from it is the idea of doing things you don’t wanna for the sake of your community. Homer spends the entire episode being joyfully selfish and hedonistic, but if it hadn’t been for a social institution, he’d be dead and his family would be destitute. One of the pillars of conservatism (you know, the not-twisted-by-American-politics version of it) is that you should set things up so that today works the same way it did yesterday, and tomorrow will work the same way as today (this is an idea that drives the overall emotional arc of Mad Men); within this episode, the church is an insurance policy against disaster, and attending church is paying your premiums. I might not have church serving that purpose for me, but I can project other social institutions and traditions onto it, and that’s what makes this episode valuable to me.

Plus, whenever I see someone complain “everybody’s stupid except me”, I immediately imagine them falling asleep with a cigar, which is hilarious.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not defame New Orleans
(This is a hasty reference to the controversy generated by last episode)
Couch Gag: The family sit, only for the wall to spin like in an old Hammer Horror film.

This episode was written by George Meyer and directed by Jim Reardon. Meyer was chosen to write this episode because, as a lapsed Catholic, he’d capture the joys of not going to church better than anyone. The episode was conceived as a spiritual sequel to “Homer vs The 18th Commandment”. This is the first episode animated by Film Roman, and the animation feels wackier and more absurd as a result. In one of Homer’s dreams about God, Jimi Hendrix was supposed to have a speaking line, but their voice actor couldn’t sound like him.

This is another great ‘Bart in the background’ episode. My favourite moment with him is going along with Homer’s rant about church as if he’s in the audience of a congregation.

This episode has one of my favourite references the show ever did: a shower radio called No Soap, Radio! Homer dances in his underwear in a reference to Risky Business. The burning floor collapsing under Flanderseseses feet is a reference to Backdraft.

First Appearances: God, with all five fingers.
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Exasperated heroism is the single funniest emotion.