This is such a weird premise for an episode. I know we’ve had stories of, like, Homer going to space, but even that feels like a more likely sitcom premise than racing against time to prevent a baptism. The flipside of a more conventional plot structure is that it draws attention to how strange this world is; The Simpsons was already a little archaic in how much religion factored into the story, and by the time this episode was made, I would say even rejecting religion had fallen out of fashion and television took it for granted that you don’t go to church or read the Bible – we’re still four years away from Family Guy airing, let alone projecting an anti-religion flavour of atheism, and I would be shocked to see any sitcom character going to church (or temple, or mosque) these days. That’s one of the things that makes this show special, capturing the attitude of someone who has to deal with religion on a day-to-day basis. One thing I particularly love about that climax is how baptism has a symbolic power even beyond the religion it’s a part of. Homer and Marge being virulently against the idea reminds me of atheists who resent people praying for them, viewing it as a violation; I think Homer diving to take water like it’s a bullet and for three second becoming deeply religious is a really great expression of that anxiety.
Of course, this isn’t mainly an episode about religion, this is an episode about the family, and Homer and Marge aren’t just trying to prevent a baptism, they’re trying to prevent the kids from becoming Flanderseseses. I wouldn’t call it a corrective, but it is nice to see an episode where the family all admit they love and need one another. The Simpsons are the family I identify with the most; usually, it’s specifically Bart and Lisa’s relationship that I see in my relationship with my sister, but this episode is really good at capturing a family that isn’t terribly emotionally expressive and are really aware of each other’s faults but do enjoy being around each other. It’s a little bit of a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”, as Bart and Lisa discuss their parents and Homer and Marge discuss their kids. In a functioning family – in a functioning group – there are rules, spoken and unspoken. Returning to religion, I love how well the episode captures how weird it is to be a kid and go to someone else’s house and see their different way of living (love Lisa’s line “creepy Pat Boonish quality”). They might not always understand each other, but they tolerate each other’s behaviour in a way people outside the family wouldn’t; Homer singing “sax-o-ma-phone” is hilarious, but also kind of sad.
I enjoy, too, the way this recognises the good qualities of the Simpson parents; it opens with Marge at her most hypercompetent, and Homer doing something genuinely kind for the woman he loves, and the scale is deliberately tipped in a really unfair way to take their kids from them. There’s also an understanding that Homer is pretty bad at the whole parenting thing, genuinely benefiting from the class he’s in and openly admitting to how he shouldn’t be a parent (at, like, the worst possible time). I especially like how we see Homer’s bad parenting via Flanders’ good parenting; there’s actually something kind of hurtful in seeing him play with Maggie, and seeing him and Maude sing to her before she sleeps, and Harry Shearer and Maggie Roswell bring a crushing sincerity to their performances. I suppose it’s worth comparing to the oddly heartwarming ending – the combo of Maggie coming to Marge, and the family walking into the sunset laughing at Ol Painty Can Ned. The Simpsons will never be a TV friendly family, doing all the things you’re supposed to do like ‘nurturing your children’ or ‘encouraging them to be nice to people’. But maybe that just means they aren’t huge fucking dorks.
Chalkboard Gag: No one wants to hear from my armpits.
Couch Gag: The characters recreate the opening of The Brady Bunch.
This episode was written by Jon Vitti and directed by Susie Dietter. This was the first episode produced under the watch of Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein (though both had written many episodes up until this point), and they wanted some heavy hitters coming straight out of the gate. The female Child Protective Services agent is based on a teacher Oakley and Weinstein hated in high school. The animation is pretty great this episode; I particularly like how frantic Marge is when she realises her children are being taken away from her, and the slight Vertigo effect when the agent says ‘foster home’.
One thing that undermines Marge’s competence: she should have put the lettuce in the middle, using cheese as the outermost layer before the bread. It goes bread, cheese, meat, lettuce, condiment, lettuce, meat, cheese, bread. I love the animation of Maggie judo chopping her toast. I absolutely love the way the whole headlice sequence conveys how it felt like adults were reacting to headlice when I was a kid. “See ya in hell!”
Ned and Maude sing a filk of “I Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher. The title of the Itchy & Scratchy cartoon is a reference to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! Flanders mentions that he used to let the boys watch My Three Sons. Maggie turns her head in a reference to The Exorcist.
Iconic Moments: 1. “Have you thought about one of the other religions? They’re all pretty much the same.”