The Simpsons, Season Eight, Episode Twenty-Two, “In Marge We Trust”

One of the overarching things about this season is seeing different variations on the feeling “bad Simpsons is still better than 99% of TV”. In this case, a genuinely good and thoughtful idea ends up with a payoff that’s uninteresting but still pretty funny. Focusing in on Lovejoy is theoretically in the same league as throwing together Lisa and Burns to see what happens, but it ends up feeling like a throwback to the Mirkin era and such classics as “Sweet Seymour Skinner’s Badasssss Song”, weaving together a bunch of jokes and traits into an actual human being, riffing on themes and feelings going back to the start of the show, and perhaps most delightfully doing it by genuinely contrasting him with one of our protagonists. Lovejoy is yet another Springfieldianite who joined an institution out of sincere idealism and found himself beaten down by the reality of the day-to-day drudgery, and has been going through the motions for a long time so he can get home and do stuff he finds fun. Marge’s motivation has always been to help others and support her community, and her main strength has always been a willingness to put the hard work in while her weakness has always been an unwillingness to put the hard thought in; generally speaking, it takes Lisa to do that kind of work for her as encouragement, but her work as the Listen Lady gives her sufficient motivation to lean in on and overcome her weakness like that on her own. I love the way this leads not so much to a spiritual awakening on Lovejoy’s part as a spiritual reassessment; I find these particular kind of midlife crisis stories highly sympathetic, where a character realises they’ve fallen into a rut without even noticing, and it’s all the stranger and more interesting for being a priest in a town with Ned Flanders. Perhaps all priests have to deal with the Flanderseseses of the world beating down on their spirituality.

The problem is, the climax doesn’t really reflect the problem. The very beginning of it involves Marge giving bad advice and that escalating out of control, but Lovejoy’s way of saving the day isn’t rooted in him rediscovering his spirituality or having learned something over the course of the story or in things he picked up over years of experience; it’s just him randomly turning into an action hero, and it doesn’t even really solve the problem he had at the start of the story – he’s not pulling them into the Lord’s embrace, he’s getting to be the centre of attention, which would be fine if the show hadn’t had higher ambitions than that for such a long time. I think of episodes like “Last Exit To Springfield” or “Marge VS The Monorail” or even “Home Sweet Home-Diddly-Dum-Doodily” that managed to unify absurd comedy and storytelling; the characters make absurd decisions but they’re also logical choices to make considering what’s happened in the story, which usually only serves to make them even funnier; “Donuts. Is there anything they can’t do?” isn’t just funny because it’s silly, it’s funny because it feels like a significant, heartwarming line despite being utterly silly. The heart of The Simpsons wasn’t just the absurdity or even the satire and philosophy, it was the great storytelling that made us care about what was happening, and as the show stops sweating the details, it also stops making us care.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family have to use a vend-a-couch. Homer puts money in and when it fails to deploy, he hits the coin slot until the couch falls and crushes him. Man, it sounds so joyless when I write it out like that!

This episode was written by Donick Cary and directed by Steven Dean Moore. The trip to the dump was inspired by Cary’s childhood, in which he would often go dump picking.

I didn’t go into the B-plot, because despite being very funny and genuinely imaginative, it really only exists for the “There’s your answer, fishbulb,” punchline. It astounds me that it started with the mystery of Homer’s face on a box and that George Meyer worked to come up with a good solution, because that’s an uncanny enough idea to carry the nothing of a plot. The jokes about Japan are boring but inoffensive though turning hot women into sumo wrestlers is sufficiently weird enough to be funny. Since the shift to HD in 2009, Marge has had a box of Mr Sparkle in her groceries in the opening titles, a fact I bring up not because I think it’s interesting but because I want to horrify you all with the fact that the show has been in HD for eleven years.

Matsumoto Industries was named after a friend of David Cohen. 

Iconic Moments: 2. “Eventually I just stopped caring. Luckily by then it was the Eighties and no one noticed.” | “Do you know that so-called volunteers don’t even get paid?”
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