The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Nine, “Lisa The Skeptic”

I always enjoy playing the contrarian, so I’m disappointed to admit that I fall in the general consensus of finding this episode really, really annoying in conception; I was kind of hoping that it would turn out to be more nuanced when subject to analysis, but it really is as dumb as it looks. I’m an atheist who has always been exasperated by movements like New Atheism because its adherents seem more interested in making fun of Sky Dumbledore than in considering how to live in a world without God; fairly often, we’re talking about people who like to make a big show about being into Logic and Reason but tend to fall face-first into prejudices, assumptions, and emotional reactions. I have, of course, also dealt with my share of religious people who seemed to be operating on a different level of reality to me. So I’m open to a story about the nuances of the relationship between atheists and religious folk, and the idiosyncrasies and revelations of character that can come from that collision, it’s just this is in every way the dumbest way to go about it, starting with the fact that it’s about a goddamned angel skeleton. It’s not that I think that Springfieldianites are smart enough to recognise it as an obvious fake – if anything, the town’s anti-science behaviour is horrifyingly on the nose here in the 2020, watching people loudly insist that every expert on earth is lying to them about the horrible disease ravaging the world (“There are some things we don’t wanna know! Important things!”) – it’s that it completely drains the episode of any ability to draw comparisons or ‘balance’ between Lisa and the townsfolk in the way it’s trying to. The scene with Marge sadly tut-tutting Lisa for not being able to make a leap of faith fills me with apocalyptic rage, a little bit because it just makes me think of Douglas Adams asking “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” and mostly because there’s a difference between believing there’s an afterlife and believing a goddamned angel skeleton has been unearthed in your small town oh my god. The ending is even more infuriating, smugly patting Lisa on the head for having an immediate emotional reaction to a shocking event that doesn’t fit with her expressed beliefs as if that makes her a hypocrite and not someone, you know, capable of surprise.

What makes it worse is that this is the real beginning of the writers failing to properly serve Lisa as a character. Her reputation now is as a killjoy and a nag, hypocritically preaching about pointless causes; I always wondered where the hell that character was supposed to be, because I never saw her in the Golden Era of the show. Granted, I always identified with her, but I always saw Lisa as someone who could balance her personal ideals with a tremendous empathy for others; her stories have always been about expressing those ideals in a way that uplifts others. A lot of the jokes in this episode feel like an attempt at self-parody (“Who wants to complain with me?”) but they grate on me because they don’t actually capture her personality or motivations. Lisa is a lot of things, but she isn’t insincere and doesn’t just complain for the sake of complaining, and she’s too aware of the people around her to think they’ll all just jump on her ship without question. I don’t want to spend all season shitting on Mike Scully, but between this and the Jerkass Homer stuff, I’d almost think he didn’t have the strongest grasp on who the characters were and what they wanted, which is something the show has never suffered up to this point. When you get right down to it, The Simpsons is a very low-concept show, and having not just a clear-eyed view of its characters but a warmth towards them and their goals is part of what keeps bringing me back; I don’t need every comedy to like its characters (see: Always Sunny), but I need ones that do to be consistent about it. Part of writing a comedy is having a clear point of view – you do, after all, need a clear sense of what’s funny and what isn’t. The Simpsons has always allowed a broad range of comedy, but now we’re seeing its limits.

Chalkboard Gag: I will not tease fatty.
Couch Gag: Three old men are sitting on the couch like it’s a sauna. The family walk away.

This episode was written by David S Cohen and directed by Neil Affleck. Cohen was inspired by a visit to Manhattan’s American Museum Of Natural History, and he initially wanted to parody the Scopes Monkey Trial before George Meyer convinced him to switch over to the angel skeleton idea. Stephen Jay Gould guest stars as himself; the only line he objected to was being referred to as the world’s most brilliant paleontologist.

 The shame of the thing is that I actually like the extremely cynical joke about the whole thing being a distraction from the building of the mall (which admittedly is not brought up in the episode but definitely part of the action) and as a promotion for the mall. Even as the show falls apart before our eyes, it has a clear-eyed view of mob mentality. I will also concede that Homer using the angel for a grift is hilarious, and that it’s filled with great one-liners and gags (“Fifty cents, please!”). 

The scene in the courtroom is the remnants of the parody of the Scopes Monkey Trial. The publicity stunt riffs on hoaxes like Piltdown Man and the Cardiff Giant. A shot of the diggers references Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Iconic Moments: 2 “You can use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!” | “Why was I programmed to feel pain?!”
Biggest Laugh: