The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode Fourteen, “The Joy Of Sect”

I feel like that, as the show is starting to run out of steam, so are my essays – they keep getting shorter, for one thing – so it’s a massive relief to watch a genuinely great episode that goes toe-to-toe with anything from the Golden Era. It’s not just that it’s one great joke after another, it’s that the whole thing is thoughtfully constructed, flowing in a way that works by an absurd logic, speeding up and slowing down according to the viewer’s attention span, and most of all starting with angles that aren’t immediately obvious. I think my favourite idea floating through this episode is that it’s Marge who resists the Movementarian’s brainwashing and saves the day, and it’s something the episode doesn’t wave in your face – rather, it trusts you to grasp that this is inherently funny and appropriate and tells jokes on top of that. It does make sense that it would be her, too – her fussy conservatism has made her resistant to con artists trying to upend the social order for profit before. It makes me think of a frequent observation I’ve read that intelligence is unrelated to susceptibility to falling into a cult; admittedly, Bart’s brainwashing is kind of cheated through (which I believe is the right move for pacing purposes), but the episode covers a whole range of different ways cults appeal to people, usually using actual cult techniques – most famously, trapping people into watching their whole video through social anxiety. Lisa is almost the easiest, manipulated through her desire for good grades; most of Springfield is drawn into the cult predictably, allowing themselves to get browbeaten by propaganda. Homer’s brainwashing is one of the big setpieces, and it’s so funny because it shows the legitimate work they have to go into to try and turn Homer to their cause; another case of the show being even funnier by willingly empathising with someone, because we see the cultist’s attempts to brainwash someone from their own perspective, like Wile E Coyote trying to catch the Road Runner. It’s only once they figure out what his deal is that they finally flip him; I’d remembered the brilliant gag of Homer being brainwashed using the Sixties Batman theme, but I’d never remembered that it was set up by him singing it to himself earlier.

Shifting gears, it’s interesting to me how this factors into the show’s longrunning fascination with grifters. The gag of the premise is that Homer sets out to grift the Movementarians out of a comfortable weekend away, only for their resources for grifting far outstripping him, which is a classic comedy setup (Always Sunny has a similar episode, “Mac And Dennis Buy A Timeshare” – and yes, Homer references buying a timeshare this episode); it builds off last week in how Homer’s image of himself as a grifter leading right into him getting grifted, though of course in a hilariously convoluted way. The reveal pulls off the exact same gag and point “Lisa The Skeptic” was going for, in which we and the characters believe for a second that actually all of this was real. We’re helped, of course, by the fact that the story in no way takes this seriously – there’s no mystery or debate hanging over the show over whether or not the Movementarians are actually real, and it’s taken for granted that they’re con artists. So the reveal of a UFO is a simple punchline, and the reveal of it falling off and revealing the Leader in a wooden pedal plane is a second punchline. By committing to being funny, I believe it makes a better argument for skepticism than “Lisa The Skeptic” – one of the little things I picked up from this show was to always be skeptical of people trying to sell me something and to look at what they had to gain, and that’s very much something that comes through in “The Joy Of Sect”. 

Chalkboard Gag: Shooting paintballs is not an art form.
Couch Gag: Tiny versions of the family run in and climb on the couch, and Santa’s Little Helper walks in, grabs Homer, and runs out.

This episode was written by Steve O’Donnell and directed by Steven Dean Moore. It was developed from an idea by David Mirken, who got the idea listening to a radio show about the history of cults. The Movementarians riff on details from various cults; the leader driving through fields in a Rolls Royce was a reference to the Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, holding people in the camp against their will was lifted from Jim Jones’s cult, and the scene of the six-hour orientation in which people were held in place by peer pressure was inspired by the Unification Church. Several accidental similarities to the Heaven’s Gate cult were changed at the last minute out of sensitivity.

Another great little detail: starting us off with the characters already in the middle of doing something interesting. I don’t know if it’s an iconic moment, but I’ve seen the frame of Lisa shouting ‘the whole damn system is wrong!’ on posters out in public. As you are well aware, the Avocado mod nickname ‘leader beans’ comes from this episode. The hoverbikes scene is another moment that so perfectly captures the kid mindset, especially “Who do you love now?” The hardest I ever laughed in the “describe your sex life with a Simpsons quote” threads was when someone suggested “I’m so darned mad, it’s gonna be mostly head!” 

When escaping the compound, Marge is chased by Rover from The Prisoner. As said, Homer sings the theme to Sixties Batman. The babies are indoctrinated with a parody of Barney the Dinosaur. The sequence of Burns trying to establish his own religion is largely a parody of the promotional video for Michael Jackson’s HIStory: Past, Present, And Future, Book I. Willie scratching his nails on the window is yet another reference to that scene from Jaws. The Springfield airport contains a shop dedicated entirely to Stephen King and Michael Crichton (“Do you have anything by Robert Ludlum?” / “Get out.”).

Iconic Moments: “Outta my way, Jerkass!”, the line that inspired the moniker Jerkass Homer. Ironically, this is a moment that does not reflect the decline of Homer as a character. | “So the cops knew Internal Affairs was setting them up?”
Biggest Laugh: Despite stopping the plot for what feels like a solid five minutes, this feels like it could have been placed somewhere in season four.