- First broadcast: Thursday 7 February 1991, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 3 November 1997, BBC2
- Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
- First draft: Steve Pepoon
- Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
- Storyboard: Steven Dean Moore
- Animation director: Rich Moore
The Simpsons was now halfway through its second season. It had already become one of the best programmes on television. With this episode, it became one of the best programmes about television. Homer vs Lisa & the 8th commandment is cursed with an unwieldy title that threatens 20 minutes of sermonising, but which shakes off its ecclesiastical shackles to soar into refreshingly ungodly realms of pop culture pastiche. It also won the show its second Emmy award.
Homer employs the services of a crooked electrician to hook up the television set so it receives cable services for free. Lisa is appalled and begins a campaign of non-violent protest that culminates in her ruining Homer’s attempt to watch a high-profile boxing match. It’s another Simpsons morality tale, and a rather clomping one with lots of old-time religion and little subtlety. Right from the moment Lisa pulls her first face of disgust, it’s obvious this is going to be Preachy Daughter versus Wayward Father, with the former ultimately triumphing through a mixture of tactical petulance and endless whining. Thank goodness, then, for the spoofs of cable television that turn up throughout the episode with all the welcome relief of – to mix liturgical metaphors – flowers on stony ground. 5
“Cable,” coos Homer, wiping away a tear, “it’s more wonderful than I dared hope!” Later he wraps himself in his TV lead and declares: “How can one little insulated wire bring so much happiness?” This was possibly the first time America had been treated to a wholly uncynical and sympathetic depiction of somebody in love with television.
Homer’s attempt to reconcile this passion with his growing impatience at Lisa’s behaviour makes for by far the most entertaining element of this episode and never turns tiresome. The religious content, by contrast, quickly becomes grating and Lisa’s dogmatic attitude towards the 10 commandments is frankly unsettling (not to mention completely at odds with her previous characterisation as sceptical and enlightened). She humiliates her mother in public for eating two grapes in a supermarket, tells tales on her father to Reverend Lovejoy, and is insufferably smug when she achieves her goal of emotionally blackmailing Homer into cutting the illegal hook-up to cable TV. “Dad, why is the world such a cesspool of corruption?” she drones at one point. “Oh, great,” Homer sighs, and you sympathise utterly.
Marge isn’t quite so hectoring, though she quickly takes Lisa’s side, intoning: “I’m afraid that cable has now become an evil presence in our house.” She also lapses back into pious mode, announcing to Lisa (and us): “When you love somebody you have to have faith that in the end they will do the right thing.” At least Bart is true to form, exploiting cable TV not for psychological reasons but as a clever money-making ruse, charging his friends an entry fee for a glimpse of ‘Broadcast Nudes’. “Strangely compelling,” purrs Martin. 6
Locations and design
The episode begins with a flashback (or possibly a dream in Homer’s mind) to the year 1220BC and Mount Sinai in Egypt. The design here is superb: all craggy mountains, angry skies and rampant heathenism.
Its modern-day parallel is Springfield church, all sharp angles, flat colours and antiseptic hues, now with its familiar billboard by the entrance:
Reverend Lovejoy’s spectacularly garish office clock also merits special mention:
– like the man himself, somewhat queasy in sentiment but (unlike Lisa) harmless at heart. 8
Pardon My Zinger
There are few jokes; most of the humour is observational, like Homer spending so long on the couch he has to peel himself off to go to church, or Marge perking up at the prospect of Hear Me Roar, the “network for women. We’ll show you how to cut your first-aid bill in half, by making your own band-aid.”
When Homer watches a stand-up comedian cracking gags about toilet paper, his chuckles: “It’s funny, cos it’s true!” The line “It’s funny cos […]” would persist in the show for years, with diminishing returns. The best of the remaining zingers go to Mr Burns, whose presence in the episode smacks of indulgence rather than necessity. He has absolutely no reason to be in the plot other than to say long words and look out of touch. “The big title fight is one of those rare occasions that I savour the sights, the sounds and, ah yes, the smells of other men,” he intones to a wide-eyed Smithers.
Later he confides: “I once watched Gentleman Jim Corbett fight an eskimo fellow bare-knuckled for 113 rounds,” which, given Corbett was most famous in the 1890s, would make Mr Burns at least 110 years old. 6
“Hello, I’m Troy McClure. You might remember me from such films as Cry, Yuma and Here Comes the Coastguard.” So begins the screen life of one of the very finest recurring characters in The Simpsons, played by one of the very finest recurring special guests, Phil Hartman. McClure makes his debut as the host of the marvellous inane I Can’t Believe They Invented It, one of the many cable TV pastiches that give the episode buoyancy. Just as with Lionel Hutz, Hartman has McClure nailed from the start: another unstable grotesque fuelled by precarious vigour and near-insurmountable self-belief. And just as with Hutz, McClure is destined for great things. Hartman also voices the unscrupulous cable man and Moses: characters here united in a fondness for pulling wool over people’s eyes. 9
There’s some appropriately bombastic music to accompany the flashback to 1220BC, calling to mind the very worst – as in best – Hollywood biblical epics. Lisa’s fantasy of descending to hell and sharing a sofa with the devil is given an equally suitable cue, with the orchestra’s stabbing chords sounding at once both fanciful and disturbing. Less effective are the funeral chimes that ring out whenever a guest arrives at the house to watch the boxing match, and the overblown cadences that underscore Homer’s fantasy of going to jail. We’ve already got the message, thanks. 5
Dan Castelleneta and Julie Kavner are on good form, especially while having a to-and-fro about the ethics of stealing cable TV. When they talk over each other during a tiff in bed, it’s not a hesitant, laboured quarrel, but one that sounds almost spontaneous.
Yeardley Smith does what is asked of her and makes Lisa sound unrelentingly irksome. All the voices on the cable channels, shared among the regular cast, are pitch perfect, from the droning of stock prices on the business channel to the ribald announcer on Top Hat Entertainment introducing ‘Stardust Mammaries’. 8
The set pieces are realised vividly by Rich Moore, particularly the “descent” to hell.
It’s one of the most startling sequences of animation the show had attempted to date.
Moses’ appearance on Mount Sinai, complete with multi-coloured skies and lightning flashes, is great fun:
For people in 1991 unused to seeing biblical texts reimagined in a cartoon, let alone lampooned, this was probably all a little too much – which, of course, was precisely the point. Moore’s versatility is well exercised in this episode. The scenes of characters late at night in front of the TV have an eerie, intimate texture all of their own:
– while the raucous ensemble of the boxing match stays just the right side of noisy chaos:
The only grumble is the reappearance of Bart’s flappy mouth. 8
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
American television eats itself in this episode, and it’s a rich and satisfying feast. We see – or more commonly hear – the family gorging on spoofs of Mexican wrestling, cockfighting, adult entertainment, consumer affairs (“There’s no confusion, Tina – just good science!”), shock sports, schlock sports, shopping channels, business channels, political channels, even channels about channels. Not even Flanders escapes (“Ooh, I wanted to subscribe to that new arts and crafts channel”).
The boxing match, featuring the fey brute Drederick Tatum, is an outrageous pastiche of early 90s celebrity title-fights, and comes replete with a Don King lookalike and a full bad-boy-made-good back story. There’s even a homage to North By Northwest, when Homer prostrates himself in front of the cable man’s van.
This is hat-tipping of the highest order. 9
Emotion and tone
Both are all over the shop. Lisa’s interminable theological caterwauling binds itself like briars around the episode’s pleasures. You’re never allowed to enjoy yourself for too long; like Homer, we must also feel an ever-swelling prick of conscience. Speaking of which, the repeated perving at the output of the Top Hat Entertainment channel suffers from missing a Carry On cheekiness and instead feels very seedy and oppressive. The conclusion is a mess, with Lisa happy in her prejudice and Homer unhappy in his redemption. “Dad,” Lisa beams, “we may have saved your soul.” “Yeah,” Homer barks, “at the worst possible time.” 2
You can understand why this won an award: it’s visually ambitious yet thematically pedestrian, with very mundane topics (the Bible, cable TV) dressed up in exciting and unfamiliar garb. How far you fall for its charms depends on which you find more persuasively entertaining: finger-pointing or channel-hopping.