- First broadcast: Thursday 8 October 1992, Fox Television
- First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 23 March 1998, BBC2
- Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
- First draft: George Meyer
- Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein
- Storyboard: Kevin O’Brien, Jim Reardon
- Animation director: Jim Reardon
This was the first story to be written and produced specifically for season four of The Simpsons. It treads where no episode had even tiptoed before and does so with swagger. With hindsight, Homer the Heretic set the bar for the remainder of the season. You can imagine how the rest of the writing team felt about having to match it. This being The Simpsons, however, not only was it matched but surpassed. What a treat lay in store for viewers.
Simply to acknowledge on mainstream US television the perversities of orthodox religion is to dice with danger. Back in the early 90s, to do so not just on television but in a sitcom and – heavens above – a cartoon, ranked close to sacrilege in certain circles, especially those in which people liked to move in mysterious ways. The Simpsons didn’t give a toss about any of this. Homer the Heretic doesn’t so much rush in to areas where angels fear to tread as charge towards them at warp speed. “I have been having the best day of my life and I owe it all to skipping church,” Homer cries with joy, at the end of one of the most beautifully-crafted first acts of any Simpsons episode. The story flips with glee between Marge freezing in church and Homer back at home, enjoying one after another of his favourite things (“I’m whizzing with the door open – and I love it!”) and doing so without any guilt or reticence. His “heresy” is then shown to be completely reasonable: an even bolder step by scriptwriters working in a climate where the first skirmishes in America’s culture wars were about to begin. Only at the very end of the episode does the plot lose its nerve and Homer is made to pay for his behaviour. It was fun while it lasted, though. 9
This is one of Homer’s most likeable performances. For much of the episode he is wise, lucid and amusing – sometimes all at once. “Don’t you think that the Almighty has better things to worry about than where one little guy spends one measly hour of his week?” he tells Marge. “What if we’ve picked the wrong religion? Every week we’re just making him madder and madder!” Because Marge is made out to be the zealot (something entirely in keeping with her character) she can never quite surmount Homer’s cool rationalism. She is also given dialogue which never paints her in a flattering light (“It’s church. You have to go.”) So much for last week’s mind-broadening immersion in musical theatre. Later in the episode Homer is made stupid again, parading around in a monk’s habit then falling asleep with a lighted cigar in his mouth and nearly burning down the house. It’s all a bit over-egged and the script isn’t at its most agile when manoeuvring everything back to how it was at the start. But one new character makes his debut in this story: God – or more correctly, Homer’s fantasy of God. More of a friendly giant than a vengeful deity, he mithers through Homer’s dreams, moaning about Reverend Lovejoy and behaving almost like a human being. “Why should I spend half my Sunday going to hell?” Homer asks. “You’ve got a point there,” ‘God’ replies. 7
Locations and design
The neighbourhood church never looks that inviting at the best of times; here, at the very worst of times, it is made to feel more like purgatory than sanctuary. Icicles hang off Lovejoy’s lectern; the flower displays are frozen solid and shatter with one touch.
Homer’s bed, by contrast, is designed to look as if it is the most capacious and snuggly bed in the entire world. 9
Pardon My Zinger
The malevolent chill cabinet that is the church prompts one of the best jokes. When Lisa starts praying for help to break down the frozen front door, Bart snaps: “This is neither the time nor the place!” Later we see the church noticeboard advertising this week’s sermon as WHEN HOMER MET SATAN. It’s because the gags in this episode are so wispy and carefree that the story avoids getting the hem of its cassock dragged earthwards by clunking, ponderous satire. Homer distils his brand of religion into a four-word zinger: “No hell, no kneeling”. He skives off work by claiming he needs to celebrate The Feast of Maximum Occupancy. God’s retribution for Lovejoy? “I think I’ll give him a canker sore.” 8
There aren’t any and they’re not missed, so as usual this means a default 10.
During the first act there is almost no music at all. Alf Clausen’s baton shifts barely an inch. But this is no bad thing. The long silences on the soundtrack help to heighten your appreciation of the contrast between Marge shivering in church and Homer basking at home. When the music cues do kick in, they pack more of a punch than if had they been parping away in the background from the start. This kind of subtle but clever sound design reflects how confident Al Jean and Mike Reiss had now become at running the show. 8
Harry Shearer is superb as Reverend Lovejoy, babbling fanatically during the service then coming over all waspish when he gets invited to the Simpsons’ house for dinner. “God himself told me I should seek a new path,” crows Homer. “Oh REALLY?” Lovejoy drawls sceptically. All the scenes where Homer is enjoying skiving off church are brilliantly voiced by Dan Castalleneta, who always manages to sound joyously contrary instead of downright petulant. Homer’s pleasure at accidentally stumbling upon “the best day of my life” is completely infectious. “Is this what I think it is?… I’ve found A PENNY!” 10
It’s possibly the first time the inside of a womb has appeared in a sitcom:
Director Jim Reardon has no trouble rising to the challenge of this story, be it matters gynaecological or spiritual.
This is also possibly the first time ‘God’ has appeared in a sitcom, though we never see his face and – purposefully – he never “appears” to Homer in the real world, only when he’s asleep. It’s a minor technical point but avoids major questions of theology, should you be so minded to ask them.
Reardon also juggles with aplomb the most extreme of elements, from icy storms to torrents of fire. You can really fell the heat of the blaze and the chill of the cold.
It’s worth saying once again how lovely it is to see Springfield covered in snow. Sure, it’s a bit of a novelty, but it injects real character into the landscape and gives the animators a chance to play with a different palette of colours. 10
Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Depending on your point of view, all the scenes involving divine intervention are either complete fantasy or some kind of sacred visitation. The episode spends most of its running time trying to avoid being too prescriptive as to deny viewers the choice. It’s a laudable aim, albeit one that gets pretty much junked at the end. By contrast there’s no doubting the scene when Homer dances in his pants while singing Short Shorts, it being both a direct steal from the film Risky Business and unambiguously sensational. 6
Emotion and tone
Ecclesiastical farce is usually best left to the pirouetting vowels of Derek Nimmo. If you’re predisposed towards heresy of a more jaundiced hue, there’s always Bill Hicks. This episode of The Simpsons tries a bit of both but feels much more at ease nestling in the folds of Derek’s robes than the embers of Bill’s ashtray. The plot chickens out at the end when it pulls back from having a free-thinking Homer “triumph” over the passive assumptions of his friends and neighbours. Despite the script tipping you the wink – “I have a feeling there’s a lesson here,” Homer sighs – it’s nonetheless a shame to see in the final scene everyone back in church, spiritually and materially none the wiser. 7
Lovejoy, you’ve done it again.