This The Simpsons review contains spoilers.
The Simpsons: Season 30 Episode 3
The good, and yet bad, news is we won’t be going to hell for watching The Simpsons season 30 episode 3, “My Way or the Highway to Heaven.” It has bite, but not that communion wafer aftertaste.
The episode opens as God and St. Peter, who we know because he wears a sash, bemoan diminishing attendance in heaven. It seems there’s nobody getting in anymore except little old ladies, promise keepers, who creep out even God a little, and Tracy Morgan, who wasn’t informed he got better after almost dying in the tour bus accident. Morgan will be making another guest appearance this season, and could make for a natural recurring voice, like Jon Lovitz, who also puts in an appearance in heaven.
While God and St. Peter don’t say they have any kind of deadline to make such a monumental decision, Beethoven and Tupac have an early show. Before they turn to Ned Flanders’ Sunday School lesson to determine who is worthy of eternal bliss they descend into the depths of depraved indifference. The couch gag sees Homer having less than a fine dining experience at Bob’s Burgers.
Ned opens with some very subtle social commentary. He is the guy who includes the middleman who jacks up prices on his meat during grace. Here, he lends his politely pious condemnation on the police. Ralph Wiggum, Chief Wiggum’s kid, asks if the people his daddy shoots go to heaven. Ned says “they do if they didn’t do anything wrong, so a lot of them yes,” insinuating the top cop in Springfield is a little too trigger happy. The episode starts at a point of innocence. Each of the kids in Ned’s class indulges their own personal notions of their death and heaven. Üter Zörker envisions himself going out in fudgy style like Augustus Gloop only to ascend into Willie Wonka Heaven. Millhouse goes out a distracted hero. Bart sneaks in a last minute death bed conversion just under the clock.
Ned is the first to give testimony, although all he’s really doing is setting up the origin story of his mustache. We know the head of the Flanders household as a god-fearing man. He’s is always nice to people, doesn’t drink or dance and never swear beyond “iddly,” which we learned a few seasons ago is actually stifled rage. He does everything the Bible says, including the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. He even keeps kosher to be on the safe side. But he wasn’t always like this. His parents taught him “rules are for fools,” and he was chided for coloring inside the line when he should be coloring a cloud purple, and reminded him that Jack and Jill are on the pill.
Ned’s be-bopping hipster daddy and Bohemian beatnik mama were too cool for church or school and sent their son out on a path far from righteousness. Taking a job as a selling trampolines, which he has to justify to himself because they are so dangerous, he is walking such a dead end street, only British Invasion rock band The Kinks can express accurately. At first fortune smiles on Ned, trampolines become popular because fake footage from the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission gives the country bounce fever.
Ned references the long nightmare of Gunsmoke, the series The Simpsons recently ousted from the top slot of longest-running series. The series has been subtly needling the generations-long running western series since it started creeping up on it, and now they’ve surpassed it, it is doomed to forever drop in historic significance, much like Ned’s arc of salesmanship, after spring comes the fall. When the events that set his miracle into motion, Ned is drinking cocktails out of a rolled up ten dollar bill, but then along comes the biggest cross he will ever have to bear.
We knew Homer could bounce, but we had no idea he could count, especially as young as he is in the flashback. For those who think it’s a creative anachronism that Ned is so much older than Homer, remember Ned Flanders is a senior citizen. This was established in the “Viva Ned Flanders” episode that aired in Season 10 in 1999. So, if he was a senior citizen in 1999, now he’d be a senior citizen. Maggie is still drinking from a bottle, why would Ned age?
There are some gentle jabs thrown at Christianity. Jesus hasn’t kept up his guitar practice in Jimi Hendrix’s personal classes because he lost his guitar pick in his hole, not the sound hole, but in the one in his palms. God and Saint Peter wonder which wife Ned will spend eternity with after his mustache is just ash. God also says he refuses to believe in atheists, declaration of pure Nietzscheism.
It’s Marge who opens the pearly gates for the nonbelievers, who will now be forced to hear “I-told-you-so” for a blessed eternity. Her grandmother was an disillusioned atheist when she lived in boogie woogie Paris during World War II. Marge’s grandmother was married to a Nazi collaborator who looks like Moe. He even runs a bar, like Moe. And was the model for the town gargoyle, also, sadly, kind of like Moe. He’s been called ugly, pug ugly, fugly, pug fugly, and now he’s kissing fish. The section has a nod to Casablanca, and even takes the Ark of the Covenant out of storage to bring God around to high infidelity.
Lisa explores a different path to enlightenment. Jesus always carries that plus sign around, but Lisa’s faith is based on subtraction. She follows the path of Buddha and her awakening goes back to the year zero. A lot more can happen at zero than is taught at Katmandu U. To a wealthy princess like Siddmartha, played by Lisa, fifty ponies brings less excitement than one pony. She learns from her brother that the middle path between opulence and decadence is flatulence and decides she wants less, even more of less. By having to allow Buddhists into heaven The Simpsons establish that their god is a Christian god. Although if they’ve chosen the wrong god, every time they go to church they’re just making the real god madder and madder and Ned’s kissing up wrong in a very big way.
The Simpsons may not preach against evolution, but they have evolved from the kind of show that was uproariously laugh out loud to evoking us to say, oh, clever. The series will always be a little intellectual, as it is a constant battle between the selfless wisdom of Marge and Lisa and the chaotic buffoonery of Bart and Homer. Where were Bar and Homer, by the way? We get a story from Ned in place of a family member? Could it be it wouldn’t matter what they brought as an offering it would send the whole town of Springfield straight to hell? “My Way or the Highway to Heaven” should have let the boy and his Homer offer their own dark alternative. The episode is tinted too bright.
“My Way or the Highway to Heaven” was written by Dan Castellaneta, Deb Lacusta and Vince Waldron, and directed by Rob Oliver.
The Simpsons stars Dan Castellaneta as Homer and Abe Simpson, Julie Kavner as Marge Simpson, Nancy Cartwright as Bart Simpson, Yeardley Smith as Lisa Simpson. Hank Azaria plays Kirk Van Houten, Chief Wiggum and Moe. Harry Shearer is Seymour Skinner, Kent Brockman, C. Montgomery Burns and Waylon Smithers. Guest stars: Jon Lovits, John Roberts, and Tracy Morgan as himself.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.
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