(originally aired December 16, 2001)
So here it is. Having run seasons 3 and 4 with Mike Reiss, and been a core member since the series’ beginning, Al Jean takes over as show runner. He’s remained as such to this day, over ten seasons, whereas prior all others had two, with Mike Scully wrangling four. Now, a changing of the guard really does a series good; a Dave Mirkin show has a different feel than an Oakley & Weinstein one, each run having a different strike at a tone. Hell, even Scully shows have a distinct feel to them. What I get on the whole from Jean’s run, which is basically every episode from now on, is a general airless quality, a stagnation, if you will. There will be some alright episodes, and some terrible ones, but many of them will fall in the painfully average territory. This first one definitely qualifies, though there are more specific things I hate than like here. We start with Homer helping Bart build a model rocket, which ends up careening off course and crashing into the church. Are there any repercussions to this? Is Homer held responsible to pay off the massive amount of damage? Nope! We’re at the end of act one and my hope for change from Jean is fading already.
Who will step up and save the church? Why, Mr. Burns… of course? He intends to run the house of worship like a business, with fan favorite character Lindsay Naegle assisting, selling ad space and product placement. Why the hell is Burns involved in this? I have absolutely no clue; it works so much better to just have it be Naegle alone representing some conglomerate company, then the chuch can be like a subsidiary of Big Business, Inc. or something. All the Burns stuff is painful here; as I mentioned in “Hunka Hunka,” this is his other version, cartoonishly evil Burns, who does despicable, undermining things simply because he’seeeeeeeviiilll. The new sensationalized church couldn’t be more sacrilegious, and it’s enough to cause Lisa to break down and leave in a huff, vowing never to return. She goes on a spiritual quest to find a new faith, finally landing upon Buddhism, with thanks to Lenny, Carl, and special guest star Richard Gere, who is looked upon in the holiest of lights. I guess at this point I really need to stop complaining about celebrities continuously showing up in Springfield for no reason, since it will never, ever stop. Ever.
What pulls this episode below being just average is the bitterness of the third act. Marge is concerned for her daughter’s soul, and enlists the help of the church to get her back to Christianity. I get where Marge is coming from to some degree, but in a lot of scenes she just comes off petty, almost cruel to her poor daughter. Eavesdropping on her prayers, insisting it’s just a faze, tossing out freshly made Christmas cookies in the garbage in front of her face, it all feels very mean spirited, and very un-Marge behavior. Then in the end, it’s not Marge who learns a lesson, but Lisa, who tells the family that she can still worship with them, but in her own way. If that’s what you were going for, what not make the episode more like “Lisa the Vegetarian” and have Lisa be more militant with her new faith? Instead Marge is clearly in the wrong, and remains stubborn and closed-minded until the very end. It kind of bummed me out, which is definitely not a good thing for your Christmas episode.
Tidbits and Quotes
– Homer enlists the college nerds to help assemble the working rocket. Then he proceeds to force them, and Milhouse, to leave during the launch, which really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s supposed to be good friends with them, but now he’s a big jerkass, so get those fucking nerds out of here after I’ve exploited their hard work.
– Nibbles the hamster from “Skinner’s Sense of Snow” makes a triumphant re-appearance. And his “wife” is dressed like Jackie O. Whatever.
– Nice bit between Lindsay Naegle and Lisa (“The old church was skewing pious. We prefer a faith-based emporium teeming with impulse buy items.” “I feel like I want to throw up.” “Then my work is done.”)
– Why is Burns wasting his time monitoring Lovejoy’s sermon? Doesn’t have have a nuclear fucking power plant to run? I honestly just don’t understand why he’s in this episode at all.
– I like the dramatic nature of this runner between Lovejoy and Lisa (“Lisa, it’s still the same basic message, we’ve just dressed it up a little.” “Like the Whore of Babylon?” “That is a false analogy.” “No, it’s not. It’s apt. Apt!”)
– I like “Zagat’s Guide to World Religions,” and we get yet another “Lost Weekend” shot of Lisa wandering past different faith signs, including an incredibly flashy one with rows of lights reading “AMISH.”
– As a cartoon villain, Burns announces he’s keeping all the church profits for himself, laughs evilly and attempts to disappear in a puff of smoke. His ruse exposed, he tosses the stack of money on the table and leaves. Would Burns ever do something like that?
– The fact that Marge and the other churchgoers feel so petty in their attempts to win Lisa back really puts a sour spin on the ending. Lovejoy outside the window waiting for Lisa to take the candy cane feels so weird and creepy, and meanwhile Lisa is the one who makes a realization at the end, not anyone else. It’s the complete opposite of where it feels like they should have been going.
– All the Lenny/Carl/Gere stuff is pretty limp. We also get what I believe is the first Moe-committing-suicide “gag” of the series. He had his head in an oven at the end of “Grift of the Magi,” but that was for the purposes of the It’s a Wonderful Life parody, but this started this hilarious new character trait of Moe wanting to kill himself. Comedy gold! Now, suicide can be made funny (I can think of several examples from “South Park”), but this show just doesn’t have it in it.