It’s been called “the most religious show on TV.” With an image of God, a quippy church corner marquee, and an earnest prayer’s prayer, FOX’s recent “The Simpsons” episode proves why. This episode is not actually focused on a religious theme, which may actually confirm the claim that much more.
In the 11th “Changing of the Guardian” episode of the impressive 24th season of the long-running animated program, the troubled but loving Simpson family lives through the trauma of a tornado, ultimately prompting Marge and Homer to seek out guardians for the three kids in case tragedy were to befall both parents. This comically unsuccessful search commands the episode’s trajectory, but it is the substantive little moments at the start of the episode that keep the program atypically connected to religious interest (catch recent episodes over at HULU).
When the tornado strikes, Homer rushes outside to save the family dog, only to be trapped in the doghouse, afraid for his and his dog’s life. Scared, Homer prays, “Dear Lord, if thy tornado must take me, please let it take me to Oz, but DON’T let Flanders be the Scarecrow!” Sure, it’s pretty common on television to hear prayers attached to trauma – someone by the hospital bedside will say “please God, save my wife,” or “I’ll do anything, just save my kids,” but Homer’s prayer is a little different. His is a prayer’s prayer.
This is perhaps the most important religious aspect of the show – the characters are depicted as having an ongoing and sincere relationship with God. That’s not to say they are devout or anywhere near pious, but they are fluent in the practice of speaking to a divine being. When Homer prays in the doghouse, he is praying as a character who knows that God exists, that God at times listens, and that God is a source of possible intervention. It’s not shown as weird for Homer to pray – it’s seen as normal and possibly meaningful. That’s not normal on TV.
To be clear, the characters’ relationships to God are far from ones of perpetual bended knee. After he is saved while the dog gets sucked up into the air, Homer hollers out to God, “This counts as a walk!” Later when Homer gets caught up in the air, he yells again, “Help me, God! What is it I’m paying you for every Sunday?!” The actual relationship with God is a pretty dysfunctional one, but the mere normalizing of the relationship itself is an important rarity for the broadcast television landscape.
Regular viewers will also catch the show’s preacher as one of the less-than-hospitable characters hiding from Simpson guardianship, and the First Church of Springfield marquee offers up typical Simpson-esque ribbing of flawed contemporary church sentiments – the sign reads “Tornados: God’s Fickle Finger,” keeping the subversive approach to religion alive and well in the show. Marge even gasps as she compares the destruction to “God’s vacuum cleaner,” followed by a glimpse of God emptying the dust under Canada, chuckling as he dumps dinosaur fossils across the West.
The Simpsons clearly criticizes and mocks contemporary religion, even trading in soft-cornered sacrilege at times, but it’s the quick moment of Homer praying a not-out-of-place prayer that cements this as a routinely religious show on television.
But what say you? Does The Simpson’s mockery go too far to make any minute prayer meaningful? Would you prefer it had a little less blasphemy and a little more blessing? Or is it a relief for you to see this version of religion on television? Comment below and let your thoughts be known!