“I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.” That memorable line comes from 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street, one of cinema’s most iconic looks the intersection between commerce, doubt, and belief. “Lisa the Skeptic”, The Simpsons’ effort at addressing that same fault line sixty years later, shares more than a few things in common with its yuletide forebear.
Both stories feature a skeptical young girl trying to make sense of her doubts as well as the hoopla surrounding the very public appearance of something seemingly supernatural. But as I discussed on the Simpsons Show Podcast, while Miracle has a surprising amount of salience and grace even today, “Lisa the Skeptic” is much funnier, but also much clumsier, in the way it addresses topics like faith and skepticism.
The Simpsons’ version of this story begins (after a typical first act head fake) when Lisa sees some local developers building a new megamall on Sabretooth Meadow, a Springfield locale where archeologists have uncovered several fossils. After overcoming the disinterest of her immediate family, pushback from the developers, and Lionel Hutz’s credit-stealing incompetence, Lisa manages to convince the powers that be to let her lead an archeological dig of her own before construction commences.
That dig uncovers what appears to be the fossilized remains of an angel buried within the makeshift dig site. This eyebrow-raising discovery leads to a conflict between the ever-skeptical Lisa, who assumes there must be some logical explanation for the supposed fossil, and the rest of the town, who believe it must be of divine origin. (And, of course, there’s Homer, who’s less interested in what the fossil is than how much money it might fetch him.)
That sets up the major conflict of the episode, meant as a metaphor for the larger clash between the faithful and the skeptical in American life. Is Lisa right to be doubtful and is she justified in her caution that there must be some rational explanation for the appearance of this “angel,” or are the vociferous believers like Ned Flanders and Moe Szyslak right that if Lisa can’t explain where it came from, they have every right to treat it as a piece of the divine?
The problem is that the basis of that conflict in the story is weak, and the deck too stacked, for it to serve as a reasonable basis for the faith vs. science debate the episode wants to have. The Simpsons had gone to some wacky places by the time its ninth season rolled around, but even so, the fossilized remains of a literal angel immediately seems like too great a leap even for a series that had stretched its conceptual limits until they buckled and eventually broke.
To that end, the events of “Lisa the Skeptic” never feel like a fair fight. On the one hand, you have Springfield’s brightest light whose only sticking point in this whole thing is the origin of one hinky fossil. And on the other you have the standard Springfield rabble, spouting even more misguided nonsense than usual. It makes the episode’s laudable “allow some room for others’ beliefs” message feel disconnected from the story it’s actually telling.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s fruitful territory to explore and comedy to exploit in the public frenzy over some religious “find.” Shows as diverse as South Park and Ballykissangel have managed to do it well, and it’s right in The Simpsons’ wheelhouse. But even for viewers like me who fall much more into Lisa’s camp than Ned’s, the commentary in “Lisa the Skeptic” is blunter and less clever, which makes it less effective.
Good satire needs to have an insight and point beyond “Hey, aren’t these guys idiots?” Sure, it’s worth a laugh when Chief Wiggum doesn’t know what a neanderthal is, or Kent Brockman declares that leprechauns went extinct, but the anti-science brigade reads a little too broad and too obvious here. As funny as Ned’s declaration that “There are some things we don’t wanna know — important things!” is, it’s a cartoony depiction of believers that lacks the show’s usual revealing incisiveness in favor of just pointing and laughing.
That sort of incisiveness often comes from the way the writers point out the hypocrisy or irony of the perspective they’re poking fun at. Bits like Moe asking what science has ever done for him, and then, after being injured by a falling mastodon tusk, shouting out “I just hope medical science can save me!” or the academic-averse mob burning down the Christian Science Reading Room in their anti-empirical fervor are, while not exactly subtle, better instances of the show teasing out the silliness and parochialism of the angry townsfolk it deploys so regularly.
Heck, even the episode’s most apolitical gags — like the kids in detention are being punished with the same trip to an archeological dig that the honor students are being rewarded with, or Homer laughing at the victims of the same police scam he himself was caught in — find their strength in that amusing sense of that reversal and obliviousness. There’s some solid satire in “Lisa the Skeptic”, but too often it goes for easy dunce-shaming in lieu of these sorts of smart, layered critiques and observations.
There’s also some structural issues in the episode. Beyond the extraneous-if-amusing opening detour (which is a mostly forgivable Simpsons trope) involving a “free boat” scam, the story also sees a trite and quickly-dispensed with bit of courtroom drama after Lisa is arrested for allegedly desecrating the angel. That transforms into a religion vs. science trial in a rushed and corny fashion. It’s not a great addition to the episode to begin with, but it serves little purpose and should either have been expanded or cut altogether.
The same goes for the otherwise enjoyable guest appearance from noted scientist and author Stephen Jay Gould. One of the recurring complaints leveled against The Simpsons in its lean years is the presence of pointless guest stars, and as cool as it is to have a luminary like Gould on board, he too has little relevance to this story beyond lending it the cachet of his presence.
Gould (who shares a middle name with Homer) does just fine for a non-actor, delivering his comic lines with aplomb. But his initial proclamation that his tests of the bone scrapings from the angel were inconclusive, only to later reveal that he didn’t even do the tests, lead the viewer wonder why he was even in the episode to begin with. It’s clear that the episode’s writer, David X. Cohen (who’s no stranger to writing stellar science-based gags on Futurama) couldn’t find an organic way to fit Gould into the proceedings.
So why does the episode still work as well as it does? Well for one thing, it’s a damn funny outing for the show. While the reveal that the angel was planted by the very developers Lisa had confronted earlier in order to promote the opening of their new “Heavenly Hills” mall is underwhelming as a resolution, the episode as a whole does well to wring the humor from people using religious fervor to make a buck (or, in Homer’s case, fifty cents). Homer’s line that the Simpsons could be “los[ing] out on bags and bags of money — it’s sacrilegious I tell ya” is a keeper.
But even and especially when the show isn’t trying to make any grand points, it brings the laughs. Yeardley Smith’s line-reading of the word “fine” when the rest of her family only offers silence in response to her invitation to join her in complaining is outstanding. Images of a living whale suspended in the Springfield Museum of Natural History or the Pope sitting in a lawn chair are out there gags, but definitely funny ones. And Patti and Selma’s nonchalance at the prospect of the apocalypse in the shadow of their “beat[ing] cancer” despite their long-cherished smoking habit is a hoot. “Lisa the Skeptic” isn’t as focused or tight as some Simpsons episodes, but it still knows how to tell a joke.
It also does well to ground the conflict between faith and belief in the personal relationship between Lisa and Marge. Admittedly, that portion of the episode is a bit undercooked, with the emotional aspect of the narrative taking place in only three short scenes. And for the same reasons the larger story arc falters, the smaller conflict between mother and daughter also rings false here. The angel skeleton still seems ludicrous, even if you’re a believer, and so Marge equating disbelief in it with disbelief in spirituality more generally feels off.
That said, it makes that conceptual battle ground one founded on a personal connection between family members who love and respect one another, not just a heavy-handed take on a topical issue. In contrast to most of the dim bulbs who populate Springfield, Marge is a sensible person who’s one of the few role models Lisa has in her hometown. The fact that someone like Marge can still make room for faith and belief does more to create a compelling counterweight to Lisa’s skepticism than all the rabbling in the rest of the episode, and it adds emotional heft to “Lisa the Skeptic”’s final moments.
The end of the episode sees The Simpsons trying to have it both ways, with Lisa being right about the angel’s lack of divine inspiration, but having her be caught up in the moment when it seems, however briefly, that the angel might be real. In the episode’s climax, the angel appears out of nowhere and bellows that the assembled should “prepare for the end,” only adding “the end of high prices!” after the crowd’s already in awe. The twist that the angel was a publicity stunt from the developers the whole time nearly renders the entire exercise moot, with Lisa outraged and the rest of the town characteristically nonplussed. As lopsided as the episode’s perspective is for most of the runtime, that muddle of an ending feels like a cop out.
But like Miracle on 34th Street, it works better for rooting the catharsis of those closing moments in the love between a mother and daughter. The broader message of that 1947 film had less to do with a belief in the magical or supernatural, and more with a belief in the kindness and generosity that can exist beyond the commercial aspects of the holiday season.
In the same way, “Lisa the Skeptic” portrays a flock of would-be true believers who quickly forgive any blaspheming at the prospect of discount rat spray, but it also draws back to the idea that beyond media circuses and public outcries, beyond manipulative publicity campaigns, and beyond even spiritual disagreements, there’s a trust that there are those close to us who’ll squeeze our hands back when we need them to. And that sort of faith can be just as comforting, and just as remarkable, as any other the denizens of Springfield might keep in their hearts.
Odds and Ends
- Whether it’s “fossils schmossils,” “bones schmones,” or “facts schmacts,” Homer has a distinctively Yiddish flavor to his dismissiveness in this one.
- This is also a great outing for Ralph. From his inability to pronounce Principal Skinner’s name, to his fear of digging up a T-Rex, to his being too scared to even wet his pants, Little Ralphie is in rare form here.
- There’s one other minor issue that takes some of the wind out of the sails of Stephen Jay Gould’s guest appearance in this episode. The fake out with him rushing to the Simpsons’ home — not because he has exciting results to share but because he needs to use their restroom — is practically a carbon copy of the same gag the show did with Homer in “The Cartridge Family” just a few episodes prior.
- There’s some creative animation and design work in the sequence where a Cro-Magnon version of Homer gets bitten by a pair of prehistoric fish. The colorful background in particular gives the scene a fun flavor.
- While the Burns-Smithers material hasn’t necessarily aged well, Mr. Burns’s awkward eye toward Smithers after hearing a weak excuse for their kiss still proves a funny expression from the old codger.
- Homer’s plan to hold tightly onto Marge so that Heaven will have to take him to if they want her presages a similar scheme with Lisa in Season 10’s “Simpsons Bible Stories.”
- Similarly, The Simpsons would revisit the faith vs. science issue in Season 17’s “The Monkey Suit” which is, if anything, even blunter in how it addresses the issue, this time using evolution as a focus. But it too has its charms and humorous bits.
- For those of you on the lookout for the beginnings of the so-called “Jerkass” version of Homer, in this episode he barges through a crowd, steals a supposed holy artifact before anyone knows what’s happening, and tells Agnes Skinner to “beat it, pegleg.” In the words of Chief Wiggum, this is going to get worse before it gets better.