Season 2: Episode 13. Original airdate: February 7, 1991.
Like I’ve said before, I absolutely love Lisa as a character. I think she occupies an irreplaceable space in The Simpsons as a voice of reason and morality contrasted against the ridiculous antics of her fellow characters. Even though I love her to death, I understand the limitations of Lisa, and I recognize the precarious task of writing for her without making her too preachy. In “Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment,” she comes dangerously close to becoming an annoying buzzkill, but luckily the rest of the material is wonderful enough to pull the episode back from that brink.
We begin, oddly enough, in the Holy Land during the time of Moses. This opening has its share of funny moments, like Phil Hartman’s Moses, who returns from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments and proceeds to read them “in no particular order,” or the frustration of the ancients at having to abandon their hedonist ways. Despite those little jokes, I feel like this scene is sort of unnecessary to the story trying to be told. Sure, it gives a timeless backdrop to the “Thou shalt not steal” story, but nearly any episode’s plot could be introduced by some sort of historical anecdote.
Once the episode jumps to the present day, my major complaints nearly disappear. Homer overhears Flanders laying into the cable guy for offering to set up an illegal cable line. With his interest piqued at the word “free,” Homer chases the cable guy down and begs him for a free hookup, unfazed by having just been run over by the van. The line gets set up, and the Simpson family is thrust into the expansive world of cable TV.
It’s sort of odd to think of cable as such a big deal, but that’s my Generation Y talking. Cable has always just been a ubiquitous part of my media experience, and while I knew the legends of a time with only three channels, I hadn’t quite grasped the idea that the network-only period extended into the late 80s and early 90s. The Simpsons’ excitement over cable reminds me a lot of my family’s experience getting the internet, which as I discussed yesterday, came at an oddly late time. I also had no idea there was such a thing as an illegal cable hookup, but if The Simpsons was devoting an episode to it, I have to imagine it was fairly common. I just might start calling my parents for some color commentary on the things I don’t understand about early-90s culture.
The new cable setup becomes the focal point of the household, making the TV even more a fixture than it was before. This episode offers some brilliant parodies of the strange excesses of cable, like the home shopping networks, two-star movies, and niche sporting events like the World Series of Cockfighting. The family becomes obsessed with the possibilities, with even Marge finding herself won over by the womens’ interest channel called Hear Me Roar. Homer wipes away his wife’s concerns about the legality of their system with a handy pamphlet called “So You’ve Decided to Steal Cable.” If there’s anything I’ve learned in life, it’s that a pamphlet can solve anything—true story (that I’ll be sure to tell on here someday).
Of course, the lone holdout on stealing cable is Lisa, who is slightly bothered by the idea even before a visit to Sunday School. While at church, her fears become far more vivid when she is taught the consequences of breaking a commandment. Lisa is terrified of eternal damnation, and in a particularly great sequence hallucinates her family watching their stolen cable in Hell, with the Devil sitting in between her parents on the couch, coercing Lisa to join them. Her devotion to a religious set of morals is something I’d never have expected from her in my experience with later seasons, but I love the honesty associated with her childlike innocence. It’s so true to kid nature, too— the few times I went to Sunday School as a kid left me panicked and scared at the choices my parents and I made, which were inconsequential, of course. There’s something about religious fervor that cuts deep in kids, even the most intellectual ones like Lisa, and it’s nice to see her both as the voice of reason and a normal kid.
Bart, on the other hand, is completely absorbed by the wonders of cable, especially the Skinemax-type channel that Homer forbids him to watch. When Homer catches Bart watching the softcore porn channel, there’s a wonderful bit of befuddlement in Dan Castellaneta’s performance when he doesn’t know whether to be angry at his son or to take the less awkward route and ignore the subject until puberty. However, Bart’s the kind of kid who gets an inch and takes a mile, as is seen when he finds out he’s allowed to say “hell” in church. Accordingly, he sets up a business for himself, inviting kids over to watch scandalous shows like “Broadcast Nudes,” for a price, obviously.
Lisa finds herself unable to cope with the guilt of knowing her family is stealing. She goes to Reverend Lovejoy, who tells her that despite her parents breaking one commandment, another states that she needs to honor them. He advises her to be passive in her protest, setting an example by choosing not to watch the stolen cable. She does, and her silent cause reaches its peak during a massive boxing match, to which Homer has invited everyone he knows, which leads to surprise appearances by Mr. Burns and the Springfield Police Department. Homer finds himself having to hide more of his stolen goods while his guests arrive, and the specter of Lisa standing outside the house looms over his ability to enjoy the evening.
Homer’s conscience continually chips away during the episode, from catching Bart watching naughty things to a shady encounter with the cable guy that forces him to put bars over every window of the house. It’s all a means of justifying his own crimes by overcompensating for others’, but it culminates in that scene at the party, after even the police officers seem complacent with his theft. As Homer watches the pre-fight coverage, he imagines himself in prison for his actions, suffering for what he’s done, without any excuses left. He rushes outside, unable to go along with the ruse anymore, and cuts the cable line after the fight.
The ending comes a little quicker than I’d have liked, but I feel it gets the job done. That scene at the party has some great character work from Mr. Burns (“Cheet-Os”) and gets a lot of the supporting cast in a room at the same time, which I’d liked to have lingered on a little more. Perhaps the opening Biblical scene could have been removed in favor of more party dialogue? Eh? Eh? All in all, this is a fine episode, one that discusses some big moral questions and puts the Homer/Lisa relationship in the spotlight for the first time, a bond I’ll have oodles of time to talk about. Despite all that, I don’t find this one of my favorites of Season 2 so far, and I definitely don’t see the justification for it winning the Emmy over some other episodes so far, but even with that said, it’s still better than everything else I watched today.