“A Tree Grows In Springfield” is another of The Simpsons’ mostly good-natured satires on religion, with Homer first joining the Apple computer cult, then finding what seems to be a message from God in his backyard. The second half of the episode is similar to the ninth-season episode “Lisa The Skeptic” (in which Lisa discovers a fossil of what seems to be an angel), and while the repetition supports the idea that The Simpsons has just gone on too long, it is impressive that the series has kept a pretty consistent view of faith over 23 years and dozens of writers. You know that when the show returns to this theme, it’s going to mock unquestioning belief in the supernatural before ending with the idea that faith can be an essential part of getting through our worst days (in Homer’s case, they involve leaky roofs and mumps-infected dogs) and even feeling optimistic about the future.
Most of this season’s episodes have reeked of decline; this one feels more like a throwback to the days when The Simpsons was still working to find itself. There are lines that seem to be there just for shock value. (Krusty the Clown upon seeing his mascot interact with another chimp: “Teeny’s a girl? Oh, wait, he’s just a bottom.”) There’s the nudging of Homer’s boundary of stupidity (“Is this one of those coincidences, like Jesus on a tortilla or George Washington on a dollar bill?”) and the revelation of Marge’s strange hang-ups. (“I don’t care for silent auctions. It just encourages hovering.”)
There’s some playful animation as well. Moe remarks that Homer looks as worried as Charlie Brown, and for a moment, Homer has Charlie’s distinctive curl of hair on his forehead. In the opening sequence, Homer dreams of being in the World Series, but his food fixation keeps adding surreal touches like a hot dog in a bun as an announcer. (“Apparently, I’m married to a pork chop, and I have drumstick children. How did that happen?”)
Still, the first half of the episode, in which a depressed Homer wins a “Mapple MyPad” in a raffle and becomes obsessed with it, has a lot of obvious jokes to get through. I like Marge referring to the device as an “adult Etch-a-Sketch” and Homer’s joy at an app that’s just a series of mustaches that he can hold under his nose, but “Steve Mobs” as a devil figure with a sibilance speech problem was already an old joke when he appeared in season 20’s “MyPods And Broomsticks.” Turning him into dead Steve Mobs, ordering God around in heaven, isn’t any funnier.
After Homer breaks his MyPad (keeping his eyes on it while stepping into an open manhole), the withdrawal from constant distraction sends him back into a funk. That’s when Ned Flanders discovers the “holy ooze”: the word HOPE, written in sap, on a tree in the Simpsons’ backyard. Homer spreads the word, and in a sped-up version of “Lisa The Skeptic,” the citizens of Springfield turn the tree into a shrine. It takes reporter Kent Brockman to discover that HOPE is supermarket maple syrup, applied to the tree by an unknown person. Homer is disillusioned until Marge points out that the “sign from God” still lifted his spirits, and its origin is unimportant. No one is aware that Homer actually helped himself, painting the word on the tree while sleepwalking.
This ending carries the hint that religion is a form of self-deception, but there’s also the possibility that God is behind Homer’s sleepwalking. Either way, The Simpsons stays true to the idea that Homer’s simple-minded wonder puts him on a higher spiritual plane than the cynical Reverend Lovejoy (seen in this episode leaving church early to go mountain biking after Homer storms the altar and grabs the microphone). “A Tree Grows In Springfield” turns out to be a throwback to early Simpsons in a season that’s been heavy on mean-spirited humor.
- Marge complains about Homer’s fixation on his MyPad: “It looks like you’re putting all your eggs in one basket.” Homer: “What would you have me do, one basket for each egg?” Marge: “Hmm, I guess you’re right. I guess I’ll have to scratch that off the list of things I say.”
- Nice visual: When Homer inspects his shattered MyPad, he sees the viral video “David After Dentist” (in animated form) before the broken-off piece of glass flickers and goes dark.
- After Ned tells him not to lick the sap off the tree, Homer responds, “Fine, I’ll just go out and eat the body of God. That’s not crazy!” That’s probably not enough to get religious leaders to condemn, and publicize, this episode, especially since it should be “the body of Christ.”
- Homer’s version of “Alice, you’re the greatest!”: “Marge, up to now, I thought your hair was just blue cotton candy. But now, I know it’s a solid loaf of brain.”
- The episode ends with a short called “Logomania,” a King Kong parody in an urban landscape populated by advertising characters like the Burly Paper Towel Man. Decent enough time-filler, but not as much fun as the opening credits of Futurama.