The Simpsons: “Pulpit Friction”
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The Simpsons: “Pulpit Friction”

“Nothing brings out the best in Springfield like a crisis,” Marge says early in this week’s episode. She’s wrong about the city but mostly right about The Simpsons. The two things that are still usually enjoyable in the show’s 24th season are musical numbers and stories about Springfield under siege. (See the best episode so far this season, “The Day The Earth Stood Cool,” all about the menace of hipsterism.)

In “Pulpit Friction,” the problem is a bedbug infestation, caused by a surprisingly quick-witted Homer replacing the family’s busted couch with an identical model, ordered online from Brooklyn. Unfortunately, the undersides of the cushions are covered with the little critters, which spread all over town after Bart invites his friends over to build a pillow fort. As TV newsman Kent Brockman puts it, “The latest New York fashion has come to Springfield!”

The montage of Springfieldians freaking out includes Moe roaming the streets and yelling “Bring out your bed!”, Salvation Army workers packing heat to ward off unwanted donations, and Ned Flanders being accosted and stripped of his wool sweater, which is thrown onto a bonfire. In a scene reminiscent of that cute old couple drowning together in bed in Titanic, Carl and Lenny hold hands while bedbugs fill up their hazmat suits.

Panicked, the townspeople congregate in church, where Lisa has some words of encouragement: “In the Middle Ages, people took refuge in church to escape the bubonic plague—but that made the bubonic plague spread faster!”

Simpsons fans will expect the plot to take a sudden swerve here, and on cue, the episode shifts its focus to Reverend Lovejoy, whose usual platitudes aren’t enough to calm the congregation. His superior, a parody of Bing Crosby in Going My Way, roars into the church on a golf cart and drops off an “assistant” to Lovejoy: a young, pop-culture-savvy minister voiced by Edward Norton. Preaching “an easygoing offshoot of Protestantism,” the Reverend Elijah Hooper wins over the crowd and shores up his common-man cred by appointing Homer as church deacon. His confidence gone, Lovejoy resigns and becomes a hot tub salesman (a business “full of brimstone and exposed flesh,” as Ned calls it).

We all know Lovejoy will be back at his old post by episode’s end, and it’s hard to care much about a character whose defining trait is being stupendously dull. Hooper, who finds life lessons in episodes of Californication, is not much more interesting, and Homer doesn’t do very much as deacon. The story of a church becoming just another form of amusement is one The Simpsons has done more effectively many times.

After this saggy middle, however, the episode swerves back to the bedbug story, as Bart is inspired by a list of biblical plagues to come up with a solution to Springfield’s pest problem. This brings us full circle to a charmingly terrifying scene, set to music reminiscent of Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, of frogs overrunning the town. And the only one who can get rid of the frogs is Reverend Lovejoy, whose sermons seem to have the same effect on the frogs as bacterial disease has on the Martians in War of the Worlds.

Crisis averted. Hopefully, another is on its way.

Stray observations:

  • No original song in this episode, but Godspell’s “Day By Day” is used a few times, with Homer singing a version over the closing credits. (“Day by day/Day by day/I’ve got three kids, and two are okay/One of them is a baby/The smart one is mine, maybe/I hope the boy gets rabies.”)
  • Oh yes, there’s a B-plot: The dry cleaners switch Marge’s wedding dress with one of Krusty’s clown costumes. We haven’t seen Krusty much this season; no great loss.
  • After Bart shares his brilliant plan with Ned, I like the quick cut to Ned marching the boy into the police station. How many times has Milhouse bailed him out?
  • Marge’s assessment of the Reverend Hooper: “So charming. It’s like he’s selling silver polish at the state fair!”
  • Among Homer’s theological questions to Hooper: “If it’s such a Good Book, why aren’t there any blurbs on the back? Not even David Sedaris, and he’ll flack anything.” Thanks for taking one in the choppers for the Venn diagram overlap of NPR and Simpsons fans, David.
  • The bedbugs have Helen Lovejoy singing a slightly different version of her usual tune: “Why won’t somebody please blame the children?”
  • Bart to Homer: “The only thing bigger than you is you tomorrow.” Alice Kramden will have to remember that one.
  • If you tour Springfield on “Oogle Street View,” you might get a glimpse of Homer and Bart’s bare butts.

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