We’ve met God before, of course. He of the four fingers, and the booming voice, and the seriously requited love for Ned Flanders (except when he let Ned’s house get wrecked by a hurricane that one time). In The Simpsons’ universe, there is, objectively, a God. Specifically the Judeo-Christian variety, as worshipped with great ineptitude and opportunistic selfishness by the people of Springfield. There are other gods out there, too, apparently, who appear just as real, depending on the episode, writers, and what size filter is applied to the series’ show bible that week.
So “My Way Or The Highway To Heaven” isn’t especially revolutionary, even though it’s told from the perspective of God and his right-hand angel, St. Peter, as they mull over the dwindling number of people admitted to heaven these days. Mostly old ladies and Promise Keepers, the latter of whom God admits, creep him out with how fervently they try to push religion on people who are already in Heaven. The episode takes the form of a sort of religion-based Treehouse Of Horror, with three stories (told by Ned, Marge, and Lisa, respectively) that test out the new criteria by which God will choose who deserves to hang out for all eternity in the show’s traditionally cloudy and harp-strewn paradise. Written by marrieds Dan Castellaneta and Deb Lacusta, along with first-time Simpsons writer Vince Waldron, the result is a decidedly low-stakes outing that, nonetheless, isn’t without its charms.
Naturally, here’s the part where I quibble over The Simpsons playing so loosey-goosey with the show’s admittedly stretchable reality. Like that episode which shall not be named where the Simpsons actually meet Kang and Kodos in their real, canonical world, there’s no out here when it comes to this episode’s stone-cold reality. To tell a sorta cute, sorta sweet, occasionally chuckle-worthy trio of mini-stories, The Simpsons makes a massive decision about its universe without much apparent thought as to the impact. Sure, The Simpsons rewrites itself as needed, but things that are, are. Here, there’s a blitheness to the episode’s cosmological revelations that renders “My Way Or The Highway To Heaven” eternally an outlier. Not meaningful enough to get worked up about, the episode remains a forgettable lark, even as its events introduce something theoretically momentous.
Anyway, there’s this God.
Watching alongside Peter on his heavenly viewscreen, he listens in on the Sunday school lessons from three very different people, even if, in Marge’s case, the spiritual difference is a second-hand one. There’s Ned the Christian, Marge, whose grandmother was a noble atheist Nazi-fighter, and Lisa, the Buddhist. In each of their stories, God looks upon their works and decides that they are good. Or, in Marge and Lisa’s tales, that the people whose stories they relate are good. So God—who sounds vaguely exhausted and irritated throughout—decides to throw the gates of Heaven open to “all with good souls.” Which, all things considered, is a pretty controversial tack for a network sitcom to take. (And that’s not counting the joke about a slacker Jesus losing his guitar pick in his hand-wound.) Or, rather, it would be controversial if it weren’t, again, so gosh-darned nice and forgettable.
There are decent jokes here and there. Young trampoline (or “tramampoline”) salesman Neddy hawks the “Vertebreaker” and wears a necklace innocently proclaiming him “Tramp Champ,” before rushing to save the life of a young Homer once he discovers that his wares somehow cause lightning storms. In her WWII flashback tale, Marge’s French ancestor is married to Nazi collaborator Moe, but puts off his amorous advances with a secretly proffered fish, as Moe proclaims happily, “Kissing with your eyes closed never goes awry. Never.” And Lisa, introducing her version of the Siddhartha legend, proclaims that the Lisa-alike Siddmartha is “the one princess not affiliated with Disney—unless we are now owned by Disney.” (Still up in the air, although The Simpsons predicted it way back in 1998.)
And there’s some lovely stuff in here, too. Marge’s story might not line up with whatever her family’s timeline is supposed to be after 30 years on the air, and, sure, her somber admiration for her grandmother’s atheism flies in the face of her faith, as established in some pretty seminal episodes. But, you know, apart from all that, Marge’s defiant reverence for Genevieve Bouvier’s steadfast goodness despite her disbelief comes across rather stirringly, as does Genevieve’s statement to a cadre of hiding American soldiers that, in the absence of a god, “we must make our own heaven down below.” And then, after she disguises the soldiers as waiters at a Nazi banquet, they stir up the occupied townspeople with a Casablanca-style rendition of “La Marseillaise” before stabbing a bunch of Nazis in the throat. (There’s also some flambé, baguette, and Ark of the Covenant violence.) And Lisa’s story sees her spoiled but dissatisfied princess sitting under a bodhi tree as the world passes by in a beautifully serene montage until she grows her third eye, sees some whales, and finally finds the enlightenment she’s been seeking.
There’s an earnestness to the gentle yearning on display in all three stories that culminates in the show’s God deciding to say “fuck it” with the doctrine (I’m paraphrasing), and letting people’s actions determine their reward, regardless of religion, or, as seen by the presence of Smithers, Smithers former boyfriend, and what looks to be the foreman of a certain gay steel mill, orientation. There are women in headscarves and niqabs, people of all orthodoxies, stereotypical “natives,” men in turbans, someone who may be Cleopatra, and Apu, the Old Jewish Man, and Willie. It’s sweet, and it’s kind, and it’s, in its own generously inconsequential way, sort of bold in a nation where faith is increasingly a tool of demonization and ugliness. The only group seemingly excluded are those Nazis, because, well, fuck those guys.
- Timeline shenanigans aside, it tracks that young adult Ned would be in a position to save child Homer, since, as was established a long time ago, Ned’s clean living makes him look a lot younger than he is.
- Burns almost got into Heaven as Smithers’ plus-one, but he just couldn’t keep his big, rich mouth shut.
- Tracy Jordan plays himself, surprised to find out he’s not actually dead when he wanders over to say hi to God.
- John Lovitz voices another guy, admitted to Heaven even though he’s apparently been lying about his supposed emotional support dog.
- St. Peter also suggests purging some mistaken past admittees. Christopher Columbus, we’re looking at you.
- Ned is in for a tough choice once his time comes, as apparently both exes, Edna and Maude, have taken up with deceased former Presidents.
- Yeardley Smith gets to belt out an ambitiously penned enlightenment show tune called “I Want More Of Less.”
- God, defensively in response to Genevieve’s complaint that a loving God wouldn’t have allowed World War II, claims that he’d stopped a thousand wars even worse, but no one ever thanks Him for that.
- Watch The Good Place, for some weightier—and funnier—sitcom ethics questions.