“This town is like a snow globe—it doesn’t look like much until you shake it up a little.”
You tell ’em, Lisa. The world of The Simpsons doesn’t necessarily need to be upturned and seismically disturbed in season 30 to make a good episode of TV (not to mention of The Simpsons), but it sure doesn’t hurt. One of the benefits of being on the air for most or the entirety of fans’ lives is that, by this point, there are some very funny and influential fans who’d love nothing more than to put their names down in the hallowed list of Simpsons writers. “Warrin’ Priests” represents comedian, actor, podcaster, and infamously nice guy Pete Holmes’ turn to live out a show biz dream, as Holmes both writes and guest stars in an episode about a hip, progressive new priest coming to Springfield. Like some of his forebears in the famous fans turned Simpsons writers club (Seth Rogen, Judd Apatow), Holmes brings just enough of himself to his Simpsons story to indicate that he’s internalized the show’s rhythms, no doubt through decades of watching.
Holmes himself plays Bode, the guitar-strumming young pastor who’s come to Springfield at the behest of not Reverend Lovejoy (of the interminably sleepy sermons and defensive moralizing), but wife Helen. (She put an ad for help on “Christ’s List.”) Sweeping Mrs. Lovejoy off her feet (platonically), Holmes is reluctantly put to work doing the Reverend’s menial tasks until he—by sheer force of unassumingly giving a shit—is elevated to the leadership of The First Church Of Springfield. Rev. Lovejoy (or just Timothy, as he shall hereafter be known) is stripped of his vestments, cop movie style, with Kevin Michael Richardson’s choir director demanding his cross—and his backup ankle cross—and a gleefully crabby Agnes Skinner pronouncing all the water Tim had holied to be just plain tap water again.
As setups go, shaking things up by kicking one longtime character out of his or her rut is standard. What’s interesting in “Warrin’ Priests” is how solo-credited writer Holmes ups the stakes for the good Reverend by never showing the cracks that inevitably cause a Springfield interloper’s downfall. Bode says all the right things. He’s not pushy about taking over bingo calling when Lovejoy’s got a sore throat, or hopping in to deliver the Sunday sermon for the same reason. Unsurprisingly in that it’s Holmes, Bode appears in this first installment to be one of those characters who is simply too well-adjusted and genuine for Springfield to work its democratizing, demoralizing dark magic upon.
You’ll notice the “first installment” aside there, and this is, indeed, the first of a two-parter, an honor Holmes should be rightly proud of in terms of seasonal commitment. A joke midway through the episode sees Bode leading the spiritually smitten Lisa on an inner journey of meditation so illuminating that she perceives herself in a series of genuinely terrific alternate graphical depictions (3D, black-and-white, cubist, macaroni self-portraiture) until a sign pops up claiming “Animation budget exceeded.” That’s unlikely, what with Disney cash, but it’s an ambitious visual conceit of the kind the show only seems to spring for when everyone’s truly invested.
I wouldn’t be averse to The Simpsons taking this much time to tell a story going forward, honestly, as many of the show’s latter-day sins stem from a waning ability to tell a coherently satisfying story in the admittedly shrunken 21-or-so minute running time. Not only does “Warrin’ Priests” ditch anything resembling a B-story, it gradually becomes clear that the Bode-Lovejoy conflict is—on the suspiciously wonderful Bode’s side anyway—just too complexly drawn to be dispensed with in the time remaining. It’s not that Lovejoy’s burned-out crappiness at his job isn’t interesting as a running strain of organized religion satire (just ask those baboons). It’s that the conflict here isn’t drawn primarily between the two men, but between two overarching religious philosophies. (That said, the funniest part in the whole show is a confrontation where Bode—allowed to sleep on Lovejoy’s beloved model train table by Helen—repeatedly dares the petty Lovejoy to go ahead and drop that tiny model log on his head.) Naturally, The Simpsons isn’t about to become The Pete Holmes Gentle Questioning Show (or, really, Crashing)—Bode’s not going to stay at First Church Of Springfield, or in Springfield for that matter. The ticklish question is whether, in next week’s inevitable restoration of Timothy Lovejoy to the pulpit, Holmes can resolve the rather large questions he’s put at the center here.
Bode is not just a hippie-priest stereotype. Sure, he’s got the longish hair and the guitar (and a lute at one point), but the message that gets through to the zombified parishioners once he takes over is human, inclusive, and not held up in any way for mockery by the show. With any such fan-written guest episode, there’s an element of fan fiction to Bode here. It really is the Bode show, guest-starring the Simpsons, for this week at least, as Holmes allows his avatar ample time to expound upon his (and presumably Holmes’) deeply conflicted feelings about being a progressive, inclusive human being who also believes in a God with, let’s call it, a lot of less-progressive literature and worshippers. Bonding with the parishioners over pancakes, Bode shares a lovely Chinese parable (people with too-long chopsticks realizing they have to feed each other) that isn’t played for laughs. The same goes for his earnestly profound assertion that, “We made a God who looks like us and not the other way around.” And his sermon asserting that even Reverend Lovejoy’s stern God loves everyone he’s created just the same is similarly allowed room to exist, even in the skewer-everything world of Springfield. If Homer starts up a cultish “Bode! Bode!” chant among the growing flock at the culmination of the speech, that’s shown as being on Homer and the Springfielders’ penchant for knee-jerk following, rather than anything remotely sinister on Bode’s part.
The plot gets moving again once Tim Lovejoy stops moping around in his sock garters and sets off to Bode’s old Michigan stomping grounds (where his holy water had to be bottled) to, it seems, successfully dig up some incriminating microfiche on his rival. (That judging by the headline, “Handsome Pastor In Easter Ouster.”) But, in the meantime, Bode and Lisa bond over Buddhism, Homer and Marge find Bode’s marriage counseling (Homer has apparently sold the family house without telling anyone) a whole lot more helpful than Lovejoy’s, and Bode shares in his sermon that he sometimes wakes up with the same doubts about God’s existence that anyone who watches the news sometimes has. There’s meat to this priest yet, and if the cheeky trailer for next week’s conclusion merely hints at a few coming conflicts (never question Ned Flanders about scripture), Pete Holmes first Simpsons outing makes a fine case for staying tuned.
- Testament to Holmes’ understanding of the show’s comedy comes when Homer sees Bode walking toward the church from which Homer is happily fleeing. Bode: “No, I’m going this way. I love God.” Homer 9voice fading as he runs offscreen): “Why don’t you marry him?”
- Sign at First Springfield: If you were God, you’d be home now.
- Bode was “the shouty guy” on his seminary rowing team. “We weren’t allowed to say coxswain,” he tells Lovejoy.
- Homer, enraptured by Bode’s acoustic rephrasing of “Amazing Grace”: “This is what it must have been like at Jesus’ concerts!”
- Lisa even approves of Bode’s perfect jazz album.
- Bode solves the Simpsons house problem by assuring them it’ll never pass any inspection. “It’s really a piece of crap,” he assures them, cheerfully.
- As to next week’s thrilling conclusion of “Warrin’ Priests.” I won’t be here, sadly, as the A.V. Club, in their infinite, and infinitely patient, wisdom (and, you know, other reasons) have decided that the readership numbers have finally sunk low enough for this to be the last ever regular TV Club Simpsons review. (They did give me the finale later in May, which is nice, so I’ll see you then.) Look, I know I’m often tough on a show I have—like Pete Holmes—loved unreservedly for a long, long time. But writing these reviews has been, and always will be, an honor, as is any tangential connection to this, still one of the best television shows of all time. I’ll be live-tweeting next Sunday’s conclusion, mainly out of habit—and because I genuinely liked this episode and want to see how it ends. Good to go out on a high note, don’t you think? Anyway, thanks, you knuckleknobs. I’ll be around.