Skeptical Simpsons Episode Spoofs Aliens, Pseudoscience
It’s rare that a popular, prime-time network television show turns out to be a “slam dunk” for skeptics. But it happened this spring on Fox, the network of The X-Files.
The Simpsons, Fox’s long-time animated hit series, has a reputation for being smart, innovative, well-written, and very funny. After the final new episode of the season aired Sunday, May 18, the network re-ran The Simpsons’ “alien encounter” show, first broadcast earlier in the year.
Rarely has any half-hour of television been so thoroughly enjoyable for skeptical viewers. Granted, it’s only a half-hour, but The Simpsons is re-run continuously on Fox outlets nationwide, so viewers haven't seen the last of this outstanding episode.
Right from the beginning, it’s obvious this isn't going to be the typical television fare.
An animated Leonard Nimoy sits at a table that sports a skull and flickering candles. Books line shelves behind him as he introduces the “documentary” we are about to view.
It really is Nimoy’s voice. As host of the notorious, syndicated In Search Of series, Nimoy is considerably more familiar to most viewers than is Occam’s Razor.
Not tonight, Spock. “The following story of an alien encounter is true,” he says. “And by ‘true' I mean it’s false. It’s all a bunch of lies. (Pause) But they're such entertaining lies.”
Cut to Homer Simpson, hapless and corpulent employee of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, slamming down Duff beers on Friday night at Moe’s, his favorite tavern.
Being a responsible bartender, Moe makes Homer take a Breathalyzer test before allowing him to leave at 1 a.m. Homer’s breath sends the machine to its highest level (“Boris Yeltsin”) and Moe makes his patron walk home.
As Homer cuts through some eerie woods, the mood is heightened by the piercing strings of the Psycho movie theme. Turns out only to be the Springfield Philharmonic Orchestra tuning up as its members return home via a city bus.
But, sure enough, soon a green, glowing, classic “alien” — small, hairless, big head, big eyes — sweeps toward Homer through the trees. Homer flees in terror, tracing what looks to be a crop-circle “Yaaaah” in his wake.
Back home, he awakens his wife, Marge, who asks if Homer had been drinking. “No! Well, ten beers,” he replies.
At breakfast the next morning, Homer is confronted by his brainy daughter, Lisa, who is reading Junior Skeptic magazine, surely a television first.
Lisa informs Homer the odds against actually contacting an extraterrestrial life form are 175 million to one. “The people who claim they see aliens are always pathetic low-lifes with boring jobs,” she says. “Oh, and you, Dad.”
At work, Homer relates his experience to fellow employees. “Then they put me on a cold, metal table and prodded me with humiliating probes. No, wait, that was my physical.”
The scene shifts, and suddenly The Simpsons has turned into The X-Files, complete with theme and an animated Scully and Mulder, with the actual voices of X-Files leads Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny.
We're at FBI headquarters, and the pair has heard about Homer. “Another unsubstantiated UFO sighting in the heartland of America,” Mulder says. “We've got to get there right away.”
Scully says she has information that a shipment of drugs and illegal weapons is coming into New Jersey that night. “I hardly think the FBI is concerned with a matter like that,” Mulder scoffs.
Their interview with Homer is less than successful. His first stupid answer blows up their lie detector. When they return to Moe’s to re-create the night, Homer gets drunk, says he was discussing philosophy before the alien encounter, makes a pass at Scully, and falls off his barstool.
They return to the woods at dark. No alien, so Mulder takes advantage of the situation to make a pompous speech asking if we are alone in the universe and wondering about “the unsolved mysteries of Unsolved Mysteries.”
The effect is dramatic with the darkening sky and a flashing meteor behind Mulder. Unfortunately for the effect, also behind Mulder are bartender Moe and two coworkers carrying Shamu, the killer whale.
Moe thinks the FBI is after him for kidnapping the mighty mammal from Sea World to use for some unspecified purpose in his tavern. “Who would have thought a whale would be so heavy?” he asks, rhetorically.
Ridiculed by his neighbors, Homer retreats to his own kitchen where he has a touching encounter with his ne'er-do-well son Bart. The Simpson “men” decide they'll camp out in the woods and look for the alien the following night, which happens to be the next Friday.
And the alien appears again, just as before, saying, “I bring you peace.” Homer tries to approach the ET but sets his foot ablaze in the campfire.
No problem. Bart has the alien’s appearance on videotape. It’s shown the next day on television news, so of course it is accepted as real and most of Springfield shows up at Homer’s house to voice support and ask penetrating questions like, “Is the alien Santa Claus?”
Back to Nimoy, who ends the documentary. “From this simple man came proof that we are not alone in the universe,” is his benediction.
Unfortunately for Nimoy, and the “proof,” only twenty minutes have elapsed in the thirty-minute show, a fact he is made aware of by a stagehand. “I've, uh, got to get something out of my car,” Nimoy says. The next sound we hear is him driving away.
The “real” ending is yet to come. The next Friday there is a carnival atmosphere in the Springfield woods, complete with T-shirt vendors, food booths, and a band playing the five-note Close Encounters of the Third Kind anthem. Even Nimoy shows up.
The alien appears, bestowing love upon the crowd. “It’s bringing love. . . . Break its legs,” is the mob’s reaction.
But Lisa Simpson spoils all the fun. She steps in and shines her flashlight on the alien, which turns out to be just old Montgomery Burns, owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.
Burns’s toady assistant, Smithers, explains that every Friday night the wealthy megalomaniac undergoes a series of treatments “designed to cheat death for another week.”
After an assembly line of chiropractic work, pain-killing shots, and eyedrops, Burns, the opposite of his misanthropic self for a few hours, usually wanders off through the woods. “It leaves me twisted and disoriented,” Burns explains. “It also leaves me as impotent as a Nevada boxing commissioner.”
What about the glowing? “A lifetime of working at a nuclear power plant has left me with a healthy green glow,” he says.
But the shots are wearing off and Burns is returning to “normal,” vowing to make life miserable for Springfield until a physician jabs another needle into his arm, causing Burns to begin singing “Good Morning Starshine” from the musical Hair.
Nimoy steps up, puts his arm around Burns, joins in, and the show closes with the crowd, now including Scully and Mulder, finishing the song. There’s a brief cut back to the absent Nimoy’s set where the stagehand wraps up the “documentary.”
It would be difficult to find another half-hour on network television in the past decade where any branch of pseudoscience was so thoroughly, and effectively, trashed.
Series creator Matt Groening and his staff of animators deserve some real appreciation from skeptics for this one. Next time some alien encounter is presented as fact I'd imagine at least a few viewers are going to remember old Monty Burns and start laughing.
But were The Simpsons’ creators just being funny? I suspect the late-night kitchen encounter between Homer and Bart provides a clue.
Homer is agonizing over whether he and Bart should return to the woods to try to film the alien. He wonders if it’s “the real thing.”
“If it isn't, we can fake it and sell it to the Fox network. They'll buy anything,” Bart replies.
“Now son,” Homer admonishes. “They do a lot of quality programming.”
Father and son look at each other and think about that one. Then both burst out laughing for a full five seconds.
The joke is, this time, Fox did exactly that.