Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2004 | People

Primetime Religion: Jim Trammell

By Michael Tracy

When graduate student Jim Trammell decided to focus on the subject of religion in television programs for his master’s thesis, he didn’t turn to TV evangelists. Instead, he found divine inspiration in an unlikely source—cult cartoon character Homer Simpson.

"When I was working towards my master’s degree at the University of Georgia, I happened to be talking on the phone with my fiancée while watching The Simpsons. I mentioned that someone should do a paper on how the show deals with religion," says Trammell. "She suggested that I do it for my master’s thesis.

Jim Trammell TV Religion is no laughing matter, discovered UI graduate student Jim Trammell, who wrote his master's thesis on the animated television show The Simpsons.

After six months of closely examining some 50 episodes of the animated sitcom, Trammell completed his work on The Simpsons and its portrayal of religion. "I lucked out with my thesis topic because I never got bored watching The Simpsons," he says. "Buddies of mine would complain that their research was tedious. I would just keep my mouth shut, because it’s not a bad life when you get to watch TV and call it 'research' or 'work.'"

Today, Trammell is working towards his Ph.D. in journalism and mass communication at the University of Iowa, and he’s still unraveling television programs’ tangled relationship with religion. Besides The Simpsons, he’s studied the use of religion in episodes of Friends and Futurama. He’s also examining conservative Christian film critiques that frown on movies such as the Harry Potter series for their portrayals of magic and witchcraft.

"Most shows use religion in a generic way," says Trammell. "With The Simpsons, we see the characters go to church and they interact with their pastor. But, the emphasis that the show puts on religion is more social than personal, so that it will connect with viewers of all different faiths."