3. Homer’s Odyssey

(originally aired January 21, 1990)
I don’t know how many characters can stoop to such shocking lows and still manage to bounce back, remaining likeable the whole way through, but if there is but one, it’s Homer Simpson. This episode has a lot of unusually dour content, stuff you don’t really expect or see coming, but manages to maintain the brisk feeling of the other episodes. We start with some lighter kid stuff with Mrs. Krabappel’s class on a field trip to the power plant. They are given a tour by an unusually tan Mr. Smithers, which begins with an old film on nuclear power, hosted by impish mascot Smilin’ Joe Fission. It’s a brilliant knock on the old 50s film strips, which I’m a huge fan of. The trip then bears witness to a sizable blunder: Homer knocks his transport cart into a radioactive pipe, and is promptly fired for his negligence.

Homer takes his mistake to heart, delving into a bit of depression. He maintains some will in his job hunt, but is discouraged further after he is denied at every turn. We get early hints of his later well-known alcoholism, as he finds he cannot afford another drink at Moe’s, and sinks so low that he smashes Bart’s piggy bank to scrounge up some cash. Realizing how deep of a hole he’s in, he resolves to commit suicide. This whole middle portion is so heavy, but it’s peppered with light bits of humor that feel really in-character of Homer. He writes his suicide note on “Dumb Things I Gotta Do Today” stationary, and unwittingly writes, “I can only leave you with the words my father gave me: stand tall, have courage, and never give up.” I don’t know how much I buy Homer’s death wish; it seems a bit uncharacteristic, but I have to give it up to the writers for having brass balls. An animated family sitcom where the father attempts suicide in episode three? That’s unprecedented.

Homer, of course, lives, just in time to stop his searching family from being hit by a truck. Acknowledging there should have been a stop sign at the intersection, he becomes a neighborhood watchdog, rallying an army of supporters in his crusade for safety. I never quite see how exactly this mollifies Homer’s predicament: his concern was of not being a provider for his family, and this new role of town hero can’t be getting him any money. But it does give him a new vigor and sense of purpose, leading up to him crusading against his former employers at the nuclear plant. The rally is noticed by the head honcho, C. Montgomery Burns, who negotiates with Homer, offering him a position as safety inspector, to which he semi-reluctantly accepts.

The animation feels a bit rougher in this episode, but I still find its crudeness adds to some of the charm of these early shows. There are a lot of crowd scenes in the third act; the final one at the plant features a lot of bizarre mob crowds and tweaked out character designs. The Simpson family barely look human at this point, but next to some of these peculiar creatures in the background, they feel a lot more real. There’s also the weirdly bright backgrounds, particularly in the Simpson home, lots of washed out oranges and pinks that feel kind of crummy. Also present are the bizarre framed portraits on the wall, one featuring a screaming Homer, another a set of two: one of Marge, the other of her continued hair. These are ever present through the season, relics of these early classic years.

Despite the questionable actions he makes in this show, and many more to come, there’s just something about Homer that’s instantly forgivable. Through all his dimwitted decisions and pathetic pratfalls, he’s just a struggling everyman trying to do what’s best for himself and his family. When grappling with the possibility of betraying his followers to work for the man, Homer’s mind goes to, among other things, thinking about how he can’t leave Marge burdened to support the family. As he put it, perhaps we all need to dig deep down to find the little Homer Simpson in us all.

Tidbits and Quotes
– A lot of characters have their intros in this show: Otto Mann, Sherri & Terri, Blinky the three-eyed fish, and Mr. Burns and Smithers (they appeared briefly in the Christmas show, but are really truly introduced here). Speaking of Smithers, most fans are aware of the coloring mistake of making him tan, but I’m more confused as how the almost Albino Sherri & Terri have a very dark-skinned father who works at the plant.
– “I defy anyone to tell the difference between these donuts and those baked today.” A great Homer line, speaking both his blind gluttony, and the plant’s cost cutting measures.
– Another first: Bart’s prank calls. Lisa laughing along with his brother’s hijinks is always heartening to see.
– A one-two punch of TV parodies: first Homer is apparently watching LoafTime, the cable network for the unemployed. “We’ll be right back with more tips of how to win the lottery.” Then the fantastic Duff commercial: “Unemployed? Out of work? Sober? You sat around the house all day, but now it’s Duff time! Duff: the beer that makes the days fly by!” It’s such a brilliant back-handed slogan; Homer is easily taken by it, but I can just imagine a drunker, more depressed Homer still lying on the couch weeks later.
– ANOTHER first: Bart’s tag artist alter ego ‘El Barto.’ I can’t remember a lot of future episodes that really dealt with this; I think it was more picked up in the comic books and other Simpsons media.
– Homer’s introduction at the plant rally as a man whose very name is synonymous with safety is very odd to hear considering how insanely reckless his character would later become. I also like his first words to the crowd: “Thank you. Unlike most of you, I am not a nut.”
– The rest of Homer’s speech is great too: “Your lives are in the hands of men no smarter than you or I, many of them incompetent boobs. I know this because I worked alongside them, gone bowling with them, watched them pass me over for promotions time and again. And I say… This stinks!”


6 responses to “3. Homer’s Odyssey

  1. Just re-watched this one and I had somehow forgotten about EL BARTO being mentioned in here, with the “artist sketch” and all. Hilarious.

    • Re: Characters. Sherri and Terri — aren’t their parents shown in a later episode and looking almost identical to them? Maybe the guy shown is their stepfather or adopted father.

      I think Smithers here just has a tan…. or something. I remember reading an interview with Groening that said Smithers was alw’ays supposed to be, uh, black, but then they decided that a black “servant” character wasn’t a good idea afterall.

  2. This one isn’t one of my top favorites of the season, but it has a lot of heart to it. I just can not help but laugh at the old people who are watching Homer going to kill himself but don’t give a damn about it to do anything other than make a mockery out of it.

    Frankly, I don’t see any issue with Smither’s being black as this is supposed to be America, where race does not matter (or really, shouldn’t). The El Barto bit was wonderful and is one of the things in this episode I constantly forget about. Another favorite part of mine deals with the newspaper headlines, especially when they start getting tired of Homer’s antics. Great stuff all around.

  3. One of my favorite jokes in the episode is never mentioned:
    “Hey Bart, our dad says your dad is incompetent.”
    “What does incompetent mean?”
    “It means he spends more time yakking and scarfing down donuts than doing his job.”
    “Oh, okay. I thought you were putting him down.”

  4. Yeah, showing one of the protagonists wanting to kill himself after we’ve only known him for two episodes is pretty heavy, but at least the writers didn’t put a suicide attempt in there just to set up a lame cartoon sequence, like they would do later in season 11’s “Hello Gutter, Hello Fadder”. Plus, in every other sitcom around at the time (except for “Married… With Children”), such a story would have been handled as a dull, unnaturally serious “very special episode”, while here, there are enough great jokes to keep the episode entertaining.

  5. Another interesting aspect about this episode is that it shows us how Homer became safety inspector. On early Simpsons merchandise (such as the “Do The Bartman” video and the first run of action figures), Homer was still shown as a regular power plant worker handling nuclear fuel rods. A lazy dimwit like him being occupying the position of safety inspector is extremely odd and has been the subject of many jokes during the remainder of the series, but within the context of this episode, it makes sense for him to be given this job.

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