(originally aired February 21, 1991)
NOTE: During the past week I was visiting my hometown in New Jersey. However, that did not hinder my Simpsons obligations. I managed to burn through six episodes with two very good friends of mine, and together we recorded brief, five-minute commentaries for them. They’re quite rambling, misguided, and mostly disposable, but hey, they’re only five minutes, and if you’re reading this, chances are your time isn’t that valuable to begin with.
…well, here’s where the audio file would be, but Audacity crapped out and erased it after we recorded it. Which is too bad because it was actually the best one, very insightful. This write-up would only have paled in comparison.
Herbert Powell is a fascinating character. Firstly I thought about how he’s never been reintroduced in newer shows. Desperate for ideas, recent episodes have drug up Lurleen Lumpkin and Santa’s Little Helper’s original owner, but Unky Herb has remained untouched. Then I moved onto thinking how rich of a character he is, a true testament to the show’s greatness that they can craft such a unique and staying personality in 22 minutes. He’s a very wealthy man, but unlike Mr. Burns, he worked hard for every cent he had, from working dead-end shit jobs to making his way to an Ivy league school to the successful vehicular mogul he is today. He’s a big-time tycoon, but he’s brash and impassioned like, still feeling a connection to the average working man. That aspect would become his downfall when he invests too much trust in his newly discovered half-brother Homer Simpson.
We start our show with Grampa having suffered a minor heart attack upon seeing (and complaining about) the recent McBain film (which, of course, was amazing). He reveals to Homer an element of his sorted past, involving a bastard child he had with a carnival floozy. How we still have any respect left for his character after this story astounds me, but dammit, the show manages to still elicit sympathy for this horny old man. Homer begins a frantic search for his lost kin, and eventually finds him in Detroit, Michigan in the form of Herb Powell, CEO of Powell Motors. Herb is a man with all the money in the world, but what he never had was a family, while Homer has a family, but no money whatsoever. The greatest exchange in the whole show, and one of the entire series, is after Herb holds Maggie for the first time, and tells his brother, “You’re the richest man I know.” Homer, still overwhelmed by Herb’s spacious estate, flatly responds, “I feel the same about you.”
Becoming increasingly frustrated by his edgy competitors and his boardroom of numbskulls, Herb feels he needs the touch of the common man, enlisting Homer to design a car for him that will appeal to the average Joe. Blinded by his unusual sense of trust and elation of his new family, Herb turns a blind eye to everything his brother is doing, enjoying spending quality time with Marge and the kids. He effectively signs his own death warrant, and Herb has only himself to blame when ‘The Homer’ is revealed, an absolute assault on the eyes, an anachronism of every tacky car design and accessory you could possibly think of, for an absurd price of $82,000. There’s no safety net either; Herb’s company is bankrupt, and he leaves town gruffly asserting to Homer that he has no brother. We feel bad for Herb, but not as much as we do for Homer, who gets a minor lift at the end from Bart who compliments his car. It’s a wonderfully dark story of the rise and fall of a man’s empire, but also a funny and fascinating look at the boorish nature of the common consumer. We’d see Herb return for one more time next season to rebuild his fortune, but honestly, he’d be just as much of a memorable character if it ended right here.
Tidbits and Quotes
– Again, I can’t praise the brilliance of McBain enough. “Right now I’m thinking about holding another meeting: in bed.”
– More great Homer mood swings: Marge tells her husband he’s got a call from the hospital. “The hospital?!” he worriedly responds, until he gets to the phone and gives a very casual, “Yello?” Followed by “Oh my God!!”
– That flashback… is so disturbing. It fits with the lecherous vision of younger Grampa we saw in “The Way We Was.” Not only do we have discussions of “dunking the clown,” which is a euphemism I want no business in deciphering, we get the great line following it: “She did things your mother would never do. Like have sex for money.” Also, delightfully stupid that baby Herb has a beard line.
– Bart repeats more acceptable swears ad nausea like in “8th Commandment,” this time with ‘bastard.’ I’m surprised they got away with it in 1991.
– The runner between Homer and the Orphanage director is so wonderful, more brazen and angry Homer not picking up anything subtle (“Read between the lines, you fool!!”)
– Shame on me how I never mentioned Danny DeVito, who is absolutely perfect as Herb. The first scene in the boardroom is a tour de force; he gives Herb a sense of power, but also vulnerability in talking about how he has no roots. I also love the continued fake-out about how we never see his face to build up to the dramatic reveal to find… he looks exactly like Homer, but with hair and more brow lines.
– The scene where Herb gives Homer his assignment is filled with great lines, from chuckling about his cars having only fifty bucks worth of steel to his undermining of his employees, telling his brother to “tell the nice man what country you’re from.”
– Herb really has so many outs, so many ways he could avoid the disastrous conclusion, but he turns a continual blind eye. Even more, he’s brazen about it, in the great scene where he gets a call from a higher-up in the lab, and tells him to call back and say the opposite of what he just said. He then puts him on speaker to impress Bart and Lisa with falsified impressions of their father. The slow, calculated read of the employee is genius: “Homer Simpson is a… brilliant man with lots of… well thought-out, practical ideas. He is ensuring the financial security of this company for years to come. Oh yes, and his personal hygiene is above reproached.”
– I love any time Homer gets incredibly passionate about something, and after Herb’s pep talk, he becomes a maniac. Especially great is when he slowly, then quickly and angrily crosses out and rips down the prototype sketch of the car off the wall.
– To be honest… I would love to drive that Homer car around. They constructed an actual Simpsons house in Las Vegas, but I really wish someone would make a full-size version of that car. Any insanely wealthy fans out there? Anyone?