(originally aired February 24, 1994)
There’s no denying that this show has gotten much more absurd and unrealistic as the years have gone on. So that’s why it’s strange that one of the most ridiculous episodes, premise-wise, is right here in season 5. A lot of shit has gone down in later years, but here, Homer goes into space. Into fucking space. This is like Saturday morning cartoon fodder. But the genius of a show like this is that even with the most outlandish plot in the world, not only do they make it believable with a sharp lead-in to the premise, but keep it funny and even inject some real drive and emotion into it. There’s no way an episode like this should operate on any level besides goofy, but goddamn do they manage to make it more than that.
A real dilemma is being posited down at NASA: the Nielsen ratings for their shuttle launches are way low. Right away, I’m on board this premise, the idea that the government will only spend its money on something the general public will be eating up with a spoon. They need to better connect with the everyman, who, according to their prime time TV research, appear to be unkempt, lazy slobs. Thankfully, unkempt, lazy slob Homer Simpson calls in, giving NASA their latest astronaut. Before all this, we set groundwork for the driving force of our story: Homer wanting respect after losing a “worker of the week” award to an inanimate carbon rod and being generally mocked by his family. This element is crucial, as it really gives Homer a reason to do what he does, especially when it’s basically spelled out to him when NASA officials approach Barney about the position. The middle portion of the show is Homer vs. Barney, who without alcohol reverts to his athletic genius state as we’ve seen in “Mr. Plow.” But non-alcoholic champagne does him in at the end, and Homer is made NASA’s first average-naut.
Homer is to be sent up with two seasoned astronauts, one guest star Buzz Aldrin, who delivers maybe the greatest line a guest star has ever had (“Second comes right after first!”) Again, this adds more credibility to the story: this is purely a publicity stunt by NASA, they’re not going to really have Homer do anything, just be along for the ride as the professionals do their jobs. Plus, their mission is just as exaggeratedly asinine, seeing if ants can sort tiny screws in space. There’s a really touching moment where Homer freaks out pre-launch and calls Marge from a pay phone with his second thoughts. Then comedy is flawlessly blended in when Homer relates not going into space like the time he missed out on seeing Mr. T at the mall. Not often a show can make you laugh and tear up a bit at something so stupid. The mission ends up botched, but they make it back to Earth unharmed of course (Grampa has a fabulous commenting line, “Of course he’ll make it, it’s TV!”) and all credit goes to the hero: an inanimate carbon rod, to which they throw a massive ticker tape parade for. A ridiculous end to a ridiculous show, but truly one of the all-time greats.
Tidbits and Quotes
– I love how proud Homer is that he’s basically going to win the worker-of-the-week award by default, citing union rule 26 (“Every employee must win ‘Worker of the Week’ at least once, regardless of gross incompetence, obesity, or rank odor.”) It almost sets up later Homer’s excitement for being chosen over Barney by default. Also wonderful is Homer’s anger toward the rod (“Inanimate, huh? I’ll show you inanimate!!”) and he strikes a furious pose, and holds it. For a while. A long shadows casts across his body. Hilarious.
– Great parodies of Home Improvement (“Oh no, I’ve killed Wilson! Looks like it’s back to jail for me”) and Married… with Children (toilet flush, right by the couch, followed by raucous laughter and applause). To find their next astronaut, a NASA assistant proposes “a lengthy, inefficient search. At the taxpayers’ expense, of course.” Thankfully Homer calls in (“I’m just an ordinary, blue-collar slob, but I know what I likes on TV!”) A toilet flush on the phone seals the deal.
– I love how petty Homer gets in trying to discredit Barney to beat him: talking aside to one of the aides (“He’s got a big drinking problem; could embarrass the program. Meet me up in that tree later and I’ll tell you more”) and later showing up for his first day on time (“I don’t see Barney ‘Let’s crash the rocket into the White House and kill the President’ Gumble!”)
– The endurance tests are great, with Homer morphing into Popeye in the centrifuge (“I can’t stands no more!”) and drinking the liquid inside the blowing test (“Mmmm… medicine-y.”)
– Do I love that “Second comes right after first” line. I also just read they cut that out of the syndicated version, which is more reason to fucking hate syndication.
– The head scientist is pretty blunt in announcing who gets picked (“Gentlemen, you’ve both worked very hard. And in a way, you’re both winners. But in another more accurate way, Barney is the winner.”) They propose a toast (big mistake) and Barney immediately reverts back to a drunkard (“It begins!!”) He hijacks a jetpack, which runs out of gas, and he painfully skids on the roof of a pillow factory, then is run over by a truck of marshmallows.
– Really great space-themed Itchy & Scratchy (especially Itchy slicing Scratchy’s body in half with the rings of Saturn, and his torso burning in the atmosphere), which the kids find hilarious, but freaks Homer the fuck out.
– Like the shuttle payload checklist, including an IRS surveillance satellite and children’s letters to God.
– Of course, one of the series’ greatest scenes, Homer eating chips in zero gravity to the Blue Danube Waltz. I don’t even need to comment, the scene speaks for itself as to why it’s so great.
– We’ve got not one, but two great guest stars here, with James Taylor sending the crew soft melodies from Mission Control. Every bit with him is great: his irrational anger toward the distressed crew (“I’m not as laid back as people think. Now here’s the deal: I’m going to play, and you’re going to float there and like it,”) backpedaling the lyrics to “Fire and Rain” realizing they might not be appropriate, then coming up with the idea that saves the day, but when things go wrong, he books it the hell out of there, leaving his guitar behind.
– Another classic bit with Brockman, seeing the shuttle footage with an ant hovering close near the camera, jumps to conclusions, with his sharp journalism. Again, this speaks for itself: “The Corvair spacecraft has been taken over, conquered if you will, by a master race of giant space ants. It’s difficult to tell from this vantage point whether they will consume the captive earth men or merely enslave them. One thing is for certain, there is no stopping them; the ants will soon be here. And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted TV personality, I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.” Then, later, he must cover over his faux pas: “Well, this reporter was… possibly a little hasty earlier and would like to… reaffirm his allegiance to this country and its human president. May not be perfect, but it’s still the best government we have. For now.”
– As if “Second comes right after first” wasn’t enough, they got Buzz Aldrin to say, “Make hatch blow now!” What a good sport. Then again he was just in Transformers 3. [shudder]
– Upon the dangerous re-entry, Buzz and Race hum “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Homer sings the commercial jingle to Golden Grahams. The ship crash lands in the worst possible spot: a news reporter convention.
– Great final line from Homer, after receiving kudos from his family: “maybe I do have the right… what’s that stuff?”