The Simpsons, Season Two, Episode Fifteen, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

The Simpsons presents the eponymous family as the Worst Family In America, and has consistently done so from the very first episode. This is an early example of the family being a corrupting influence, destroying everything in its path. When cantankerous rage gets Grampa put in the hospital, he decides to reveal to Homer the fact that he has a bastard older brother, conceived when Grampa fell in with a carney prostitute. We get a rare glimpse of Homer’s mother, conspicuously not played by Glenn Close and lacking the archetypal Good Mother qualities she would have.

(Before we get to that, there’s a scene of the family praying that accurately conveys how siblings can bother each other. Lisa catches Bart eating during prayer, Bart points out she must have opened her eyes, Lisa says eating is worse, is not, is too, is not, is too. After being told to knock it off, they communicate insults through pantomime. I don’t think any show has captured my relationship with my sister as well as The Simpsons)

Homer sets himself the quest of finding his big brother, who was dropped off at the Shelbyville Orphanage, something Lisa remarks is very Dickensian. Oftentimes, The Simpsons is less liberal and more accurately described as very bitter and disillusioned with conservatism, and this episode can be seen as a big example – it’s taken at face value that Homer would feel a connection to a long-lost brother, and that Homer would be in genuine anguish over not knowing a family member.

He tracks down the orphanage, where someone who is very clearly Dr Hibbert’s long-lost twin brother is working. Though he’s not allowed to tell Homer where Herb is, he tries to imply to Homer that he lives in Detroit, which falls down completely because Homer is stupid. Through that, Homer tracks down and calls Herbert, who invites him to his mansion.

On the trip in, Homer is repeatedly mistaken for someone clearly much more respected than he is; this is intercut with Herb at his job. This is where the show becomes rooted in both the time and place of 1990 America: Herb is the president of the car company Powell Motors Inc, which is being eaten alive by the Japanese. Herb is frustrated by his Harvard-educated team; he also went to Harvard, but unlike them he came up as a hardworking working-class schlub (“Mommy and Daddy didn’t pay my way! I had to work my way through washing your dishes and scrubbing your toilets!” “Oh yeah, now I remember you!”). Danny DeVito is perfectly cast; his voice is distinctly working-class America, and he captures the intelligence, rage, and sadness of Herbert.

Homer and family pull up to Herb’s mansion and can’t believe their eyes. A limo pulls up, Homer knocks hello, and it reveals Herb’s face, identical to Homer, but with more hair and less gut. Shock turns to a tender embrace, and Homer introduces his family, all of whom impress him. There’s a touch of the ol’ “lonely rich person” chestnut in this episode, as Herb is delighted by the idea of having a family and the family are delighted by all the cool stuff Herb has, and it works because it has that Simpsons sense of character and absurdity – Homer is preoccupied with the idea of pork chops literally any time he wants, for example.

The final third of the episode is the downfall of Herbert Powell. After offering Homer any car he wants, he brings Homer into his car development team with the intention of tapping into him as a representation of the average American driver. He gives Homer a huge team, lots of money, and no oversight. At first, Homer is intimidated by everything, but Herb gives him the best pep talk in the world (“Answer me again with self-confidence!” “SORT OF!”), and sends him growling at the team.

Homer then does exactly what idiots with unlimited power and no accountability do: extremely stupid things. He demands everything from extremely large beverage holders to tail fins* and bubble domes to a soundproofed backseat so you can ignore the kids. As Herb learns more about family from the kids, Homer designs the worst car in the world. It all comes crashing down at the premiere party, when Herb finally sees the monstrosity Homer built and breaks down in front of the crowd.

The story ends with Herb losing his business, his home, and all his worldly possessions; he gets on a bus cursing Homer’s name. This is what I meant by “disillusioned conservative” – the show absolutely recognises the emotional aspect behind valuing family while also drawing absurd cynicism out of someone being really, really bad at acting upon it. The ending is so downbeat that it lead the writers to make a sequel the following season; I admit, knowing he repairs his fortune and relationship with Homer makes it feel less downbeat.

*In his defense, they really don’t ever go out of style

Chalkboard Gag: I will not sell land in Florida.
Couch Gag: Maggie pops out of Marge’s hair.

This episode was written by Jeff Martin and directed by Wes Archer. Archer has a few interesting directing choices, including not showing Herb’s face all through his opening scene. He also wrings a lot of comedy out of the fact that Herb is identical to Homer, and drew a lot from DeVito’s physical actions when reading his lines when animating Herb.

The plot of the episode is drawn from the failures of the Ford Edsel and the Tucker Torpedo. The title is a reference to the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels. Herb’s house, studio, and factory are all references to various buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright.

Bart, as always, grabs the opportunity to get away with using a swear word (“Any idea where this bastard lives?”).

First Appearances: Mona Simpson (as said, completely wrong), Herbert Powell.
Biggest laugh:

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