The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Eleven, “Homer’s Triple Bypass”

“Homer’s Triple Bypass” is a culmination. Even throughout those first couple of seasons, when the show was gradually pulling itself together and building a world, it never really went in for continuity. At the risk of sounding massively pretentious (The Avocado), its effect is more mythological – the characters and town have a few recurring, perpetual traits – Homer is lazy and works at a nuclear power plant, Bart is a hellraising prankster – and these are used to generate stories (you can contrast it with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, which has the Gang try to act like mythological characters but live in a world with continuity). I’m not the first to note that the biggest changes in television storytelling have come from the completely different way we consume television now – The Simpsons was made in a time when the crew had to operate under the assumption that you couldn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of the show even if you wanted to, which isn’t something the writers of Breaking Bad had to worry about, and in fact Game Of Thrones actively courts obsessive wiki-writing fandom.

This episode doesn’t get its power from any specific event, it gets it from four straight seasons of Homer shoving food down his gullet. Strictly speaking, we don’t need the brilliant scene of Homer eating in bed, because we remember all those jokes about his terrible diet (notice they almost immediately jump into clues about his heart problems). By the time “Homer’s Triple Bypass” aired, these characters had become icons, and I suspect as we move forward through the Golden era, both the heartwarming and comedic aspects of the show will get their power by pushing the iconography until it breaks.

So anyway, Homer has a heart attack. I can’t speak for people who were adults or near-adults on original airing – was it a shock to see a cartoon character go through something so morbid? – but speaking as someone who literally grew up with the show, it’s become more terrifying as I get older; when I was a kid, the vague prospect of Homer dying was sad, but losing a previously indestructible metabolism has made Homer’s failing body more potent, some mild success at improving my diet has made his bacon-wrapped-in-butter more repulsive, and seeing friends I grew up with get fat and sluggish after keeping up Homer’s lifestyle way past the point it was funny has made the children’s fear at the end more real.

The main emotion hanging over this story isn’t a fear of death, it’s a parent’s fear of how his family will operate without him. In true Homer fashion, he’s not so much worried about them losing the breadwinner as he is about their fear and hurt; his prayer late in the episode (another semi-archaic kind of thing you’d hardly see in sitcoms nowadays) is a nonspecific hope that his family will be okay, and what we see of his plans is attending to his kids’ feelings. The emotional crux of the episode to me is when Homer takes his two children aside before the operation, and uses each of them to give last words to the other; even he weren’t around, they’d be okay, and I imagine that’s what any parent hopes for.

Interwoven with this are jabs at America’s failure of a healthcare system, jabs that have sadly remained relevant well into 2018. What’s great is that if, and I know this is a ridiculous fantasy but work with me here, if America ever cleaned up its system, the episode would still work and still be funny; Homer’s very particular brand of grotesqueness and idiocy bounce off the medical world (“Could you dumb it down a shade?” and his perpetually moving belly are two standouts), and Dr Nick is an absurd and horrifying creation even outside what it says that the family has to turn to him.

Lisa is the secret weapon of this episode, and ultimately its solution. It’s her reaction that causes this episode to shift to more frightening territory; she always risks falling into too cutesy and too clever, but I find her perfect here, both emotionally sensitive enough to be terrified of what’s happening (and thus galvanising Homer into taking it seriously for her), and invested enough in knowledge and reason to turn to medical books, which is what saves the day.

Chalkboard Gag: Coffee is not for kids [with decreasingly legible writing]
Couch Gag: The family get on the couch, but they’re only an inch high.

This episode was written by Gary Apple and Mike Carrington and directed by David Silverman. Silverman was chosen to direct because only he was considered able to make such a heavy topic funny; his fingerprints are all over the animation. Homer’s actual heart attack is full of great little details, but I also love the People Who Look Like Things segment.

“This ain’t makeup!”, Krusty’s line when telling Homer about his own bypass, is one of Matt Groening’s favourite lines. “We’re the MTV Generation. We feel neither highs nor lows,” is one of mine, especially seeing as I’m in the social media generation, which feels only highs and lows. There’s also a great example of comedy via weird specificity when Ned thanks God for Sweatin’ To The Oldies, volumes one, two, and four, but not three.

The episode opens with a parody of COPS that uses the notoriously useless Springfield Police Department. It’s a perfect example of how the show used pop culture references and parodies so much better than its imitators; I can see other shows having a line like “Suspect is hatless!” but the writers here have the sense to have Homer respond (“I can’t wait til they throw his hatless butt in jail!”), which is a) a more effective satire of both those kind of shows and the people who watch them and b) is about ten times funnier. When Homer does his little sock puppet theatre, he uses Akbar and Jeff dolls. Homer destroys the birthplace of Edgar Allan Poe. The flashback of Homer singing in church is a reference to Empire Of The Sun.

First Appearances: Homer’s reading glasses. Dr Nick.
Biggest Laugh: This is my biggest laugh not only in terms of what I laughed at this episode, but in how hard I laughed when I first saw it as a kid and how often I’ve laughed when remembering it over the years.