The Simpsons, Season Four, Episode Sixteen, “Duffless”

After dealing with Homer’s eating problems, this episode delves into his drinking. Once again, we’ve seen all through the show how Homer can be a little *glug glug* – I recall the flashback of Homer getting Barney into alcohol as a teenager – but this is the first point where it’s really addressed as alcoholism. Once again, the show reminds us of Homer’s problem via a big setpiece, the visit to the Duff Brewery (set up by a classic Homer’s brain joke – “Uh-oh. Did I say that or just think it?”), which nabs Homer a DWI (not to be confused with a DOA). The satirical take on beer companies and beer commercials reminds me of waaaay back in season one, where Bart visited the nuclear power plant in the first act of “Homer’s Odyssey”. This feels more unified, definitely on a plot level (Homer skips work to visit a brewery -> Homer gets a DWI -> Marge becomes concerned about Homer’s drinking and convinces him to give it up for a month), but also on a thematic and satirical one. Homer’s alcohol problems aren’t in a vacuum – beer companies have spent too long making too much money to seriously address alcohol abuse.

Homer’s battle to stay dry for a month hits a perfect balance in tone; it’s kind of sad how dependent Homer is on alcohol, but despite not being much of a drinker (definitely not a beer drinker), I actually kind of get why he has to be (“I would kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet, sweet beer” is definitely a variation on a line I’ve thought on some occasions), and of course the whole thing is downright hysterical. It’s best shown in the opening scene of the act, where Marge convinces Homer to give up beer. There’s a clear rapid setup-punchline approach, almost reminiscent of “That’s bad. That’s good!”, as Marge asks classic alcoholism questions and Homer fits every one; it’s funny, and Homer clearly gets a lot of joy out of it, but Marge’s questions come off less nagging and more necessary.

It’s interesting to me how, for being the show’s semi-protagonist, Homer fits so poorly into the voice of the show. Most shows in my experience tend to show you the world from the lead character’s perspective, if not literally then at least the spirit of it – e.g. Arrested Development, much like Michael, is extremely logically-minded with a keen undercurrent of moralism, and Community is as oriented around people’s feelings as Jeff – and then often finds insight into those characters that can only be achieved by throwing their worldview back in their face (both AD and Community explore the egos of their respective protagonists). The Simpsons is the opposite – its viewpoint is thoughtful, intelligent, and highly empathetic, while Homer has a big heart but is impulsive, poorly educated, and thoughtless. While the writers clearly relish the chance to cut loose and indulge in Homer’s whims, they also have a clearer eye for the negative consequences of his actions. One could almost say that the show’s turn for the worst happened when it started taking on Homer’s view of the world.

(Weirdly enough, the closest equivalent to Homer’s relationship with his show is The Sopranos and Tony Soprano – Tony begins as an impulsive asshole, but slowly reveals himself capable of the introspection the show engages in; his writers are clearly outright angry at his flaws but just as clearly understand where they come from).

Meanwhile, the children get one of their all-time best plots together. It’s fun to see their devotion to one another through their massive personality differences, but it’s also fun to see them caught up in sibling rivalry; Bart sets things off when he impulsively ruins her science fair project, leading her to seek revenge by experimenting on him. It’s a neat articulation of the differences between them – the plot opens with each having a dream sequence, one of Bart winning the science fair with a laser that makes teacher’s dance, and one of Lisa being celebrated for solving world hunger with her tomato. And for all Lisa kept winning over him, Bart’s style ends up winning over Lisa’s admittedly petty substance, which makes sense in the Simpsons universe.

We end on Homer managing to get past the month – structurally, this episode really reminds me of “Itchy & Scratchy: The Movie”, in how the second and third acts are simply waiting out time, filled out with a subplot – and immediately heading out to Moe’s. As much as we know things will go back to normal the next episode, it’s still sweet when Homer gets in the bar, realises what he’s really signing up for, and chooses to go home and spend time with Marge. Coming back to that talk about Homer not fitting into his show’s voice, his unsympathetic tendencies mean he has to work harder for moments like this, which I think gives them greater emotional heft. The Simpsons always prefers meaning over superficialities, human connection over indulgence.

Chalkboard Gag: Goldfish don’t bounce.
Couch Gag: The family accidentally run off frame.

This episode was written by David M Stern and directed by Jim Reardon. And I have to say, I think this might be the best directed episode yet; it’s absolutely crammed with great little touches, from the fantastic sequence of Bart busting the termater on Skinner’s ass to having to pan down to Moleman when he’s ‘unexpectedly’ too short. There’s an inexplicable explosion when Wiggum rolls down a hill and hits a tree; having learned that this is a trademark Conan idea makes it even funnier to me, and this particular iteration cracks me up even more because it fades to black for commercial and then immediately comes back to reveal Wiggum is fine.

It took years and years for me to learn “It Was A Very Good Year” was actually a real song, and when I think about it now I end up hearing Sinatra singing Homer’s lyrics.

There’s a random throwaway line I never noticed as a kid but nearly brought me to tears of laughter this time. When experimenting on Bart, Lisa puts a cupcake on top of a bookshelf. Before Bart spots it, he angrily mutters “Stupid books” and even waves dismissively.

Bart makes multiple references to The Three Stooges. Bart’s go-go ray was nicked from Johnny Quest. Bart collapsing when trying to grab a cupcake is a reference to A Clockwork Orange. The Duff Clock is a reference to the It’s A Small World ride. The Duff commercial contains a reference to Bewitched, of all things. Moe seeming to taunt the viewer is a reference to Reefer Madness. Homer and Marge on the bike is a reference to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bart sitting with the hamster on his lap is a reference to Blofield from the James Bond series.

First Appearances: Because we’re now in Golden territory and pretty much everyone has been established, I’ll be mostly retiring this feature in favour of a new one. Oh, except, this is the first appearance of Sarah Wiggum.
Number of Iconic Moments: 3. “The man never drank a Duff in his life!” / “That’ll learn ‘im to bust my termater.” / “When I was seventeen… I drank a very good beer.”
Biggest Laugh: