I have what I like to call a Cowboy Bebop sense of pacing. I like it when an episodic work – most obviously TV, but also music albums or comics or to an extent books – studies one idea with obsessive detail in one episode, then moves on to a completely different idea the next episode that it studies with equal intensity. As a counterexample, The Sopranos was a frustrating watch for me because it drifted through a million ideas within episodes but each episode is basically identical tonally. Here, we have three of the greatest goddamned episodes of the show in a row – “Homer The Great” last week, “And Maggie Makes Three” now, and “Bart’s Comet” next week – and they’re three very different stories with three very different tones and ideas and emotions, united by character, world, and sense of style. One of the underlying aspects of Simpsons morality is curiosity, a willingness to go down a strange and difficult path to find things most people wouldn’t bother, and it’s amazing the ways this show walks the talk.
The episode is famous for ending on an expression of pure fatherly love, but I’ve always been fascinated by how that’s contextualised by the general misery of living in a capitalist hellhole. Homer’s carefully balanced budget is surprisingly well thought out for him, but it does actually seem like one of those situations where he’d jump right in with total enthusiasm. I think it’s because with a little work, he can create a whole lot less work for himself; shift a few numbers around, and he can pretty much do whatever he wants. One of the fundamental ideas baked into the series’ concept is that the American Dream, 2.5 kids in suburbia with a productive job, is something the characters are fundamentally unsuited for, but here Homer has managed to tweak his situation into something acceptable to him, a compromise between having to work 9-5 to raise his kids and him doing exactly not that. It’s been said that what makes Homer so endearing through his gluttony and laziness is that he’s often so sincere and childlike in what he wants, and that actually plays into the story here in how Homer’s enthusiasm for his crappy job is so great that he genuinely sells me on it, and it genuinely breaks my heart when he’s forced to quit. The image of his jacket melting brings me to tears just as much as that final image, but for opposite reasons. I suppose if there’s any witty summary of the emotions and themes of this episode, it’s that only the ruthlessly ambitious (like Burns) or ridiculously lucky can survive America. Someone like Homer, just trying to get by on simple pleasures, can be taken out by bad luck.
This all feeds into that spectacular final beat. One of the other central ideas of The Simpsons is that while the Brady Bunch idea of family is a ridiculous fantasy, familial love can ease the pressure of an upper-lower-middle class existence, and this is the most poignant expression of that theme, when Homer falls in love with Maggie as soon as she’s born and uses her as motivation to get up and go to work every morning. This might, perhaps, be the purest example of the show being less leftist and more bitter conservative – this is the long, counterintuitive way around to the idea that we do back-breaking mind-numbing labour every day because we love our children so much, which in terms of conservative values is one step short of “back-breaking mind-numbing labour is an inherent good and anyone not working themselves into an early grave is a bad person”. I think that’s something that always separated The Simpsons from its successor Futurama – the latter was rooted in the viewpoint of childless twentysomething Gen Xers, people who still had potential to act on; this show is about adult Boomers, who already fucked up their lives and have to make their best in the aftermath. It made me cry in sympathy, so I suppose it means something.
Chalkboard Gag: “Bagman” is not a legitimate career choice.
Couch Gag: Homer walks in and shoots the camera a la James Bond.
This episode was written by Jennifer Crittenden and directed by Swinton O Scott III (which incredibly is not a pseudonym John Swartzwelder came up with). This was Crittenden’s first writing job, and it’s a hell of an opening number. David Mirken came up with the gag of Homer literally burning his bridge with the plant, citing it as exactly the kind of joke you can’t make in live action. George Meyer came up with the ending in homage to Mad Magazine fold-ins.
On September 4th, 2018, Simpsons producer Matt Selman observed on Twitter that there’s a continuity error, where a photo of Maggie is visible in the scene where Homer discovers Marge is pregnant. Somehow, he completely failed to notice Ruth Powers shows up in flashback despite not having moved to Springfield until long after Maggie was born.
The couch gag is a reference to James Bond. Dr Hibbert’s flashback hair is a reference to Arsenio Hall. Knight Boat is a parody of Knight Rider. Homer references the opening of The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Iconic Moments: 2. Knight Boat has become shorthand for bad TV. | “Do it for her”, both on its own and as the basis for shitposts.
Biggest Laugh: There’s a lot of great gags this episode. I love “Man, it’s windy as hell out there!” the most for the great staging, and “This is getting very abstract, but thank you,” is sheer genius, but for all my pretenses of sophistication, it’s always the dumbest possible gag that gets me cackling:
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