The Simpsons, Season Seven, Episode Seventeen, “Homer The Smithers”

We’re back to another Simpsons-style riff on a classic sitcom setup. I think the show has a really good sense of when it can lean in on a cliche and when it can’t; it can’t really pull off the ‘staying a night in a haunted house’ cliche for more than the length of a joke or “Treehouse” short*, but the character-driven nature of ‘hero swaps job with someone else’ is perfect for a show built around a tight enough grip on who its characters are to make the story work and a loose enough grip on reality that they can use jokes to get it into motion (love the joke about Smithers seeming to describe Homer, getting 714 matches, and giving up and going straight to Homer). A bad cliche is simply presented to the audience and a good cliche enhances and is enhanced by the things that make a particular story special. In this case, we have the characters of Homer and Mr Burns, and the episode is all the more strange and delightful for how it empathises with both men all through the story. We see from Homer’s perspective that Burns is just that callous and demanding, and we see from Burns’ perspective that Homer is just that incompetent; we see from Homer’s perspective that he’s genuinely guilty and apologetic for punching Burns, and we see from Burns’ perspective how terrifying Homer is. Conan O’Brien’s line is that Burns is funny because he’s infinitely old, infinitely rich, and infinitely evil, and this is an episode that spins real pathos for the old man out of that, with the central idea being that Burns has been waited on hand-and-foot for so long that he’s now entirely helpless and unable to look after himself.

(*Futurama, on the other hand, can do this kind of plot as a matter of course, which makes me wonder if, much as you can see the beginnings of Rick & Morty in seasons two and three of Community, we’ll start seeing more hints of Futurama popping up in moments of inspiration beyond the occasional flashes to the future and heads in jars)

In some ways, that’s obviously a fantasy that us poor people will come up with to comfort ourselves for not being rich – hey, I might be poor, but at least I can answer my own damn phone! – but it is rooted in truth. I remember reading about rich people talking about having to downgrade their lifestyle during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, having to do things like sell some of their car collection, move into smaller houses that didn’t have dishwashers, and pull their kids out of private school and finding it hilarious and cathartic (my parents didn’t buy a dishwasher until I moved out). It’s great, though, how the episode finds a lot of nuance in the idea of Burns’ fragility; there are things he can’t do because he hasn’t had to think about his daily needs in decades, but there are also things he can’t do because he’s old enough that time has passed him by without him noticing, which is something that’s going to happen to all of us at some point regardless of how rich we are. Even before he loses Smithers and Homer, Burns literally cannot comprehend what a working class guy sincerely thanking him looks like! I’m head-over-heels for Harry Shearer’s performance, finding the panicked, spluttering, stammering terror in Burns in the third act while still delivering the sing-song nature of his voice (and delivering his trademark dialogue). On paper, I shouldn’t really care that a withered, evil plutocrat is fending for himself for the first time in decades, but the story’s empathy for him makes him strangely likeable and as a consequence even funnier – we can follow the logic of him typing Smithers’ name into a phone even when we know it’s obviously wrong, and it even makes his eventual mastery of simple tasks into something genuinely triumphant.

It actually weird though, to zoom out and look at this episode as a whole; the climax of Smithers losing his job and being forced to team up with Homer, only for them to descend into a fight when it fails, and while that doesn’t feel like it really fits into the theme I just laid out, it does feel of a piece with the episode. I think it’s because it’s a natural consequence of the absurd situation, and the show prioritising its own strange comic logic over clear thematic unity means it can drop themes when they’re played out; it’s clear that Smithers really ought to be fired if Burns doesn’t need him, and there needs to be a sequence of events to get us back to the status quo – though it says a lot about the nature of the writing that this feels entirely natural and true to the characters (I suppose if there’s any united theme to the events, it’s not to trust Homer with a situation, whether you need him to botch a situation or save it). Perhaps what it does is expand Smithers’ character in much the same way as the earlier acts expanded Burns; like many Springfieldianites, he’s a total square, but he’s much more of a professional than most of them – the best way I can explain it is that he has Krusty’s professional ethos with Skinner’s squareishness and enthusiasm, but without the wide scope of interest of either of them. Krusty’s brain is filled with pop culture references, Skinner’s brain is filled with science facts and Vietnam flashbacks, and Smithers’ brain is filled with his 2,800 duties (and Malibu Stacy dolls, I suppose). Actually, I’d say the real unifying element to the episode is how the show can have empathy for all these people. Smithers getting what he wants in the end is genuinely heartwarming and all the funnier for it. The Simpsons is a show that loves to watch people go, in all their absurdity.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family are wearing fezzes and driving minicars.

This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Steven Dean Moore, with the idea coming from Mike Scully. This was part of an overall endeavour on the parts of Oakley and Weinstein to take the show back to the family, with at least fifteen episodes being a realistic episode about at least one of the family members. This episode had a strong influence on the sound mixing moving forward and into Futurama, in that they found the final fight seemed less violent when they only used sounds of the characters in agony.

This may be the first episode where Smithers is clearly gay as opposed to Burns-sexual (“Picture taking is not allowed at this particular resort.”). I like his casual outfits this episode. Bobo comes back! Homer closing Burns’ mouth for him is one of those tiny *chef’s kiss* moments that elevate this show from good to great.

When Homer wakes up, Marge initially thinks he’s getting up to watch Little Rascals. Burns answers the phone with Alexander Graham-Bell’s proposed alternative to ‘hello’ that never took off. Burns being spoonfed at the end is a reference to A Clockwork Orange.

Iconic Moments: 2. Homer burning cereal is a classic early demotivational poster signifying an Epic Fail. | “Is it about my cube?”
Biggest Laugh: As funny as the very concept of the Barney-guarding job is, I had to go with this bit of #relatable content.