There’s a consistent pattern where I tend to love the controversial Golden Era episodes because they always have something really interesting to say, whether or not I agree with what they’re saying or whether or not the end result is actually funny, and this definitely continues that. The Simpsons does not expect you to take everything that happens in it completely literally – there is an extent to which these characters are symbols playing in some higher space, that Homer is not an individual person with individual quirks but an expression of the American Everyman, and what happens to him is not what would plausibly happen but rather a symbolic representation of the clash between the American Everyman and, say, Corporate Greed, where we as viewers are called upon to recognise the similarities between Homer’s feelings and situation and our own. It’s like how I’m always saying that Krusty is a stand-in for the whole entertainment industry; anyone who works in it at almost any level can recognise the feelings Krusty has, even though absolutely nobody works as a TV clown three hours and fifteen minutes a day. It’s how teachers can find themselves relating to everything Skinner and Bart go through, even if they’ve never been caricatured as Big Butt Skinner. And it’s something that factors into this show’s continuity; continuity references aside, this show more often takes in the legend of its characters and refines it, so that Skinner slowly becomes a pure, archetypal Square, Krusty an archetypal Cynical Entertainer, Burns as pure Corporate Greed, and Homer the American Everyman. What this episode asks is, what if you did take everything literally?
This is something I’ve always liked about episodic television – you can upend the rules it plays by for one episode and see how it plays out. This is something that Cowboy Bebop did constantly, for example, almost like it was constantly making up a new game to plug its characters into. In a way, this is something The Simpsons has been doing all along, playing by the rules of a murder mystery and a horror anthology and a romantic comedy; this is just extreme to the point of breaking the show, which is why I understand the people who don’t like it, especially because it has the extra layer of basically insulting the very thing we come here to see every week (although that definitely never bothers me – I’m okay with being the butt of a joke if it’s funny). This rips out all context and turns the townsfolk into, well, representations of us, taking Homer’s absurdity in stride and with warmth even as it’s literally close to getting him and other people killed; there’s a ‘this is what you look like’ aspect to this whole thing. Of course, I suspect the actual reason people don’t like it is that, by design, the jokes don’t actually capture Homer’s foibles. From Grimey’s perspective, the problem is that he’s a freeloading slacker who has been elevated and tolerated above his competence, leeching off everyone around him and never working a day in his life; the actual feeling the show is shooting for is that he’s a guy in a boring, back-breaking, environmentally toxic job that he’s totally unsuited for because it’s the only way he can survive and support his family.
I’m willing to roll with this a bit because there is an element of truth in it – there are people who skate through life with no thought to the people around them – but mainly because I’m willing to roll with just about anything if it’s funny, and as always having something to say seems to have energised the writers; the gags come hard and fast, with the very first scene clearly and efficiently laying out Grimey’s entire character and the reason he would hate someone like Homer. He also appeals to my love of black comedy; this isn’t just the story of Homer being lazy, it’s the story of the miserable life of Frank Grimes, and the writers gleefully pile indignity after indignity upon him until it enters a realm of absurdity (favourite gag: he lives above a bowling alley and beneath another bowling alley). I like to read Frank’s story as the tragedy of a guy who simply could not accept and adjust to the reality he lived in, and his final attempt to try revealed his fundamental misunderstanding of how it all worked. That final shot of him being lowered into his final resting place is all the more hilarious for how chilling it is – seeing a man lose control of his own funeral.
Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family walks in and Bart is a glowing neon green. Homer adjusts the TV and Bart turns neon red. Homer slaps him over the back of the head, and he goes back to normal.
This episode was written by John Swartzwelder and directed by Jim Reardon. Wikipedia confirms my theory of the show pushing itself conceptually; Bill Oakley came up with the idea of Homer having an enemy, and Josh Weinstein has talked about how hard they worked out the idea of a normal, ‘somewhat humourless’ guy entering Springfield and seeing everything wrong with it. Hank Azaria has described the role of Frank Grimes as the hardest he ever worked on the show, really trying to nail Frank’s particular emotions, and I think it pays off. Oakley, Weinstein, and Matt Groening all consider it a favourite; Mike Reiss considers it one of his least favourites, thinking it was in bad taste.
This is also the episode where Bart buys a building, which is funny but otherwise empty aside from it being a real ten year old boy kind of fantasy.
In an episode that’s entirely about how terrible Homer is, the scene of him being genuinely amused that he nearly drank acid shows him at his most endearing. I enjoy that there are posters for the model-building contest in the background before it comes into the plot.
Frank is visually based on Michael Douglas’ character from the movie Falling Down, and his voice is based partly on William H Macy.
Iconic Moments: “This is Richard Nixon’s enemies list!” | “Everybody makes mistakes. That’s why they put erasers on pencils.” | “I was watching. I saw the whole thing. First it started falling over, then it fell over.” | “Ralphie, get off the stage sweetheart.”