The Simpsons, Season Nine, Episode One, “The City Of New York vs Homer Simpson”

It’s very nice of The Simpsons to see me talking about the decline of the show being quite visible at this point and then throw us an episode that’s not only great, but a genuine advancement in some respects. The plotting of this story isn’t anything special, but the idea is so inspired that it carries the whole thing to somewhere wonderful. The basic plot detail is that Homer has to go to New York City to pick up his car, only to be hit by misfortune after misfortune, but the story is someone having a day so shitty that they give up and intentionally make it immeasurably worse just to get it over with quicker, and you know, I’ve had days like that. I’ve had days that felt like they ended with me driving my heavily damaged car (that I destroyed myself) getting hit in the face by garbage. There are a lot of comedies that go for laughs by heaping a bunch of shitty experiences on a hard luck protagonist, but few of them truly capture the experience of having a miserable, shitty day pile onto you. I think my favourite part of the whole thing is that Homer’s fury doesn’t so much overcome his sense of reason as power it – as soon as he realises the sun is going down, it’s like Homer locks into a state of pure rage, and in every scene he’s consumed by the drive to resolve his situation as quickly as possible and damn the long-term consequences. Aside from people committing extreme actions being inherently interesting to watch, it’s hilarious and weirdly cathartic to see Homer doing all sorts of shit that you really shouldn’t do and you know you shouldn’t do with very clear demonstrations of the reasons you shouldn’t do them just to get all this horseshit out of his way right now, with the scene of him completely destroying his car with a jackhammer to get the boot off being the apotheosis of this. 

I think Homer’s agency is what makes this so good, too – he starts out annoyed but trying to deal with his situation reasonably, and the things that go wrong are things he couldn’t possibly have foreseen, like having to be around his car from nine to five; I found myself thinking that, if nothing else, he’d be able to call Marge on his mobile phone today. This tends to be how most characters of this kind of story act, trying to stick by the rules of society and paying badly for it; Homer shows why he’s one of the most wildly entertaining characters by giving up any pretense of following the rules. I notice that one thing that tends to carry across famous characters and especially famous comedy characters is that they frequently break the social order – my first thought after watching this was of George Costanza, who frequently found himself in unfair situations similar to the one Homer finds himself in and would also escalate them beyond reason, though in his case he was usually motivated by saving face. I also think of Michael Scott, whose whole joke was that he tried to be at the top of and above the social order and failed at both, being neither well-liked nor respected. Moving out of comedy, we have characters like Walter White, Omar Little, Vic Mackey; there’s something in the human condition that makes us want to break the social order, and in this context, Homer’s selfishness and short-sightedness can be an expression of our selfishness and shortsightedness.

There’s also the fact that this is such a well-directed episode of the show. There’s big and obvious gestures – my favourite is the transition between Barney not drinking in the bar to Barney driving, which would be a typical match cut were it not for the background of beer mugs connecting them, but there’s also things like the ridiculously detailed Manhattan streets full of people talking and walking around. There’s also lots of little things; gestures and facial expressions that sell us on the character’s emotions, and the precise staging and cutting of jokes to give us the right information at the right speed to find it as funny as possible. Life is movement and motion, and this episode feels full of life, which makes it feel joyous to watch even as Homer loses his mind. That’s one of the complaints people tend to have about post-Golden and especially post-Scully Simpsons – the animation has gone bland and without character – and it’s charming to see that even as we exit the Golden-era, we can still see the show developing its visual and audio flare.

Chalkboard Gag: N/A
Couch Gag: The family enter dressed as the Harlem Globetrotters, passing the ball to each other. Maggie dunks the ball on Homer’s head.

This episode was written by Ian Maxtone-Graham and directed by Jim Reardon. Maxtone-Graham is a native New Yorker, and thought it would be funny to put the family through a classic New Yorker problem. David Silverman was sent to New York to meticulously research visuals. Ken Keeler wrote the musical number “I’m Checkin’ In”.

This episode is famous for its two connections to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre. Firstly, for the episode being pulled from syndication in the wake of the attacks, seeing as the Twin Towers are a major part of the plot, and later for being the first notable case of the whole “The Simpsons predicted the future” meme – Lisa holds up a magazine in which the number nine and the silhouette of the Twin Towers appears to make the number 911. Of the subsequent attempts to claim The Simpsons predicted something, only “President Trump” matches this for eerie coincidence, and only because it fully established this bizarre reality we now live in that an absurdist offhand joke became truth; I’ve rolled my eyes at the others, like the attempt to say that the episode with a flu from China predicted the COVID-19 crisis, because come on, it’s not like that’s anywhere near implausible.

I timed this whole thing absolutely perfectly – I’ve had to get a Disney+ account to keep going through the series, and luckily this episode coincided with the properly mastered 4:3 episodes coming to the platform. I barely touched on the rest of the family’s place in the plot; they fairly straightforwardly act as comedic counterpoint to Homer’s hatred of New York City, making the story even more strongly resemble stories you hear from people who inexplicably hate one place. It also contains some of the best ‘Marge is a square’ jokes (“The bus station is just one of the sights we came to see!”). The black pickled egg is such a great, specific little detail to move the plot forward. This contains the first appearance of Duffman! Weird how episodes that introduce new characters tend to be better. The very tall man returns for an inspired gag. One of the tiny background gags that makes this feel so great is that, as Marge is talking during the play, you can see a woman behind her trying to see past her hair. 

Duffman’s theme song is “Oh Yeah” by Yello. Original Famous Ray’s Pizza Shop is a parody of independently owned pizza places with ‘Ray’ in the name. The music during the “Flushing Meadows” sequence is a parody of “Flower Duet”. Bart mistakes some Hasidic Jews for ZZ Top. Bart stops by Mad magazine’s office and sees Alfred E Neuman, the white spy from Spy VS Spy, and Dave Berg. The “You’re Checkin’ In” musical is a parody of Robert Downey Jr’s cocaine issues at the time. Homer driving through the park of New York is a reference to Die Hard With A Vengeance, and his racing alongside the carriage is a reference to Ben-Hur. Homer’s flashback uses “The Entertainer”. Homer passes by a porno theater playing The Godfather’s Parts II, Jeremiah’s Johnson, and Five Sleazy Pieces. A Woody Allen caricature drops trash on Homer.

Iconic Moments: 2. “Of course you’ll have a bad impression of New York if you only focus on the pimps and the CHUDS.” | “Blech! Eugh! Jeesh! I’ll take a crab juice!”
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