90. The Last Temptation of Homer

[reads] “I’m tired of these jokes about my giant hand”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 9 December 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 2 November 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunner: David Mirkin
  • First draft: Frank Mula
  • Writing staff: Jace Richdale, Harold Kimmel, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, David Richardson, Greg Daniels, Jonathan Collier, Mike Scully, David Sacks, Brent Forrester, Bob Kushell, Dan McGrath, Bill Canterbury, David S Cohen
  • Animation director: Carlos Baeza

In a league table of Homer’s most unappealing qualities, glutton is outranked by one thing only: lech. Episodes in which he pervs unapologetically at women, usually while inebriated, are among the most unpleasant in the entire series – particular when his behaviour is depicted as being ripe for comic treatment (Homer’s Night Out; The War of the Simpsons). Better to not bother tackling this subject at all than try and fail to make it funny. Colonel Homer attempted a different strategy but ended up committing the equally reprehensible sin of being boring. How many more variations on Homer-and-Marge-have-their-marriage-tested can there be? Not enough, it seems, for here we go again, only this time Homer becomes attracted to a colleague with whom he shares both a physical attraction and a checklist of boozy obsessions. Stacking the odds further against a satisfactory outcome is a subplot that conspires to leave the rest of Homer’s family looking and sounding as repellant as possible. The tower of contrivance grows even higher when Homer and his workmate have to spend a weekend out of town. They even win a romantic dinner for two. Lechery AND gluttony: are we heading for the ultimate blowout?

Unexpectedly, and – up to this point – implausibly, the answer is no. One of Homer’s other qualities comes riding to the rescue in this episode: his timidity. So often something that tips Homer into a moment of overblown anger or amusing humiliation, here it’s his path to redemption. It’s genuinely touching to see Homer so cowed by the way his relationship with Mindy seems to be moving unstoppably towards one outcome. The moment when he sits on his bed, sobbing at the inevitability of things, is heartbreaking. This is a story that grabs victory from the drooling jaws of defeat. You’re left with an image of Homer not as a rampaging libertine but someone who is slightly wiser and sadder than he once was. It’s rare for a sitcom to fashion subtle humour out of fatalism. The Simpsons manages it with this story.

Michelle Pfeiffer helps. Her performance as Mindy is relaxed and unforced and free absolutely of any kind of attention-seeking gimmickry (9). Dan Castellenata responds in kind. His performance as Homer (9) is one of his most affecting, whether he’s being cheerfully mundane (“Another day, another box of stolen pens!”) or teary and confused (“The cookie told me so!”). Both actors stop the episode becoming too overwrought. The tone is uneven (5) and can’t quite decide where to plant its flag until the final few moments, but at least it plants it on solid ground. The same goes for the script (6), which is short on jokes (5) and big on conversation. This is a story with lots of people arriving in rooms and declaring things. It feels very repertory theatre. Most of it could be easily acted on stage; the bits that couldn’t are those which are the most superfluous: Homer having a hallucination about reversing his car into a trout hatchery, and later being shown an alternate version of his life by Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes. Neither of these fantasy sequences (4) feel of a piece with the episode. Everyday absurdity chimes a more melodious note: the distorted image of Marge on Homer’s T-shirt; Bart kicking his boots through Ned Flanders’ window (“Kids, did anyone pray for giant shoes?”); the man with the giant hand.

Befitting an episode that majors on words rather than pictures, the animation (6) plays second fiddle to the dialogue and there’s little room for visual flourishes. The one bit of inspired design (7) comes not in the main story but the subplot, when Bart gets an accidental makeover as a nerd. It’s almost too brilliant a concept to be limited to just a few scenes. Musical flourishes get even less of a look-in (3). Parts one and two of the episode end with what sounds like an embarrassed cough from the orchestra, as if to remind you of its presence. Barries White and Manilow loom larger in this story than anything specially composed by Alf Clausen.

It is characterisation that glues this brittle story together (8), and in descending order of interest: Mindy; Homer; Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo (Moe: “That’s the worst name I ever heard”); Mr Burns; Mr Burns’ ejection tube; Mrs Krabappel (“You got a problem, go tell your mamma!’); Principal Skinner (“Oh don’t worry, she’ll hear about this”); everybody else. 62%