3. Homer’s Odyssey

"Hi there energy eaters - I'm Smilin' Joe Fission!"

“Hi there energy-eaters, I’m Smilin’ Joe Fission!”

  • First broadcast: Sunday 21 January 1990, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Friday 4 April 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jay Kogen & Wallace Wolodarsky
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jon Vitti
  • Storyboard: Wes Archer
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

The script for Homer’s Odyssey was the first to be completed for The Simpsons. When Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarksy began work on their draft, production of the series was at such an early stage that they didn’t even know Marge’s name and had to use Juliet as a placeholder. The episode introduces a number of key supporting characters as well as establishing the perimeters of Homer’s relationship towards his job, his fellow townsfolk and, ultimately, his boss. But this rich pool of material isn’t tapped in the most obvious or rewarding a way. Not for the last time in this season, you get the sense a couple more drafts and a longer gestation period might have made a big difference.

Plot
Homer loses his job, tries to kill himself, has a moment of epiphany and ends up campaigning for road signs. There’s enough here for at least three separate episodes, and that’s the problem. Because of the amount of plot to pack in, the story keeps veering wildly and speedily in implausible directions. It’s also a very grisly narrative, as along with the suicide we get a nuclear accident, a boy being sick and some chit-chat about a child getting his arm ripped off by a truck.

Vomit evacuation; VISITORS WILL BE SHOT

Vomit evacuation; VISITORS WILL BE SHOT

None of it hangs together with much coherence, and by the time act three arrives, with Homer gripped suddenly by a fetish for safety notices, it’s become a moralising, charmless mess. When a montage of newspaper front pages appears on screen ending with the headline ENOUGH ALREADY HOMER SIMPSON, you can’t help but agree. 3

Characters
We meet a few more Springfield residents for the first time in this episode, but sadly most of them are either thinly realised or acutely dissimilar to their future selves. Smithers is black and gregarious, Mr Burns is bulbous and muted (though this is partly to do with his voice) and Police Chief Wiggum restrained and officious. As for Otto, he is the first really unlikable character in the entire series. His whole slacker mentality grates and whenever he’s on screen he sucks the humour out of the show. Why would Bart find such an unintelligent and witless person interesting? Outside of Homer, the Simpson family isn’t developed much here. Marge and Lisa are reduced almost to cameos, and both are upstaged by, sequentially, a three-eyed fish and a giant boulder. But this wouldn’t matter so much if Homer, who is the centre of attention throughout, sustained both your interest and your concern. Instead his behaviour shuttles between incompetence, self-loathing and pomposity, culminating in a moral crusade that is just a bore. 2

Locations and design
Our first proper glimpse inside the nuclear power plant reveals it to be a fantastically grim place, though not quite as down-at-heel (or dangerous) as it would later become. There’s a marvellous sequence where Smithers begins a tour for the local schoolchildren by activating a series of enormous metal doors, each bearing a dire warning, until we get to:

A thermo-warm welcome

A thermo-warm welcome

Pipes and ducts are all over the place, so it’s no wonder Homer crashes into one – although when the accident happens, everyone bar him seems to be in comically oversized protective uniforms, making for a great scene when the staff is asked to identify the culprit:

Is that one of Homer's relatives on the right?

Homer is left holding the doughnut

The location design is one of this episode’s strongest elements. As in Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire, we’re given a snapshot of Springfield that is vividly grotty. The sequence in which the school bus travels to the plant is only short, but it leaves you with a huge impression of the town’s character, thanks to the three glories that are the Springfield Toxic Waste Dump, the Tire [sic] Yard and the Springfield State Prison. It’s a nice touch having the inhabitants of all these locations wave so cheerfully at the bus, and seeing the pupils return the favour with equal aplomb. 7

Tyre attire

Tyre attire

Pardon My Zinger
This episode is very light on gags and there are almost no one-liners. Most of the humour is visual, such as the bus tour around Springfield, or part of a set-piece. Bart makes his first prank call to Moe, and even after all these years it’s still comfortingly amusing to hear the bar owner announce to his patrons: “IP Freely”. In the otherwise very downbeat sequence of Homer preparing to kill himself, we’re tossed a couple of moment of light relief when Homer pauses on his way out of his house to oil the squeaky back gate, and again when he arrives at the suicide bridge, having dragged a boulder all the way from his garden, only to find one exactly the same size all ready and waiting:

"Ah well, live and learn."

“Ah well, live and learn.”

One of the few spoken jokes comes courtesy of an anonymous pair of old crones sitting on their porch who see Homer pass by and chuckle: “Oh, looks like young Simpson is going to kill himself!” Mr Burns supplies another, when he observes Homer speaking to a crowd and concludes: “I haven’t seen anything like it since Jolson.” 4

Special guests
Christopher Collins provides the voice of Mr Burns. Harry Shearer would take over this role permanently from season two, so it’s inevitable that Collins’ efforts now sound a little jarring. It’s not a million miles off what we’re used to, but there’s enough of a difference to ensure you never forget this is not the “real” Mr Burns. As a performance in itself, there’s also a bit too much vague bluster (his cry of “Do it! Do it! Do it!” sounds particularly feeble) and not enough calculated malice to leave you feeling this is a man who quite simply detests the whole of Springfield. 4

Music
Bart sings for the third episode in a row, and once again it’s a pastiche of a popular tune. This time it’s a version of John Henry Was A Steel Driving Man, which Mrs Krabappel orders him to recite in front of his class as a punishment for talking on the bus. It’s a staple of American folklore and as such means absolutely nothing to British ears. But Bart seems to enjoy himself; there’s a great cut from a shot of him mumbling his grudging acceptance to him basking in the attention of his peers as he twists the lyrics to be about himself. Richard Gibbs doesn’t contribute much by way of incidental score, though there are some nice dramatic flourishes during Homer’s suicide attempt. So far this season you get the sense the producers didn’t really know the best way of using the full orchestra they had at their disposal. Even the music cues that do turn up are mixed cautiously low. It makes for unsatisfactory viewing – and listening. 3

Voices
Otto isn’t just disagreeable to look at, he’s quite unpleasant to hear as well. Bart’s more or less the only character in this episode with a voice that has depth and personality. Moe, Mr Burns and Mrs Krabappel are all pitched rather flat; only Smithers is bang on, which makes for an odd contrast with his off-model appearance. Worse of all, once again, is Homer. Dan Castanelleta is still struggling with the character, as he was in Bart the Genius. In the more emotional moments Homer sounds pathetic rather than pitiful, while the bits where he’s supposed to be rousing the entire town into a seething fury over workplace safety are just dreary. To be fair, none of the cast are helped by a script that has so many abrupt changes of mood, or which relegates Marge and Lisa to the rank of spectator. But there is one great moment when Castanelleta does hit the mark with a splendid switcheroo from Homer recoiling from having smashed up Bart’s piggybank to fastidiously checking the contents to make doubly-sure there’s not enough change for a beer. 3

Animation direction
Homer’s Odyssey suffers many of the teething troubles that curse its predecessor Bart the Genius: characters aren’t rendered consistently, limbs float and jiggle about, body parts contract and expand for no reason, and most alarming of all, mouths jut out in one direction while heads turn in the other. Particularly poor are the background characters, one of whom looks downright alien:

Guess who's off-model

Guess who’s off-model

Wes Archer, like fellow director David Silverman, began his relationship with The Simpsons back when the family existed solely as brief animated shorts on Fox Television’s Tracey Ullman Show. His experience and knowhow help to hold together what is otherwise a distinctly ragged affair that, unfortunately, is not that entertaining to look at. Homer’s moonlight struggle with the boulder is one highlight, as is the very effective sequence done from the point-of-view of Homer lying on the couch like, in the words of Bart, “an unemployed whale”. 3

"Dad, eat something! It's got mustard on it!"

“Dad, eat something! It’s got mustard on it!”

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Wes Archer supplies the best moment in the entire episode: the pastiche of a public information film that Bart’s class watches during its visit to the power plant. It’s a beautifully-realised spoof of the kind of naive yet chipper approach to life-and-death topics that would have been buried in the memory of any TV viewer over the age of 14 in 1990. Everything about it – the scratchy quality of the film stock, Smilin’ Joe Fission, the nuclear rods that are so “hot” they need a bath, the oom-pah steam pipes bobbing up and down, the “balls” of nuclear waste with rascally faces – is fantastic:

Nuclear waste gets a carpeting

Nuclear waste gets a carpeting

Heaven knows what younger viewers made of it then. For new viewers today, it must be stunningly baffling. 8

Emotion and tone
Both are all over the place. From the off you’re not sure whether to feel sympathy or irritation with Homer. The darker moments are undoubtedly daring and at times gripping, but the tone is never sustained long enough to make you feel you care. Whatever you invested in the first two acts by way of concern for Homer’s wellbeing or even fear for his life is pretty well rubbished in act three, when Homer is seized by a baffling piety that for no reason at all endears him to the entire population of Springfield. When Bart mutters “Gee, dad’s a hero,” it’s not touching, it’s barmy. Why should Bart give a toss about his dad erecting STOP signs? 2

Verdict: 39%
It’s not without a few redeeming features, but Homer’s Odyssey largely fails to live up to the promise of its antiquity-referencing title. Almost everything is slightly off-kilter: not just the character design, but also the pace, the mood, the voices, even the jokes. Towards the end it becomes merely tedious, and you feel a huge sense of relief when the story runs so out of steam that it sort of collapses in about 10 seconds. Not a good omen for a show just three episodes old.

6 thoughts on “3. Homer’s Odyssey

  1. Back in the early 90s if like my family you didn’t have Sky there was two ways of acquiring new Simpsons episodes. One was a kind Aunt who did have satellite TV and would record them for me. The other was to buy episodes on VHS. So, with a birthday tenner, I bought ‘Moaning Lisa’ and ‘Homer’s Odyssey’ from Software Plus, a games shop in the arcade in Weston-super-Mare, sometime in 1991/2.

    My Dad and I sat down to watch the episodes and I can still remembering him wondering why I’d decided to pick two such depressing stories. “It was the only video in the store, man”.

    However we both laughed at a couple of moments in this episode. Homer’s description of the Fireworks Factory staff “Those perfectionists?”, the visual gag of Bart slamming the door in Homer’s face after his job search. Homer addressing the crowd “Unlike most of you, I am not a nut.” And one of the first ever indications at Burns’s impressive age “I haven’t seen anything like it since Jolson.” While Homer’s obsession with safety is a bit odd, he does later become the Safety Salamander, though, somehow, that seems more plausible.

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    • If you were a Simpsons fan in Britain in the early 90s and didn’t have satellite TV, I always imagine it must have been a bit like being a Beatles fan in the the Soviet Union during the 60s. You got your fix however means you could, in dribs and drabs, and cherished what tiny chunks of product you found.

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  2. That picture of everyone pointing at Homer seems to suggest Grandpa is working at the power plant. I think it’s a fair bet that about the only thing most people remember from this episode is that image of Maggie poking Homer in the eye.

    As you note, initially the Beeb weren’t showing the episodes in any kind of order, they bought the first 61 and in December 1996 they showed Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire (episode one) followed the next week by A Streetcar Named Marge (episode 61), which was a bit of a jarring change. I think this may have been the last Season One episode the Beeb showed, several weeks after it had moved to BBC2. I don’t know why they did that, unless they wanted to frontload it with better episodes and stuff some of the weaker early episodes, like this, a bit later in the run.

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  3. They really did mess with the order starting with ‘There’s No Disgrace Like Home’ on Saturday the 23rd of November 1996, followed by a documentary on the show. I remember thinking how weak that episode was at the time compared to later ones I’d seen. Being a Who fan I’d also picked up on the date and the timeslot (5.30pm) as significant (for me at least, if no one else) Genome: http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/9180815567be49b6a708a7649e0c7751

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  4. Heaven knows what younger viewers made of it then. For new viewers today, it must be stunningly baffling.

    I think I first saw this episode before I saw the movie Jurassic Park, but I remember that at some point, I began associating Smilin’ Joe Fission with the Mr DNA scene from that film.

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