28. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

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The Homer, Mk 1

  • First broadcast: Thursday 21 February 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 20 October 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: James L Brooks, Matt Groening, Sam Simon
  • First draft: Jeff Martin
  • Writing staff: Al Jean, Mike Reiss, Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin
  • Storyboard: Jeff Lynch, Kevin O’Brien
  • Animation director: Wes Archer

Most sitcoms hold out for a number of years before deploying the “long-lost relative” storyline. The Simpsons waited just 28 episodes. That the show resorted to such a hoary conceit quite so quickly (and quite so shamelessly) reflects something of the scramble on the part of the producers to find enough ideas to fill a full-length season. Jeff Martin wrote the first draft over the course of one weekend, the writing staff had precious few days to polish it up, while special guest Danny DeVito could spare only one morning to record his lines. Given the circumstances, it’s a small triumph the finished episode holds together for as long as it does.

Plot
Grampa Simpson reveals that Homer has a half-brother, who turns out to be a rich automobile manufacturer called Herb living in Detroit. Homer takes his family to meet their new relation and ends up destroying the man’s business after designing the world’s worst car. The whole thing is unapologetically bonkers, but gets away with it up until the point Homer comes face to face with Herb, whereupon the brisk pace and snappy one-liners dry up almost completely. It’s as if all the production team’s energy has been expended on simply getting Homer and Herb together, after which nobody really knew what to do next, and the remainder of the episode – like the ridiculous car Homer conceives – promises a lot but delivers next to nothing. The downbeat finale is effective, though. 5

Characters
It’s a shame Herb doesn’t turn out to be more than simply the polar opposite of Homer. The decision to make him a millionaire with a generous spirit but without a nuclear family is one that inches the plot forward by only a few scenes – and our interest in Homer’s siblings by only a few seconds. Worse, after all the pleasantries are out of the way and we’ve had the guided tour of Herb’s world, the character is changed from someone bracingly sensible to someone dizzyingly naive. His motivation in first asking Homer to design a new car “for all the Homer Simpsons out there”, and second to have no interest whatsoever in its manufacture, is never properly explained and as such ends up baffling. We’re shown a character steeped in business sense and self-awareness, then suddenly these traits vanish and we’re shown someone who couldn’t given a toss about the thousands of dollars Homer is throwing away. The episode doesn’t work hard enough to make you believe in Herb and his erratic behaviour. He’s intensely distrustful of the academic credentials of his “Harvard deadhead” colleagues; how come he can’t spot Homer is about to screw everything up, with his plans for a car with tail fins, bubble domes and “an extremely large beverage holder”?

Monstrosity

Monstrosity

Homer actually comes out of all this mess rather well, because for once he is not the architect of his own downfall. Rather he has been set up as the architect of his brother’s downfall, about which he seems completely nonplussed. “As far as I’m concerned,” Herb spits at the end, “I have no brother.” “Maybe he just said that to make conversation,” reasons Marge, snapping shut the lid on a wholly unsatisfying foray into Simpsons genealogy. 3

Locations and design
Herb’s brand of personality might be predictable but his taste in architecture is not. Instead of saddling him with the usual motifs of a TV millionaire – a home that looks like an ornate baroque palace, a factory of towering glass and steel – the animators pop him in a low-rise modernist mansion full of sharp lines and elegant angles:

The Wright stuff

The Wright stuff

Architects may come and architects may go

Architects may come and architects may go

– while the car plant is all curved concrete and white stone:

kjh

Motor city

Both were inspired by actual buildings designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, while Herb’s low, wide, airy laboratory is almost a direct copy of Wright’s own studio. More than anything else in the episode, it is these three locations that establish in the mind of the viewer how utterly remote is Herb’s world – both materially and creatively – from that of Homer. 9

Pardon My Zinger
All the best jokes are in the first half, which gives the episode a very lopsided feel and makes you wonder whether most of the writers simply buggered off once Homer and Herb had met up, leaving all the sentimental stuff for Jim Brooks to finish off. “And thank you most of all for nuclear power,” Homer intones during grace at the dinner table, “which has YET TO CAUSE A SINGLE PROVEN FATALITY – at least in this country.” When Bart and Lisa follow this with a bit of rowing, Homer orders them to shut up or “Bart doesn’t get to watch cartoons and Lisa doesn’t get to go to college.” The kids respond with the show’s very first silent zinger:

Silent but deadly

Silent but deadly

*sounds like...*

*sounds like…*

– which prompts the memorable cry from Homer: “No panto-ma-mime!” There’s a fine run of gags when Homer is trying to find Herb, first when he fails repeatedly to understand the many hints being dropped by the Hibbert-lookalike in charge of Shelbyville orphanage:

hib

“The city of BROTHERLY love isn’t Philadelphia, it’s DETROIT!”

– and secondly while he is struggling to ring every Herb Powell in the Detroit phonebook, when a montage leads us to believe there are dozens of them, before we cut to a page in the book and see there are only three. Bart has next to nothing to do in the entire episode, but that’s forgiven because he gets to say this:

Bart: So, any idea where this bastard lives?
Homer: BART!
Bart: …whose parents aren’t married, are they? It’s the correct word, isn’t it?
Homer (to Marge): I guess he’s got us there.
Bart: Bastard bastard, bastard bastard, bastard bastard, bastard bastard bastard!
Homer: BART!

Finally there’s a nice exchange between Homer and Marge en route to Detroit:

Marge (angrily): Bart, Lisa, if you don’t behave we’ll turn this car right around and go home!
Homer (panicking): But Marge, I want to see my brother!
Marge: Oh for God’s sakes, it’s an empty threat.

Whereupon they get to Detroit, find Herb, and everyone loses their sense of humour. 6

Special guests
Danny DeVito is unexceptional as the voice of Herb. Most of his performance is on one note – noisily avuncular – and this quickly becomes tiresome, much like his character. The fault is probably a combination of the rushed recording session, which meant there was limited time for DeVito to experiment with contrasting styles (though you’d have thought an actor of his calibre would be able to nail this kind of thing pretty quickly); and the rather flat, unsubtle dialogue given to Herb by the writing staff, most of which rarely rises above platitudes or exposition. DeVito gets to shine only when Herb breaks out of his mould, such as when he chuckles along with Bart and Lisa at an episode of Itchy and Scrathy, concluding: “To think I wasted my life in boardrooms and stockholders’ meetings when I could have been watching cartoons!” 4

Music
Alf Clausen nods to the soundtrack of All the President’s Men when Homer is searching through the phonebook for Herb. There’s a suitably uplifting cue for when Homer and Herb meet for the first time, and an even more fitting one for when Herb, now a broken man, heads for the bus and vows never to see Homer again. The most dramatic moment of all has no music, however. This is the scene in which Homer’s car in unveiled to the world, and suddenly the score drops out, leaving only the squeaking of the revolving turntable. It’s one of the best bits of direction in the whole episode. 7

Voices
As was the case with Penny Marshall in Some Enchanted Evening, Danny DeVito’s voice is one that doesn’t seem to fit into the Simpsons universe. In this instance, rather than being too forced like Marshall, DeVito sounds too everyday. At times it’s almost like he’s reading stage directions rather than delivering lines. Those moments where he does cut loose are easily the most persuasive, and these are mostly bursts of comic indignation (yelling at his colleagues: “People don’t want cars named after hungry old Greek broads!”) or personal revelation, from the joyful (discovering Itchy and Scratchy) to the tragic (discovering Homer’s car). The regular cast members have much more fun, especially Dan Castellaneta during the scenes where he’s hunting for Herb:

Wiseguy: You’re a little late. They tore down the orphanage 30 years ago.
Homer (wailing and weeping): I’m doomed to walk through this life alone! Oh brother, where are thou?!
Wiseguy: Take it easy buddy – they moved across the street.

The old switcheroo strikes again. 5

doomed

Oh, brother

Animation direction
Wes Archer’s assured direction is one of the few consistent things about the episode. Herb’s face is kept hidden for several scenes until a niftily-framed reveal:

Snap

Snap

All the sequences in and around Herb’s properties are very well realised and smack of the freshness of animators enthused at having some brand new locations to create and explore.

Here comes the plot

Here comes the plot twist

Sundae Bloody Sundae is another splendidly grisly dose of Itchy and Scratchy:

kjh

ALMUND SCRATCHY

No chaser

On the rocks

Archer also orchestrates the finale particularly well, restoring some suspense to the episode in the build up to the car’s unveiling. 8

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Adding to the episode’s lopsided feel is the second instalment of McBain, which turns up right at the beginning and is one of the absolute highlights. Already the saga has reached cathedral-sized outpourings of violence, with our hero single-handedly scything down a meeting of moustache-twirlingly corrupt politicians.

MEETING ADJOURNED

MEETING ADJOURNED

“You certainly broke up that meeting,” coos a woman who walks into shot from out of nowhere. “Right now I’m thinking about holding another meeting,” comes McBain’s triumphantly monotone reply…

"...IN BED."

“…IN BED.”

Cue a brilliant pastiche of a James Bond title sequence, complete with theme song boasting a textbook lavish arrangement. It’s all utterly superb.

YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN DEAD

YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO REMAIN DEAD

The title of the episode is a reference to a fictional book about the American Depression that appears in the 1941 film Sullivan’s Travels, and which would later inspire the Coen Brothers’ 2000 film of the same name. 7

Emotion and tone
There’s a knockabout tone to the whole thing, but it’s pitched very differently in Springfield and Shelbyville (fast-tempo farce) compared with Detroit (low-tempo wheeler-dealing) and the whole enterprise kind of splutters to a halt in the last few minutes. The arrival of the “car” subplot acts as a brake on the episode’s momentum, slowing down rather than speeding up what should be an emotional crescendo. Then suddenly Herb is bankrupt and is snarling at Homer and there’s a rather sad ending, which injects some surprising – and welcome – grit into proceedings. A pity it couldn’t have come a bit earlier. 5

Verdict: 59%
Oh second draft, where art thou?

2 thoughts on “28. Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

  1. Bit harsh on the second half of the episode, given that it contains the “Homer Simpson is a brilliant man…” phone call. Makes you wonder what the exact opposite of “above reproach” could be.

    I also love the “kids are so easy to please!” joke.

    Like

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