40. Homer Defined

fission

“We prefer to call it an unrequested fission surplus”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 17 October 1991, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 15 December 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: Howard Gewirtz
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino, Mark Kirkland, Raymie Muzquiz
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

For the third season of The Simpsons, Fox Television increased their order of episodes from 22 to 24. The network wanted as much new material as it could get. The show was a cash cow to be milked as often as possible; there could be no easing up just because things were going well. To help ease the workload on their small team of writing staff, showrunners Al Jean and Mike Reiss invited freelancers to pitch scripts. One of them, from Taxi and Larry Sanders contributor Howard Gewirtz, turned into this episode: another “Homer saves the day” yarn, souped up with some sibling rivalry and a celebrity cameo.

Plot
For the first time this season we get two storylines running simultaneously: Homer averting an accident at the power plant while Bart and Milhouse have a falling out. After a run of episodes all operating on a very grand scale, this feels a bit of a return to the earthy, everyday fare of the show’s early days. Certainly the Bart/Milhouse plot is of a piece with season one: lazily brattish and mildly sentimental. We’ve also had Homer the hero several times before, though at least here it’s sketched with a bit more imagination (a blob of doughnut-filling helps trigger the accident) and absurdity (Homer’s rewards include a giant ham and a discount coupon book). 6

Characters
Homer’s attitude towards saving the power plant is developed with admirable subtlety. He’s not arrogant or preening or particularly thankful. Rather he finds the whole thing a terrible embarrassment and the publicity utterly humiliating. The knowledge that he avoided disaster by luck hangs heavy on his conscience – enough to even put him off his giant ham. This is a key marker of the “early” Homer: someone with plausible human emotions, and whose mistakes come about through a bungling of those emotions rather than as a consequence of a being an emotionless imbecile. It’s rather touching to see him so nervous about giving a speech to his fellow workers. In later years the writers would simply send Homer blundering into such a situation, guileless and callous. Bart’s sadness at temporarily losing his best friend is depicted with rather less attention to detail, though there’s a sweet exchange with Marge after she helps bring about a reconciliation. “Thanks for sticking up for me,” Bart says. “What makes you think I did it?” Marge asks. “Who else would?” Bart replies. 7

Locations and design
Animation director Mark Kirkland creates some fantastic atmospherics inside the nuclear plant, filling Homer’s room with a feast of glowing panels and flashing lights:

"Core isolated"

“Core isolated”

"15 seconds to core meltdown"

“15 seconds to meltdown”

– while using huge shadows and gigantic furniture to heighten the sense that Mr Burns dwells less in an office and more of a lair. 7

Carpeting

Carpeting

Pardon My Zinger
With Homer spending most of the episode in a funk and Bart in a strop, it’s Burns and Smithers who get all the best lines. As the sirens start to wail and Springfield faces armageddon, Smithers decides to go for it. “I love you, sir!” he cries. “Oh, hot dog,” Burns drawls. “Thank you for making my last few moments on Earth socially awkward.” Later, with seconds to go before meltdown, Burns concludes: “I guess there’s nothing left to do but kiss my sorry ass goodbye.” “May I, sir?” requests Smithers. We’re also treated to Burns’ public relations skills when on the phone to Kent Brockman, as he describes the accident first as “a minor piffling malfunction” and then, even better, “an unrequested fission surplus.” For all his physical infirmities – at one point we see him struggling to lift his thumb – Burns certainly has no trouble with verbal contortions. When he asks (as is now standard) as to Homer’s credentials, Smithers replies: “He was hired under Project Bootstrap.” “THANK YOU President Ford,” Burns seethes. It’s one of those exchanges that has no resonance in the UK whatsoever, yet somehow – thanks to the delivery – it’s still funny. 8

Special guests
For no reason at all, basketball player Magic Johnson appears in the episode. He has no relevance to the plot or connection with the characters. He simply appears as one of the “prizes” Homer wins as Employee of the Month, in the form of a congratulatory phone call. As such he could be any famous person from anywhere in the world. Maybe he happened to be passing the Fox studios that day. Perhaps one of the producers had bumped into him at a party the night before. It’s absolutely shameless and is showboating of the most gratuitous kind (“Look who WE’VE got on our show this week!”).

A kind of Magic

A kind of Magic

There’s little in itself wrong with Johnson’s performance; he delivers his lines adequately and does a fair job of not sounding like he’s reading words off a piece of paper. But he fulfils the ignoble role of being the first in a thousand-strong roll-call of personalities to make an utterly superfluous cameo in The Simpsons (as opposed to those directly connected with the plot), whose presence would come increasingly to erode the show’s resilience and flair. 5

Music
Two highlights from Alf Clausen to listen for: the superbly tense music during the sequence where Homer, facing possible nuclear meltdown, stabs at his control panel while reciting “Eenie, meenie, miny, moe”; and the crestfallen cues as Bart realises he was the only person, seemingly in the whole of Springfield, who wasn’t invited to Milhouse’s birthday party. 6

Voices
Jon Lovitz is back to do another of his volatile eccentrics. This time he’s the owner of Shelbyville nuclear power plant, Aristotle Amadopoulous. “You are a pack of mangy cud-chewing ugly goats,” he shrieks at his staff, before switching – mid-breath – to trill cheerily: “Well, you are in for a treat!” All the roles Lovitz plays in The Simpsons sound vaguely alike, but the eerie timbre they share is so different from any other regular character in the show he cannot help but impress. By contrast Magic Johnson’s voice sounds out of place by virtue of being so thoroughly ordinary. “What if people think a guy’s a hero but he was really just lucky?” Homer asks him on the phone, anxious for guidance. “Don’t worry,” Johnson replies innocently, “sooner or later people like that are exposed as the frauds they are.” “Thanks, Magic,” Homer sighs. 7

Animation direction
All the sequences showing panic at the power plant are thrilling, especially the shots of workers smashing up vending machines and rats deserting the premises.

Flee!

Flee!

There’s a marvellous bit of staging from Mark Kirkland when, panic over, Burns nestles in his chair and demands a drink. We see only his gloved hand, while Smithers cowers away in the corner. There’s no need to reveal Burns’ face or even his posture; just the faintly menacing wave of an arm is enough. 7

stingy

“Bring me a wine spritzer – and don’t be stingy with the vino”

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
Season three of The Simpsons marked the start of regular voyages into Homer’s subconscious, with most stories boasting at least one peek inside the man’s fantasy-packed brain. We make numerous trips in this episode as Homer imagines himself recreated as a sequence of dictionary definitions:

Painful inflammation

Painful inflammation

Shaved ice

Shaved ice

Not attractive

Not attractive

Homer also finds time during the frantic final seconds before meltdown to drift into a reverie about trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube:

"This is the button that could save your life"

“This is the button that could save your life”

Even in the face of an impending nuclear holocaust, nothing is too trivial in Homer’s well-stocked memory. 6

Emotion and tone
For all the close shaves and last-minute redemptions, there’s something slightly incomplete about this story. Homer’s capacity for averting catastrophe by luck is stated and restated and made great fun of, but ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere. Things are just left hanging, as if awaiting resolution in another episode. The final scene has him earning a place in a real-life dictionary, but there’s no pay-off or punchline. Everything just stops and the credits roll. You’re left feeling rather emotionless and indifferent, despite having just sat through not one but two near-fatal nuclear emergencies. 4

Verdict: 63%
THANK YOU President Ford.

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