50. Homer Alone

"Richard Dean

“Richard Dean Anderson will be in my dreams tonight!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 6 February 1992, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 22 December 1997, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: David Stern
  • Writing staff: Jay Kogen, Wallace Wolodarsky, George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern
  • Storyboard: Peter Avanzino
  • Animation director: Mark Kirkland

The Simpsons reached its half-century with a gem of an episode. Scrupulously plotted, beautifully animated, and with just the right amount of knowing humour, Homer Alone is one of those stories that you can sense from the first frame is going to be something very special indeed.

Plot
By waiting until now, 50 episodes in, to tip Marge over the edge and into a nervous breakdown, the Simpsons’ writers had prepared just the right amount of ground for us to believe absolutely in her behaviour. If they’d sent Marge into this kind of a rage too early, in season one for instance, it wouldn’t have resulted in a story anywhere near as rich in characterisation or with so much potential for humour. Nor would we have cared so much about her and her experiences at the health spa, or enjoyed following the plight of Homer when he is left in charge of Maggie. The plot never wavers off course despite numerous colourful diversions, advancing like a benevolent marching band with all flags flying towards a happy ending. A perfect 10.

Characters
Everyone in this episode behaves just as you’d want them to, from Homer being genuinely distressed at having to look after Maggie (but trying his best nonetheless), to Bart and Lisa’s utter horror at being sent to live with Patty and Selma (but Bart still having the wherewithal to have a good rummage in his aunts’ closet), to Marge dealing stoically with request after request from her family, and snapping only when she has tried absolutely everything to satisfy them.

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Even then, after screeching to a halt in the middle of Springfield Bridge, she is careful to switch on her car’s indicator lights. Tiny details like this help lift the quality of the story even higher; likewise the way Marge slaps the slices of bread down on the kitchen surface while making the family’s sandwiches, betokening her impending breakdown. Then there’s Patty and Selma, whose world is laid bare in more pitiless detail than ever before, from their blackhead gun to the shared bedroom to – the absolutely bullseye – their unending love of TV action series MacGyver. Their characters have yet to be better defined than in the eternally discomfiting yet beautifully-crafted line: “Richard Dean Anderson will be in my dreams tonight.” 9

Locations and design
Despite being Springfield’s “only two-star health spa”, Rancho Relaxo – “You can’t spell Relaxo without ‘relax’!” – looks rather pleasant, and is positively sumptuous when placed alongside the stubbornly unglamorous domain of Patty and Selma. Clean, well-lit, full of open spaces and ultra-modern (if rather bland) amenities, the ranch is perfectly tailored for a person like Marge. By contrast, her sisters’ flat seems to have become even more dirty, badly-lit, cramped and stuffed with antiquated tidbits, including cavernous brassieres and tongue sandwiches. No wonder Bart and Lisa look thrilled to be sent there. 8

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Pardon My Zinger
There are rich pickings to be found among the supporting cast, including Chief Wiggum’s prickly treatment of Homer (handing him a megaphone, Wiggum snaps: “Don’t put your lips on it!”), and Mayor Quimby intervening in the judicial process to ensure Marge isn’t charged for her behaviour on Springfield Bridge (“I hereby declare today to be Marge Simpson Day”). There’s also another outing for the old ironic-song-being-used-as-holding-music-on-a-telephone (Homer calls the ‘Missing Babies Department’ and has to listen to Baby Come Back, a 1978 US number one by the rock band Player). Plus pretty much any scene involving Patty and Selma has at least one zinger. All of which adds up to a 7, but this increases to a 9 once you include…

Special guests

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“Ohhhh Gregory, where have you BEEN all my life?” sighs Troy McClure rapturously, as he is pummelled by a masseur at Rancho Relaxo. This is Phil Hartman’s second episode in a row as Troy, but when he’s on this kind of form there’s absolutely no danger of too much of a good thing. Our hero – who we may possibly remember from such films as Today We Kill, Tomorrow We Die – throws himself himself utterly into the business of drumming up business for Relaxo, and his role hosting the resort’s in-house promotional video is his finest to date. “Ooh la la!” he trills, when plugging the on-demand X-rated European films. “This whole pot is only 14 calories!” a chef tells him. Troy can only slap his face in heavenly amazement.

*slaps face in mock-amazement*

Then strapping himself into the sort of hang glider James Bond uses in Live and Let Die, he signs off with the rousing cry: “As I said to Dolores Montenegro in Calling All Quakers: have it your way, baby!” 10

Music
There are no big set pieces, but Alf Clausen’s music is packed with glancing touches of elegance, from a pastiche of Milt Franklyn’s frantic Looney Tunes soundtracks to the sterilised noodlings being pumped around Rancho Relaxo. Clausen invests even the smallest of cues – Maggie creeping out of the house to look for Marge, Marge on board a train – with flourishes that stick in the memory. Proof again that a great Simpsons script prompts an equally great score. 8

Voices
Julie Kavner has this one all sewn up. When Selma bawls, “C’mon kids, it’s time to rub Aunt Patty’s feet!” Kavner injects just the right amount of dreary sadism to match Bart and Lisa’s appalled response. Whenever the sisters show a rare flash of enthusiasm about something (“Divorce Court is on in 15 minutes!”) Kavner makes them sound unsettling as well as excited. Their grunts are as loaded with barbed sentiment as their words. Even the snores booming from Patty’s cigarette-raddled throat have a personality utterly in keeping with their host, so uncompromisingly ghastly yet so confoundingly peculiar.

*honk*

*honk*

What with all this and Marge spending the episode ricocheting between untamed rage and eerie serenity, it’s Kavner’s best performance to date. 9

Animation direction
The very first thing we see in this episode – and the signal that we’re in for a treat of the highest order – is Homer and Bart chasing each other around the house, animated by director Mark Kirkland in the style of Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote:

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From then on it’s one highlight after another, including Homer’s doomed attempt to pack Maggie off to stay with Patty and Selma:

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Bart pulling faces at Lisa:

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Marge sinking into her bath at Rancho Relaxo:

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A scattering of visual gags, including Chief Wiggum’s police tape (DISTRESSED MOTHER – PLEASE STAND BACK) and Homer’s bedside photo:

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Plus the various objects Maggie mistakes for Marge’s head:

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All of which builds up to what – for British viewers – is quite simply the dirtiest joke in The Simpsons so far:

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Just consider this image for a moment. The writers didn’t decide merely to have Maggie mistake a beefeater’s hat for her mother’s hairdo. They made the beefeater an employee of a car-wash, then called the car-wash BUCKINGHAM PALACE QUICK LUBE, then made the beefeater say the line “Lube job while you wait?” as a person walks by. This alone is worth a mighty 10.

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
It should go without saying that the Wile E. Coyote sequence is one of the finest pastiches in this or any episode. But just to be on the safe side, let’s say that this sequence is so good because a) not only is it animated with both precision and affection but b) it is also thrilling (thanks to the music), fresh (thanks to the element of surprise) and fun (thanks to the captions). Elsewhere there are nods to the films Thelma and Louise (which Marge watches while in the bath) and Home Alone (referenced in the episode title) which ratchet up the homage count further, plus – lest we forget – there is the first of many tips of the hat to the glorious MacGyver. 9

Emotion and tone
There’s a point in this episode when Maggie crawls out of her cot, out of the house and down the street, then roams the streets all night before spending the next morning wandering Springfield shopping mall, yet all the while NOBODY NOTICES HER. In less masterful hands this sequence would wreck the entire story, shoving the perimeter of plausibility beyond even that of a cartoon that has already shown us a man unable to detach his own baby from a doorframe. Yet it gets away with it, and triumphantly, because it’s of a piece with the tone of the entire episode – a tone that has been sustained skilfully right from those opening scenes, where we see every element of the Simpsons’ day-to-day life becoming slightly frenzied and reality starting to tug loose at its moorings. At the end of the episode when Marge returns from the ranch, she holds up a photograph that shows how the world should be:

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– before the camera cuts to how the world is now:

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The former might be Marge’s idea of perfection, but the latter – at least for these 22 minutes – is a lot more entertaining. 9

Verdict: 91%
All the cogs and screws in the Simpsons whirligig dance together here in near-perfect formation, pushing the score over 90% for the first time.

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