75. Duffless

“Behold! Gravity, in all its glory!”

  • First broadcast: Thursday 18 February 1993, Fox Television
  • First shown on UK terrestrial television: Monday 22 June 1998, BBC2
  • Showrunners: Al Jean & Mike Reiss
  • First draft: David Stern
  • Writing staff: George Meyer, Jon Vitti, John Swartzwelder, Jeff Martin, David Stern, Conan O’Brien, Frank Mula, Bill Oakley, Josh Weinstein, Dan McGrath
  • Animation director: Jim Reardon

Another ace from David Stern;
From him, young writers much could learn

The last time Homer’s over-indulgence was the subject of an episode, the results were ghastly. This time things are way better, thanks to a far more nuanced and imaginative approach from Stern and co. We don’t simply see Homer behaving to excess and then flippantly dismissing the consequences. Instead he’s placed in a dilemma that demands consequences he can’t ignore: a challenge from Marge to give up alcohol for a month. The episode then becomes a matter Homer getting from A to B, namely the start of the month to the end. Not a lot actually happens between these two points; what we get are variations on a theme, but done with enough wit and elegance to keep you happily absorbed in the action. There’s a fine subplot too, with Bart and Lisa pitted – for once – in constructive competition, trying to win first prize at the school science fair. 9

For the most part, Homer’s boorishness is depicted as a means to an end, and with a vague sense that he knows he is out of line. Only occasionally does the script become lazy and the drunken scenes become redundant. There’s a particularly crass moment when Homer is shown repeatedly slamming Barney’s head inside a car door. It’s horrible because it’s so out of step with the tone of the rest of the episode, doesn’t advance the story anywhere, and is just downright unfunny. Contrast it with Homer’s witty reaction to seeing a clip of President Nixon endorsing beer (“The man never drank a Duff in his life!”), itself a pastiche of Nixon’s famous 1960 TV debate with JFK.

“I’d also like to express my fondness for that particular beverage.”

Lisa and Bart are written well too, both using their respective strengths – brains and cunning – in ways that are clever rather than thoughtless. Bart’s behaviour may be less rational than that of a hamster, but he gets to have the last laugh by cannily exploiting the vanity of adults rather the machinations of his sister. 8

Locations and design
What a piece of work is the nuclear power plant. It has now acquired vast, dimly-lit and long-forgotten corridors, populated by tall shadows and crumpled skeletons, passage through which can be navigated only by the chanting of ancient rhyme (“If the plant ye wish to flee, go to sector 7B!”)

Though Mr Burns is nowhere to be seen, everywhere his presence is felt. When a giant spider rears up over Homer, you are not in the least surprised. But remember: “To overcome the spider’s curse, simply quote a bible verse.” 10

Pardon My Zinger
First prize to Milhouse and his ecstatic unveiling of his science exhibit (“Behold! Gravity, in all its glory!”) followed by silence, save for a spring inching down a slide, then stopping. Second prize to Ned Flanders, for disclosing he hasn’t had a drink for 4,000 days, since he tasted a blackberry schnapps and became “more animal than man!”. In third place, Homer, for going to a baseball game while sober and having a moment of revelation. 8

“I never realised how boring this game is!”

Special guests
Is it worth still counting Phil Hartman as a special guest? He’s turned up so many times this season, it feels he’s almost a regular member of the cast. But a quick check reveals he’s actually been absent from more episodes than those in which he’s been present. Plus there is still something special about his appearances, even if they’re riffing on an idea that began two years ago. “What a terrible waste,” he sighs, gazing at a car crash. Brief pause. “Hi, I’m actor Troy McClure! You might remember me from such drivers’ ed films as Alice’s Adventures Through The Windshield Glass and The Decapitation of Larry Leadfoot.” 9

The scene where Bart hurls Lisa’s giant tomato at Skinner’s quivering buttocks wouldn’t be anywhere near as entertaining were it not for Alf Clausen’s score, which elevates a bit of slapstick into something approaching psychological terror. It helps that Skinner is at his most serenely ignorant just before the tomato strikes, as he bends over and mumbles cheerily: “Over, under, in and out, that’s what shoe-tying’s all about.” But Clausen catches this too, switching from sweetness and light to approaching menace at just the right moment. Once the tomato has done its worst, you really feel Skinner, shaking uncontrollably on the pavement.

Ever the master of mood swings, Clausen is spot on once again in the scene where Homer is at a driving school watching Troy McClure’s film of motoring accidents. “Here’s an appealing fellow,” Troy chortles, as the soundtrack honks and tootles with glee; “in fact, they’re a-peeling him off the sidewalk!” 10

One scene above all else captures the absolute conviction – and absolute despair – that grips Homer for most of this episode. It is when he is sitting in his living room and hosting what appears to be the American equivalent of a Women’s Institute coffee morning, at which Patty and Selma are giving a methodically joyless demonstration of ‘Supperware’. One of them places a tub over her head, distorting her features horribly. Jub-Jub squeals in horror. “I would kill everyone in this room for a drop of sweet beer,” Homer wails to himself. It is a perfect reading by Dan Castellaneta, who excels as Homer all the way through this story, and who juggles with precision the right amount of anger and self-pity. Special mention also to Phil Hartman for the relish with which, as Lionel Hutz, he promises he will help Homer get off his driving charge by producing in court a host of “surprise witnesses, each more surprising than the last!” 9

Animation direction
This gets 10 points just for the tomato.

There’s also the spectacular sight of Chief Wiggum, disguised as a giant jug of beer, rolling up and down the sides of a valley before hitting a tree and exploding.

Jim Reardon puts you smack in the centre of Homer’s struggle to keep off the Duff. We’re right there with him when a flock of miniature bottles cascades from the sky, and sense the terror in his eyes when he encounters a freight train filled with the stuff.

By contrast, it’s impossible not to share the delight with which a dreaming Bart, with the help of a Go-Go Ray, makes the entire school staff start dancing round the gymnasium. “Can’t – stop – doing – The – Monkey!” cries Mrs Krabappel, the animation bubbling with excitement as Skinner bellows: “I’m disrupting the learning process – and I love it!”

Homages, spoofs, fantasies
The episode is chock-full of parodies and cinematic hat-tips.

If you’re keeping count, there’s A Clockwork Orange (Bart’s reaction to the cupcakes), Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid (Homer and Marge singing Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head), and Reefer Madness (Moe saying: “You’ll be back – and so will you, and you… [points into camera] AND YOU!”). McMahon and Tate is a reference to Bewitched, and Homer sings his own version of It Was a Very Good Year. But you don’t need to know any of these things to enjoy them in their own right, and Homer’s song works just as well either at face value or as a homemade homage to Frank Sinatra. 9

“When I was 17,
I drank some very good beer
I drank some very beer I purchased
with a fake ID.
My name was Brian McGee,
I stayed up listening to Queen,
When I was 17.”

Emotion and tone
Homer takes his plight seriously enough for you to take him seriously as well. His struggle to get through one month without beer isn’t so overplayed as to become silly; you really feel for him when he’s trapped at the Supperware coffee morning. Very rarely does the tone lapse and the script risk making you simply not care about Homer. You’d like to think he ends the episode determined in future to moderate his drinking. You’d like to hope the writers have taken the hint as well. 8

Verdict: 90%
A tale that boasts much to impress
(save for the scenes of drunk excess).

One thought on “75. Duffless

  1. I just discovered this blog, and I must say that you have something quite intriguing here. As a pretty big fan of The Simpsons myself, this in-depth analysis of what was once the best show on television is something to keep an eye on.

    While not my favorite episode, “Duffless” is probably one of the show’s more heartfelt episodes. Yeah, the subplot is hysterical (“That’ll learn him to bust my tomater” never fails to crack me up), but seeing Homer wrestle with one of his most persistent vices and how it impacts his life manages to be both hilarious and insightful. If anything, this episode is characteristic of what made the show so brilliant way back when.


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