As an iconographic character, Homer Simpson has come to represent a lot of things: he’s your typical lazy worker, the prototypical selfish husband so often ignorant to marital woes until they become disastrous, an impulsive man that consistently threatens the safety of his family and his city, and most popularly he is known just as a dimwitted simpleton. Early in my marathon, I proposed that the rotund centerpiece of The Simpsons was more than even just that by situating his character as one that moves the representation of families on television beyond the static, unrealistic expectations of the American Dream, crafting a more honest reflection of the nuclear family in the contemporary United States. Something that gets lost in all of these accounts, hidden beneath an avalanche of silly jokes, dumb comments and surreal wanderings is that there’s something inherently tragic about Homer Simpson. Perhaps his representation of the American Dream gone awry is more truthful, and perhaps the quarreling family is more relatable to the vast majority of us, but on the human level Homer’s story is, in fact, a story of self sacrifice and care in spite of all of those negative qualities he embodies and i primarily known for.
Nowhere does this become more apparent, or more fully explored for that matter, than in the sixth season of The Simpsons. Notably, it comes to fruition in the episodes …And Maggie Makes Three (S6E13)and Lisa’s Wedding (S6E19), in which the series looks backwards and forwards, respectively, to mine a more complex relationship between the father and his daughters. While it doesn’t quite contain the emotional sucker punch of the former, Lisa’s Wedding still portrays a father that is willing to do anything to make his daughter happy; when her fiancé refuses his silly wedding tradition, he doesn’t put up a fuss or anything as one might expect, preferring to lose out on something he wants to pass on rather than to put his child’s happiness at stake. It’s a different sort of decision for Homer, a usually boisterous man who cares first for himself. While it may seem like a minor sacrifice, but in terms of portraying Homer as a caretaker instead of an apathetic figure, it does very much work (just like the minor reaffirmation of how he cares for Marge by protecting sister-in-laws who have tortured him all episode in Homer vs. Patty and Selma [S6E17]). …And Maggie Makes Three pushes Homer as a tragic figure into overdrive, however; we get a sense that he isn’t where he wants to be in prior outings on the show, and it’s made very clear that is children weren’t planned, but this episode really hits the point home by having him make a very big sacrifice, damning himself to a mundane job he hates after a brief taste of paradise, with a very literal reminder in front of him that he’ll be working this position forever in order to give his children a better life. Tellingly, this can only be made tolerable due to an immediate paternal connection with Maggie. It’s a very poignant episode because it takes all of those rather cynical points about the true American Dream I made and gives it a very human spin, that of a parent having to choose the happiness of a child over himself. It also works because it feels very much in line with what’s come before, the natural outcome of everything that we’ve seen to this moment; having Homer narrate it makes the story feel all the more personal. It’s not a story that he frames as depressing in the end, but rather an uplifting one that exercises a certain level of maturity and love often absent from his character. I’ve often said …And Maggie Makes Three is my favorite episode of the show; with so much competition, I don’t quite feel I can confirm this, but I do think it represents one of the greatest payoffs in the show’s entire run. There’s something about the posted pictures of Maggie that make an inhumane, spirit crushing plaque into an uplifting–albeit saccharine–affirmation of what Homer’s doing that gets me every time.
Season Six, one could say, actually feels like one big pay off; the jokes are leaner, faster and funnier than those before, while each emotional moment hits its beat perfectly. Take Round Springfield (S6E22) for example–it picks up on an underused character from season one, Bleeding Gums Murphy, and uses it to explore the genuine feeling when an idol and close friend passes as well as to show that Bart can pick up on his surroundings and does care very much for his sister, despite the show he continually puts on. The episode manages to balance emotion and humor however: for every joke about how unpopular jazz is that encourages laughter, there’s a real commentary on the sense of isolation Lisa feels because of it. There’s also Lisa on Ice (S6E8), in which the two children must both choose to throw down their sticks in favor of a more meaningful connection between the two. In Grandpa vs Sexual Inadequacy (S6E10) Homer discovers he was an accident–something he says about his children all the time–but the feeling is so hurtful he vows to be a better, yet overbearing, father before reconciling with Abe. Meanwhile, Itchy and Scratchy get their closest look yet in Itchy and Scratchy Land (S6E4), which continues to probe the issues of representation of violence and desensitization in contemporary culture.
The episodic structure, though, lends itself again to so many moments and disparate pieces of cultural commentary worth mentioning. One of the messages with the heftiest message is Homer Badman (S6E9), a hilarious episode that looks at the media, sometimes to the detriment of those that are not guilty; when the folks at Rock Bottom apologize, it is tellingly a tiny one in the midst of so many that aren’t legible. The message is clear: in the news cycle, controversy trumps truth. It also shows a wonderful critique about the relationship between television and the modern family; its hard for the family to completely believe their father because the TV is such an important part of their life, and at the end Homer gets sucked in to the same cycle despite the fact it hurts the man that exonerated him. There’s also Bart vs Australia (S6E16), which reminded me of a paper I wrote about Borat a while ago; a major part of that film was the way it poked fun at American ignorance and stereotypes by creating such a primitive, incorrect version of Kazachstan. The same way, the stereotypical representation of Australia–from the debate between coffee and beer to the way going to their representatives entails just looking at the farmer out back–indulges itself in cultural ignorance. Season Six also contains two of the best songs in the entire series–See My Vest, Burns dissection of his wardrobe (and one of my favorite moments in the entire series), and the Stonecutters song tucked in Homer the Great. That episode, in particular, works as a wonderful way to show the social isolation of Homer and how, even when he tries to do right, it somehow always goes wrong. There’s also the Rear Window referencing season opener, a wonderful episode that sees small jokes of Jimmy Stewart believing Bart is spying on him, while Flanders appears to be a murderer (how great is the end of that episode, as Martin stands bare in the swimming pool staring into the distance and singing?)
Another interesting strand that picks up this season is the idea of how history is represented by who tells the story: I can think of two examples off the top of my head, the first being in The PTA Disbands (S6E21) where the historians recount a heroic portrayal of a battle at Fort Springfield where opposing troops that are diseased, disheartened and surrendering are ‘heroically’ massacred. The other is in Lemon of Troy (S6E24)-a very very near miss for my favorite episode of the season-where two opposing grandpas tell the story very differently: for Springfield, it is about the heroic mission that sees the return of their landmark lemon tree, for Shelbyville it is the tale of how the haunted lemon tree is successfully banished from town. This episode, in particular, is wonderful as it begins to flesh out the rivalry between the two towns by portraying them a mirroring cities; the only ones who notice, however, are the two Milhouses (“so this is what it’s like…when doves cry.”) Nearly every moment in that episode is quotable from Martin’s dance to Homer’s “Tute On, Son”. It’s also worth noting that Season Six also has, hands down, the best Treehouse of Horror entry. It’s three entries–one poking fun of the Shining (but don’t call it that, unless you want to get sued) with Homer doing his best Jack Nicholson impression, one poking fun of a Ray Bradbury story about the butterfly effect, and the other the tale of children getting eaten by teachers. These episodes work so well because they can exist merely as critiques and indulgences in pop culture due to their one-off nature, and these three segments are some of the funniest the show will offer up (period), from Homer not returning to get his father to the continual joke about how bad Groundskeeper Willie is at playing the hero because he consistently gets murdered via axe.
It’s always interesting to talk about the mechanisms of how humor works, something I haven’t really done quite so much to this point outside of pointing the stereotypical episode structure. The backbone of the comedy in this season is, by far, the fake out. This method works just like it sounds: the show hints at something, pushing the audience to believe its natural outcome is coming, and creates a punchline by subverting viewer expectation. It’s a simple set-up, punchline procedure, but the show does it ad naseum: the show makes you think Patty and Selma have exhausted the phone book from A to Z to spread gossip by taking advantage of the generic montage structure and framing, but they’ve actually just called the biggest gossips in town who happen to have the first and last name in the book. Marge makes a plea for the importance of the discipline of a caring parent to the Australian ambassador as inspirational music swells and triumphantly passes the phone, but the moment is deflated immediately as the two politicians decide she isn’t allowed to talk on it again. The greyhounds are all so successful and the show cuts to the silhouette of what looks like a hanging homer, only to reveal he’s actually batting a lightbulb to feel better about his blunderous decision. A troubled jazz musician confesses his ruinous$1500 a day habit–cut to him buying fabrige eggs instead of drugs. What about that wonderful moment where Homer notes that something is wrong about the new bar he’s trying out; the audience thinks he is blissfully unaware of the sexual orientation of those surrounding him before he goes on to assert that “this lesbian bar has no emergency exits” and wishes them good luck with their death trap. It’s a simple one-two maneuver, but this is, perhaps, the most important way the show crafts comedy successfully in the sixth season, and once you notice it you begin to see just how important it is to each show’s success.
We now reach the point where this post is far too long, once more. Let me end this by saying that I predict that Season 6 will hold up (and edge out 4) as the best of series when all is said and done; its just too funny from start to finish, there’s too many quotes, and there’s too many possible favorite episodes. It also features the most appearances of my favorite Simpsons character, Hans Moleman. With that being said, at 21% complete we’ve barely scratched the surface of what The Simpsons has to offer.
Favorite Episode: …And Maggie Makes Three
Favorite Quote: “I was saying Boo-urns” (A Star is Burns)
Favorite Couch Gag: The M.C. Escher Gag (Homer the Great)
Favorite Chalkboard Gag: Ralph won’t ‘morph’ if you squeeze him hard enough (Fear of Flying)
Favorite Short Term/Non-Recurring Character: Milhouse (the Shelbyville one, naturally) (Lemon of Troy)
Favorite Musical Number: See My Vest (Two Dozen and One Greyhounds)
Favorite Itchy and Scratchy Cartoon: Planet of the Aches (Bart of Darkness)
* I find this task to be an absurd one. Below is a collection of other great quotes that must be mentioned:
“Oh my god. The dead have risen and they’re voting republican!”-Bart Simpson
“Me Fail English? That’s unpossible!”-Ralph Wiggum
“I see you’ve played knifey spooney before”-Australian Man
“Nobody manhandles the bosom child of Nelson Muntz. Spring forth, burly protector, and save me!”-Martin Prince
“Fox changed into a hardcore sex channel so gradually I didn’t even notice” Marge Simpson
“If only the sugar were as sweet as you, sir”-Hans Moleman
“In America: first you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women.”-Homer Simpson
“Homer, come quick. Bart quit his tutoring job and joined a violence gang!”-Marge Simpson
“Nobody ever suspects the butterfly”-Bart Simpson
“This is Moleman in the morning. Good Moleman to you. Today, part four of our series of the agonizing pain in which I live every day.”-Hans Moleman