Lesser Known Simpsons: Homer’s Odyssey Review
Growing up, I thought of The Simpsons as brilliantly written but poorly animated. My frame of reference to great cartoon was the tasteful, painterly beauty of Disney along with the spastic, anarchic madness of early Looney Tunesand Merry Melodies cartoons. By those exceptionally high standards, the cartoon on The Simpsonscame as simple and artless.
I now think The Simpsons is a brilliantly animated show but the animation in the first season intermittently feels just like a solidly constructed rough draft. The character movement is sometimes clunky and limited in a Hanna-Barbera style and the backgrounds are normally static. In its first three seasons, The Simpsons epitomized the house style of Klasky-Csupo, an animation home that prized awful over pretty and freakish over ordinary. In their earliest incarnation, the Simpsons represented a mutated take on the nuclear in the literal sense: using their mustard yellow skin and bizarrely shaped heads, they bore just a vague similarity to actual human beings.
In its first season, Klasky-Csupo made the mistake of filling backgrounds using freakish animated extras that diverted from the main action. The animators and producers learned their lessons, nevertheless. In later seasons that the background has been filled with cherished little personalities, which provided a pleasing feeling of familiarity and continuity. It was reassuring seeing a beloved minor character such as Ralph Wiggums perambulating concerning the periphery rather than some odd figure we’d never find again.
If Klasky-Csupo’s animation could be limited and inflexible at times, it nevertheless rose to the occasion when it mattered. Take the key sequence in “Homer’s Odyssey” for instance. In it, Homer, despondent over having lost his job and desperate for its sweet, sour, numbing relief of what we would subsequently learn is both the cause of, and answer to, all of life’s issues, sneaks into Bart’s room while he’s sleeping and glancing open his piggy bank in a mad quest to raise enough money to buy beer.
Deep into the procedure, Homer encounters a moment of clarity and realizes how low he is sunk. What kind of father steals change from his own child to buy alcohol? That’s some Intervention type s*** right there. The crestfallen expression on Homer’s face as he becomes cognizant of the depths of his desperation says everything. To make the situation more tragicomic, there isn’t enough money in the piggy bank to purchase even a single beer. Homer is refused even the ill-gotten rewards of the attempted larceny.
Just when it seems that the show will veer uncomfortably into maudlin sentimentality, Homer suddenly turns focused and determined and pragmatically rifles through the shift to make certain that it won’t fund the purchase of one beer. Homer cycles rapidly from an inveterate alcoholic’s powerlessness before his dependence to some recovery-bound drunk’s realization of that powerlessness and rear in a manner that’s amusing, sad, convincing and true to character.
It’d be incredibly ballsy to have a lead character drunkenly steal their son’s money to buy alcohol at the next season of a hit show, especially if this show was a comedy and the series in question was not a very special episode dedicated to alcoholism. The Simpsons went considerably further by having its lead character sneak out of his son to buy alcohol at its next episode. That takes amazing chutzpah.
It had been traveling to incredibly dark places within the context of a prime time animated humor and demonstrating that its lead character could perpetrate horrible, even unforgivable acts and retain the viewer’s sympathy.
Ah, but let’s start at the start. “Homer’s Odyssey” opens with Bart and his class taking a field visit to the atomic power plant. In one of my favourite gags in the first season, each landmark they pass en route to the plant reflects the soul-crushing terror of life in Springfield. First up is that the toxic waste dump, complete with a cameo from Blinky the 3 eyed fish. Then we head to the flaming tire yard and Springfield State Prison before coming at a institution even more dispiriting than the rest: college. It seems Otto is too stoned to understand he’s driving in a circle.
At the Atomic Power Plant we witness perhaps the first instance of what could develop into a Simpsons continuing: the disingenuous instructional film designed to mislead rather than teach. In this scenario we know about “Nuclear Energy Our Misunderstood Buddy” from a glowing cartoon mascot named Smiling Joe Fission who places a happy face on the problems of residual nuclear waste.
After he is fired for gross incompetence and causing one of his trademark atomic accidents, Homer sinks into a deep depression. The Simpsons started as a family sitcom unusually conducive to the anxieties, fears and ambitions of working-class folk. Between The Simpsons and Roseanne, the early nineties were a veritable renaissance for American sitcoms about being just barely getting by in America.
The first 3 episodes are borderline obsessed with class and money. The first episode revolves around Homer’s feelings of worthlessness over not being able to afford an idyllic Christmas. In the third, Homer is pushed to suicidal grief over losing his job.
The series would go far from its roots in the ensuing years. It became a show about a family than a series about a town: Springfield is the celebrity of The Simpsons as much as Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and Bart. And the course obsessions of the first years faded off as the show’s world grew more cartoonish and fantastical and less rooted from the travails of the working poor.
Homer mopes and mopes and mopes till his dark night of the spirit purloining the meager offerings of Bart’s piggy bank. A distraught Homer decides to commit suicide but until he can hurl himself off a pier with a boulder attached to his body he rediscovers an awareness of purpose and decides to reinvent himself as a safety guru, the beer-guzzling Ralph Nader of Springfield.
Initially, Homer is content to agitate for stop signals but it isn’t long before he sets his sights on the city’s biggest safety hazard: the energy plant. This, understandably, enrages Mr. Burns, who gives Homer a Faustian bargain. He’ll give Homer a job as safety inspector if he will finish his noble campaign against the plant. Homer reluctantly takes, giving the episode an ironic joyful finish.
“Homer’s Odyssey” is a remarkably daring episode. In the course of a single episode, Homer triggers a nuclear accident, loses his job, steals from his son to purchase alcohol, decides to commit suicide and sells out his principles for the sake of staying empoyed. Hell, we love him because he is so gloriously human and fallible.
The Simpsons will evolve and change over the decades but the Homer that would become a preeminent pop icon and one of our culture’s most treasured everymen was already fully formed by the third installment. We know Homer intimately because I guess, there is a little Homer in all of us and a whole lot of Homer in some of us, myself included.
Final Word "Homer's Odyssey" is a remarkably daring episode. In the course of a single episode, Homer triggers a nuclear accident, loses his job, steals from his son to purchase alcohol, decides to commit suicide and sells out his principles for the sake of staying employed. Hell, we love him because he is so gloriously human and fallible.