A classic Simpsons episode explores the universality of being Frank Grimes

A classic Simpsons episode explores the universality of being Frank Grimes

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next seven installments focus on episodes featuring “interlopers.”

“Homer’s Enemy” (The Simpsons, season eight, episode 23; originally aired 5/4/1997)

In which the most beloved man in Springfield meets the only man who could hate him…

Erik Adams: No Simpsons character has ever made as much impact with as little screen time as Frank Grimes. Not Lyle Lanley, not Hank Scorpio, not the long line of schoolyard crushes and babysitters who’ve earned Bart’s affection as no female has ever done before. (Look, a series with this kind of longevity requires the occasional bout of selective amnesia.) Frank Grimes—or, let’s get this out of the way now, “Grimey,” as he liked to be called—was tasked with the impossible: Make Homer Simpson, one of the viewing public’s all-time favorite characters, hateable.

Frank Grimes is the prototypical television interloper, the kind of character who drops into a long-running program to challenge our perception of the show’s status quo—and maybe even represent how members of the audience would react if we had to deal with someone like Homer Simpson on a day-to-day basis. (As such, he was the natural namesake for an A.V. Club Inventory on the subject.) We all know someone who embodies some facet of Homer, but for a brief period (or maybe it’s not so brief—the time element is something The Simpsons never pays much attention to), Frank Grimes has to work in the office adjacent to the actual Homer. He has to stand idly by while an oafish co-worker stumbles his way to the middle, a broad mockery of the American tolerance of mediocrity. With that in mind, it’s no surprise that the “written by” credit on “Homer’s Enemy” goes to John Swartzwelder, the reclusive real-life Ron Swanson with more Simpsons scripts to his name than any other staff writer in the show’s history.

For that reason, “Homer’s Enemy” stands as more than a mere exercise in TV meta-commentary. It’s a pitch-black comic meditation on why bad things happen to good people: Frank Grimes, by all measures an upstanding citizen of Springfield who overcomes adversity after adversity, is ultimately driven mad by what he perceives as Homer’s charmed life. Never mind the fact that the 175 episodes that precede “Homer’s Enemy” display that life’s no picnic for the Simpson family, either. When Frank arrives at 742 Evergreen Terrace, all he can see is the home’s spacious interior, a photo of Homer in space, and a Simpson scion who owns a factory!

Swartzwelder’s script pulls a fantastic switcheroo after Frank storms out of “Casa De Simpson,” however. The first half of the episode asks the viewer to reconsider Homer Simpson as a person: Is he really all that likeable if he’s constantly endangering the lives of everyone around him? How can we relate to someone who does his job poorly yet faces no apparent risk of being fired? How can we even care about a man who, by Lenny’s count, has cheated death 316 times?

The answer, as provided by the remainder of “Homer’s Enemy”: It doesn’t matter, because we’re not talking about a human being. We’re talking about a cartoon character, a collection of well-defined traits and qualities that are nonetheless flexible enough to generate hundreds of hours of television content. Homer is Teflon around the workplace because even when he, say, gives up the power-plant gig to plow driveways for a living, he needs to be back in the safety-inspector’s chair the following week. Frank Grimes, by contrast, is more akin to an inhabitant of our world, someone who expects social Darwinism to sweep the Homer Simpsons into history’s dustbin so that the brave souls who survived silo explosions can rise to the top. So insistent on meritocracy is Frank Grimes that he dies trying to reinforce it.

That’s where I can see “Homer’s Enemy” as a polarizing episode among the Simpsons faithful. The show has its cynical moments, but a viewer introduced to The Simpsons via this episode might assume that the series’ heart is black as coal. The demise of Frank Grimes is handled in a cruel jump cut, the climax of a manic break that doesn’t even afford the character the dignity of being wheeled out of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. It’s just high-voltage wiring --> tombstone. As the funeral scene pans across the mourners, it lands on Homer, fast asleep and drooling, calling out to his wife to “change the channel” before his former colleague is lowered into the ground.

I think “Homer’s Enemy” saves itself from its own cruelty, however. It’s an expertly written Simpsons installment with a simple starting point—who could dislike Homer Simpson?—and a well-paced, hilarious, multiple-part answer to that question. (The B-story, in which Bart purchases an abandoned factory at a tax auction, helps keep the proceedings light.) Hank Azaria’s portrayal of Frank as an unrepentant stick-in-the-mud goes a long way as well. With only slight exaggeration to his everyday speaking voice, Azaria creates a persona so tightly wound that if Homer didn’t make Frank snap, it’s clear some other unwitting sap would have. There’s a certain fatalism inherent to this episode: Some people are destined to have everything wash off their backs like Homer; some will be bossed around all their lives like Milhouse. Some dogs are destined to be executive vice presidents of nuclear power plants; all Frank Grimeses will eventually be cut down by their sense that the world owes them something. 

I’ll put it to the rest of the Roundtable: Does “Homer’s Enemy” dip too far into pessimism? Does it show us that Homer isn’t worth our adoration? For those of you who saw this first-run (like most of The Simpsons, I didn’t catch up with this episode until syndication) was it a shock to see the show’s protagonist portrayed in such a negative light? 

Phil Dyess-Nugent: God, I love this fucking episode. I did see it when it first ran, like I saw every Simpsons episode up to 2001 or so—which, at this point, mainly means that I’m really fucking old. But memory can play funny tricks on you, and I was really surprised to see that this wasn’t the season finale. I vividly remembered that it was, because that just makes sense to me, like it makes sense that a lot of people think that the end of this season marked a prolonged slump for the show. Because if you were assigned the task of coming up with an ideal last episode of The Simpsons, one that worked on its own terms but also exploded all the show’s accepted conventions, in the way that the episodes of The X-Files written by Darin Morgan did, you couldn’t come up with anything better.

I’ve noticed that when people talk about the great leap forward in the quality of TV entertainment, they often see 1999 or 2000 and the birth of The Sopranos as a major watershed event. But all through the ’90s, viewers could see this evolutionary change slowly taking place, driven by a new generation of creators like Joss Whedon and Chris Carter, who had grown up loving hoary old shows like The Night Stalker and could see what was limited about them, but also didn’t have the sense that older writers did that TV was an intrinsically second-rate medium, as well as people like David Lynch and Matt Groening, who already had careers outside of TV and who could come into the sandbox and play for a while. If things worked out for them in TV, great, but if it didn’t, they weren’t burning the last bridge they’d need to save them from life as a barista. 

The Simpsons and Twin Peaks premièred a few months apart from each other in 1989/1990, and at the time, it felt like a real sea change had taken place in the culture. That feeling dispersed because Twin Peaks imploded in its second season, and instead of a bunch of brilliant network shows, what we got in their immediate wake was a shitload of forgotten animated shows whipped up by hacks and Cop Rock. But one thing that both those shows had that really shook things up was a critical, self-aware attitude about TV. Earlier shows that tried for something halfway similar turned spoofy and paper-thin, like It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, a sometimes moderately diverting late-’80s show that, at the time, impressed some critics who’d just learned to type the word “post-modern,” and that, in retrospect, was barely a pimple on the ass of Shandling’s later The Larry Sanders Show. But The Simpsons and Twin Peaks actually managed to make shared jokes based on the fact that smart viewers who’d grown up watching TV understood the basic mechanics of how the shows worked, while still getting the viewers involved in the characters and the stories.

It’s a tricky balancing act to pull off, as Twin Peaks demonstrated in its first-season finale, when viewers who tuned in hoping for some actual closure, or at least meaningful developments in the story of who killed Laura Palmer, were instead treated to a self-aware parody of over-the-top season-ending cliffhangers. Maybe because of the greater elasticity of the cartoon-sitcom format, The Simpsons was able to play these games much longer, and they did some challenging things with them even in the early episodes, particularly with regard to the children’s relationship to TV. (I’m thinking in particular of the first appearance of Sideshow Bob, when he framed Krusty The Klown in order to elevate a kids’ show, and the one where Marge turns Springfield into a cultural oasis for kids by getting violent cartoons banned. Both episodes end “happily,” with the kids back in front of the set, watching the same old crap.) 

But “Homer’s Enemy” really pushed the concept to the wall. Simply put, the episode implicates viewers in Frank Grimes’ downfall. Grimes is right to think that the universe he’s trapped in—which is the universe of a beloved hit TV series, which operates under a set of rules that have developed out of a system for pleasing the audience so they’ll keep coming back—is insane and unfair. If he were a person in the real world, he’d be a heroic figure standing up to injustice and sacrificing himself to bring about change, but because he’s messing with the rules that allow me to enjoy one of my favorite shows, he’s just a pain in the ass. He’s right about everything, and I think the moment he dies is funny as shit. Watching “Homer’s Enemy” may be the closest I’ve ever come to understanding how someone like Gadhafi felt when he looked out the window and saw the rebels massing outside.

Ryan McGee: I’m somewhat haunted by the final image of this show: everyone attending Grimey’s funeral laughing at Homer’s snoring while a man they barely knew gets lowered into the ground. That is some seriously dark shit. Is it too dark, though? I guess the answer to that lies in how you view The Simpsons as a whole. I can understand why people find Homer lovable, but I’m not sure he’s often likeable. That’s by design, with Homer’s obliviousness meant to denigrate, not elevate, his character. There’s enough humanity in him to usually overcome the problems he creates through his own selfishness, but this episode is a test of the limits of that.

All of this is a way to say that it’s not a shock to see Homer portrayed in such a negative light, so much as it’s a shock for the show to so overtly acknowledge his awfulness. Shows often give context clues as to how those writing the show actually view the characters. Vince Gilligan doesn’t admire Walter White’s actions, which allows Breaking Bad to show true villainy without actually celebrating it. Girls often perplexes because many have a hard time understanding to what level Lena Dunham thinks Hannah should be revered or reviled. Usually, The Simpsons’ writing staff seems to treat Homer’s ineptitude the way that Lenny and Carl do. But the simple insertion of Grimes into the proceedings suggests another, darker interpretation: The supposedly “lovable” Homer who America fell in love with is in fact more akin to the monster Grimes describes rather than the Father Of The Year that so many viewers thought him to be. I don’t have a real sense of which is right, which makes the question this episode raises all the more tantalizing and provocative.

Genevieve Koski: I’d find it difficult to call any episode of The Simpsons “dark,” but a certain amount of cynicism has always been programmed into its DNA; satire can’t exist without at least some cynicism, and a show as satirical as The Simpsons accordingly has to have a fair amount of contempt for society and the humans that make it up. What’s different about “Homer’s Enemy” isn’t its cynicism, but rather the lack of effort it makes to shroud that cynicism in irony, parody, or any of the other tools the show frequently uses in its depiction of, oh, let’s say religion. There’s no winking to “Homer’s Enemy,” just a big, yellow finger pointed accusatorially at the audience. In some ways, it reminds me more of a South Park episode than a mid-’90s Simpsons.

The most telling line of “Homer’s Enemy” comes during Grimey’s blowup at the Simpson household, where he shrieks at Homer, “You’re what’s wrong with America!” I wouldn’t go so far as to say this line is directed at the audience, but as you say, Erik, Homer is beloved by America in all his buffoonery and slovenliness, so what does that say about us? Frank Grimes is a staunch believer in meritocracy, something that’s supposedly one of the foundational principles of this country, but is increasingly hard to see realized, particularly in pop culture. (Hello, all of reality television!) It’s a sad fact that as much as Homer is relatable or detestable, he’s similarly aspirational—the human embodiment of Teflon, sliding past every obstacle or setback life throws at him, no matter how undeserving he may be of advancement or absolution.

Now, that’s inherent in being a cartoon character; Homer dousing his nuclear switchboard with water or narrowly avoiding gulping down sulfuric acid isn’t really any different from the havoc wreaked by Bugs Bunny or the danger dodged by the Roadrunner. But “Homer’s Enemy” asks us to consider that characteristic outside the forgiving parameters of a cartoon, and suddenly, it becomes a lot harder to ignore the human reactions and repercussions such actions would and should invite. I think that’s why “Homer’s Enemy” scans as somewhat odd even after all these years; not only does it comment on the show’s history (something The Simpsons rarely did at this point in its run), but it also obliquely comments on the cartoon medium itself. That’s not unique in animation, but it’s pretty darn unusual for The Simpsons. Even the episode’s inevitable hitting of the reset button, the death of Grimey, is designed as self-commentary, punctuated with a gag—Homer sleeping through the funeral—that highlights the callowness of unceremoniously discarding the most human element that’s ever wandered into The Simpsons’ universe. As I said, I wouldn’t call it dark, but it’s far from the candy-colored artificiality of a cartoon.

Donna Bowman: I am Frank Grimes. Incompetence, and tolerance thereof, infuriates me. And I bet executive producer Bill Oakley, who came up with the story idea, and John Swartzwelder, who wrote the episode, are Frank Grimeses too. Frank may go to cackling evil lengths in trying to get the rest of Springfield to share his worldview, but his worldview is eminently reasonable and convincingly presented. When our neighbors unapologetically impose on us, secure behind the bulwark of social conventions that keep us from strangling them for stealing our clearly marked dietetic lunches, we are all Frank Grimes, aren’t we?

This episode is truly brilliant in the way it suddenly takes a step back from cartoon logic and illuminates the dark, unexplored space underneath the cozy comforter of the sitcom form. What resonates most is Homer’s completely blank expression when Frank calls him out for his unearned privilege. If Homer understood why Frank hated him, the show would implode like when Jim Carrey runs into the sky backdrop in The Truman Show. It’s much funnier, and more true to our everyday Frank Grimes experiences, that these bumbling oafs never know, and never change. You can’t reason with them. And then, in Frank’s conversation with Lenny and Carl in the break room, there’s one more irrevocable twist of the knife. It’s not just the bumbling oafs that you can’t change; it’s everyone else who has learned to live with them, and can’t figure out why you find it so difficult to join them. When Lenny and Carl pointedly turn away from Frank Grimes in full-on justice-crusader mode (“Homer is not okay, and I want everyone in this plant to realize it!”) and return to their small talk, the Frank Grimes in me (or Grimey, as I like to be called) dies a little, too.

David Sims: I first saw this episode when it aired, in 1997 or so, and I remember that it just flat-out disturbed me. I mean, obviously I thought it was very funny, but the idea that it ended with Grimes’ public death and everyone being nonchalant about it—that was crazy to this 11-year-old, even on a show like The Simpsons that I adored partly for its absurdist streak. What’s so brilliant is that it’s a Simpsons episode that very much acknowledges that things don’t just happen in a vacuum on this show. I like that we see all of Homer’s accomplishments framed on his wall: He met Gerald Ford, he flew in space, he won a Grammy, etc. Grimes is justifiably horrified, not just because Homer doesn’t seem worthy of his accomplishments, but also because it’d be crazy for anyone to have such a weird, varied list of accomplishments! It’s a clever acknowledgement of the show’s inherent unreality that somehow makes it all more plausible, and that’s one of the many values of introducing a character like Grimes.

In the exact same way, it justifies our love for Homer Simpson by drawing attention to his every foible. If we didn’t like Homer and enjoy all his ridiculousness, the show would be borderline unwatchable. When Lenny or Carl sticks up for Homer, they’re speaking for the audience, even though Grimes is there as a representative of the real world. “Homer’s Enemy” speaks to how important the escapism offered by television is to us. We resist Grimes and are happy to see him fail, because it’s like he’s trying to reach through the TV screen and shake us out of our happy reverie. Leave us alone, Grimes!

Of course, as Genevieve noted, it’s not just our happy TV lives Grimes is trying to disrupt, it’s the very foundation of the American lifestyle, that chumps like Homer can coast through life for no good reason even though we’re supposed to work hard for our success. It’s the smartest point “Homer’s Enemy” is making, and it’s what keeps it from just being a brilliant meta episode about television. It’s much more than that.

Todd VanDerWerff: One of my favorite stories about Charles Schulz is that he claims that he didn’t really understand the impact of his most famous creation, Charlie Brown, until a friend’s son came home from school. When asked how his day had been, the kid scowled and said he felt just like Charlie Brown. Upon hearing about this story from the kid’s mother, Schulz felt intuitively what that child had felt—then realized that one of his characters had allowed that connection to happen. I often think of that story when watching an episode like this, because “Homer’s Enemy” is so smart about both making us hope Frank Grimes fails (and allows us to keep watching our TV show with no hang-ups) but also makes us sympathize with him. We’ve all had points in our lives when we were Frank Grimes, just as we’ve all had points when we were Homer Simpson. The genius of Frank is that it’s much easier to recognize the times when we’ve been passed over in favor of an incompetent boob than the times when we were the boob.

Though “Homer’s Enemy” is one of my favorite episodes of the show, I’m not sure I’d bill it as one of the series’ funniest half-hours. Like any episode from the classic era, “Homer’s Enemy” is packed with great jokes, but there’s also far more time given over to the meta-commentary and the analysis of Homer as a fictional character. In some ways, this episode functions as a brilliant piece of TV criticism, picking apart the comforting lies the medium likes to sell to audiences, then suggesting just why those lies are so necessary in the first place if the medium is to function. “Homer’s Enemy” is clever-funny almost as much as it’s ha-ha funny, and I don’t think it’s any surprise that the eighth season—which contained this episode—is the last before the show’s long decline began. The Simpsons still offers a handful of good episodes per season, but it’s no longer capable of things like this, simply because you can only do this sort of thing once. In many ways, it serves the same function as the Seinfeld finale, reminding us that these are some awful people we’ve been watching, yet it gets away with it, because it’s constantly reminding us that we’re the disgruntled ones, but we’re also the boobs.

Stray observations:

The contest to build a model power plant is the funniest thing about this episode to me. It’s always hilarious to see everybody cheering on Homer kicking a bunch of kids’ butts, even though Martin’s model should have won under almost any scenario. [TV]

I really love the Bart-buys-the-factory subplot, and I think it ties in nicely with the Grimes stuff, because Bart’s “success” is inexplicable and yet just the slightest bit plausible. [DS]

I’ll be the wet noodle that suggests the Bart subplot didn’t really belong in this episode. Not only does it feel out of place with the A-story, but also takes valuable time away from Grimes’ logical meltdown. [RM]

I like the factory B-story for how it ties into the episode’s theme of unearned achievement, but mostly I like it for the way Milhouse exclaims, “Wow, adding machines!” [GK]


The Simpsons is a show chock-full of quotes that apply to every situation: Milhouse starting his security job at an empty factory and saying, “So, this is my life!” is something me and my friends would say every time we began a menial job with no foreseeable advancement. [DS]

Say what you will about Homer’s productivity, the man can destroy more pencils in more ways than anyone I know or would want to know. [GK]

I love that vice president dog, and I would enjoy seeing him pop up more in years to come. [TV]

I’d be extremely curious to hear how influential this episode was for those that took the nominally “comic” medium of the half-hour show and turned it into the Wild West that it is today. “Homer’s Enemy” feels important not just for its pitch-black content, but for the way it demonstrated how easily such dark spaces could be explored in a nominally light medium. [RM]

“Hmmm… Nitzy…” [GK]

Next week: Donna Bowman wonders who will be “Clubhouse Poison” in an episode of My Boys (which is available on Netflix Instant). After that, David Sims and Fisher Stevens over-analyze the Friends in "The One With The Boobies.

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