Homer is the quintessential American: lazy, over-fed, spoiled, oblivious to anything but his own needs and undeserving of his good fortune. With apologies to Lou Gehrig, who really wasn’t all that fortunate, what with that horrible disease he contracted and all, Homer really is the luckiest man in the world. Homer’s ability to triumph in spite of himself has been a recurring theme throughout the show’s run.
“Homer Defined” is in many ways the antithesis of “Homer’s Enemy.” In “Homer’s Enemy”, hard-luck, up-by-the-bootstraps coffee achiever Frank Grimes seethes with hostility at Homer’ s embarrassment of personal and professional riches while Homer bumbles through his everyday life, unconcerned that he’s done nothing to earn such a sweet life or devoted wife.
In “Homer Defined”, however, the mustard-yellow patriarch is riddled with guilt over having triumphed accidentally. In “Homer’s Enemy”, Homer is happily oblivious; in “Homer Defined” Homer knows enough to feel terribly ashamed of himself and unworthy of the awards, accolades, hams and congratulatory phone calls from Earvin “Magic” Johnson that come with accidental heroism.
Homer’s intelligence is elastic: it stretches to the fit the requirements of any particular scene or gag. The same is true of Homer’s conscience; sometimes he borders on sociopathic but on “Homer Defined” he’s filled with guilt and shame. “Homer Defined” finds both Homer and Bart mired in depressive funks as they fall out of roles they’re comfortable with—barely tolerated power plant fuck-up and Milhouse’s best friend respectively—and into weird new roles that don’t suit them.
The episode opens with Bart giddy with anticipation over giving Milhouse his birthday present and a wonderfully age-inappropriate card only to discover that he was apparently the only person in Springfield not invited to Milhouse’s birthday party. Like many childhood friendships, Bart and Milhouse’s bond is fundamentally lopsided; Bart can bend Milhouse to his will but there’s an underlying tenderness to their relationship that makes Milhouse’s loyalty and devotion to Bart seem less masochistic than symbiotic.
Bart has been banished from Milhouse’s microscopic social circle by Milhouse’s disapproving mother, who holds him responsible for introducing poisonous verbiage like “suck” into her home. Bart and Milhouse need each other; for all his swagger and mistreatment of Milhouse, Bart needs a sidekick, partner and patsy and Milhouse needs someone to idolize and serve. Neither is complete without the other, as symbolized hauntingly and amusingly in the tragicomic image of Milhouse dejectedly ramming his one half of a seesaw into the ground as he pines for his lost friend. In true Simpsons fashion, “Homer Defined” wraps up the Bart/Milhouse b-story with a burst satisfyingly sticky sentiment—Marge getting Milhouse’s mom to back down—that’s immediately undercut with the bracing darkness of Bart promising his mom he’ll be good, then pumping a shotgun ominously, a Charles Whitman gleam in his eye.
Meanwhile, in the A-story a near-nuclear meltdown brings Springfield to the brink of oblivion. I believe it was Robert McKee who wrote that action defines character: what we do defines who we are. That’s especially true during crises. The looming specter of imminent annihilation brings out the inner essence of every character. Marge sweetly, if a little passive-aggressively, tries to avert a Springfield apocalypse by promising to donate slightly better items to food drives. Smithers finally professes his love for Mr. Burns, who rejects him callously with sour sarcasm.
Principal Skinner resurrects the long-discredited “Duck and cover” means of surviving a nuclear Armageddon and, in my favorite character-defining moment, Barney reacts to the bleak news with a satisfied, wonderfully non-sarcastic, “That’s all right. I couldn’t have led a richer life.” Astonishingly, that isn’t even his best line of the episode. No, that honor would have to go to the wonderfully context-free, “So the next time someone tells you carnies are good honest people, you can spit in their face for me!”
Homer ends up averting disaster through blind chance but he can’t shake the feeling that he doesn’t deserve his good fortune. “Homer Defined” gives us a more melancholy, reflective side of Homer, a Homer capable of guilt and self-doubt. Homer has a shameful secret he must hide from the world to keep up the façade of a hero, a knowledge that eats away at him and negates any of the pleasure he might otherwise derive from his new status as Springfield’s unlikely savior.
Deep down, Homer wants to be found out as a fraud. He doesn’t want to be a hero. He wants to be a lazy, beer-swilling, under-achieving slob. He gets a chance to return to his old life when a power-plant operator modeled on Aristotle Onasis and hilariously voiced by Jon Lovitz invites him to give an inspirational speech to his workers that’s interrupted by a narratively convenient near-meltdown Homer can only fix by revealing himself to be a fraud.
With the possible exceptions of prop-based comedy, I’ve always found the old, “If you look up () in the dictionary you’ll find ()’s face” bit to be the lowest form of humor so I was a little disappointed to find the show employing it here. While having Homer’s name accompany the dictionary definition of “stupid” is a weak gag the recurring motif of having Homer’s name pop up throughout the dictionary paid off at the end when Homer introduces a new phrase into the vernacular: “Pulling a Homer”, i.e succeeding through dumb luck. Considering how deeply The Simpsons has penetrated our culture, especially our lexicon, I’m a little surprised that “pulling a Homer” isn’t used more extensively when there are so many instances in which it can be employed in a cromulent fashion.
“Homer Defined” ends, as sitcoms must, with order being restored and everything going back to normal. But in showing how Springfield reacted to the threat of nuclear Armageddon—with cowardice, blind fear and mass panic—the show helped define its characters, its setting and itself.
—“They called me old-fashioned for teaching the duck and cover method but who’s laughing now?”
—I love that Operation Bootstrap is a President Ford initiative. It epitomizes Ford’s administration beautifully: well meaning but incompetent and counter-productive. Actually, that’s not a bad description of Homer as well.
—“What’s this, a congratulatory phone call from Earvin “Magic” Johnson?”
—“Unrequested fission surplus”
—“Behold the glory that is Homer Simpson!”
—“C’mon, Maggie. Let’s go throw rocks at that’s hornet’s nest
—“Thank you for making my last few moments on Earth socially awkward.”
—“This reporter pledges to be more trusting and less vigilant in the future”—Kent Brockman or everyone on Fox News during the Bush administration?