Growing up, I thought of The Simpsons as brilliantly written but poorly animated. My frame of reference for great animation was the elegant, painterly beauty of Disney and the spastic, anarchic madness of early Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons. By those prohibitively high standards, the animation on The Simpsons came across as crude and artless.
I have since learned the errors of my ways. I now think The Simpsons is a brilliantly animated show but the animation in the first season intermittently feels like a hastily assembled rough draft. The character movement is sometimes clunky and limited in a Hanna-Barbera fashion and the backgrounds tend to be static. In its first three seasons, The Simpsons epitomized the house style of Klasky-Csupo, an animation house that prized ugly over pretty and freakish over normal. In their earliest incarnation, the Simpsons represented a mutated take on the nuclear in the most literal sense: with their mustard yellow skin and bizarrely shaped heads, they bore only a vague resemblance to actual human beings.
In its first season, Klasky-Csupo made the mistake of filling backgrounds with freakish animated extras that distracted from the main action. The animators and producers learned their lessons, however. In later seasons the background was filled with beloved minor characters, which provided a pleasing sense of familiarity and continuity. It was reassuring seeing a beloved minor character like Ralph Wiggums perambulating about the periphery instead of some strange figure we’d never see again.
If Klasky-Csupo’s animation could be limited and stiff at times, it nevertheless rose to the occasion when it mattered. Take the key sequence in “Homer’s Odyssey” for example. In it, Homer, despondent over having lost his job and desperate for the sweet, intoxicating, numbing relief of what we would subsequently learn is both the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems, sneaks into Bart’s room while he’s sleeping and smashes open his piggy bank in a mad quest to raise enough money to buy beer.
Deep into the process, Homer experiences a moment of clarity and realizes how low he’s sunk. What kind of father steals change from his own child to buy alcohol? That’s some Intervention type shit right there. The crestfallen expression on Homer’s face as he becomes cognizant of the depths of his desperation says it all. To make the situation even more tragicomic, there isn’t enough money in the piggy bank to buy even a single beer. Homer is denied even the ill-gotten rewards of his attempted larceny.
Just when it appears that the show will veer uncomfortably into maudlin sentimentality, Homer suddenly turns focused and determined and pragmatically rifles through the change to make certain that it won’t fund the purchase of even a single beer. Homer cycles rapidly from an inveterate alcoholic’s powerlessness before his addiction to a recovery-bound drunk’s realization of that powerlessness and back in a manner that’s funny, sad, convincing and true to character.
It would be incredibly ballsy to have a lead character drunkenly steal their son’s money to buy alcohol in the third season of a hit show, especially if that show was a comedy and the show in question wasn’t a very special episode devoted to alcoholism. The Simpsons went much further by having its lead character steal from his son to buy alcohol in its third episode. That takes incredible chutzpah.
The Simpsons was throwing down the gauntlet. It was traveling to incredibly dark places within the context of a prime time animated comedy and illustrating that its lead character could commit horrible, even unforgivable acts and still retain the audience’s sympathy.
Ah, but let’s start at the beginning. “Homer’s Odyssey” opens with Bart and his class taking a field trip to the nuclear power plant. In one of my favorite gags in the first season, every landmark they pass en route to the plant reflects the soul-crushing horror of life in Springfield. First up is the toxic waste dump, complete with a cameo from Blinky the three eyed fish. Then we head over to the flaming tire yard and Springfield State Prison before arriving at an institution even more dispiriting than the rest: school. It appears Otto is too stoned to realize he’s driving in a circle.
At the Nuclear Power Plant we witness perhaps the first example of what would become a Simpsons perennial: the hilariously disingenuous instructional film designed to mislead rather than educate. In this case we learn about “Nuclear Energy, Our Misunderstood Friend” from a sunny cartoon mascot named Smiling Joe Fission who puts a happy face on the problems of leftover nuclear waste.
After he’s fired for gross incompetence and causing one of his signature nuclear accidents, Homer sinks into a deep depression. The Simpsons began as a blue-collar family sitcom unusually attuned to the anxieties, fears and aspirations 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 three episodes are borderline obsessed with money and class. The first episode revolves around Homer’s feelings of worthlessness over not being able to afford an idyllic Christmas. In the third, Homer is driven to suicidal despair over losing his job.
The show would move far from its roots in the ensuing years. It became less a show about a family than a show about a city: Springfield is the star of The Simpsons as much as Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and Bart. And the class obsessions of the early years faded away as the show’s universe grew more cartoonish and fantastical and less rooted in the travails of the working poor.
Homer mopes and mopes and mopes until his dark night of the soul purloining the meager offerings of Bart’s piggy bank. A distraught Homer decides to commit suicide but before he can hurl himself off a pier with a boulder attached to his body he rediscovers a sense of purpose and decides to reinvent himself as a safety guru, the beer-guzzling Ralph Nader of Springfield.
At first, Homer is content to agitate for stop signs but it isn’t long until he sets his sights on the town’s biggest safety hazard: the power plant. This, understandably, enrages Mr. Burns, who offers Homer a Faustian bargain. He’ll give Homer a job as safety inspector if he’ll end his noble campaign against the plant. Homer reluctantly accepts, giving the episode an ironic happy ending.
“Homer’s Odyssey” is an incredibly daring episode. In the course of a single episode, Homer causes a nuclear accident, loses his job, steals from his son to buy alcohol, decides to commit suicide and sells out his principles for the sake of remaining empoyed. And we love him all the same. Hell, we love him even more because he’s so gloriously human and fallible.
The Simpsons would evolve and change over the years but the Homer that would become a preeminent pop icon and one of our culture’s most beloved everymen was already fully formed by the third episode. We know Homer intimately because, I suspect, there's a little Homer in all of us and a whole lot of Homer in some of us, myself included.