The primary criticism lobbied at Family Guy is that it fatally lacks the heart that makes The Simpsons emotionally resonant. But it goes far beyond that. The Simpsons isn’t just capable of great emotional depth. At best, it can break your goddamned heart like Ralph Wiggum on live TV. If you freeze-frame you can pinpoint the exact moments in “I Married Marge” where hearts break. There are a lot of them.
“I Married Marge” explores how much of our lives are determined by compromises. It’s a flashback episode that begins with Homer and Marge in a state of high anxiety after Barnacle Bill’s excessively nautically themed Home Pregnancy test turns up maddeningly unclear and the family is faced with the terrifying possibility of another mouth to feed.
Babies are adorable burdens. They ground us. If you’re a twenty-four year old with the best job in the world and a girlfriend you love, as Homer is during the flashback sequences here, they don’t ground you so much as they weigh you down. There is a reason they call it the old ball and chain.
The tone in “I Married Marge” veers somewhere between “achingly bittersweet” and “almost unbearably sad.” It is the story of dreams deferred, of hopes never realized, of aspirations sacrificed on the altar of adult responsibilities. It’s the story of how a boy became a father and a husband without ever becoming a man.
In flashbacks to the 1980s, Homer is living the dream of the doggedly non-ambitious: he has the perfect job working the grounds at a miniature golf course, a girlfriend far better than he deserves and best of all, no responsibilities beyond making sure the windmill at the miniature golf course stays turning. Then Homer receives news that changes his life forever: Marge is pregnant. Suddenly those carefree days sipping champagne inside the miniature castle feel a million miles away.
The perfect fusion of the hilarious and the heartbreaking: that's a specialty of early Simpsons. I teared up when Marge tells Homer that he doesn’t need to buy a fancy wedding ring because any old thing would do and Homer gives her an onion ring that she admires very politely for a moment before admonishing him to take it off before it burns her more. This is the essence of Homer and Marge’s relationship: Marge knows exactly who Homer is and loves him all the same. She’s loving and indulgent enough to let Homer place an onion ring on her finger but sensible enough to not want her finger burned over a gesture, no matter how sweet or romantic. I was equally touched when Marge reads Homer’s accidentally eloquent marriage proposal while directly facing the crack of his ass.
Homer’s triumph and Marge’s tragedy is that a man with no skills is free to go about in the world and run amok while a smart, capable woman is enslaved by her domestic duties. There’s a real sense of hurt and desperation as Homer finds his once sweet life increasingly shaped by hardship. Its contours are molded and shaped by the hardships of having to provide for a wife and the hardship of having to provide for a family.
Parenthood greatly curtails the parameters of Homer’s life but it damn near imprisons Marge. “I Married Marge” somehow just gets sadder and sadder as it goes along and Homer tries to pull himself out of the mess he created. There’s something methodical and rigorous about the storytelling and the way all the pieces fall together until they form a portrait of a family doomed to a lifetime of just barely getting by. In the end, Homer is so defeated and broken that he doesn’t grudgingly trudge to his fate as a wage-slave at the Springfield Power Plant: he angrily demands it by promising to be the most kiss-ass sycophant in the history of kiss-ass sycophants. Homer’s ultimate triumph is getting a job that would crush his soul if he had any sort of emotional investment in it.
“I Married Marge” presents such an unflinching, unsparing yet poignant and wonderfully human portrayal of young parenthood that when the pregnancy test finally turns up negative it is a cause for rapt celebration. That’s parenthood: the gift and the curse. The thing that ruins your life and gives it meaning. “I Married Marge” powerfully captures that duality in a way that illustrates indelibly why we feel for The Simpsons in a way that would be unimaginable with Family Guy. It’s not just funny. It has a soul. Or at least it did.
—the look on Homer’s face before he answers the question of whether or not they’ll have another baby with “maybe” is perfect. It so vividly captures the awful tension of not knowing.
—“It’s not our fault our generation has such short attention spans. We watch an appalling amount of TV”
—“Who would have thought Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father?”
—“You’re as pretty as Princess Leia and as smart as Yoda.”
—“God, he’s always happy. No, wait. He’s always mad.”
—When Grandpa tells Homer, “You’ve got to marry that girl because you’ll never do any better” it’s funny because it’s true.
—“He not only failed the aptitude test, he got stuck in a closet on the way out.”
—Mr. Burns really seems to enjoy Pac-Man.
—Did anyone else find this episode as sad as I did? Or am I just a little overly sensitive these days?