“Secrets Of A Successful Marriage” (season 5, episode 22; originally aired 5/19/1994)
In which Homer realizes what only he can offer to Marge
There’s a term writers use when they want to call attention to something in their work that they know is a contrivance, tossed into the middle of things to speed the story along. It’s called “hanging a lantern” on that particular bit of business. The whole idea is to make the reader or viewer aware that, yes, you know this is something that requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but because you’re aware, the audience should also be aware. That will, if done skillfully, make everybody calm down a little bit about the whole thing and laugh at what’s so obviously a conceit of your fiction. “Secrets Of A Successful Marriage” is an attempt to do that in earnest to The Simpsons’ single biggest contrivance: the idea that Marge Simpson would remain married to Homer, no matter how many kids they had.
If you’ve ever listened to a Simpsons DVD commentary, this idea comes up often enough among the producers. Marge, whatever faults she has, is quite a catch. Homer is, at best, an idiot who works a borderline job and is prone to fits of blinding rage against his children (all for humor, mind). The more you step back and take a look at this, the less sense it makes. The Simpsons has tried to hang a lantern on this by having the two have serious problems (all within the space of a single episode, mind) or by diving back into their past to see what drew them to each other in the first place, but for the most part, the producers will admit (at least on the commentaries) that they just don’t stare at this central tenet of the show all that hard for all that often. They rely on audience inertia—our understanding that Homer and Marge are married and will stay married—and the rather sweet chemistry between the characters to carry the day.
Written by Greg Daniels, “Secrets Of A Successful Marriage” aims to offer the single biggest consideration of the Simpson marriage the show had offered to that date. I’m not entirely sure that it succeeds on all counts, nor is it the funniest episode of the season. But it’s an interesting response to what was, at the time, a growing criticism against the show: It had lost the heart and “realism” of earlier seasons in its pursuit of an endless fusillade of jokes. Now, of course, that endless fusillade of jokes is what most people remember about the show, but if you look back at contemporary reviews or message board posts, there was this vocal group of people longing for a return to the smaller scale storytelling of seasons one through three. (I always say that season four is my favorite of the show, and I think it’s because it was most successful at blending stories with real emotional stakes with the barrage of jokes that made seasons five through eight so fun. It’s almost the perfect transitional year.)
If we’re looking back at the show’s earliest days, then, this group of people criticizing the show as of its fifth season was calling for a little less Matt Groening—with his outsider comics sensibility and the love of packing thousands of jokes into the frame—in the show’s DNA and a little more James L. Brooks—with his tremendous ability to come up with a devastatingly emotional moment. (I genuinely have no idea how much Brooks had to do with the show at this point; I suspect very little, but who knows?) What’s interesting about all of this is that I’d say Daniels has evolved into probably the most natural heir to Brooks’ TV throne, having taken the sorts of emotional gut punches Brooks was capable of in shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, or The Simpsons and made them the most potent weapon in his arsenal on shows like King Of The Hill and The Office. (No word yet on if Daniels is planning to write and direct an Academy Award-winning movie, but let’s hope so.)
“Secrets” showcases some of Daniels’ ability in this regard, but it undercuts those moments with the kind of dark wit the series was so adept with at this point in its run. When Homer comes back to Marge, begging for her to take him back, it’s a genuinely sweet moment. Here is a man who’s been reduced to shambles—to more than shambles—after just over a day without his wife. He lives in a treehouse and tried to be married to a plant. His clothes are rags. His pants are held on with a belt, for God’s sake. He goes to his knees before his wife and proclaims that he knows what he can offer her that no one else can, and you wait for the big, romantic moment. And then he says, “Complete and utter dependence!” and the score rings out triumphantly, and you’re half tempted to go with it until Marge says, “Homer, that’s not a good thing.”
It’s a great laugh, because it tugs at both ends of The Simpsons’ formula. Here is the heartwarming side, where a declaration like Homer’s counts as high romance. Here is the savvier, more cynical side, where what he’s saying is called out for what it is: absolutely pathetic. “Secrets” brings Marge and Homer into what might be their most significant argument in the course of the series, and even if it has to contort the characters a bit to get them into the midst of that—by having Homer be so stupid as to think that inviting his whole class over to observe a family dinner is something that wouldn’t seriously anger his wife—the after-effects are surprisingly devastating and intuitive about human relationships. As always, the writers use Lisa as their own voice, speaking to Homer about his utter idiocy, and her statement that two people find each other because they can each offer the other something that only they have to give is at once simple and profound, the very best kind of wisdom.
“Secrets” is an episode that has its feet in two separate territories. Is it the best episode of the show ever for that? Not really, and there are some messy bits here and there, particularly as the episode is getting Marge and Homer to the place where they’ll have their big blow-up. But the closing act nails the emotions of the moment. It hangs a lantern on the fact that Homer is nothing without his wife, then makes that good enough for a marriage that will last another two decades (at least). It doesn’t have the emotional punch of some of the show’s other blatantly sentimental moments, but the series is old enough that it doesn’t really need to have that punch. It’s simply enough to suggest that this man loves this woman, and in the world of a television show, at least, that will have to be enough.
- If you want to read some wackiness, go on the Wikipedia page for this show and check out the section where people who wrote a book about pop culture depictions of adult education lay into the episode for its perceived faults. It’s some great stuff.
- Turns out that the way you turn on Marge Simpson is to nibble on her elbow. At least one of you will have use for this information, I imagine.
- Homer gets stuck outside: “Marge! The door blew shut!”
- Other classes Homer could have taken at the adult education center: chewing tobacco, eating an orange, funk dancing (taught by Moe, weirdly), etc.
- Grampa slamming his fists on the desk to demand that Moleman just tell the class members how to eat an orange made me laugh and made me think of you guys a little bit. (Because I love you so much!)
- The episode largely abandons Homer’s slowness, but it’s a great gag to open the episode with and a smart way to get him to that continuing education center. I always love when Homer gets into long discussions with his brain, and his conversation with it where he tries to figure out how to react to being called slow is fantastic.
- That’s it for me and this show. We’ll begin our write-ups of season six on June 2, with Kyle Ryan and Erik Adams as your able guides. They’ll begin with “Bart Of Darkness.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.