For all his exaggerated failures (as father, husband, neighbor, citizen, employee, model of portion control), Homer Simpson is, at heart, a good guy. I mean, he’s an awful guy most of the time, but when it comes down to the moment of truth, Homer almost always does the right thing. He often functions initially as the embodiment of whatever ill of human nature the show is mining for satire that week, but he invariably comes around, no matter how ass-backwards the way he gets there (or how many times after 25 years, he might have to learn the same lesson). That’s what keeps us coming back to him—when written well, Homer is essentially an optimistic figure.
In the unassuming but pleasant “Yolo,” Homer has a midlife crisis, deciding it’s time for him, with the help of his long-forgotten pen pal Eduardo, to accomplish all of the things he dreamed of doing as a child. It’s a sweet idea, and one in keeping with another of Homer’s essential sympathetic traits—his dreams, like his faults, are rarely malicious or covetous, but childlike. I’m sure there have been countless psychological analyses of Homer J. Simpson over the years, but for me he’s most appealing when his misdeeds spring from the shared wells of arrested development and plain old eccentric Homer-think. So when, for example, we find out that Homer’s greatest regrets stem from never having driven a fire truck, or acted out Captain Kirk’s fight with the Gorn, or flown like Rocky the flying squirrel, it seems to make perfect sense—and it’s genuinely affecting when he accomplishes them. (It’s also perfectly sensible, and funny, that he has to let go of his dream of striking out Jesus in the World Series—I imagine Jesus is harder to sit down than David Ortiz.) Unlike Kirk Van Houten, whose own midlife crisis takes the familiar root of sports cars, skateboards, and a trip to the tooth-whitening kiosk, Homer’s regrets are all about not becoming the King of Cheeseburger Mountain that he always dreamed he’d be. As Homer muses resignedly, “Did I change or did they stop making mountains out of cheeseburgers? Probably a little bit of both. ” And so Marge’s inspiration to secretly contact Homer’s childhood pen pal in order to spur Homer to fulfill some of his silliest dreams proves how well she too recognizes what’s best about him. And even she reaps the benefits, when the newly-energized Homer urges her to give in and jump on the bed with him. Like I said—sweet.
Especially after the clutter and callousness of last week’s episode, that agreeable straightforwardness is most welcome, even if Homer’s quest isn’t particularly hilarious along the way. Part of the reason is that Eduardo’s not an especially distinctive character. As much as I admire Hank Azaria’s voice work, a charismatic guest voice (get Javier Bardem on the phone!) would have elevated him from the “Hank’s foreign guy” cipher he remained here. (I did however like Eduardo’s incongruous anger at Homer’s yearbook regrets: “Everyone has a bad yearbook story! They spelled my name wrong, get over it!”) In addition, the episode pauses for some oddly poetic interludes (the couch gag, Homer’s skydiving adventure, the unexpected tag at the end) where the score and the images go for mood rather than hard laughs. It slows things down a bit, but if there’s a choice between seeing how happy and peaceful Homer is fulfilling his gliding dream (before, naturally, whamming face-first into the “stupid tallest building in Springfield”) and seeing the show cram in a few cruel, pop culture gags (like last week), I’m fine with seeing the creators expand their canvas a little.
It’s in the B-story where most of the hard laughs come in and, here too, it’s an improvement. It’s always refreshing to see Lisa win one for a change, her smarts solving problems and being recognized rather than being her constant curse. In response to Kent Brockman’s exposé over Springfield Elementary’s cheating epidemic, Lisa’s proposal of an honor code actually turns the school around, giving the kids a sense of ownership and responsibility which results in everyone actually trying for a change. Of course, things’ll be back to normal next week, but it’s gratifying that her brains and common sense aren’t smacked down by the end of the episode. (Her master manipulation in getting her classmates to sign the honor code is some Tom Sawyer-level gamesmanship.) But the biggest laughs come from Principal Skinner, whether being taken in by Brockman’s gotcha journalism sting (“I thought this was just a puff piece! You’re wearing a sweater!”), stalling out in front of the outraged PTA (“Something, something, buzzword…I got nothin’” [passes out]), or admitting that, since the school has given Lisa all the extra credit legally allowable at this point, Willy’s been growing her a pumpkin. (Such a weird, random gag.) It’s no secret that Harry Shearer is openly critical of The Simpsons in its later years, but he continues to give his characters (Skinner and Burns especially) very specific energy that nearly always brings them alive.
There’s even a token attempt to tie the two stories together, with Homer’s inevitable plummet coinciding with Bart’s dare to the heavens for a sign tat he should turn himself in for cheating. It’s not groundbreaking (unlike Homer’s impact itself), but it’s at least an improvement over the structural shrug that was last week’s denouement. And the tag, with Homer unexpectedly having accompanied Eduardo all the way back to Spain instead of dropping him off at the gate, is one of those lovely little moments where they show goes for a little heart—and gives the character his due.
- As someone constitutionally predisposed against all cultural buzzwords, Marge’s line “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m beginning to regret saying “yolo,” almost excuses the fact that that word is the title of the episode.
- I’m always a sucker for hints about Marge’s inner erotic life: “Sorry—I’m not used to strange men saying the word bedroom around me.”
- Ned’s won over by Eduardo as well: “That sounds salty but you seem sweet. I’m gonna call you kettle corn!”
- If there ever were a Simpsons Spinoff Showcase, I’d vote for the Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers show. Skinner: “They’re self-proctoring!” Chalmers: “Can’t you say anything in a normal way?” Skinner: “Sadly, the answer is—not yes.”
- Skinner’s desperation is always funny. Brockman: “Make room for your local Emmy nomination certificates.” Skinner: “No! Don’t make room!”
- Shearer’s self-important newsman cadence for Brockman continues to deliver, too: “This is Kent Brockman, pleased…with himself.”
- Another welcome nod towards Lisa’s indispensability from Superintendent Chalmers at the PTA meeting: “You took your sweet time coming to our rescue, Lisa…”
- Of course, when Homer is what Matt Groening calls a “food monster,” that can be fun, too: “But I have two pizzas coming—I wanted to see who got here first.”
- “Buenos dias, Eduardo. Can you write me back and tell me what that means?”
- Post-concussion Homer: “Homer Simpson has done it. And soon I hope I remember who Homer Simpsons is and his relation to me.”