Deep Space Homer (Season five, episode fifteen)
Original airdate: February 24, 1994
Written by David Mirkin
Directed by Carlos Baeza (with David Silverman)
For some staff and crew, including creator Matt Groening, this episode felt like jumping the shark. If you aren’t familiar with that term, it is derived from a pretty ludicrous episode of Happy Days and has come to mean a moment when a television series goes off the rails, losing touch with what made it special, and instead becomes centered around an outlandish weekly gimmick. I can definitely see the argument for Deep Space Homer being that type of episode, but I still contend that the “jumping the shark” moment was later in The Simpsons’ development.
Homer is ticked off that everyone, including an inanimate carbon rod, has received the Employee of the Week except for him. At the same time, NASA sees a plummet in their shuttle launches’ ratings, so they start a program to put an average joe on the next rocket. Homer prank calls the space exploration institution, and they think he is a perfect candidate, but when they arrive at Moe’s Bar to recruit him, Homer thinks he’s in trouble. With some quick thinking, he frames Barney Gumble, but when Homer realizes this is to make him the next astronaut, he steps forward. The two friends are then pitted against each other in training, but as the title spoils, Homer eventually makes it into outer space, where his seemingly bottomless stomach ends up saving the day when things go awry.
For a ridiculous comedy show, there are actually some pretty heavy themes in this episode. Barney’s alcoholism is a significant plot point. As he trains with NASA and refrains from drinking, he becomes both physically and mentally improved. When training concludes, Homer, Barney, and their NASA handlers celebrate with some non-alcoholic champagne, which ridiculously causes Barney to relapse. While it’s played for laughs, there is still the underlying message of how tight in its grasp alcoholism can trap a person.
The other big theme is of an American public becoming increasingly unimpressed with the incredible feat of space travel. Homer and Bart serve as the proxies for the general public interested in quick dopamine hits from their entertainment than being contemplative about the wonder of humans ascending into the stars. This is reflective of the Cold War-era motivating people’s attention through the constant fear of nuclear annihilation. By the mid-1990s, without a bogeyman on the other side of the world, people just didn’t care anymore.
Treehouse of Horror V (Season six, episode six)
Original airdate: October 30, 1994
Written by Greg Daniels, Dan McGrath, David X. Cohen, and Bob Kushell
Directed by Jim Reardon
The Treehouse of Horror episodes were always such a special treat for me growing up. I can remember my surprise from the first entry for the Halloween of 1990 and then that it kept coming back every year. Of all the Halloween episodes, this one stands at the top of the heap due to its brilliant parody of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. It is such a pitch-perfect model for spoofing a movie, overflowing with references to the source material, and playing on the established character types of The Simpsons family. This isn’t a case of “casting” these characters in roles; they play themselves as if they were in The Shining.
The first entry, titled “The Shinning,” which Groundskeeper Willie explains is to avoid a lawsuit, finds Homer taking a job at Mr. Burns’s haunted lodge over the winter. Mr. Burns cuts off the cable television and confiscates all alcohol telling Smithers this will make sure Homer works hard. Unsurprisingly, this will be the impetus of Homer’s descent into madness. Meanwhile, Groundskeeper Willie learns Bart has The Shinning, a psychic ability that allows them to communicate without words. Homer is eventually tempted by Moe the Bartender, one of the devilish spirits haunting the house to kill his family.
The story plays out very close to The Shining with some significant comedy bits. A particular favorite of mine is Marge’s discovery of the “novel” Homer has been working composed of the same sentence over and over, “No beer and no tv make Homer go crazy.” When Homer posits that he’s trying to come up with a title but only has “No beer and tv make Homer something something,” Marge responds with “Go crazy?” eliciting Homer’s manic cry of “Don’t mind if I do!”
It should be noted that Treehouse of Horror episodes got lots of complaints over the years from parents upset about the amount of gore and blood shown on screen. Director David Mirkin really took these complaints to heart and made sure that this entry was the bloodiest and most violent to date. Mirkin stated that he loved that Treehouse of Horror episodes found that perfect line between comedy and horror so that in one minute, a kid could be genuinely terrified, but in the next, they were out of control laughing.
Homie the Clown (Season six, episode sixteen)
Original airdate: February 12, 1995
Written by John Swartzwelder
Directed by David Silverman
Both people working on The Simpsons and fans of the show had long noted the visual similarity in Homer and Krusty the Klown’s designs. At one point, a story idea would have revealed that Krusty was Homer’s secret identity the whole time, something deemed a little too ludicrous and hard to explain. But that notion stuck in the writers’ heads, and they eventually figured out a way to make a story that connected these two characters and commented on their physical parallels.
Krusty has dug a terrible hole for himself over gambling debts and is a target of the Springfield Mafia. He has licensed his name to almost every product imaginable and doesn’t have many more options. Krusty opens a clown college to train proxy Krusty’s that can do kid’s birthday parties and Krusty Burger restaurants’ openings. Homer is lured in by the billboards and goes through the program, becoming a stand-in clown. However, Homer looks so much like the real Krusty he starts getting perks around town that are typically reserved for the kid’s television star. Being a Krusty lookalike causes the Mafia to think Homer is the real Krusty and kidnap him with plans to kill the poor man. Only the real clown can step in to save Homer.
This episode was apparently one of the smoothest production cycles and crew had gone through. Writer John Swartzwelder said he did minimal rewriting and everyone agreed that the script as-is was pretty much perfect. This episode also gave the character designers a chance to rework Krusty’s look to differentiate him from Homer. If you notice from this episode on, Krusty is subtly more haggard, more pronounced bags under his eyes, and just generally more worn down in appearance.
Homer the Smithers (Season seven, episode seventeen)
Original airdate: February 25, 1995
Written by John Swartzwelder
Directed by Steven Dean Moore
One of the things noted by showrunners at this point in The Simpsons was how the series has drifted away from the family and started to become spotlights for Springfield citizens. The writers agreed that they needed to refocus and bring things back to the characters that are the core of the entire series. They decided each season of The Simpsons required at least fifteen family-centered episodes. They would have the Treehouse of Horror, a Sideshow Bob entry, an Itchy & Scratchy-related episode, and one format bending episode. But everything else had to be about The Simpsons themselves, grounded in character rather than a gimmick.
After Nuclear Power Plant Employee Night at the Springfield drag races, Mr. Burns is accosted by a drunken Lenny while he waits in his limo. Burns sees this as a failure on the part of Smithers and sends his longtime assistant on a mandatory vacation. To ensure he doesn’t lose his job while away, Smithers picks Homer as his replacement, confident the man will bungle things. Homer is utterly inept at performing the tasks Burns demands and eventually loses his cool and knocks his boss out with a single punch. He’s terrified he’s killed the old man, but Burns’s fear finally forces him to become more independent and take charge of his life. This is a big problem for Smither when he returns, and Homer must help him destroy Mr. Burns’s newfound independence.
This episode features both classic Homer stupidity and really goes wild with Mr. Burns’s antiquated phrasing and mindset. It also firmly answers questions about Smithers’s sexuality. He goes to an equivalent of Fire Island, and we see him at an all-male nightclub dancing with other men. The jokes here aren’t that Smithers is gay but that Burns is so old-fashioned and blind to what is in front of him that he never gets where Smithers has gone on vacation. This was a very surreal season of The Simpsons, and Homer the Smithers stands out us surprisingly straight-forward. It was a sign that the first iteration of The Simpsons, family-centered stories that were more grounded, was coming to an end and that the show would transform into something different soon.