“Deep Space Homer” (season five, episode 15; originally aired 02/24/1994)
“Deep Space Homer” contains one of the biggest, most outlandish and preposterous premises in the history of The Simpsons: In a bid to get away from relying exclusively on the kind of “clean-cut, athletic go-getters” the public is known to despise (who doesn’t hate clean-cut, athletic go-getters, especially of the crew-cutted variety?), NASA decides to experiment with an “everyman” astronaut. The type of corpulent, beer-swilling slobs popular on television sitcoms, for instance. And so Homer becomes an unlikely astronaut and faces a challenge that flummoxes even his more experienced colleagues.
But part of the genius of this episode is that an alternate premise even more preposterous than the main plot appears late in the game. When Kent Brockman spies a split-second close-up of ant on the space shuttle, magnified to monstrous scale, he immediately extrapolates a nightmare scenario out of the flimsiest and most circumstantial of evidence. Brockman assumes that this single ambiguous image of an apparently over-sized ant is clear-cut proof that a master race of super-powerful ant monsters has conquered the spaceship and is headed to Earth with dominance on its mind. With gloriously misplaced conviction and authority, Brockman assures his audience, “One thing is for certain: There is no stopping them. The ants will soon be here.”
It is at this point that Brockman’s spiel takes a dramatic turn as the hysterical tone he previously favored is replaced by a smarmy eagerness to please as he continues, “And I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords. I’d like to remind them that as a trusted news personality I can be helpful in rounding up others to toil in their underground sugar caves.”
Everyone fears that they might not hold up under torture or extreme conditions, that under the right circumstances they could be moved to betray everything that they stand for. Everyone likes to imagine that they would strike a blow against slavery or the Holocaust or work for the French Resistance rather than the Vichy government. But the urge to conform and survive is strong, and it can lead us into some dark places. For better or worse, Kent Brockman knows exactly what kind of man he is, and what kind of jelly courses through his veins. Brockman doesn’t need to be forced to betray his species; he eagerly, actively volunteers to betray his species in the most unconscionable manner imaginable. Brockman isn’t responding in a cowardly fashion to a real threat: He’s creating a nightmare scenario in his own mind in which he instantly, almost reflexively betrays humanity without giving it a second thought. Kent is so strangely beholden to what he imagines are his new insect overlords that he actually seems a little disappointed to discover that he enthusiastically volunteered to betray humanity for nothing, since crazed ant-men aren’t going to be taking over the world after all.
This subplot ties into the main plot but it also exists as a neat little standalone thread, a crazier science-fiction universe that exists inside a different, slightly less crazy science-fiction universe where Homer can go to outer space with Buzz Aldrin and people throw a ticker-tape parade for a heroic, albeit inanimate object. “Deep Space Homer” opens with its eponymous character in gleeful anticipation of finally being named Employee of the Month at the power plant. It’s not that Homer imagines that he actually deserves the award; nope, it’s that union bylaws dictate that everyone has to win, no matter how comically inept they might be.
So Homer is understandably upset when he’s once again passed over, this time in favor of an inanimate carbon rod. It’s one thing to lose to one of his coworkers: at least they are capable of independent thought. Losing to an inanimate object, however, is one indignity too many and Homer spirals into an existential crisis that climaxes with him calling NASA to complain about their shitty space launches.
In a fortuitous development, NASA decides to pump up ratings with a new-look astronaut as fat and lazy and unimpressive as the American people he represents, pitting Homer and Barney against one another to determine who will fill that role. A sober Barney rises to the occasion and, in one of my favorite all-time Simpsons jokes, a gruff NASA man tells Homer and Barney that while, in some way they’re both winners, “in another, more accurate way, Barney is the winner.” Barney, however, famously has a fatal weakness: All it takes is a single sip of celebratory champagne to send him de-evolving back to his natural state of drunken, infant-like helplessness. So it falls upon Homer to travel into space alongside real-life astronaut (and, more impressively, former Dancing With The Stars contestant) Buzz Aldrin for a heroic mission to determine whether ants can be trained to sort tiny screws in space.
Things go awry, almost from the start, after Homer opens a bag of potato chips he has smuggled onboard and proceeds to eat them while floating dreamily in an elegant space ballet. It’s the most strangely beautiful depiction of a morbidly obese man masticating potato chips in pop-culture history.
Homer ends up breaking the ant farm onboard (hence Brockman’s belief that soon these crazed insect-men would rule us all), which messes with the equipment and causes a crisis not entirely mitigated by the arrival of James Taylor in the control room of NASA and his desire to sing some songs for the men. Half of the delight of Aldrin’s performance lies in imagining this distinguished American hero, standing tall and dignified and proud in a vocal booth and reciting lines like, “With all due respect, Mr. Taylor, this isn’t the best time for your unique brand of bittersweet folk rock.” Taylor reveals himself to be much more of a hardass than his persona would suggest—he’s not about to let the likes of Buzz Aldrin tell him when he shouldn’t and shouldn’t sing. However, he ends up coming up with the solution that solves the faltering shuttle’s dilemma and sends the crew hurtling back to earth safely.
“Deep Space Homer” is hilarious above all else, but it’s also unexpectedly suspenseful during the ship’s stressful re-entry and littered with moments of odd, unexpected beauty. The episode closes by elegantly and irreverently referencing the opening when the damnable inanimate carbon rod that upstaged Homer at the employee of the month ceremony ends up getting credit for saving the shuttle, not Homer. “Deep Space Homer” is the only episode of The Simpsons solely credited to David Mirkin, who took over as show-runner after the end of Get A Life, which he co-created—but oh sweet lord did he ever make it count.
- If you’re wondering why there are no clips in this entry it’s because our wonderful web producer David Anthony got hit by a car and was subsequently wasn’t available to rip clips. So everyone wish Dave a speedy and full recovery.
- I bet President Clinton would know where to get Tang.
- I love that Kent Brockman apparently keeps a stock image of a crazed ant-man towering over a terrified human being lying around.
- Homer’s monologue about his regret over not seeing Mr. T once at the mall is epic in its intensity and length; so great.
- God bless you, Buzz Aldrin. You were a hell of a good sport in this episode.
- I also like the arc between Homer and Bart in this episode, especially the payoff of Bart writing “Hero” on Homer’s bald scalp.
- Next up is “Homer Loves Flanders.” If memory serves, that’s a good one.