The head-fake cold open is an essential building block of golden-age Simpsons. It could come off as disingenuous to feint toward one storyline before zagging into a different, tangential thread for the remainder of an episode, but the convention grants “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” the greatest amount of storytelling real estate. Homer and Marge’s intimacy issues are the engine of the episode’s first eight minutes, after which “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy”’s true focus emerges: Homer and Abe’s meatier, more thematically rich dabbling in the field of barnstorming marital-aid sales. The Homer-Marge material also presents Bart with the seeds for his adventures as preteen Fox Mulder, a fascination with the paranormal that eventually gives way to “Spooky”-esque conspiracy theorizing fueled (figuratively) by Simpson & Son Revitalizing Tonic. Unfortunately, all the time spent between the Simpsons’ sheets leads to an abrupt end for Bart’s investigation into the shadowy dealings between the saucer men, the reverse vampires, and the mysterious Rand Corporation. But maybe it’s in his best interest that he stops before uncovering the truth that is out there.
In addition to packing “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” with incident, the cold open serves another important function: It provided an escape hatch for dodging a storyline with limited potential. According to DVD commentary, “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” was conceived as an episode centered on the unthawing of Homer and Marge’s sex life—but by the time the audio book of Paul Harvey’s Mr. And Mrs. Erotic American goes out the car window, that plot’s already running on fumes. It says little that’s new or intriguing about the couple’s relationship—which is precisely what the final cut of the episode manages to do for Abe Simpson and his only legitimate son.
Its outer layer of story shed, “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” reveals itself as a look at relations between the generations of the Simpson family. Maturing under different circumstances and during different eras, there are fundamental differences between Abe and Homer that transcend family ties. The former was a father whose ingrained cynicism and stiff upper lip prevented him from providing his son with even an inkling of encouragement; that was all the motivation Homer needed to fail upward during the ensuing decades, developing a different kind of laissez-faire parenting style, through which he at least manages to appear to like Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. But blood is thicker than water, so they end up circling around to the same, bittersweet conclusion: They’re different kinds of terrible fathers, but the same kind of failure.
There’s an entirely different type of fakeout at play in that verdict, one that maintains the show’s sympathy toward its characters all the while making them behave in foolish fashion. There’s an admirability to the way in which the Simpson men fail in “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy,” a recognizably human facet to their tries at proving themselves to their children. When Homer takes up a more attentive, smothering approach to fatherhood, it’s out of the selfless desire to make sure he never lets the kids down in the same way he’s been let down by Abe. He’s already done this, however: Homer can’t forgive Abe for saying that his conception was an accident, and yet Homer says the same thing to Bart all the time. In fact, he once devoted a full 22 minutes to the topic. Like cartoon father, like cartoon son.
Abe, meanwhile, wants Homer to see him as more than someone to call when a signature is required. There are episodes where this applies more directly—notably last season’s “Lady Bouvier’s Lover”—but one of the many defining traits of The Simpsons is the show’s deft handling of its elderly characters. The conflict that exists between Homer and his father in “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” doesn’t arise because Abe is a doddering, out-of-touch fool. He is those things, and often, but those aren’t the only notes the character can play. Actually having lived through an era of snake-oil salesman and phony-baloney cure-alls, he’s quite good at buttering up the rubes who flock to the Simpson & Son medicine show. He’s a natural ballyhoo man—unlike his partner, a poor salesman who insults their first prospective customer (“You look like a man who needs help satisfying his wife”) and an even worse shill, one so slow on his feet he can’t think of a good lie to cover the fact that his face is on the tonic bottle.
In one of the episode’s funniest lines, Abe illustrates how The Simpsons treats its older characters differently than almost any other show on televisions. “What’s so unappealing about hearing your elderly father talk about sex?” he asks Homer, with Dan Castellaneta drawing out the short “e” sound in “sex” for maximum discomfort. It’s a brilliant send up of a TV norm, where people of retirement age are either portrayed as asexual husks of their former selves or nymphomaniacs whose mere attempts at trying to appear alluring are grounds for laughter. It’s a basic contradiction from which “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” draws a lot of its potency: Sure, no one wants to think about what happens in their parents’ bedroom, but if nothing happened in there, then you wouldn’t be here right now, reading this sentence or thinking about “sehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhx.” Bart fails to properly connect the dots of his conspiracy theory out of sheer innocence, but he also misses the obvious conclusion because a part of him has confined Homer and Marge to a romance-free netherworld. After all, what could they be doing during the evening that’s more important than checking on the “UFO” hovering outside of Bart’s window?
There’s a fun motif running throughout “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” involving objects stuck in trees: first the umbrella that sends Bart down the paranormal rabbit hole, then Homer’s pants, which the Flanders treat as their own horrifying sight. But the most important visual of the episode involves Homer and Grampa embracing in front of the burning farm house, father and son locked in forgiveness while the symbol of their difficult past goes up in smoke. And then they leap into the grass to extinguish their flaming shirts, because The Simpsons is still first and foremost a comedy. If there’s one thing the show’s way with a head fake illustrates, it’s that surprise is often the quickest path to laughs.
- Baby, if you’ve ever wondered, wondered whatever became of the videos in this piece—it’s because web producer David Anthony is currently enjoying a well-deserved vacation in that city of dreams, Cincinnati. Sorry!
- The X-Files fakeout with Al Gore makes me nostalgic for the days when the 45th Vice President of the United States’ was viewed as the country’s preeminent bore. (I recall Animaniacs getting a lot of mileage out of that impression as well.) “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” is a big episode for Harry Shearer impersonations: Not only does his Gore get to have a dialogue with Kool & The Gang (“Celebrate good times” “I will”), but Shearer also provides Paul Harvey’s homespun Dr. Ruth routine.
- “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” is also a great episode for cutaway gags, as when the Hayes Code-approved euphemisms for Homer and Marge’s sexy times—train entering a tunnel, rocket ship taking off, phallic meats rolling off a conveyer belt—turn out to be features of Springfield’s own Stock Footage Festival.
- At the Aphrodite Inn’s “Utility Room,” Homer could use some work on his sexual fantasies: “I imagine I’m the janitor and you’re… the janitor’s wife who has to live with me in the utility room!”
Next week: Marge seeks the cure for her “Fear Of Flying.” After that, David Sims applies for membership in The Stonecutters with his review of “Homer The Great.”