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“Homer’s Enemy” (originally aired 5/4/1997)

In which a new character questions the whole premise of the show…

What’s left to say about “Homer’s Enemy” here at The A.V. Club, after we’ve based an entire Inventory around Frank Grimes, and dissected the episode in a lengthy TV Roundtable? This is one of the most controversial Simpsons, beloved by many for its boldness and dark humor, and held up by others as a prime example of how the series started to lose its way toward the end of its first decade. The Simpsons winked at its audience early and often, and never shied away from throwing in a good gag even if it violated the “reality” of the show; but from season eight onward, the anything-for-a-laugh approach started to outweigh the strong storytelling and careful character-building of the first seven years. And for some, “Homer’s Enemy”—hilarious as it often is—shows how the Simpsons writers were increasingly willing to burn their own house down just to enjoy the heat and light.

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For those who want to use “Homer’s Enemy” as a weapon against The Simpsons, the episode provides a lot of ammunition. Start with the episode’s structure, which jumps right into the premise with none of the clever, roundabout setup of something like season three’s “Dog Of Death,” where the first third barely has anything to do with what follows. “Homer’s Enemy” begins with a news report about the luckless Frank Grimes, who grew up in poverty, helping to support himself by “delivering toys to more fortunate children,” before being caught in a silo explosion on his 18th birthday (which forced him to learn “to hear, and feel pain again”). A touched Mr. Burns tells Smithers to hire Grimes—who has a degree in nuclear physics—but then buries him in Sector 7G with Homer, whom Grimes resents for cruising through life. And that’s the whole bit: Frank hates Homer, Homer tries to win Frank over, and Frank kills himself (literally) while trying to get everyone at the plant to see how ridiculous it is that Homer has it so soft.

“Homer’s Enemy” also has a weak B-story, as Bart wanders into a property auction, buys an abandoned factory for a dollar, hires Milhouse to be his lone employee—for a job which mostly consists of smashing stuff—and then is annoyed when the building collapses on Milhouse’s watch. (Milhouse insists he was on the job and paying attention. “First it started fallin’ over,” he explains, “Then it fell over.”) It’s rare that The Simpsons integrates its main plot and subplots thematically, but there’s an actual connection here to the A-story in the way that Bart credits himself for lucking into owning an entire building, saying, “Looks like all my years of hard work have finally paid off.” Nevertheless, the episode’s credited writer John Swartzwelder doesn’t really do much with the whole factory business, which only takes up about a couple minutes of airtime.

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And then there’s the biggest issue that some have with “Homer’s Enemy,” which is that it’s so aggressive, both in attacking the foundations of the show and in shrugging its own criticisms off. For Grimes, who’s still so poor that he lives “above a bowling alley and under another bowling alley,” it’s preposterous that Homer lives a sizable two-story suburban home, where he displays mementos of his many adventures: palling around with Gerald Ford, touring with The Smashing Pumpkins, going into outer space, winning a Grammy, and so on. More to the point, Grimes can’t believe that no one else has noticed that Homer’s way too big of an idiot to thrive as he does. And then, just when it seems like Frank’s about to undercut everything The Simpsons is about, he decides to do everything that Homer would do in a typical day, and he gets electrocuted. Cut to: casket and gravestone. The end.

Yet there’s a good reason why “Homer’s Enemy” is one of the most memorable episodes of The Simpsons’ eighth season—and it’s not because it’s memorably bad. First off, this is one of Hank Azaria’s finest half-hours. Using a voice close to his own, Azaria plays the reality of Frank Grimes, while simultaneously making him such a noodge that even though he’s absolutely right about everything, he’s impossible to back. Grimes is like a prototypical version of an internet crank, who nitpicks every error and won’t let it go. Homer makes an honest effort to befriend Frank—even trying to be a model employee who will only have casual conversations “during a designated break period”—but still hears Frank hiss, “You’re what’s wrong with America, Simpson.”

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This is how “Homer’s Enemy” is able to reaffirm everything the show’s about: by making the opposition look like a total asshole. (It’s a similar tactic to this same season’s “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” which transforms complaints about dull consistency into a brilliant defense of same.) Even though Homer eats Frank’s “special dietetic lunch,” gets drowsy from the three beers he drinks in the middle of the day, and almost swills a beaker of radioactive acid, he’s still a lovable goof, especially in comparison to Grimes.

Here the audience’s surrogates are Lenny and Carl, who have masters degrees just like Frank, but who wave off his incredulity, saying, “It’s best not to think about it.” (That mirrors Homer’s response when Grimes asks how he can afford his life: “Don’t ask me how the economy works.”) When Frank tricks Homer into entering a power-plant design-competition for children, and Homer just copies Burns’ plant but adds fins and racing stripes, Frank wants everyone to point and laugh. But Lenny and Carl don’t see the point, since Homer wins. Their philosophy is: Why should it matter to Grimes if Homer’s doing all right?

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That appears to be the philosophy the episode espouses in general: Don’t worry so much about the state of The Simpsons, or whether its popularity has bred complacency—or has made the show dumber. There’s an element of nose-thumbing to “Homer’s Enemy,” which may explain why it rubs some Simpsons fans the wrong way. But that defiant attitude is fairly exhilarating, too. The final injustice for Frank Grimes is that at his funeral, Reverend Lovejoy says that Frank liked to be called “Grimey,” which he most definitely did not. That was just Homer’s lazy nickname for him. It’s another example of how everything falls into place around Homer, and how the only way to respond to that reality is either to laugh it off or to get yourself buried.

Stray observations:

  • This week’s couch gag—Homer bopping Bart on the head because he’s not tuned-in right—is one that will be increasingly befuddling to future generations.
  • On the other hand, Moe producing an enemies list he copied from Richard Nixon (including Jane Fonda, Daniel Schorr, Jack Anderson, and, eventually, Barney Gumbel) is an example of The Simpsons making a cultural reference that any curious person could look up, which in a weird way adds more value to the show over time, making it educational.
  • Homer repeats a couple of his recurring traits: not remembering Maggie’s name (he calls her “other kid”) and bouncing around and flapping his hands when he’s nervous (similar to the “I’m missing the cook-off!” dance in “El Vlaje Misterioso De Nuestro Jomer”). Lenny also brings back one of his favorite sayings, “That’s why they put erasers on pencils,” which he previously shared in “Burns Verkaufen Der Kraftwerk.”
  • Speaking of Lenny, at one point Homer turns toward a signed photo of his buddy and tells it that he’s leaving for the day. There’s a good secondary joke in the signature, which is, “Have a good summer”—the classic yearbook autograph.
  • One of the best in medias res lines in Simpsons history: Kent Brockman opening this episode by chuckling, “… which, if true, means death for us all.”
  • Next week: The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase” continues the trend in season eight toward episodes that either mock or push the boundaries of what this show is. Erik Adams has the review, but keep at least one eye open, because his best friends, the Simpsons, just might pop in to wish him luck.

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