As I recounted on my Twitter feed yesterday, an adorable tot walking past me looked at me and gigglingly enthused, “You have no hair!” I’ve been bald so long now that I barely notice it anymore but today’s episode of The Simpsons reminded me that to many people a lush, full head of hair is a matter of supreme importance.
All it takes is a hair growth tonic to transform Homer from incompetent wage slave to dynamic young Junior Executive on the go. It’s a tale of self-improvement through follicular growth that echoes such seminal explorations of the all-American mania for success as Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and How To Get Ahead in Business Without Trying.
It’s also one of the rare instances in which Homer actually shows professional initiative. The shenanigans begin with Homer watching a commercial for a miraculous new wonder drug that has the power to restore follicular growth and with it, mojo, joie de vivre, moxie and, in isolated cases, get-up-and-go.
The catch is that Homer’s insurance won’t cover it so Homer resorts to trickery to win a drug that gives him a full, lush, thick head of hair that would be the envy of a young Peter Frampton. In my favorite scene, an ecstatic, newly pompadoured Homer races deliriously through the streets of Springfield in a glorious manic rush before ultimately encountering another of his previously bald brothers, who is clearly at the end of his triumphant run through Springfield.
The scene conveys elegantly and unselfconsciously an infectious sense of joy. Homer has the simplicity, emotionally transparency and capacity for wonder of a small child. That’s a big part of the reason we root for him no matter how abominably he behaves.
At work, Homer’s heroic head of hair quickly earns him the attention of Mr. Burns, who only seems to dole out raises and promotions for the most superficial of reasons, whether it’s because an employee now has a dynamic name like Max Power or because a miracle drug grew a glorious mop of hair where once there was none.
I have not spent enough time in these recaps giving the proverbial mad props to the voice actors but I would like to single out Harry Shearer and Dan Castalenetta for their stellar work here. I love how Mr. Burns seems to view everything that came after 1937 as a personal affront. I especially liked the way he angrily pronounced “tartar sauce” as “tar-tar sauce”, as if the very idea of this exotic new concoction were a grievous personal insult.
And Castalenetta did a fantastic job running the gamut of emotions from rapturous joy to self-doubt and trembling vulnerability. At work, an instantly overwhelmed Homer receives a huge break in the form of Karl, a personal assistant voiced by Harvey Fierstein.
It’s important to remember how incredibly cautious television was about any depiction of homosexuality at the time "Simpson and Delilah" aired. In that respect, the episode is at once incredibly forward-thinking and progressive and a little timid. Karl is clearly the smartest, most capable and efficient character in this episode, if not in the series as a whole. But he’s also rendered relatively asexual. Furthermore, he suggests the gay equivalent of the Magical Negro archetype: the sexless gay martyr/sidekick.
Like the prototypical Magical Negro, or the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, for that matter, Karl has no interior agenda of his own. He exists solely to help a hapless heterosexual man learn life lessons. While I’m doling out accolades for voice acting, Fierstein deserves props as well for playing his lines for drama rather than comedy, which makes them much funnier. He invests completely in the character, even if he does sometimes feel more like a vehicle to move the plot forward than a flesh-and-blood human being.
“Homer and Delilah” is essentially a love story, or two, or three. There’s Karl’s unrequited, frankly unfathomable crush on Homer. There’s the beginnings of Smither’s tragic infatuation with Mr. Burns and most importantly, Homer’s love for Marge, the emotional core of the series.
“Simpson and Delilah” ends with a bang. Narratives like these are supposed to conclude with the protagonist realizing that it wasn’t the hair or cool name or magic bat or ability to transform into a werewolf that made them successful after all; it was something pure and true deep within them.
That’s the pep talk Karl gives Homer before he kisses him on the lips and smacks his ass. But it turns out that Homer’s success really was dependent on his hair after all; even with a speech full of fine ideas (all borrowed from Karl of course), a hairless Homer commands zero respect from coworkers who once saw him as a golden God. It’s a neat subversion of the usual template: Homer believes in himself and gives it his all and still ends up failing.
To cushion the blow a little the episode ends with what I have come to think of as the James L. Brooks touch, that sweet moment of tender connection between Homer and Marge. In this case it’s Homer and Marge singing “You are so Beautiful to Me” to each other, a sweet little callback to Karl having a singing messenger serenade Marge with that song when Homer once again forgot their anniversary. It was a moment that easily could have come off as sappy or cloying. Instead, it feels real and sweet and true. Such is the genius of The Simpsons as it confidently entered its prime.
—Next week brings the first "Treehouse of Horror". Aw. Yeah.