“The Homer They Fall” (originally aired 11/10/1996)
It’s a strange feeling, doing a TV Club Classic review of a television show that was an integral part of my childhood, acting as an initiation into the intricacies and delights of pop culture. It’s strange because of the feelings of sentimentality; reciting all the one-liners, laughing out loud at the one’s I had forgotten. But more than anything, re-watching and reviewing ”The Homer They Fall” is a strange experience because this is an episode that explicitly explores those feelings: the positive and negative aspects of nostalgia, and the dangers of living in the past.
The episode opens with its thesis statement, the Simpson family gathered at the Springfield Mall to witness a Bonanza reunion. The reunion is presented by Springfield Mall “in conjunction with Nostalgia Licensing Corporation.” It’s a great punchline sneakily squeezed into the middle of a sentence (not where you usually want a joke), but it’s more than that. It works to establish the theme that will permeate the rest of the episode: nostalgia, past glories, and the ghosts of our past. It’s heavy stuff, existential in nature even when being played for laughs, but its necessary in elevating the quality of the episode. Without such thematic and emotional depth, we’d be stuck with just another “Homer gets in over his head” episode. Instead, we get a deeply-felt musing on, among other things, what it means to see your accomplishments fade away. Such a thematic statement is made clear by Marge just before exiting the Bonanza reunion. “Weren’t there three indians last year?” she says, an equally funny and sad observation. Not only is this reunion an annual (and depressing) affair at the Springfield Mall, more cast members have passed away since the last time it was held. Malls across America, where celebrity and integrity go to die.
“The Homer They Fall” boasts a wonderful storyline setup, economically taking us from Bart’s acquisition of a sweet utility belt (complete with turn signals!) to Homer dabbling in amateur boxing. The two narratives seem so disconnected, but the show does a great job of making the progression from one plot point to the next seem natural. Bart wears the belt to school so he can show it off to all of his friends. When he’s confronted by Dolph, Jimbo, and Kearney, he attempts to elude them using those aforementioned turn signals. He escapes, but only briefly, as the bullies eventually corner him, leading to one of the episode’s best gags. Bart, in a last ditch effort–“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but you guys asked for it!”– presses the belt’s “Emergency Use Only” button, and out pops a parachute with a paper sign reading, “Call Police. Assistance Needed.” On just about any other show, that’s the punchline. But on The Simpsons, they double down right away. In Bart’s last last-ditch effort, he says, “can’t you read? Call the police!” Alas, Bart gets walloped and the belt is stolen. Homer, always meaning well, tells Bart to squeal to every parent and teacher he knows until he gets it back, but then decides he’ll confront the parents of the bullies instead. This leads to Homer taking a beating down at Moe’s, and thus discovering that he has Homer Simpson Syndrome–“ohhh, why me?” he exclaims–which means he can take more than a few blows to the head without feeling a thing. In enters Moe, a boxer long ago–he was fighting under the name Kid Gorgeous before taking a few hits to the face and getting knocked down to Kid Presentable–ready to become Homer’s manager and make them both a few bucks.
What’s intriguing about the approach to storytelling here is that the episode forgoes any real subplots. Unlike last week’s “You Only Move Twice,” the family isn’t split off having their own adventures. Instead, the episode focuses entirely on Homer and Moe, and such narrative precision allows us, as an audience, to feel a sense of clarity and purpose to the storytelling. It helps us get invested in Homer’s well-being and Moe’s longing for validation.
When the boxing storyline kicks into gear, so too does the recurring theme of nostalgia. Moe’s office, which occupies the Ladies’ bathroom in the bar, is decorated with faded photos of his in-ring heyday. They’re remnants of a past that doesn’t exist anymore, and that no one really cares about. Those moments, forever captured in newspapers and magazines, clearly mean a lot to Moe, even if they’re tucked away in a bathroom, forgotten by just about everyone else. After Homer gathers a few easy wins and rises through the ranks of the boxcar/hobo amateurs, Lucius Sweet, a big-time manager and promoter who’s just as rich as Don King and looks just like him, approaches Moe with the intention of getting three rounds out of Homer for Heavyweight Champion Drederick Tatum’s return fight; you know, once he gets out of prison.
What follows is an earnest and heartfelt story of friendship and failure. On another level, there’s a poignancy to watching this episode in 2014. With head injuries becoming a dominant narrative in the world of sports, there’s a palpable sadness to the violence on display here. As an audience, we’re legitimately worried for Homer, and for his family, who have to watch as their bumbling patriarch acts as a punching bag for a convicted felon. The episode also doesn’t pull punches when it comes to lambasting violence as entertainment. The television commercial that promotes the fight is particularly scathing. Showing Tatum emerging from his prison cell, the voiceover says, “society put Drederick Tatum away for his brutal crime” before launching into a promo for a fight where he’ll be given free reign to pummel Homer until he can’t stand. The short commercial is ridiculous because of how exaggerated it is, but it’s also a critique of sanctioned violence. Coupled with the frenzied crowd that cheers for Homer’s demise near the episode’s end, it becomes one of the episode’s most obvious, but pointed and intelligent, cultural critiques.
Thus, when Moe eventually flies into the ring via giant fan, it’s not only a touching moment because of how concerned we are for Homer, but it’s also a final stand for morality and dignity. The fact that ring announcer Michael Buffer says, “whatever dignity remained in boxing is literally flying out the window” only serves to drive that point home. “The Homer They Fall” is the kind of episode we most often associate with the earliest seasons of The Simpsons, because it boasts a streamlined narrative, is filled with subtle one-liners, and uses those tools to substantiate a cultural critique while adding in a huge dose of heart. Turns out that cactus was right; sometimes you have to fight back, even if it’s not with your fists.
- This week in Simpsons signage:
- “Why Can’t We Be Friends” by War is such a perfect entrance song for Homer.
- Tatum enters the ring while Redman’s “Time 4 Some Aksion” plays, a song Mike Tyson was known to use as an entrance theme.
- All boxing comebacks should be called “returning to the Shores of Fistiana.”
- That cut to Homer gasping on the ropes after throwing one punch is maybe the most laugh-out-loud worthy moment in an episode filled with them.
- Another great cut, mixed with a bit of misdirection: Tatum answering questions like he’s at a press conference before it’s revealed to be his parole hearing.
- “If I could turn back the clock on my mother’s stair-pushing, I would certainly reconsider it.”
- I really hope Moe gave some of that $100,000 to the Simpsons so that they could finally get those plug-in room deodorizers Homer’s always wanted.
- I’m not entirely sure why, but Homer being called “The Southern Dandy” elicits a hearty laugh from me every single time.
- “Due to popular demand, we will forgo our national anthem.”
- “He’s ragging on your cord.”
- Moe, on why he never made it big as a fighter: “Because I got knocked out 40 times in a row. That, plus politics.”