Season 1: Episode 3. Original airdate January 21, 1990
Early on in every great sitcom, there’s a moment that challenges the audience’s assumptions about the conventions of the genre. For Seinfeld, it was the second-season episode “The Chinese Restaurant,” a bottle episode that played out in real time; Cheers had its moment in its first-season finale, “Throwdown,” in which Sam and Diane got together and practically reinvented the season-ending cliffhanger and actually invented the modern “will-they-won’t-they?” romance. Even though the gambit The Simpsons plays in today’s episode isn’t quite as daring, both those shows had at least a season to build to their transcendent moment—The Simpsons did it in the third episode.
“Homer’s Odyssey” is a watershed moment for the series. While the first two episodes were classic in their own right, “Odyssey” is an amazingly ballsy episode that all but cements The Simpsons a place in pop culture history. It’s breathtaking in its daringness, but also in its ability to retain the heart of the previous two episodes. It’s not a perfect episode, but between some messy elements are some incredible moments that I guarantee I’ll still remember 400 episodes from now.
The episode begins with Bart’s class taking a field trip to the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant. We’re introduced to Otto Mann, bus driver extraordinaire, who is far too stoned to know where he is driving. During his “shortcut” to the nuclear plant, the bus route gives us our first real look at Springfield, including the flaming tire yard and the penitentiary. It’s a humorously bleak view of the city, but it’s odd to see Springfield filled in with random extras instead of familiar faces. The Simpson family is the sole focus of this season, though—I’ll be surprised if there’s any real development of outside characters until Season 2 begins.
At the nuclear plant, Homer is determined to impress Bart when he visits. However, a mishap causes him to be fired in front of his son. Homer is understandably devastated, not just for losing his only income, but also for disappointing Bart. These emotional moments are the most pleasantly-surprising aspect of these early episodes. I’d never have expected to be praising the pathos so much more than the comedy, but here we are.
Homer’s downward spiral continues as he is turned down at numerous job interviews. Eventually, he gives up on finding a new job and resorts to wallowing in his depression. An ad on TV gives him a craving for a beer, but to his dismay, the fridge is empty. This final loss pushes Homer to go to a very dark place, and the scenes that follow are what make this episode truly special.
Desperate for a beer, Homer sneaks into Bart’s room and steals his piggy bank. After breaking it open, he discovers there isn’t even enough change for a single beer. He recounts the money, in case there’s close to the amount he needs, but realizes what he’s doing midway through. Homer is stealing his son’s money to buy alcohol. That’s a bold, dark move for a show to make even later in its run, but to do it in the THIRD episode ever?
It’s beyond ballsy. Audiences of the time couldn’t have been used to that kind of moral grey-area, especially in their animated shows. It’s quite daring to potentially villainize a protagonist like this, an impressive move the episode tries to pull. Luckily, it pays off massively. It’s miraculous that we still sympathize with Homer, and can even relate in that moment of depravity. I’m amazed by how well-formed Homer already is as a character. He has universally human emotions, weaknesses and fears—above all else his fear of letting his family down.
Those fears lead him to determining suicide as his only remaining option. He writes a heartbreaking note to his family, and proceeds to tie a boulder around himself and heave it to the nearest bridge (where a boulder already awaits him, of course). Thankfully Bart notices that a “robber” has taken his piggy bank, and his father is missing too. The family races to meet Homer at the bridge, where after being talked out of killing himself, he has an epiphany. Marge and the kids are nearly struck by a passing car, prompting Homer to wonder why there isn’t a stop sign at the intersection. He takes it upon himself to be the savior of Springfield’s dangerous crosswalks.
At this point, the episode becomes far more uneven. Homer becomes a safety czar of sorts, and his crusade leads him to the nuclear plant at which he once worked. During a rally outside the plant, he is summoned by Mr. Burns to discuss a bargain. Homer makes a deal with the devil, and compromises his integrity as an advocate to get a stable job back at the plant, as a safety technician. The scenes at the nuclear plant are a little preachy and more on-the-nose than I’ve come to expect from The Simpsons.
What’s most notable is the BLACK SMITHERS that appears throughout the episode. I can’t imagine the thoughts of the color artist’s who decided to make Mr. Burns’ basically-subservient assistant to be portrayed as African-American. Wikipedia tells me that it really was just an error, and is fixed in the very next episode, but it was certainly the biggest surprise I’ve come across so far in this run.
All in all, “Homer’s Odyssey” is an above-average episode, but the true darkness of those Homer scenes makes this one for me to remember. It takes a lot of guts to put a main character’s credibility on the line this early in a run, but The Simpsons did it magnificently. I wish I could find a link to those scenes on YouTube, because they’re that powerful. Homer is at his lowest point in this episode, and the writers put a lot of faith in their audience to have him get away with such terrible acts. I have to imagine that this episode is what made audiences realizing they were watching something special, because is the first moment at which I can really comprehend what made The Simpsons rise above its competitors (and contemporaries) to become the phenomenon it is today.