Season 2: Episode 5. Original airdate: November 8, 1990.
“Dancin’ Homer” is a weird little episode. That’s not to say it’s bad, or even particularly good, just…different. It’s certainly an important episode for the series, as it’s the first time Homer finds himself adept at something, and subsequently falls into an accidental career. This is an idea The Simpsons will return to constantly over the course of its run, with every main character discovering themselves to be a savant at something or another. It’s characteristic of what eventually became known as Zombie Simpsons, or anything after season 12 (or 8, 9, 10, or 11, depending on who you’re talking to), when giving a character a surprising new skill became a cheap way to wring out a story. Here, though, Homer’s newfound talent is genuinely believable and doesn’t betray anything we’ve learned about the character. Far from the future when he becomes an astronaut and a boxer, this episode is far more grounded in its conceit that Homer makes for a particularly good mascot.
The first strange choice in this episode is its use of wraparound scenes set at Moe’s, where Homer recounts his rise and fall as a baseball mascot. This idea was conceived by James L. Brooks after the writers had trouble finding a way to end this episode. I suppose it works on some level, if this episode is to be taken as a parody of the rise-and-fall stories of professional athletes, with said athlete recalling his glory days to some semi-interested barflies. I just don’t think the episode works hard enough to make this a satire of much, and it has a much more relaxed tone and pacing than I’d expect from a riff on the great sports movies. I realize that just yesterday I was praising the show’s ability to make subtle winks and nods to pop culture, but sometimes the subtext is a little too far beneath the surface for my liking.
Despite my qualms, this episode has its share of great moments, including the entirety of its first act. The nuclear plant is hosting an “employees, spouses, and no more than three children night” at a Springfield Isotopes baseball game, and the Simpson family is greeted by Mr. Burns as they walk in. In a callback to “There’s No Disgrace Like Home,” Burns must look to his notecards to recall who these “Simps” people are, which is especially surprising after he vowed to destroy all of Homer’s dreams in the very last episode. [Sidebar: Maybe I’m just uninformed, but I feel that this season has been very Burns-Smithers heavy, having them in three of the five episodes so far. Am I alone in wondering about this?]
The ballgame itself is a great setpiece, from Homer’s proclamation, “this ticket doesn’t just give me a seat, it also gives me the right, no, the duty to make a complete ass of myself,” to Bleeding Gums Murphy’s 26-minute rendition of the national anthem, which is only attentively listened to by Lisa, of course. The Burns-and-Homer drinking buddies dynamic is peculiar, but even though Burns forgets Homer’s name by the end of each episode, I really do enjoy seeing him being something other than a bland villainous type. Homer eventually gets drunk enough to make a complete ass of himself, proceeding to dance to “Baby Elephant Walk” on top of the dugout.
In my review of “Some Enchanted Evening,” I discussed the differences between the original animation for The Simpsons and the less-cartoony version FOX put on the air. Homer’s dancing in this episode makes me long for the opportunity to see the cartoony version that never was. The dance here is funny, sure, but it never inspires the kind of fervor in me that it apparently does in the crowd. This is an opportunity for this show to be the cartoon it actually is, despite its efforts to forget its animated status at every opportunity. Sometimes it is jarring to see wildly fluid and silly character movements in the middle of an episode, but in this case, I wish the executives weren’t so concerned about people pegging The Simpsons as just another cartoon.
Homer’s dancing inexplicably causes the Isotopes to win, and he rises to mascot stardom eventually being picked to move to the big leagues in the generically mythical Capital City. As he is wished farewell by the Springfield ballpark, he declares himself the happiest mascot in the entire world, in one very clever reference to Pride of the Yankees. The Simpsons’ arrival in Capital City is a wonderful montage, set to an homage to “New York, New York” sung by none other than guest star Tony Bennett. Capital City represents the anti-Springfield, the bustling metropolis versus the traditional, sleepy American town. As such, the Simpsons are out of their element in the big city, a town that makes a man feel like a king, and a king feel like a crazy koo-koo king.
After some motivating encouragement from the Capital City Goofball, a bizzare cross between the Philly Phanatic and Mr. Met, Homer goes out to give the Capital City crowd his act. He’s shocked and devastated when the crowd all but ignores his performance, referring to it as something that’d play well out in the sticks, but not somewhere as refined as Capital City. Homer and the family return to Springfield, Homer returns back to work, and as always, life returns to normal. Homer buries his dancing costume forever, as he is too ashamed to even keep it in the closet. All is well though, as he will inevitably find another talent to occupy his time.
I see the final act of this episode as an interesting statement on the differences between Capital City and Springfield. The Capital crowd’s apathetic reaction to Homer, especially compared to the rapturous approval given to him by Springfield, feels like a defense of the simplicity of small-town values. Maybe I’m reading into things too much, but I like the idea of Springfield being a backwater place, sure, but being one that accepts all and enjoys the more carefree aspects of life. Like the Simpson family discovered, the city can be an exciting and fun place, but it can never replace the friendly comfort of home.