#28: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

Season 2: Episode 15. Original airdate: February 21, 1991.

Just last night I was heralding The Simpsons‘ ability to turn its supporting characters into dimensional beings that could carry episodes by themselves. Now, in the very next episode, we’re introduced to Herb Powell, one of the most memorable characters to ever appear on the show, despite his only showing up in two episodes. It’s sort of amazing that the writers have never gone back to Herb for stories over the years, especially considering the far more obscure characters they’ve explored in that time. I have to assume his absence is out of respect for the quality achieved in this episode, easily one of the best of the season.

Herb represents the American Dream to Homer’s American Reality. While Homer rode his traditional blue-collar upbringing to a predictably blue-collar adulthood, his half-brother had to work tirelessly to make his fortune. The fact that they share DNA is almost remarkable, but this episode luckily avoids the rich man/poor man stereotypes and strikes something deeper in its depiction of consumerism and the entire mythos of the self-made man.

The episode begins with Grampa seeing the latest McBain movie starring Rainier Wolfcastle, which I would honestly take over any Schwartzenegger movie (Terminators aside). Seriously, with dialogue like “Right now I’m thinking about holding another meeeting…in bed,” who wouldn’t pay to see an actual McBain flick? Back to the point, Grampa is pissed that the movie didn’t live up to his astronomical expectations, and suffers a minor heart attack while arguing for a refund. While in the hospital, he tells Homer a story he vowed to his wife that he’d never tell— the story of the time he slept with a carnival prostitute.

I can’t think of anything worse than a carnival prostitute, and I wish there were something clever to compare it to, but there’s just not. It’s a horrifying prospect, and I love that the show embraces Abe Simpson’s sexual deviancy in such a bold way. For him to have an affair with a carnie hooker that led to a child (a child with the trademark Simpson 5-o’-clock shadow, no less) feels like a bold move, but maybe that’s just my weird perceptions of 1990s culture. By modern TV standards, it’s not risque at all, but I want to believe the story of Herb’s conception was pushing the envelope at least a tiny bit.

Homer sets off to find his brother, and first goes to the orphanage Herb was plucked from. While there he meets another doppelganger, this one of Dr. Hibbert, who also happens to be looking for his long-lost brother. Homer ignores (or doesn’t recognize) the connection, instead focusing on his own quest, but proves himself oblivious when the orphanage director drops obvious hints to Herb’s location in Detroit. Eventually, Homer pays the man off to gain the information, and searches the Detroit phone book for any Herbert Powell that could be a match. The phone book bit isn’t a bit at all, but it plays as a joke in a time when phone books serve as nothing more than doorstoppers or paperweights.

Herb is tracked down, and instead of coming to Springfield invites the whole Simpson clan to visit him in Detroit. It’s quickly revealed that Herb is not just a success, but an enormous one, the CEO of Powell Motors. In his first scene, he is at a board meeting for the company, but it becomes clear that he is a man torn between his background and his current position. He is a blue-collar man, albeit one that worked relentlessly to get into Harvard and build his business, but he can’t seem to make business decisions in the best interests of the average man. He is truly representative of that fabled American Dream, but once he meets Homer’s family his true desire is brought to the forefront—his desire for a family.

It’s a classic concept, the man with everything who only longs for love, but the show takes a more nuanced approach with Herb. He is a man who is happy with his success, but just wants that something more. While he may share characteristics of Charles Foster Kane in theory, he bears little resemblance to that tortured soul. He sees in Homer an opportunity, and a chance to finally capture the attention of the common man. He enlists his brother to design an automobile for the Homers of the world, despite the protests of his business and R&D teams. The scenes of Homer working in the plant are funny, sure, but they don’t strike much of a chord beyond the obvious jokes that one would expect from him designing a car.

What really works are the few quiet scenes with Herb and the rest of the family. Danny DeVito turns in a tremendous performance as Herb, and he nails the subtle emotional beats of a man so confused in his life. I honestly didn’t recognize DeVito, especially after hearing his older, gruffer voice on It’s Always Sunny, or even in The Lorax. He’s an extremely talented voice actor, though, and it’s a shame that he was only able to return one other time (which is a story unto itself—and only a season away). When he interacts with Marge and the kids, it’s apparent how much he longs for what Homer has, even in the fleeting moments during the zoo scene. He’s a tragedy of a man, even if it’s not as melodramatic as similar figures in pop culture history.

The work at Powell Motors comes to a conclusion, and the times arrives for “The Homer” to be revealed. As it turns out, everything the average American man wants in a car creates a monstrosity of a machine, which turns out to cost $82,000 a pop. Granted, The Homer is a hilarious concept for a car, and I reallyreallyreally want a replica of one—anyone know where I could find one? Accordingly though, Herb is devastated that his brother let him down so horribly, basically replicating the failure of the Edsel. In its failure, Herb is forced to sell the company to a Japanese firm, and must leave Detroit in shame. He condemns Homer as he boards a Greyhound, telling him that from that point forward, he has no brother. It’s a stark and sad moment for both characters, in that they were both so gleeful to discover each other, only to cause a rift that destroyed their relationship.

Homer is clearly bothered by what he’s done in a moment of surprising self-awareness, and realizes that Herb’s failure would never have happened were it not for him. It’s too late, though, and his only shot at having a brother seems to be irreversibly ruined. In that moment of sadness, Bart manages to cheer his dad up a little bit, telling him that he liked the design for The Homer. It’s a small victory for a man that needs one. It’s only a shame that Herb couldn’t get the same sort of win. Fans of the show agreed in their response to the tragic ending of this episode, and demanded a redemptive sequel for Herb. Luckily, the writers didn’t screw that one up and delivered Season 3’s “Brother, Can You Spare Two Dimes?,” but we’ll get to that one soon enough.

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2 thoughts on “#28: Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

  1. The phone call scene in this one has to be one of my all-time favourite Simpsons moments, if just for the “His personal hygiene is above reproach” bit at the end.

  2. A model company called Polar Lights made a snap together ‘The Homer’ model car, with neat little decals and even a pinetree air freshener! I purchased one back in 2004, and the final assembly is displayed proudly on my bookshelf to this day.

    A quick internet search shows they’ve long been sold out, but you can find one $75-80 on Amazon or Ebay, highly inflated over the $20-ish they sold for in production.

    http://www.amazon.com/Lights-Simpsons-Together-Plastic-4000/sim/B0000DJX77/2

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