Season 3: Episode 5. Original airdate: October 17, 1991.
If I haven’t made it abundantly clear already, I’ve consistently loved what I’ve seen of the show so far. Even though I’m deeply enamored with nearly every episode, if I have to nitpick, there’s one thing I’ve found to be a consistent issue for the show. It can tell one stellar story in an episode—but when B or C plots start getting involved, the level of quality dips ever so slightly.
That’s a bad way to put it. Rather, the subplots in a given episode are slight, so much that they’re often more of a distraction from the A story than full-fledged plots in their own right. If you notice, there have been many episodes in which I completely ignore the B story in an episode, or try to shoehorn in some commentary at the end. I’m not expecting the show to be Curb Your Enthusiasm every week, with multiple strands dovetailing into an insane finale, nor do I think what the show’s been doing is bad by any means.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I think “Homer Defined” is the first episode to truly nail multiple stories, and more importantly, give both stories equal weight and screen time. While I ultimately think the Bart/Milhouse story was more powerful, Homer’s self-aware journey was pretty fantastic in its own right.
For what may be the first time in his life, Homer finds himself in not only a position of responsibility, but also holding the only key to the survival of Springfield. The nuclear plant is facing a meltdown in Homer’s sector, and only he can override the system. He’s been trained to do this precise operation, but was blissfully ignorant as he was taught. While he tries to figure out which of hundreds of buttons to push, we’re treated to some delightful scenes with characters facing the end of days, particularly Marge’s bargaining with God.
By some stroke of luck, and a particular skill at “eenie-meanie-minie-moe,” Homer overrides the meltdown and is deemed a hero. He is praised and celebrated throughout town, and is deemed Employee of the Month at work. In fact, Mr. Burns’ temporary adoration for Homer pushes Smithers to the sidelines, causing the latter to turn green with envy. Homer’s reaction to his “heroism” is what surprised me most— I expected him to embrace it and have someone discover his secret, only to have Homer desperately try to keep it covered up.
Instead, the story is treated with more nuance, as Homer actually struggles with his knowledge that he pushed a random button and got lucky. It’s a surprising amount of self-awareness, which seems to be happening more and more often for our hero. His guilt mounts even more when Lisa becomes enamored with him. It’s no secret that Homer and Lisa’s relationship is among the most complex on the show, but here Homer reveals just how much he values being honest with his daughter more than anyone.
Despite that shame, it isn’t until he’s forced to replicate his heroic act at the Shelbyville nuclear plant that he is revealed as a fraud. Indeed, he does save the day again, but he does it with the same dumb luck he did before. He’s outed as not a hero, but an incredibly lucky buffoon (which will be a theme that recurs at various points). There is some redemption, as his antics place him in the dictionary for “pulling a Homer,” which really should be a bigger part of our cultural lexicon. I wasn’t a huge fan of the running dictionary joke, as I’ve seen it doneanddoneanddoneanddone many times before, and it got run into the ground here, but the “pull a Homer” payoff was quite nice.
The Bart story is a simple one that should be familiar to most any kid— Milhouse’s mom doesn’t want him to spend time with Bart anymore. She cites Bart as a bad influence, going so far as to forbid Milhouse from inviting him to a birthday party. Bart takes it as hard as would be expected, and finds himself completely alone while isolated from his best friend.
I’m no stranger to this type of treatment, though it thankfully never happened to me directly. I grew up in a predominantly Mormon town (and I wasn’t Mormon), and among the more devout there were always murmurs of “don’t play with _____” for religious reasons. It was completely asinine, and my friends luckily had very good and intelligent parents, but I always had the looming fear that I would be ostracized at any moment. It’s a terrible spot to be in, to be a kid and not understand why you’re treated differently.
Bart’s case is slightly different, as he probably is a bad influence on Milhouse, but the two are inseparable based on their common ground as outsiders at school. Marge recognizes this and visits the Van Houten home to try and reconcile. Milhouse’s mom, Luann, tells Marge that Milhouse tole her that her meatloaf “sucks,” something he couldn’t have heard on television and had to have learned from Bart. Marge explains the sensitive situation both Bart and Milhouse are in, being bullied and misunderstood, and proves how much the two need each other. It’s best illustrated by a shot of Milhouse on a seesaw, steadfastly trying to make it work on its own—but it won’t work, as he needs his other half.
Luann relents, and Bart finds out he’s allowed to be with his best friend again. He’s overjoyed, and lets Marge know how grateful he is for her sticking up for him. It’s a tender moment between mother and son, and it puts a nice button on the story. The two stories in “Homer Defined” are pretty disconnected, and never come together for some greater meaning, but they work so brilliantly on their own merits that I’d place it among my favorite episodes so far. The show can and will keep up this kind of consistency, but it’s fantastic to see the foundations of greatness cobbling together.