Season 3: Episode 11. Original airdate: December 5, 1991.
The idea of drastic change is something that terrifies the average person. As a species, we cherish safety, security, and familiarity—that’s partly why sitcoms became popular in the first place. Turning a TV to a familiar cast in relatable situations became the ideal way to wind down after a long day at work, and there’s a reason the most popular shows on the air are those that stick to the classic, three camera setup (i.e., any comedy on CBS). The ability for a situation to go out of control but return to the status quo after a half hour is something that Americans value, a safety net that has kept TV the way it is for decades.
When The Simpsons attempts to shake up its world in today’s episode, it has to toy with expectations a little bit to make us forget that things will inevitably return to normal by the 22-minute mark. It does so by cleverly playing off the universal fear of change, but also by adding the one thing we fear more—foreigners.
Of course, this isn’t a uniquely American phenomenon. There’s a little xenophobia in everyone, whether they care to admit it or not. It’s not some kind of malicious loathing (though it can be), it’s simply a fear of the unknown. America is currently facing the loss of its hegemonic power for the first time since World War II. The mere idea of a multilateral world is scary to most conservative folk, and so the looming specter of Chinese power has become a boogeyman of sorts. Similarly, in 1991, the Cold War was just drawing to a close, and the only country more suspect than the USSR to Americans was Germany. After all, the aforementioned war took a great toll on the entire world, and Germany was largely to blame.
I mention all of this because there’s a deep context to what this episode is trying to say about American society, but enough with the history lesson. Mr. Burns is feeling restless, and considers selling the nuclear plant. Stocks in the plant skyrocket, but Homer sells his shares at the first sign of an uptick, thanks to his depressing, creepy stockbroker, played soul-crushingly by our pal Phil Hartman. Instead of making $5200, and making his family financially stable for the first time, he is bought out for $25, enough to buy some premium Duff. He’s obviously distraught, but his wound is salted by his coworkers showing up in new cars, having finally caught a break.
German investors happen to be in Springfield, and have $100,000,000 to offer for the plant (with some spare change to buy the Cleveland Browns). Burns can’t refuse the offer, and he sets off into retirement, leaving a crushed Smithers behind. Everyone associated with the plant is forced to cope with the realities of this new order. Contrary to Homer’s expectations, the Germans are efficient owners that are primarily interested in the safety of the plant. This means that Homer’s position as safety inspector is highly valuable to them, and they take an interest in what Homer has accomplished at his post.
Homer suddenly finds himself saddled with something he never prepared for at work—accountability. The German owners expect a full report on his safety initiatives, to which he can’t come up with a coherent response. Despite the language barrier, it’s abundantly clear that Homer is ill-suited for his job. However, this scene sets up Homer in the Land of Chocolate, one of the most iconic sequences in Simpsons history. It’s a gorgeously animated scene that doesn’t fit the episode at all, but still manages to work. Homer’s never been as gleeful as he is while skipping through the chocolate coated streets. Having thought this show to be fairly grounded in the early seasons, I’ve been impressed and highly pleased with the integration of such fantastic dream sequences. This one, though, is the best by far.
The time comes for downsizing at the plant, but only one name is listed as being let go. That name belongs to our hero, and Homer finds himself fired from the plant once again. The family is forced to cut costs, but Homer isn’t the only one suffering in the wake of the German buyout. Mr. Burns is a man without a purpose when stripped of his power. He doesn’t fit in with other old people, and he can’t relish the misery of others during a leisurely retirement. The biggest blow to his ego comes when he visits Moe’s, only to be treated like garbage by Homer and Bart. Without the respect of even his former peons, Burns sets his sights on buying back the plant, and his power.
It’s easier than expected, as the Germans are in over their heads with the necessary funds to get the plant up to code. Burns buys it back for half what they paid for it, but they’re willing to take the loss. Order is restored, and Burns makes his first order of business to rehire Homer, but with a caveat. He vows revenge on Homer for the incident at Moe’s, a vow he takes very seriously, at least until he forgets Homer’s name next week.
We need order and comfortability to survive as humans. There’s a specific groove we get into, and it’s difficult to transition to anything but that. When the status quo gets shuffled too much, people like Mr. Burns and Homer can’t quite get with the new system. In Homer’s case, this episode should have been a cautionary tale, that his laziness at work will pay an eventual price. However, because this is a sitcom, he probably didn’t learn his lesson once he got his job back under Mr. Burns. The toll of living a secure and familiar life is the inability to truly evolve, to break out of a comfort zone, but for those like Homer, the status quo may be the best life can possibly get.
Unless there really is a land of chocolate, of course.