I was just a kid when I began watching The Simpsons religiously. That meant that, at the time, a good portion of the show went completely over my head: homages to classic movies, references to snuggling, jokes about Richard Nixon. It also made revisiting the show as an adult a wonderfully enriching experience. While the exquisite construction and sheer hilarity of the series enraptured me as a kid, I discovered deeper layers of storytelling, humor, and commentary in the show as an adult that I could never have fathomed in all my young fanaticism. But that naivete also meant that I completely missed how unremittingly dark the series could be in an episode like “Homer’s Enemy”.
Now The Simpsons is no stranger to dark comedy. It’s often employed in the tragicomic stylings of characters like Moe Szyslak or Hans Moleman, who suffer repeatedly for our amusement and turn up again no worse for wear. But there are few moments in the show’s canon that can match the pure black comedy of Frank Grimes’s descent into madness, or the conclusion of his debut episode, where the denizens of Springfield are laughing at Homer’s antics, while Grimes is lowered into his grave after an untimely death.
It’s an appropriately surreal ending for the series’s most Kafkaesque episode.1 Imagine what it would be like if you woke up one morning to discover that you were in the world of The Simpsons. While at first blush, that may sound far more appealing than waking up to the realization that you’ve been transformed into a cockroach, over time it would be no less bewildering. That’s the essential predicament of Frank Grimes, the titular nemesis in “Homer’s Enemy”, an episode that delves into how confounding, and even maddening it would be for a person from the real world to experience the everyday lunacy of Springfield.
Frank Grimes is, as Kent Brockman describes him, “the man who had to struggle for everything he ever got.” After Mr. Burns is moved by a human interest piece on Grimes’s struggles, he instructs Smithers to find this “self-made man” so that he can hire him as the plant’s Executive Vice President. But by the time Grimes arrives at the plant, Burns’s attention has shifted, and Grimes is banished to work in quiet anonymity with the other chair-moisteners in Section 7G. It’s there that Grimes meets Homer Simpson, the man who he is aghast to learn is slow-witted, grating, and reckless, but who is nonetheless constantly rewarded and applauded by those around him.
Initially, Grimes (or “Grimey”, the unwanted nickname Homer bestows upon him) is merely baffled that a man with Homer’s lack of qualifications or aptitude for the job can stay employed. But Grimes’s veneer of polite indignation gives way to open hostility when he discovers the relative luxury in which Homer lives and the amazing adventures Homer has experienced despite a “lifetime of sloth and ignorance.” An appalled Grimes, who’s had to “work hard every day of [his] life” to scratch out a meager existence, eventually declares that Homer is a total fraud. He concocts a plan to expose the local oaf by tricking him into entering a children’s model-building contest at the nuclear plant. Yet when Homer not only participates in the contest, but wins it and is roundly applauded by his boss and coworkers for the victory, it’s the last straw for poor Frank.
Frank Grimes’s increasing frustrations with Homer are perfectly in tune with the high concept nature of this episode. Grimes is ultimately driven to an existential unraveling after repeatedly bumping up against the rules of the crazy T.V. universe in which he finds himself trapped. Grimes has tried in vain to convince anyone who will listen that Homer is a crude buffoon who does not deserve any of what he has. But Grimes cannot cope when he reaches the unspoken, horrifying realization that he is in a sitcom, and a cartoon sitcom at that, where despite the fact that Homer Simpson repeatedly does things that should get him killed, ostracized, or at least fired, the idiot just keeps coming out on top.
So Grimes becomes unhinged. He has a psychotic episode where he foolheartedly assumes the mantle of Homer Simpson and, to his coworkers’ chagrin, reenacts the litany of ridiculous things that the Simpsons’ patriarch regularly gets away with. He meets his end in the midst of declaring, “What’s this? Extremely High Voltage? Well, I don’t need safety gloves, because I’m Homer Simp–” before grabbing onto the exposed wires and electrocuting himself.
It’s a hilariously macabre scene, but it’s also the cinch of the episode — Frank Grimes is right! Homer is a terrible employee. Homer has lived an incredibly charmed life, especially in light of how dimwitted and lazy he is. And Homer wouldn’t need safety gloves if he had grabbed those wires instead. Sure, he might have ended up under Dr. Hibbert’s care, with a few bandages for good measure, but he’d be back the next week, suffering few, if any consequences for his actions, just as in the classic Simpsons sequence where Homer repeatedly tumbles into Springfield Gorge. Because Homer Simpson, unlike Frank Grimes, is the star of a T.V. show.
But Frank Grimes isn’t a cartoon character. He’s not a fixture on some television show. In the story crafted by legendary Simpsons scribe John Swartzwelder and the show’s venerated writers’ room, Frank Grimes is a real person transplanted into the colorful world of Springfield, and that means he doesn’t get to live by the same rules that Homer does. Instead, he only gets to be lowered into the dirt while Homer snores out “change the channel Marge” at his funeral, and the assembled mourners guffaw as Lenny retorts, “That’s our Homer!”
Where do you go as a series after something like that? Some point to “Homer’s Enemy”, which aired near the end of The Simpsons’s eighth season, as the turning point for the show — the moment where it stopped being the greatest show on television and started to transform into the lumbering, ungainly institution it’s become. I don’t buy it, but I understand it.
Never before had the series taken such direct aim at itself. Never before had the show pointed out how repugnant its most popular character could be in such a stark fashion. Never before had it shined such a blistering spotlight on the inherent, unfair absurdity of the life that Homer Simpson has lived and the town that enables him. It’s not hard to have trouble looking at the series in the same light after that, or to see the ways in which the show would later amplify the more unpleasant facets of Homer’s personality and the schadenfreude-style humor that were on display in this episode.
Make no mistake, Homer is at peak obnoxiousness in “Homer’s Enemy”. The reviled “Jerkass Homer”–a moniker that has become the popular shorthand for the boorish, sometimes cruel incarnation of the character that took hold in the show’s later years–rears his ugly head here.2 Homer is completely oblivious to Frank Grimes’s legitimate concerns and polite requests. He is as annoying and inconsiderate as possible, though unintentionally so, in almost every interaction between the two.
There’s no malice on Homer’s part. It’s just his way. Again, that’s kind of the point. The viewer is apt to side with Homer against Frank Grimes because Homer is the protagonist; he means no harm, and we’ve been thoroughly entertained by his antics for years. Heck, some of us were being entertained by those antics right then and there.
And rightfully so! Those moments between Homer and Grimes are hilarious. I’m a sucker for the Laurel and Hardy-esque dynamic of a high-strung square being exasperated by his wacky, bumbling counterpart.3 But it’s a side of Homer, one with little empathy or concern for others, that the show would come to lean on all too often in the future, to its significant detriment.
Still, some see Frank Grimes’s comeuppance, for lack of a better term, not as an indictment of the show itself, but rather as a shot across the bow of the series’s most hardcore fans — the ones like me who hold the series in such high esteem that we expect too much of it, and nitpick the beast to death. There’s merit in that view. Frank Grimes is not a lovable character. He’s uptight and officious and otherwise lacking in redeeming qualities. And while he rightfully points out the flaws in The Simpsons’s universe, it’s easy to see how the writers could be giving Grimes his “just desserts” for, as the folks from Mystery Science Theater 3000 might say, not realizing that it’s just a show, and he should really just relax.
But I think there’s more there. I keep coming back to the one central truth in this episode — that Frank Grimes is absolutely correct in everything for which he criticizes Homer and the people who support him. He may be unpleasant about it; he may not show any understanding of the kind of world he’s been thrust into, or for that matter, any sympathy for Homer, but he’s 100% right. Something is rotten in whatever state Springfield is in, and that would be maddening to experience firsthand, just as Homer, “the most beloved man in Springfield” would be infuriating to deal with if he was your co-worker.
Contrary to popular belief, this isn’t entirely new territory for The Simpsons. The show hit similar notes in Season 5’s “Homer Loves Flanders”, where Homer’s extreme personality quirks pushed even gentle Ned past his breaking point.4 But the show has always come back around to some sweeter resolution of these conflicts, a kind speech or something subtle to throw the ways in which the real world clashes with that of The Simpsons into relief, without breaking the reality of the show. But there’s no tearful scene of reconciliation for Homer and Frank Grimes here. Instead, there’s just the people of Springfield laughing in the shadow of a man’s tombstone.
Maybe the show’s reality really did break a little after “Homer’s Enemy”. I’m one of the more bullish fans among the Simpsons diehards when it comes to the idea that the series was still doing something worthwhile after its first decade on the air, and even after its second. But it’s hard to deny that at some point, not long after this episode, the show began to falter and would never reach the same heights again.
I’m more apt to blame that decline on the mass exodus of the show’s nigh-miraculous second wave of great writers than on any single episode, but even if “Homer’s Enemy” is not the show’s singular breaking point, I can see why it’s become a symbol for the beginning of the end. It’s an episode about how Homer Simpson can be the most incompetent, vexing man imaginable, how the universe has rewarded and will continue to reward him for it, and how the man who points all this out gets 10,000 volts.
And yet, although I’ve written nearly two-thousand words about what “Homer’s Enemy” means to The Simpsons and its legacy, I think I may actually have had it right all along when I was a child. At that age, I didn’t really understand the meta-commentary of what Frank Grimes represented or what his appearance said about the world in which the show takes place. All I experienced were the laughs that came from an uptight stiff tearing his hair out over those lovable goofs in Springfield. It is, after all, just one episode, and it’s a durable comic premise to have a person from the real world stumble into the off-beat conventions of a fictional one to marvel at the absurdity.5
And, in truth, Frank Grimes isn’t a real person. In the end, he’s just as much a cartoon character as Homer. And maybe that’s why it’s alright to chuckle as he suffers amidst Homer’s ill-mannered oafishness. Maybe we’re still allowed to laugh at the situation without considering the broader implications. Maybe the show just goes on.
Odds and Ends
- I didn’t discuss the B-story where Bart buys an abandoned factory for “a buck.” While there’s some thematic connection to the A-story, with Bart essentially lucking into having his own industrial playhouse to tool around in, it’s really just an excuse for some quick gags with him and Milhouse to break up the action. And it’s great! One of the things The Simpsons, at its peak, did better than any other show on television was capture how kids think and act, and then mine that for comedy gold. Bart and Milhouse’s adventures were an amusing and frighteningly accurate depiction of how my ten-year-old self and best friend would likely have behaved in similar circumstances.
- Frank Grimes’s son, the spitting image of his father, would appear in “The Great Louse Detective” nearly half a decade after “Homer’s Enemy”. In that episode, Homer, with the help of Sideshow Bob, foiled a scheme by Grimes Jr. to take revenge on the man who drove his dad insane. There’s a number of good laughs in the episode, especially by the standards of Season 14, but as is often the case in the post-classic years of the show, the plot made little-to-no sense and the gags had few ties to reality. Grimes’s semi-reappearance proved to be a nonsensical waste of a reprise of this seminal, if polarizing, episode.
- Grimes’s scathing rebuke of Homer after he visits The Simpsons’ home is, in the spirit of the rest of the episode, a critique of the sitcom conventions that sustain Homer’s continued, charmed existence. But insofar as The Simpsons has often been a satire of American life, with the titular Simpsons as stand-ins for the average American family, it also serves as a critique of our nation’s way of life, especially when Grimes admonishes, “If you lived in any other country in the world, you’d have starved to death long ago.” It’s difficult to say whether that gives greater depth to the proceedings or just adds to the ugliness that so many found off-putting.
- I do love that Bart responds to this comment with, “He’s got you there, Dad.” Man’s best friend indeed.
- In all my discussion of the baggage this episode comes with, I think I underplayed how uproariously funny it is. From silly jokes like a “silo explosion” turning out to be the explosion of a corn silo, to Mr. Burns making a heroic dog his executive vice president, to the entire nuclear power plant model contest, the episode was chock full of the fun gags and classic dialogue that were the norm in the show’s golden era.
- Though Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, the showrunners for this episode, might object to my use of that term given this scene from their underrated subsequent project, Mission Hill.↵
- Though I would argue that this side of the character had peeked out as early as Season 3’s “When Flanders Failed”.↵
- Pinky and The Brain, Bert and Ernie, and SpongeBob and Squidward are all stellar examples of this dynamic at play.↵
- And even that episode turned pretty meta at the end.↵
- See also: Cubert Farnsworth’s debut in “A Clone of My Own” on Futurama.↵