The Simpsons: “Duffless” – Homer’s Temporary Sobriety and How to Show Growth on a Sitcom

The Simpsons has never addressed Homer’s alcoholism more directly than it did in “Duffless”, and for good reason. As I discussed with the fine folks at the The Simpsons Show podcast this week, Homer’s love for beer is such an essential part of who he is to the general public, that it’s almost as synonymous with him as his dim-wittedness or his love of donuts. That essentially means the show can never truly change this facet of Homer’s personality, which, in turn, makes it pretty unlikely that The Simpsons will ever explore the issue in any greater depth than it did here. It’s a serious topic to tackle in the first place, and it’s a tough one to get right when you have to leave an iconic character the way you found him, to the point that he’s basically not allowed to make any sort of change for the better. Thus the series, as a general rule, tends to sidestep the issue.

Don’t get me wrong, The Simpsons frequently makes references to Homer’s vigorous beer consumption, but it’s generally played for laughs and never taken terribly seriously. I don’t have a problem with that either. Sure, at a big picture level there may be something mildly pernicious about depicting someone who drinks as much as Homer does never suffering any lasting consequences from it, but (1) The Simpsons is a comedy show, not an after school special and (2) Homer is, entirely independently of his drinking, already a terrible role model who rarely, if ever, suffers consequences for anything. Heck, the show centered an entire episode around that idea. If Homer Simpson is the example by which people live their lives, then they have bigger problems than one-too-many Duffs.

Which is to say that while beer, and the absence thereof, takes center stage in “Duffless”, the episode is not, and could not possibly be, about Homer making some kind of lasting change in terms of his alcohol consumption. Instead, the show mostly uses the episode as an opportunity to riff on the small but persistent ways that drinking is a part of our culture in the United States, from the way it’s used as social lubrication to get us through tupperware parties and baseball games, to how it creates various offshoots like traffic schools and A.A. meetings that make well-meaning if fractured attempts to deal with the results.

But it’s also the closest the show ever came to examining the downside of Homer’s drinking, and it dips into one of the most venerable themes in The Simpsons canon — Homer’s love for his wife and the small way that Marge’s concern for her husband prompts him to be a better man.

 

Not that he has so much room to improve or anything.

 

And yet what’s funny about the episode’s A-story is that there’s not much in the way of emotional stakes until the very end. Sure, when Marge initially asks Homer to give up beer for a spell, she makes that pleading face, and the show plays the usual sad music, but the story is mostly an excuse to poke fun at the hallowed place beer holds in our culture and wring the humor out of Homer’s misery during his brief bit of temperance. Until the last minute of the episode, the overwhelming effort is comedy, not pathos.

That’s fine! It is a comedy show after all. The story is simple and solid enough: Homer gets a DUI; it prompts Marge’s plea, and he struggles without his beloved Duff until the month is up. The humor the story facilitates is trenchant and well-observed. As a craft beer enthusiast, I take particular pleasure in the barbs directed at the macro-breweries represented by the Duff Corporation. The vats for Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry all being filled from the same pipe is a pithy jab at the unrelenting sameness of mass-produced beer.

By the same token, as a sports fan who’s suffered through more dumb beer commercials than I care to remember, it’s also gratifying to see the show parody the way that beer companies pay lip service to ideas about drinking responsibly, while naturally encouraging people to consume as much of their product as possible, and how the ad agencies selling the beer rely on sex appeal and outdated stereotypes in the same breath that they posit these breweries as venerated, all-American institutions. The trip through history with Duff’s part in prohibition, Amos & Andy, McCarthyism, and the Nixon-sullying sheen of television is funny, in part, because it’s not all that far off from the truth.

 

If anything, the episode's parodies of beer ads are almost too accurate.

 

The same focus on humor is also present in the episode’s B-story, where Bart ruins Lisa’s science fair project by launching her PED-infused tomato at Principal Skinner’s ample behind. In response, Lisa concocts a series of trials to examine that eternal question — “Is my brother dumber than a hamster?”

There’s not much of a message or point to the storyline. (In the words of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum — morals tomorrow, comedy tonight!) There is, perhaps, the hint of an idea when Bart unexpectedly wins the science fair with a ploy of cuteness that however book smart Lisa may be, Bart knows how to work an audience, and that talent may open doors for him that Lisa’s revenge-tinged rigor may never be able to. But honestly, that’s a bit of a reach. Instead, the side plot is more or less an excuse to give the audience some hilarious comic set pieces that have a certain Tom and Jerry flair to them, with a nice helping of creative trap-setting and domestic mayhem.

 

Either Bart is being electrocuted in this frame, or the animators got really lazy about drawing straight lines.

 

It also shows a more vindictive and calculating side of Lisa than we’re used to seeing. Even in an episode like “Bart vs. Thanksgiving” where Bart, again, destroyed something his sister worked very hard on, Lisa’s reaction rang of despair more than of any particular desire for retribution. (Admittedly, Lisa’s centerpiece seemed like a much more emotional project than her giant tomato, though who am I to judge?) As the show would later explore in “Lisa’s Rival”, striking back at someone is much more Bart’s specialty than Lisa’s.

But frankly, that’s what made Lisa’s mean streak here a little refreshing. Sometimes the show depicts Lisa as a little too mature. As one of the few intelligent denizens of Springfield, she’s often tasked with being the show’s voice of reason, and that makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that, however precocious Lisa may be, she’s still just an eight-year-old girl. Lisa is a much better role model than Homer, but it’s still pleasant to see her be a bit devious in her attempts to get back at her brother, and step away from being the occasionally naive yet near-perfectly enlightened young woman she’s sometimes presented as.

There is, fortunately, little risk of that problem when it comes to Homer. The Simpsons was never going to make Homer a teetotaler. Beer is what saved him from brainwashing. It’s what won him notoriety as a beloved bootlegger. It’s what he was drunk on when Bart was conceived. In fact, Duff is so synonymous with The Simpsons that it was used as a stand-in for the series as a whole in the show’s crossover with Family Guy. And when the show later confronted the effects of alcoholism a bit more acutely in an episode where Barney quit drinking, the show stuck with Barney’s transformation for a little while before quietly returning him to his usual role as the town drunk.

 

All police chiefs dress up as beer steins now and then, right?

 

The status quo is God for a T.V. sitcom, even one as groundbreaking and outstanding as The Simpsons. Homer’s sobriety simply wasn’t meant to last. How, then, could the episode’s writer, David M. Stern, make the most out of Homer’s brief respite from his beloved Duff? Beyond the humor that’s worth the price of admission alone, the show chooses to give Homer a moment of realization that’s meaningful even if it was destined to be temporary.

When Homer’s sitting at Moe’s, ordering his first beer in a month, he is entirely unconstrained. Though the process was painful, he had kept his promise to Marge, and as much as anyone can, Homer had earned that tall frosty one. And yet, when he looks down at the cold beverage in front of him, and at the miserable-looking barflies face down in their booze, it’s not as pretty of a picture as he might have remembered.

More than the lost weight, or the extra cash, or the fact that a month without beer means Homer doesn’t “sweat when [he] eats anymore,” the image of that sad collection of boozehounds, the horde of murmuring, drunken zombies to which he once belonged, affects Homer in that moment. As much as he wants that drink, in the cold light of sobriety he sees how unappealing returning to that life could be.

Instead, he rides off into the sunset with Marge, because it’s something he wants even more than that tasty beer. It’s one of the sweeter endings the show managed to pull off this side of “And Maggie Makes Three”. Homer may not truly be as “free” as the song that plays over the end credits might suggest–the rules of the sitcom dictate otherwise–but with the help of the woman he loves, he’s at least a little freer.

Odds and Ends

- There’s some stellar animation in the tomato bombing scene, from Skinner’s waggling behind while he ties his shoe, to the slow motion explosion of the giant tomato when produce meets posterior, to Skinner writhing on the ground afterward. It was all very…graphic.

- One of the unexpected bonuses of watching classic films as an adult is that I catch all sorts of homages from The Simpsons that I missed as a kid. Bart’s tortured and ultimately failed attempt to grab a pair of cupcakes on the counter is a creative, shot-for-shot take on a much racier scene from A Clockwork Orange.

- Lisa’s comment that she was laughing about something she saw on Herman’s Head is a bit of an in-joke. Herman’s Head was the corny 90s sitcom precursor to Inside Out, and both Yeardley Smith (who voices Lisa) and Hank Azaria (who voices Moe, Apu, Comic Book Guy, etc.) were featured on the show.

-  I love Bart’s casual disdain for the mere existence of books.

- Bart also has an interesting fascination with The Three Stooges’ catchphrases and trademark noises here. This interest comes up again in “Treehouse of Horror IV”.

- Homer talking to his own brain is almost always comedy gold, and his confusion between what he was saying out loud and what he was merely thinking, followed by him running scared out of the house, was no exception.

- Given how much punishment Barney takes without passing out, I think he might have Homer Simpson syndrome.

- Chief Wiggum should be honored to be a part of the proud Simpsons tradition of things inexplicably exploding.

- I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — Phil Hartman is a treasure. Hutz’s spiel about defending Homer with “surprise witnesses, each more surprising than the last” is a classic bit of Hutz huckstering, and the reveal that he was in jail with Homer is a great little twist. By the same token, the funniest moment in the episode is Troy McClure’s seamless transition from a grim pronouncement of “what a shame” at the scene of a car accident, to his usual cheerful introduction. Excellent delivery from Hartman on both accounts.


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