The very first episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” debuted the series on December 17th, 1989– roughly twenty-five years ago (I was there watching it live), launching the series and the family into the forever consciousness of pop-culture. I recently re-watched the episode and it shocked me how different the series was when it initially aired.
Watching an episode of today’s Simpsons reveals an entirely different show. The Homer character, while likable and endearing, is emasculated, negligent of others, and mentally handicapped.
Upon re-watching the first episode, Homer is instead presented as a sympathetic, under appreciated father whom, despite his best efforts, finds tremendous difficulty in providing a perfect family life for his wife and children.
The running joke is that Homer tries- Homer has ideals shaped by his television predecessors like “Father Knows Best” and “Donna Reed,” where Fatherhood looks effortless and family life appears perpetually blissful.
Take for example the scene where Homer tries to string Christmas lights along his roof- a ritual all Christmas celebrating suburban fathers can relate… Homer goes to great lengths to decorate his home for the holidays with pride, even falling off the roof at one point, and invites his family out for the debut of his efforts only to have the lights blow out and malfunction. The kids say “nice try, dad,” and that’s about it.
The joke is that Homer is trying his hardest to emulate what he thinks a good father should be and finds the ideal unobtainable despite his best efforts. That’s the joke- not that he sucks, not that he’s negligent, not that he’s an idiot; the joke is that his effort goes unrewarded by his family- the joke is that Homer’s failure renders his effort unappreciated.
The episode follows this structure throughout… Homer is a drone worker at a power plant to support his family while his wife is a stay-at-home mother. Despite this, Marge’s single aging sisters both despise Homer for reasons that are never apparent.
The theme is that “despite great effort a modern father is not respected nor appreciated.”
In the episode Homer is relying on his company’s Christmas bonus to buy gifts for his family and through no-fault of his own that bonus is canceled by his boss. In a scramble for the holidays to work out, Homer takes a side-job as a mall Santa to pay for the family’s gifts. To his dismay, he is only paid $13 on Christmas Eve- which leaves him short on money and time to provide his family a memorable holiday.
Homer decides to take his son to the dog racing track and let his $13 ride on a scrappy greyhound, believing the myth of a “Christmas Miracle” (again, the gag is that Homer’s Fatherhood ideals are informed by 1950s era media and the expectation of a “happy ending”).
However, “The Simpsons” take place during the realities of the late 1980s and Homer loses his paltry $13 betting on a “billion to one” odds dog. It should be noted that during this tense scene of holiday drama the women of the family, Marge and Lisa, are at home with Marge’s Homer-hating sisters and are unaware of Homer and Bart’s desperate attempt to save Christmas for the family.
These efforts are invisible only to the women of the family- Bart is deliberately paired with Homer as a right-of-passage from boyhood to manhood. Bart can now see how difficult his father’s responsibilities are for his family. Bart can be in on the secret that the women of the family will forever be shielded from.
Defeated, Homer and Bart leave the dog track to return to their family. The responsibility for an amazing, memorable, at-least-adequate Christmas fall squarely on Homer’s shoulders.
As they walk out to the car, Homer and Bart see the dog they bet on being abandoned by its owner. Homer relates to the dog’s best effort coming up short and decides to take it home. And, ironically, in getting a dog for his family, Homer has unwittingly provided a better Christmas than material possessions would have allowed. Homer saves the day.
Again, the gags in this first episode of The Simpsons aren’t that Homer is some stupid fuck ignoring his children and eating crayons- instead, Homer is a father who feels a sense of leadership and responsibility to his family; to provide for them the best life possible. His wife and children may not fully understand it, and his in-laws may not appreciate it, but Homer understands his duty and will continue to do so whether his efforts are appreciated or not.
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