Harvey Fierstone makes this episode. Much like Albert Brooks’ various characters over the years, Fierstone’s Karl lingers even though we never see him again. It’s the show’s first dalliance with gay culture, and it’s interesting to see how LGBTQ issues have made their way into the show over the years. Back in 1990, this was pretty much the only way you could get gay culture onto TV — you had to make it campy, you had to make it non-threatening, and it always had to exist in some kind of outside context that had nothing to do with the main characters (at least, beyond the bounds of the episode). This was the first kiss between men on network television, like, ever: the first kiss between actual, live men came a full decade later (on “Dawson’s Creek,” of all places). This shouldn’t really have surprised anyone — Matt Groening had been drawing Akbar and Jeff cartoons for years before “The Simpsons” ever came around — but it’s a sign of how far the show was willing to push the envelope at the time.
Karl himself is a fascinating character. I spent some time digging into the story of Samson to see if there’s some kind of Biblical parallel, and it turns out there isn’t, so how it is that this guy turned up in Homer’s life at exactly the right time, threw himself on the grenade, and walked off isn’t entirely clear. But his commitment to his boss, and his devotion to service, is truly remarkable — even if the things he convinces Homer to do are pretty penny ante stuff. If you look at what Homer “accomplishes” in his turn as an executive, it’s small potatoes… but I think that’s sort of the point: Homer isn’t a guy possessed of a great deal of ambition, drive, or the belief he’s capable, or even entitled to try. Viewed through the lens of contemporary life, there’s even more pathos than you expect: this is, fundamentally, a story about the tyranny of lower middle-class life, and how success can be arbitrary, capricious, and dependent on very shallow externalities — none of which have anything to do with who you are as a human being. 1990 is too far back in time for me to remember whether these kinds of anxieties were present in families back then, but today, there’s a significant number of people in the United States who feel helpless and stuck because of their economic circumstances, and it’s not entirely clear why they’re never able to get ahead. (Well, actually, that’s not totally true — but I’ll undertake liberal ranting another day.)
The discussion about men’s clothing comes at a time when we’re talking about presidential candidates and their inability to find clothes that fit properly, so that was going through my head as I watched this episode, too. Stay tuned: we’re coming to electoral politics in a couple of episodes.