“Unlike most of you, I am not a nut.” (Homer’s Odyssey)
The basic plot: Homer gets fired from the nuclear power plant, suffers a crisis of confidence, and finds a calling as a crusader for safety.
If “Bart the Genius” defined the basic persona of Bart for us, “Homer’s Odyssey” obviously defines Homer’s. It’s actually a more gentle, well-intentioned Homer than what we got used to seeing in later seasons. Later versions of Homer focused on his propensity to be a dick (the “Jerkass Homer” problem — you can blame Mike Scully for that) — though most serious Simpsons fans can pinpoint the development of Jerkass Homer to Season 9 or so, you did see flashes of this in earlier episodes. The younger Homer, however, could be insensitive and mean, but there was always this core of decency to him, an inevitable recognition that whatever foolish or nasty thing he did, he’d see the error of his ways and be redeemed somehow. Eventually we’ll talk about what happened to Homer to provoke this change, and why I think it was done, but that’s for later.
There’s a fascinating kind of pathos about this episode that probably wasn’t evident when it aired back in 1990; it’s only the events of the past four or five years that have brought it into sharper focus, at least in my own mind. Homer, desperate for a job, essentially trades his principles for money — putting the interests of his family and his wallet ahead of his soul; time and time again, Homer accepts the humiliations that come with working for Monty Burns (as accurate a caricature of modern capitalism as you’re likely to find) because the alternative is worse. Here, we (and Homer) discover that principles have a price, and that those principles occasionally have to be sacrificed in the service of something else — family, stability, survival. Note the way in which Burns holds the job over Homer: in accepting this job, this lifeline, you have to repudiate your previous stance and become someone else. It’s a profoundly evil act, and it’s to Homer’s credit that he figures out a way to outsmart Burns.
After the Great Unraveling, do we see the allegory in these scenes more clearly than we did back in 1990? Does Homer’s relationship with the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, and its owner, have more resonance for us today than it did 20+ years ago? Back then we all had bosses we hated and jobs we couldn’t stand; this is all true now, too, but there’s an edge to that kind of thinking, a malevolence that wasn’t there once upon a time. Do thy master’s bidding, or starve in the street.
As far as recurring themes go, “Homer’s Odyssey” also begins the fabulous tradition of making fun of old educational films, and introduces the prank calls.