I’m an American in their late 20s to early 30s. As a result, you will not be surprised to learn that I have some VERY strong opinions about The Simpsons. I know, fresh ground to cover here. In particular, I have opinions about when the series stopped being good (season nine) and when it became unwatchable (exactly after season nine). Now I know this somewhat outs me as an aging, Gen X/Y crank unable to find joy in anything not made specifically for their own personal tastes or nostalgia, and that is fair, but it also turns out that the Simpsons’ decline is scientifically and objectively accurate. It turns out entitled nerds can be insufferable AND a celebrated TV show can become terrible.
Now in general, I don’t talk much about the show or its variable quality, but a recent development in the series has lit a small fire of the kind of navel-gazey over-analysis I’m so fond of performing. It turns out that the start of the coming season will begin with an episode about Homer and Marge legally separating, and Homer even taking a new partner. Now, this is the kind of lame “EVERYTHING’S CHANGED FOREVER” media event designed to make people freak out enough to generate free buzz and advertising, and then quietly get undone shortly after. I’m sure Homer and Marge’s separation will be JUST as important and permanent as the death of Superman, the death of Peter Parker, or the divorce of Milhouse’s parents. I don’t have a problem with that, there’s nothing wrong with shaking up a status quo for a hot second to see what stories you get or to freak out the obsessive nerds. The only “problem” I have is that, again entirely 100% not-at-all-sarcastically objectively, Homer and Marge SHOULD end their relationship without the eventual status quo reset that will come about later. It is toxic and killing them and it speaks to a much larger fundamental tragedy of the two characters. Theirs was a love story that we all needed in 90s America, but because of larger societal and cultural forces, became the anti-love story we all need/fear today.
Despite their enduring popularity and cross-generational appeal, the Simpsons aren’t REALLY timeless. Oh, sure, certain themes and jokes are, but the characters themselves are kind of locked into certain times. Homer and Marge will forever be children of the 70s just as Bart will forever be a 90s kid even as he now enters his sixth year of being too young to have been born in the 90s. No matter how much you shuffle ages or timelines, Homer and Marge are always going to be late 70s highschool sweethearts. This also ties them to specific cultural pressures. Marge, despite her intelligence and ability, was raised by a family that explicitly told her that she would be a failure if she worked and didn’t find a man to marry and support. She wanted to be a scientist and they told her “you’d distract the men.” She wanted to be an artist and was told “you only have value painting what we want to see.” She wanted to express her own damn feelings and was told “force yourself to smile so you can fit in.” Every time in the series she has been forced to temporarily enter the workforce, she has excelled. She’s also been shown to be an extremely talented artist. Its not hard to picture Marge becoming a successful designer, if not for the fact that she was raised a Bouvier in the 70s and got knocked up just after graduation.
Now it’s too easy to lay the blame for Marge’s condition on Homer. In fact, the writers go to that well pretty often. But if it wasn’t Homer, it would have been someone else. Marge actually got pretty lucky with Homer, because for all his faults he did actually love her and understood how intelligent and talented she is. The problem was that Homer was poorly served by society as well. Homer grew up at a time where he would never receive proper diagnosis, medication or therapy for his severe ADHD.
Before you accuse me of projecting a neurological disorder onto a fictional character, never intended to embody it, let’s look at the facts. Homer has no attention span (he tragically loses a full college scholarship because he gets distracted by the sight of a dog carrying a comical ham). He has difficulty controlling his behavior and is prone to outbursts of extreme aggression and hyperactivity as well as periods of extreme apathy. He was a good student until he reached Bart’s age, where his performance sharply declined. He can hyperfocus on certain activities (such as music) and then become fidgety and irritable during others. He blurts out comments without filter, has difficulty with social interaction, lashes out in anger without cause, has difficulty staying awake, has poor handwriting and difficulty maintaining normal conversation. Homer is, most likely by accident rather than design, a textbook case for adult ADHD, and it requires very little projection to see the symptoms in his behavior.
What Homer is NOT is an idiot, at least not in the way most people assume. He’s ignorant and has killed a lot of brain cells via head trauma and alcoholism, no question, but put him in an environment he can focus in and he thrives. Look at when Hank Scorpio put him in the position of manager, where his job was about helping other people find ways to work and focus to the best of their abilities, rather than trying to force his own mind to fit what someone else told him was the “way to work.” Look at how ingenious he is battling prohibition, improvising a political song to sway a crowd, or even managing a country singer. He has written and composed a number of chart-topping songs for which he won a Grammy (I mean, it’s only a Grammy, but still!). He did poorly in school because he was unable to focus and study, and everyone simply assumed the worst about him and never bothered to see if there was a way he COULD actually study. Things aren’t all roses for ADHD kids now (they sure weren’t back when I was a kid), but there is significantly more information and are more options available for kids who would be like Homer. At the very least, if he were a kid today he would have a label for his condition. Instead, he was forced to try and self-medicate by overindulging in food and alcohol in an attempt to dull his senses. I think it’s valid to ask if Homer’s alcoholism would be as severe (or present at all) if he had ever received a proper medical evaluation, or even lived in a state that prescribed legal medical marijuana for ADHD.
I could also point out that Homer’s pretty overt bisexuality would never have gotten acknowledgment or support during his upbringing either, but nerds are probably angry enough at me already.
Homer, like Marge, was told that there were very strict cultural and gender roles he had to follow. He had to be the breadwinner, and he had to have a specific kind of “valid” job. His dad was negligent, abusive and flat out told him “you will always be ugly and stupid.” His mother, the only person who might have been able to help him, was forced to flee under suspicion of domestic terrorism and was assumed dead for most of his life. He works at a job he is terrible at and has no hope of advancing in, and is told that this is because he is a failure more than because it is the wrong job for him. The Simpsons live paycheck to paycheck and there is no room for Homer to find other work. How much better would they all be if Marge would have been allowed to be the primary breadwinner? Marge would have easily earned more money and had an outlet for her talents beyond smiley-face breakfasts, and Homer could work on his music and be the stay-at-home dad. That’s another thing, when Homer isn’t trying to tune out the pain of reality with TV or substance abuse, he does love his kids and cares about them. Homer is physically abusive to Bart, and that isn’t ever going to be ok even if we know its roots are in the abuse Homer himself suffered as a kid, but its not hard to see that Homer likely wouldn’t have become abusive if not for the lack of medication and the years of alcoholism. In his lucid moments, Homer IS a good parent (which, as his kids note, is what makes those moments surprising to them), and in a different occupation and environment, Homer would have a lot more lucid moments.
But fate was not kind enough to give Homer and Marge a Springfield that would support such choices. Springfeld is a conservative, working-class town. Sure they have a democrat mayor, but Quimby is less a Bernie Sanders liberal and more a corrupt Frank Skeffington without the pathos. Anyways, when I say “conservative” I mean it more literally than politically. Springfield was a farming town founded by the most puritan of (secretly evil pirate) pioneers, made its money during the boom years of American manufacturing, lost it all as the factories closed, and became increasingly gentrified by the end of the 20th century. Today Springfield is strongly divided into two economic castes. There are the extremely wealthy neighborhoods filled with millionaire clowns, Texan oil tycoons, nuclear-irradiated plutocrats, and various celebrity guests. On the other end are the destitute neighborhoods where the working class schmoes eat Krusty Burgers, shop at the Kwik E Mart and drink their ever-shrinking paychecks away at dives like Moe’s. Upscale suburbs and dilapidated buildings are separated by only a block. Culturally, Springfield is a town that set a torch-wielding mob against a pretty tame burlesque house, tried to forcibly expel all immigrants, and is scandalized when someone misses church on Sunday. The only point of pride they have over their neighbors is that at least THEY don’t marry their cousins. Springfield is not a place that is kind to women like Marge who want to have a career, or men like Homer who need neurological understanding.
Springfield’s warped cultural norms are probably why Homer and Marge weren’t ever using birth control either. Mr Burns probably did Homer a favor by slowly sterilizing him.
This ultimate sadness overlaying the Simpsons’ lives made the tiny victories resonate so much. In “Moaning Lisa” Marge tells Lisa she can feel however she wants to feel and she will always be loved, and that simple moment feels like a huge triumph. Homer learns to actually connect to Marge through her theatrical work in “A Streetcar Named Marge” and in our fickle minds it instantly makes up for him spending the previous 20 minutes being as unsympathetic as possible. We see Homer give up drinking completely in “Duffless” and we quietly choose to ignore that he’ll be back to complete alcoholism next week. Every minor victory feels huge, even when we know it will be undone or forgotten as needed, because behind the comedy we realize how trapped they are.
But then the series keeps on going.
The series never had character development in a meaningful sense, and as a show goes on the characters will inevitably become exaggerated. That’s almost necessary for a comedy show without a specific, ongoing plot and ending. For the joke machine to run smoothly, everything needs to return to the status quo at the end of the episode, and lessons learned can’t change the fundamental humor-producing facets of the characters. This is before you take into account changes in writers and show-runners, each bringing and taking different themes and styles to the show. It’s actually amazing how consistent the characters manage to be at all. But just because everything in the Simpsons’ world resets after each adventure doesn’t mean it does for the viewers. Our brains don’t work that way. We remember every success and failure, and our continuity-obsessed brains force stories into the margins between episodes. As much as some of the writers wish fans would just turn off that part of their brains and let the Simpsons be a silly cartoon, it goes against the fundamental way humans interact (and obsess) with stories. As long as there are literal gaps between episodes, viewers will fill those in on their own. All story telling is collaborative, even the most corporate forms.
The result is Marge and Homer’s relationship changing from feeling like one that may one day have hope into one that is doomed to toxicity. We’ve all seen them fail to learn meaningful lessons. While this is most obviously Homer’s failure, its’ Marge’s too. Even the hackiest new-age hack Brad Goodman can correctly tell Marge that she can’t force Homer to think like her, but Marge will never actually accept that. She’ll keep driving herself towards a stressful breakdown trying to force Homer to be someone he can’t be, and keep herself from being the person she really wants to be. Homer will never be given the tools he needs to focus and work, and he’ll keep existing in that weird period between feeling shame he isn’t changing, but also knowing deep down that something out of his control is preventing him from doing so. Even if he does get a proper diagnosis, its hard to imagine Marge will accept the huge change in status quo that would require without resentment. It’s easier for them to stay together in the short term if they don’t acknowledge how they’re destroying each other.
And again, that’s all fine because without conflict there is no show. No one wants to see a Simpsons series about a perfectly normal, happy family (not if they want to laugh anyways). But even knowing that, we can hope they get a little happiness in their fictional lives, and frankly the only way that will happen now is if Homer and Marge split up for good. Marge needs room to grow and take charge of her own life, and a partner who will allow her to do that. Homer needs to relearn how he thinks and find a place he can thrive, and he needs a partner who understands his condition and won’t resent him taking so long to deal with it. As long as they are together, Homer will keep providing Marge someone to care for besides herself and Marge will keep giving Homer an excuse not to improve.
I can easily think of three franchises that had to deal with the same problem of never being able to end, or in one case never being quiet sure of when it would end: X-Men comic books, Adventure Time and Community. Of those three, X-Men is the only one that has had to deal with that problem on a timeline comparable to the Simpsons’ twenty something seasons. X-Men deals with the problem by largely not giving a shit. Stories are designed to never end and continually feed into new ongoing plots. Adventure Time follows this process, with every season or story “resolution” being open-ended and feeding into new stories, and in recent seasons the writers fully embraced that by tossing the status quo into the garbage whenever they feel like it. Community was forced to juggle massive, sometimes unexpected cast changes and cancellations by coming up with huge tonal shifts and finding creative ways to justify them.
The difference between The Simpsons and those shows/comics is that The Simpsons never had people watching for the soap opera. Reading X-Men, the idea that Cyclops and Jean might split up and Jean will run off with Wolverine seems like a real possibility. When Princess Bubblegum loses her throne, it feels like there’s a genuine possibility that she won’t get it back. There’s none of that fear or unexpectedness in The Simpsons. Even the “massive” changes that DO happen (Maude Flanders’ rather pointless and uninteresting death, for example) are dealt with within the confines of a single episode. At this point, The Simpsons is in no danger of being canceled and will continue to make everyone involved filthy rich beyond their wildest dreams. If they can weather not only Harry Shearer quitting but thematically becoming the kind of cultural force they ruthlessly mocked in the early seasons, they could survive Homer and Marge splitting up for good. But the thematic tragedy of Homer and Marge’s doomed love is too deeply mirrored by the tragedy of their format. There is no escape for them, not from Spingfield, not from each other, not from fan expectations, and especially not from network and marketing requirements.
Homer and Marge are forever doomed. We are all doomed. Nothing matters. We’re all trapped within corporate hellscapes that turn even the most genuine love we have against us. At least we have DVDs of when we used to have hope.