Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Homer's Night Out (aka An Aperture Monograph)

Let's take a look at "Homer' Night Out" (episode 7G10) - that way, I'll have covered all four episodes in the Home-Wrecker tetralogy. On top of which, I think this episode could use some more adoration, because on the whole, it seems to me that "Homer's Night Out" is one of the more underrated episodes of Season 1. It's not an episode that people tend to talk about often, perhaps because, of all the tones and approaches the series dabbled with throughout Season 1, it doesn't really stand out as possessing the most prominent example of any. It has a dramatic element but doesn't go quite as full-on with it as "Life on The Fast Lane", and while it also has an unmistakably light and silly side, it's not quite as wild and wacky as some of the more gag-driven episodes of the season, like "Bart The Genius" or "Call of The Simpsons". It deals, to an extent, with the theme of waning childhood innocence, but with less of the melancholy of "Moaning Lisa" or the bitter disillusionment of "Krusty Gets Busted". It's telling that in Nathan Rabin's review of the episode on the AV Club, he has curiously little to say about the episode itself - the first two paragraphs of his review are taken up by an unrelated anecdote about an Insane Clown Posse gig, after which he proceeds to talk mostly about how archaic the episode is by modern standards, with its central plot point regarding a salacious picture being endlessly xeroxed and distributed around town (this would all be accomplished via social media now, of course, but if you've read your Jan Harold Brunvand, then you'll know that this is how stuff like chain letters got around back in the day), before wrapping up with a couple of brief paragraphs about Homer's desire to be respected by Bart. He also gets Princess Kashmir, our Home-Wrecker of the week, mixed up with Aladdin's girlfriend. I don't know, but I get the impression somehow that Rabin didn't have a whole lot of enthusiasm for reviewing this one to begin with, and I can't say that I understand why. "Homer's Night Out" might not immediately register as one of the stand-outs of the season, but it's still a great early installment with a strong, intelligent script, which handles another tumultuous situation with the subtle wit and thoughtful characterisation that the first season was known for.

"Homer's Night Out", which first aired on 25th March 1990, is the 10th episode of Season 1, and follows on directly from "Life on The Fast Lane". It's interesting to note that we had two episodes back-to-back examining the persistent trouble in Homer and Marge's domestic paradise, a preoccupation which suddenly became a lot more salient in the back-half of the season (although we do have the early animation woes of "Some Enchanted Evening" to thank for that, otherwise they might have been a bit more evenly distributed). Here, we have Marge temporarily booting Homer from the household when a snapshot of him sharing a euphoric moment with exotic belly dancer Princess Kashmir becomes the talk of Springfield - a situation that's made all the more prickly with the revelation that the picture was taken by none other than Bart, with his brand new spy camera, and Marge fears that her son's first voyeuristic glimpse into the private world of adult licentiousness will have tarnished his prepubescent psyche. It's a very different kind of scenario to "Life on The Fast Lane", although in some respects the two episodes do feel like perfect companion pieces, in that they each deal with the adult Simpsons' mixed emotions regarding the world outside of Evergreen Terrace, and who they otherwise could be if they weren't tethered by their familial commitments. Marge is resigned to her role as the long-suffering emotional centre of the Simpson household, but remains innately curious as to what else might be out there for her, and there is a wistful part of her that's clearly enamored with the prospect of breaking away and starting anew. For Homer, the alternative is less optimistic - he has no genuine desire to retreat from the security of his marriage and take his chances in the altogether more feral world outside, but he does occasionally feel pressured to emulate the ferals in order to blend in with them. "Homer's Night Out" goes a step further than its predecessor in enforcing this tension between a sacred interior and external corruption, representing the family home as a place of stability, while the world beyond is depicted as an all-out wilderness, overflowing with filth both literal and figurative in nature. At the heart of the episode, perhaps even more pressing than the respective plot points regarding his relationships with Marge and Bart, is Homer's horror at being confronted with the kind of lifestyle he could potentially be leading if he hadn't settled down with Marge and become a family man - in other words, if he'd ended up like his friend and drinking companion, perpetual bachelor Barney Gumble.

Before I go any further, I'll note that "Homer's Night Out", like "Colonel Homer", is another episode where I've seen Marge take flak for her indignation toward Homer's activities therein. Some people question how she can be so angry at Homer for dancing with another woman when, just last episode, she was only one ironic drive away from fucking Jacques. To that, I'd say that the picture taken by Bart does not exactly show a wholesome scene of two people partying innocently - the dollar bills protruding from Kashmir's g-string are highly incriminating and betray the salacious context of their interaction. Adding to Marge's distress is the extremely public nature of Homer's indiscretion; the whole town knows about it, has the evidence affixed to their walls and is now not-so-silently judging them (Homer may not have intended for there to be this massive knock-on effect, but he still has to account for it). So you would expect Marge to be mortified by the situation. If I still haven't convinced you, then you might also consider that, even though "Life on The Fast Lane" aired first, the production coding identifies "Homer's Night Out" as the 10th episode of the series and "Life on The Fast Lane" as the 11th. So I think that, in terms of the series' internal chronology, the events of "Homer's Night Out" actually come first. Marge isn't factoring in her almost-affair with Jacques as a reason to go easy on Homer, because it hasn't happened yet. (Not that it makes a huge difference to me either way - again, apples to oranges.)

Kashmir (who also identifies as April Flower or Shawna Tifton, depending on the context) is unique among the Home-Wreckers for a number of reasons. Firstly, she's the only Home-Wrecker to be voiced by a series regular, rather than a guest star (in her case Maggie Roswell, who is also the voice of Maude Flanders and Helen Lovejoy). She's also the only Home-Wrecker who never had any real interest in pursuing a relationship with either of the Simpson adults. Her dealings with Homer are strictly professional - she singles out Homer to dance with at the bachelor party of his work colleague Eugene Fisk (who went from being Homer's assistant to his supervisor in the space of six months, much to Homer's chagrin), and can barely conceal her disinterest when Homer later tracks her down at one of her many places of employment. For his part, Homer appears to go along with it not so much out of any actual lust for Kashmir as out of peer pressure. He simply wants to be one of the guys at the party. This mutual lack of attraction means that "Homer's Night Out" forgoes the central conflict at the heart of "Life on The Fast Lane", and also "Colonel Homer" and "The Last Temptation of Homer", in which the Disaffected Simpson is forced to consider exactly what ties them to their current spouse and if this is indeed the life that they really want. "Homer's Night Out" is not a fraught story of divided loyalties, but while the situation seems less critical than in "Life on The Fast Lane", it still manages to incorporate moments of quiet, understated drama, particularly during the middle portion of the story, when the focus in on Homer's banishment into the badlands predominantly populated by the loose and the unattached. There's a particularly effective bit where Homer, having accepted Barney's offer to put him up in his squalid bachelor pad, looks down upon the view of the city from Barney's window and notes regretfully that he can pick out his former grounds, now just a distant speck of light in the horizon - a contemplative moment that is immediately undercut in being placed in context with the banalities of domesticity ("Someone must have left the porch light on"). Soon after, we get an equally understated moment at the family breakfast table, where Lisa (who doesn't have a lot else to do in this episode), wonders aloud when her dad is coming home, and Marge looks on sadly, as if she sees the matter as out of her hands. (I realise that this scene was foreshadowed earlier on in the episode when Bart, upon learning that only four of the family will be dining at The Rusty Barnacle, indelicately asked which of them escaped.)

"Homer's Night Out" is another episode which ultimately upholds the supremacy of the family unit, and as such could be seen as quite conservative in its conclusions (as we'll see, the episode takes a somewhat dim view of those living the single life), although like "Life on The Fast Lane" it was also very radical - certainly for a cartoon in 1990 - in illustrating how problems of this nature could even factor into the ostensibly wholesome American household in the first place. And really, the final message is quite a bit more complicated than that, for "Homer's Night Out" has more on its mind than simply extolling the virtues of a more traditional lifestyle - in order to win his way back into the family household, Homer finds himself taking a stand against chauvinism and the kind of "boys will be boys" culture that frequently results in the dehumanisation of women. It's about his relationship with Marge but in the third act the emphasis shifts more to his relationship with Bart and the idea that, as much as Bart may revel in driving his old man up the wall, he remains the key male role model in Bart's life. Above all, though, it's about Homer having to traverse the wilderness (albeit a very different kind of wilderness to the one he already faced in "Call of The Simpsons") and reaffirm his domestication - this much is signposted in the episode's title, which ostensibly refers to Homer's rowdy night at Eugene's party, but is really about his night of ceremonious exile from Evergreen Terrace and the wedge driven between himself and the rest of the Simpson clan. Hammering it home, of course, is the stark contrast between the relatively immaculate Simpson household and the grungy digs where Barney resides. Barney's hospitality, while well-intentioned, is not exactly assuaging ("If you get hungry in the middle of the night, there's an open beer in the fridge").

At this point it seems pertinent to make a few observations about Barney in general. In my coverage of "Life on The Fast Lane", I mentioned that the original intention was for him to own the local bowling alley (hence the name "Barney's Bowlarama"), but that was abandoned when the writers decided that it was somewhat far-fetched for a character this ravaged by alcohol addiction to be a successful businessman (although the connection was maintained to a degree, in that Barney's uncle was revealed to be the owner in "And Maggie Makes Three"). More importantly, it would have detracted from Barney's raison d'ĂȘtre, which basically is to make Homer look better. However you may feel about Homer's lifestyle choices, seeing him next to Barney puts it all into perspective. Homer, for all his faults, can at least hold down a steady job and put food on the table (albeit with less plausibility with each passing season), while Barney is a sorry example of just how painfully alcohol dependency can devastate a person's life. He serves his purpose, then, but he is nevertheless kind of unsettling as a character, in that there does seem to something disingenuous about how the show regards him, and his social problem. He is not an especially funny character - at the least, he seems less funny to me now than when I was a child, and his non-stop belching was always good for laughs. And while he is an extremely pitiful character, his alcoholism is only very infrequently played for pathos. For the most part, he's just there to be gross, unkempt and disgusting, his addiction having robbed him of his every last shred of self-respect and devoured his agency to the point where his characteristic belching has essentially become his sole means of expression. If you listen to the DVD commentaries, then you'll know that Barney has historically been a contentious character behind the scenes, with a number of writers strongly disliking having to write material for him. In fact, when the "Who Shot Mr Burns?" mystery was undergoing its gestation, some writers apparently pushed hard for Barney to be the culprit, since it would have yielded a good excuse to remove him from the show. I don't know if they've ever gone particularly in-depth into the reasons why, but so far as I can tell it has to do with many writers seeing the "funny drunk" as an outdated comedy archetype. This hostility may account for why there was some experimentation with making him sober in Season 11, and why later seasons seemed to shift away from Barney altogether and put more emphasis on Homer's friendship with Lenny and Carl.

What we see of Barney's lifestyle in "Homer's Night Out" barely scratches the surface in terms of how wretchedly his addiction has destroyed him, but we can tell as soon as Homer enters his apartment that he's descended into a particularly unsanitary kind of Hell, with suspicious dark patches strewn across the carpet and a half-consumed can of beer with his name on it. It's through our window into Barney's private life that the episode reveals a suspicion of those existing outside of a family unit - or upscale young singles, as Barney calls them - whom it depicts as comfortably sleeping within their own filth and having little better to do than to while away the early hours listening to disco music at the party down the hallway. This is what life looks like for those who lack a spouse and kids to keep their hedonistic urges in check. The idea that this kind of hedonism is diametrically opposed to the sanctity of the traditional family unit is enforced during the first act at The Rusty Barnacle, when Marge complains that the noise from the function in the adjacent room is intruding on her family's peaceful evening meal (unaware that her husband is one of the rabble-rousers). At the same time, though, the episode appears to be making a point about the social pressures for males to play up to a certain standards of masculine behaviour, which is illustrated in the thoroughly miserable time Eugene is blatantly having at his own party. Homer insists to Marge at the start of the episode that the party will be a very classy "tea and crumpet" affair, which is clearly the kind of function that Eugene and his father would have preferred (although there sure is a lot of smoking going on during the "respectable" portion of the evening - 1990 was a very different world), but as the attendees get ever more drunk and rowdy you can see Eugene wallowing in gloom upon the sidelines, and when Kashmir enters the scene, supposedly so that Eugene can enjoy his final taste of bachelor freedom, the man looks merely embarrassed and mostly bored out of his skull. One senses that having a stranger shove her navel in his face was never an accurate summation of what bachelorhood has embodied for Eugene.

 "Homer's Night Out" likewise suggests that it would be incredibly naive to assume that such licentiousness is something that only happens safely beyond the walls of the family home. After all, the picture only comes to the attention of the adult community when a parent confiscates it from one of Bart's classmates, berates his son for wasting his time with such nonsense, and then proceeds to fax the salacious image to his colleagues at work. This sets up one of the episode's other key concerns, which has to do with the hypocrisies of the adult set, and the standards of behaviour they demand of their offspring while acting very differently when they don't feel the accusatory gaze of their children bearing upon them. Who is really trying to escape the censure of whom? We can tell from the eagerness with which the entire town devours Bart's picture that most of the adults involved have barely progressed beyond the schoolboy mentality, greeting the ridiculous picture with much the same leering immaturity and the same lack of concern for the privacy of those involved. One of the wittiest moments within the episode occurs during the scene in the darkroom, when an assortment of young photography enthusiasts watch the incriminating image develop and attempt to apply a degree of critical appreciation to Bart's photographic eye, likening it to the works of Helmut Newton and Diane Arbus, an assessment that's ultimately lost on the salivating adults who get hold of the picture and distribute it to their own lecherous ends. I think those young photographers manage to nail down why the picture strikes such a chord with the town, more so than the adults themselves comprehend - it's such a thoroughly disturbing combination of sensuality and eye-warping grotesquery that you can't stop looking at it.

By this point in the series we were already getting a strong sense of Springfield as a vibrant and functioning community, so this episode has a lot to draw from in exploring the kinds of ripples Bart's picture makes across the town, although being such an early installment it does occasionally wander into very odd territory - notably, that scene where Mr Burns calls Homer to his office, ostensibly to reprimand him for potentially tarnishing the family-friendly image of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, but actually to ask him for a few pointers on courting the fairer sex. Burns, it seems, is a little stung by the fact that, despite his vast wealth and power, women have never found him particularly irresistible. I suspect this was done in an attempt to humanise the decrepit billionaire, who up and until now had been characterised as an evil boss and nothing more, and while we would occasionally see episodes in which Burns displays a more amorous side (eg: "Marge Gets a Job" and "Lady Bouvier's Lover"), this scene feels curiously out of step with the remote and unsociable Burns who would shortly be cemented. Also, Apu appears, but he doesn't seem to be well-acquainted with Homer at this stage, and Carl talks with Lenny's voice, while Lenny talks with Moe's. Elsewhere, "Homer's Night Out" features another character voiced by Maggie Roswell, the local postal carrier, whom Bart refers to as the Fe-Mailman. She might have had the odd background cameo here and there, but I think that "Blood Feud" of Season 2 is the only other episode in which she has a speaking appearance. Too bad, because she's undervalued, like ALL of Roswell's characters.* I like the Fe-Mailman, as it's in her frantic exasperation with Bart that I'm most reminded of Pearl Pureheart, the character voiced by Roswell in Ralph Bakshi's Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures.

Amid the adult community's eager reactions to Homer's transgression, we have Bart's parallel narrative regarding his awakening to the intricacies of the world around him, and to the messy and sordid details that don't always fit comfortably with the narrative he has, up until now, been expected to swallow. This is something he regards with a mixture of blossoming sexual awareness and relative guilelessness. He understands that there's something distinctively ribald about the image, but doesn't appreciate why the picture's prolificacy could be so damaging to his father's reputation, or have such devastating consequences for his parents' relationship. And Marge makes a good point when she argues that Bart isn't going to heed his father's words if he doesn't have the actions to back it up. There seems to be a running theme throughout the episode about adults being ever-vigilant to conceal their misdemeanors from any higher authority with the power to reproach them - Al is careful to shield the informative memo Mike sent him when the boss enters the room, Homer has to deal with Burns' unwanted attentions in addition to his domestic woes, and Kashmir later boots him from her birdcage for fear that her boss will misconstrue the situation. Adults are as intimidated by higher authority as children, but the judgement they should truly be wary of, the episode suggests, is the silent, powerless judgement of those who will ultimately become their successors, and are going to emulate whatever examples have been shown to them.

In order to make amends, Homer is required to go the counter-intuitive route of roving ever deeper into the wilderness, dragging Bart to every strip club in town in an effort to track down the elusive Princess Kashmir/April Flower/Shawna Tifton, so that Bart can be introduced to her in person and discover that she's more than just an object to be ogled by randy peepers. Admittedly, there is a certain naivety in Marge's proposed remedy - she wants Homer to apologise to Kashmir for how he treated her, yet when Homer and Bart finally locate Kashmir at a venue called The Sapphire Lounge, she doesn't seem all that interested in anything Homer has to say. Kashmir's story remains fairly muted in all of this; we don't get a great deal of insight into how she feels about having her image xeroxed and faxed all over town, although she clearly is uneasy about being approached by Homer backstage. Maybe she does feel silently embarrassed by the entire affair, or perhaps she isn't used to being humanised by strangers in this manner. Being the one Home-Wrecker who isn't looking to get at all close to the action, Kashmir remains at a distance for most of the episode, meaning that we don't learn as much about her as we do the others, although Homer does eventually convince her to spill a few details - her pet peeve is rude people and her turn-ons include silk streets and a warm fireplace. And she is moved by Homer's speech at the very end - when Homer is recognised at The Sapphire Lounge, he nearly makes the mistake of conforming to the kind of lurid spectacle demanded of him the lounge's patrons, but is brought down to earth by the observant gaze of Bart, whereupon he implores his audience to remember that every woman is an individual, and should be valued as such:  "As ridiculous as this sounds, I would rather feel the warm breath of my beautiful wife on the back of my neck as I sleep than stuff dollar bills into someone's g-string." This connection to the familial has the lounge's patrons returning from the wilderness; even the Dean Martin-type singer remembers that his mother sounded down the other day and that he should call her. Homer reconciles with Marge, who has made her own way to The Sapphire Lounge, and the two of them share a tender moment upon the stage, although as usual the sentiment is tempered by an inkling of sardonicism, in which Bart good as breaks the fourth wall and turns the viewer's own voyeurism back on them. Only sick people, he reminds us, would want to stick around to see Homer and Marge kiss. Indeed.

Elsewhere in this episode, I also learned that COD PLATTER is an anagram of COLD PET RAT, and that image unsettles me so.

* Apart from the Sunday school teacher, that is. I don't like her and would like to bury her in a vat of slime.

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