Homer Simpson has always been a boorish blob of a man, but he wasn’t a killer until he met Frank Grimes.
Grimes, or “Grimey,” as his tombstone will read, may be a one-off character from 1997, but he’s also the Sisyphean lie of the American Dream. Abandoned by his parents and left to fend for himself, he’s one of those “self-made men” you sometimes read about. He worked hard, pulled himself up by his proverbial bootstraps after being blown up (in a silo explosion), defied the odds stacked against him and built a life for himself. Then he starts working at the Springfield Power Plant, where a donut-scarfing idiot shows him how reality works.
Hard work, integrity, intelligence—these things don’t mean crap. Not in the All-American city of Springfield.
Matt Zoller Seitz and Alan Sepinwall recently called The Simpsons the best show ever in their television exegesis TV (The Book), specifically citing season 5’s “Cape Feare” as axiomatic of the show’s greatness. It’s certainly one of the show’s best episodes—a 22-minute mélange of wry pop-culture allusions, a show-stopping Kelsey Grammer musical number, and that 30-second rake gag. (When I spoke to Grammer a few months ago, he said his favorite episode was “the one with the rakes.”) "Homer’s Enemy,“ written by prolific series regular and staunch libertarian John Swartzwelder, aired during The Simpsons’s eighth season and acts as a foil to "Cape Feare,” with its slower pace and dearth of pop-culture references. It remains the most cynical, fiendishly self-aware episode of the show’s Golden Age.
It begins in the middle of a news program. "…which, if true, means death for us all,“ television anchor Kent Brockman chortles, introducing us to the morbid humor that pervades the next 21 minutes. It’s with this same smiling insouciance that characters routinely dismiss Homer’s ineptitude, which, in a world governed by reason and logic, would threaten the entire town with nuclear devastation. But The Simpsons does not exist in such a place.
Homer, usually a beer-swilling, child-choking lout, is passively destructive here, wreaking havoc with lethargy. Grimes actively tries to sabotage Homer, tricking him into participating in a children’s nuclear power plant model-building competition, which Homer wins despite his seasoned age by making a model of Mr. Burns’s plant festooned with cardboard fins and glued macaroni. The model plant that actually works? "Where’s the heart?” Mr. Burns asks its designer, Martin Prince. “You lose. Get off my property!”
Part of what makes this episode so caustic is how it depicts Grimes as a belligerent asshole surrounded by affable (if oblivious) people, which is, we have to assume, the writers looking at Grimes through the perspective of Springfield’s denizens. Grimes is an outsider, someone who seemingly traipsed into the surreal satire of The Simpsons, into the realm of amnesiac episodic television, from unknown origins where there are actual consequences. This makes Grimes the episode’s de facto villain. Bernard Herrmann-esque string stabs when Grimes schemes against Homer, even though Grimes isn’t wrong—Homer is a dangerous idiot, but Springfield loves him, as do we.
Series regular Hank Azaria voices Grimes with a kind of jarring verisimilitude that has little of the histrionics he uses for Moe, Chief Wiggum, et al. He has no distinguishing verbal tics, no catch phrases. Grimes resembles, in his agitated mannerisms, William H. Macy in Fargo, and he looks vaguely like Michael Douglas’s white-collar worker-turned domestic terrorist in Falling Down. Both of those men are villains who think they’re the good guys. Grimes ends up frying himself in a fit of hysteria, and at his funeral, Homer sleep-shrieks, “Change the channel, Marge!” interrupting Reverend Lovejoy’s eulogy. Everyone laughs. Grimes is laid to rest and forgotten. Cue the theme song.
Grimes has been referenced on the show in subsequent episodes, notably in season 14’s “The Great Louse Detective,” when his son tries to avenge his father, and in Ren and Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi’s surreal 2015 “Treehouse of Horror” couch gag, in which Grimes is resurrected as a monster bent on exacting his revenge. Now, in this year’s “Treehouse of Horror"—also the show’s 600th episode—Grimes is again conjured as a vengeful spirit, this time part of a cadre of characters out to get Homer, who has, through aloofness and inanity, accrued his share of enemies.
That Grimes, a symbol of sanity shattered by Springfield, is returning as an unsound apparition says a lot about the show’s trajectory since "Homer’s Enemy.” The eighth season, erratic but skewbald with brilliant episodes, marks the show’s unrepentant descent into utter absurdity (“You Only Move Twice,” “The Homer They Fall,” the Mary Poppins episode), which began in earnest with the Conan O'Brien-penned season 4 episode “Marge vs the Monorail” and increased with each subsequent season. The show, initially an animated sitcom about a dysfunctional family that had some slapstick tendencies, veered into evermore outlandish scenarios, and Homer slowly transformed from a buffoonish suburbanite into a cretinous caricature. Season 8’s penultimate episode, “The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase,” depicts a series of ridiculous what-if scenarios in the form of B-grade shows. In retrospect, it can be seen as prescient, as the show devolved into gimcrack attempts at social relevance and wink-wink-nudge-nudge self-aware chicanery.
“Homer’s Enemy” addressed the escalating reliance on absurdity by turning Homer’s inexplicable good fortune into a metaphor for the unfairness of life in America. A roulette of guest characters, from Alec Baldwin to Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, rolls through town, but none ever stay. The episode gives us a character who acknowledges the shark-jumping trajectory of Homer’s life, and he can’t take it. To live in Springfield and believe in life’s false promises, you have to be crazy, or an idiot.