“Homer’s Enemy” is one of the most divisive episodes of The Simpsons ever produced, but what many miss is the outings (likely unintentional) self-help lesson. In its many, many episodes, The Simpsons has annoyed viewers a great many times. The anarchic animated sitcom was controversial from its first episode onwards, with then-president George H. Bush once famously declaring that American families needed to be “more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons.”
However, The Simpsons is unique in how much the show has annoyed its own fan base over the years, sometimes through intentional trolling, and sometimes through weak writing and inconsistent characterization. For example, few would claim that one of the low points of The Simpsons, “The Boys of Bummer,” (season 18, episode 18) was intended to be as infuriating for those watching as it proved to be. However, in the case of another famously divisive outing of The Simpsons, viewers may be missing out on a valuable lesson hidden within a controversial episode.
Aired in 1997, “Homer’s Enemy” (season 7, episode 23) divided audiences because the plot of the outing planted normal working stiff Frank Grimes into the wild, wacky world of Springfield and the cartoony reality of The Simpsons (and Homer in particular) was too much for the straight-laced do-gooder. This eventually led to — in a scene that is still shocking decades later, no pun intended — his breakdown and sudden death. However, in retrospect, this episode had a surprisingly wholesome message beneath its dark comedy, even if it may have been entirely unintentional on the part of the writing staff of The Simpsons.
Reclusive Simpsons scribe John Swartzwelder made the intended purpose of “Homer’s Enemy” clear in a rare recent interview when he dismissed the idea of sympathizing with Frank Grimes. Swartzwelder noted that Grimey made the mortal mistake of going up against the show’s hero, laughingly implying that the universe of The Simpsons revolves around its eponymous stars and the character was simply receiving karmic comeuppance for failing to, quite literally, get with the program: “Grimey was asking for it the whole episode. He didn’t approve of our Homer“. According to this comment, the episode can be read as an extended subversion of the traditional “slobs vs snobs” dynamic of many classic American comedies by depicting the “snob” as an initially well-intentioned, if tight-knit and neurotic, figure, while the slob is less of charming underachiever and more of a genuine menace.
As proven by the bizarre residents of Springfield, The Simpsons takes place in a cartoony version of reality that is only tenuously linked to the real world. However, with Swartzwelder’s comments in mind, it is worth noting that Grimes’ initial beef with Homer is the dangerous dismissal of his responsibilities as a nuclear power plant safety manager, something that constitutes a public health hazard in the real world. The episode constantly trips up Grimes and lavishes victories on an unaware Homer, making a mockery of the premise of meritocracy by noting that (in the world of TV, at least), the least “deserving” can often reap the most benefits and not even know it. However, the more viewers see Grimes, the more another reading of the episode becomes legitimate (whether or not it is intentional on the part of the writers).
It is important to note that, like John Waters’ iconic Simpsons appearance, Grimes’ episode opens with Homer wanting to impress this new character, and it is only after Grimes repeatedly rebuffs his attempts at forging a friendship that Homer decides to ignore him. This is crucial, as Homer wishes no ill will on Grimes and simply moves on despite Grimes rejecting his friendliness, soon losing interest and instead focusing on the (children’s) model power plant contest once it is clear his co-worker dislikes him. Homer never lets this get him down or takes Grimes’ rejection as a personal slight, and brushes of Grimes’ criticisms (whether legitimate concerns or personal attacks) with a good-natured shrug.
Grimes, in contrast, becomes less sympathetic the more he obsesses over Homer, eventually losing his life because he’s committed to an elaborate plan to publicly humiliate his colleague that fails. A recent Treehouse of Horror Halloween special even underlined this point by bringing the son and ghost of Grimes back, with both characters still being driven by nothing but animosity toward the protagonist of The Simpsons. As flawed as many later Simpsons outings are, this segment touches on an essential truth about Grimes, one that his first appearance focused on, too. The episode depicts Grimes as a man driven by pettiness and a chip on his shoulder, a figure who can not let anything go despite the cost that bitterness has on his life. This, in turn, leads to the episode’s possibly unintentional lesson.
It is undeniably brutal that Grimes can not reach Homer when it comes to warning him about genuine safety concerns, but the more the episode’s story wears on, the clearer it is that the character needs to get a life outside of work. Fans who made “Homer’s Enemy” one of The Simpsons‘ most-hated episodes are arguably missing the point that Grimes is not the only sane man in Springfield by its ending, but rather just another character whose life only exists in the context of his more famous co-worker. The episode ends up being a parable, however unintentional, about accepting yourself rather than constantly comparing yourself to others, and making peace with what cannot be changed in other people, instead of attempting to berate and shame them into compliance. Grimes not only fails to reach Homer but is eventually forgotten precisely because, despite being a precocious and independently successful character pre-Springfield, he allows himself to be defined by his colleague. He even becomes one of few Simpsons characters to be killed off solely for the sake of publicly shaming Homer (and still failing to do so in the process). “Homer’s Enemy” may remain a divisive episode of The Simpsons, but the message that no one is worth ruining your own life over is one that the outing tells well.
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