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“The Simpsons” and Homer’s Paternal Odyssey

August 16, 2016


In the blue, early light of a frigid winter’s morn, I answered my crying newborn’s call.

Shuffling into her bedroom with one sleepy eye opened, I deftly scooped my daughter, June, from her crib, held her warm body close, and began to sing a lullaby to sooth her back to sleep.

“Oh, those Golden Grahams/

Oh, those Golden Grahams /

Crispy, crunchy, graham cereal, brand new breakfast treat …”

June nestled into the crook of my neck and began to lightly snore to this now familiar tune, sung in dulcet tones and delivered in my best Homer Simpson voice.

Those of you pop culture junkies out there might remember Homer fearfully intoning the jingle during reentry into the atmosphere in Season Five’s episode of “Deep Space Homer.” Those of you who are now-one-year-old daughters of mine might remember it from any given night before bedtime. 

The family Simpson has infiltrated my parenting beyond just the odd song—it’s a revelation that might lead some of you to politely chuckle, step away from the computer, and then put in a panicked phone call to the authorities. Sure, the show is as pervasive a cultural touchstone as my generation has experienced, but parenting? The Simpsons? That child-throttling assemblage of drunks, degenerates and underachievers? What, in Reverend Lovejoy’s name, could one learn from them?

One recent Christmas episode, “Holidays of Future Passed,” fleshed out family dynamics in a way that the show hasn’t done to such effect. The episode opens on Thanksgiving day with the family loosening their belts at the dinner table, and promptly urged by Marge to assemble for their annual Christmas card photo, which triggered a montage the family’s future cards—subsequent relationships, graduations, kids, hairdos, and ultimately Homer and Marge as empty nesters—and pausing to glimpse at their lives 30 years in the future.

The family, in large part, is operating how we might expect it. Bart is a deadbeat dad reeling from an acrimonious divorce, Lisa’s sizzle-free marriage to Milhouse Van Houten has yielded a sullen teenage daughter impervious to her mother’s accomplishments, Grandpa’s been cryogenically frozen, an aged Smithers still works for Mr. Burns, who, if my math serves, would be hovering close to 200 years old, Patty and Selma’s robotic mates have tired of the sisters and run off together, and Marge is still an attentive, doting mother. 

But then there are the surprises: Maggie, largely mute throughout the show’s run, is an international singing sensation, Homer and Marge are adventurous, almost romantic retirees, and most unexpected of all, the now sober patriarch proves to be a very good grandfather. 

Bart, too exhausted by his guilt and sadness from his failed marriage, asks Homer to entertain his two sons for a while during his trip home at Christmastime. His father does so gladly, taking the boys on adventures through Springfield, being affectionate and patient, and in turn showing both his love for his grandkids as well as his blighted son.

Homer, throughout the series’ run, is a lazy, selfish, sometimes negligent, oftentimes frustrated, uninspired father. But he loves his kids. From “Floreda” (sic) costumes to boxcar derbies, from talking Krusty doll purchases to saxomophones, Homer, amid all the obvious foibles, is striving to be better. 

While I see myself as more of a Marge-type parent, Homer’s evolution is one for which I’m wont to cheer. When the show first debuted, the Bart-strangling gimmick was Homer’s parenting crutch. Now 30 years from the present, we find Bart at a crossroads, worse off than Homer ever was, but caring enough about his boys, his lot, his folks, that he’s trying to right his way. 

Marge alludes to Homer’s sea change at one point saying that he has learned from his mistakes, and there were plenty of them. Parenting is as much about being a Marge—hands-on, affectionate, consistent—as it is about being a Homer—spontaneous, bumbling, but ever improving.

I’ve always believed that Bart and Lisa’s healthy relationship as kids (contentious but still close) was a testament to Homer and Marge’s ultimately good, if flawed, parenting. And as we see the kids as adults, their honesty with one another validates my geeky theories. I read once that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis regarded her children’s love of each another as her greatest accomplishment. I thought about her as I watched future-Bart and future-Lisa sitting in the old treehouse, helping each other hash out their problems. (And I’m assuming the Jackie-Marge thing is intentional, given the writers’ obsession with all things Kennedy. Marge’s maiden name is Bouvier, after all). 

But an important byproduct of the couple’s parenting is that the kids come back to see their folks, and more so, to seek their counsel.  Most poignant is the return of Maggie, who is pregnant with a baby of mysterious paternity and forced to make a harrowing journey back to Springfield to deliver (the episode is worth watching for the flight scenes alone). Upon arriving at the hospital, a nurse says to her, “I’m sorry, there’s no room at the inn…patient facility.” When the taxi driver who rushed her there explains to the nurse how she’s international musical star Maggie Simpson, fresh from a stint in Bangkok, the nurse says, “Ah, a star in the east!” More biblical references follow, and Maggie ultimately delivers a baby girl.

Perhaps it’s my own sentimentality—and my own baby girl—but the episode nails what makes a solid family tick, and what—beyond the gifts and lights and other trappings—is so darn moving about this time of year: the birth of a baby and the profound love it elicits. 

Even after 18 years of Catholic schooling and a lifetime within the faith, I am still flummoxed by so much about it. But Christmas? The restorative power of a baby’s birth? The quiet reverence for a child destined to deliver a most sacred gift unto the world? That I get. And apparently, with all the messages of redemption, forgiveness, faith and family, so do the Simpsons.