One of the more well-known Simpsons episodes is “Homer’s Enemy,” in which the perpetually grumpy Frank Grimes joins the power plant staff and is quickly appalled by the dangerous antics of Homer Simpson. The lack of consequences for Homer’s actions drives Grimey insane, to the point where he accidentally kills himself. The episode essentially answered the question of “what if someone from the real world had to deal with Homer Simpson?” The answer was that they’d be disgusted. This isn’t surprising as Homer does a lot of foolish — and at times downright disturbing — things, and he rarely receives any consequences for them.
But what if there were an episode that looked at the other end of the question: How would Homer operate if the world stopped putting up with his idiocy? Well, there was an episode just like that, and it actually aired three years before “Homer’s Enemy.” It was called “Secrets of a Successful Marriage.”
If you look at how every scene plays out, it’s the rare episode where the stunts Homer pulls that usually get brushed away (“that’s our Homer!”) are taken very seriously. It starts from the opening scene, where Homer is playing poker with his friends, and he gets called out for being slow. It’s generally accepted that Homer is not the brightest guy in the world, but rarely has it been mentioned so directly. In the next scene, Homer tells the story to his family, and he tries to make the “slow” comments seem ridiculous. No one is willing to humor him. Homer is slow, and no one gives him any option other than to confront it.
He attempts to prove that he’s smart by teaching a class at the learning annex. One subtle-but-telling moment here is when Homer is getting ready to teach his first class. He accidentally sews tweed patches on a leather blazer when it’s supposed to be the other way around. Marge immediately chastises him: “You ruined a perfectly good jacket!” She’s technically correct, but considering that Homer’s made several far more costly mistakes over the years, it seems surprising that she gets on his case so much over this. It doesn’t seem like much, but it foreshadows where things are headed.
Things don’t go much better when Homer attempts to teach his class. He has no idea what he’s doing, and people figure it out pretty quickly. For years at the power plant, Homer has been able to fake his way through his job, and he expects it to work the same way here. When it doesn’t, he resorts to telling his students personal stories about his relationship with Marge, even revealing that she dyes her hair. Naturally, this gets back to Marge, and she demands that he stop. Homer is thoroughly rebuked when he attempts to get out of this jam with nonsensical ramblings that ends with the immortal, “Forget it, Marge. It’s Chinatown!” Once again, no one is putting up with Homer’s usual nonsense.
It just gets worse. Homer reveals more secrets about his relationship with Marge because he’s addicted to the respect he’s getting from his students. This culminates in Homer getting the terrible idea to bring the class over for a family dinner. This scene is the biggest example of how Homer’s usual antics are thoroughly untolerated in this episode. Lisa is very open about how mortified she is by the situation, and when Homer strangles Bart, it actually gets treated like an act of child abuse rather than a cartoonish sight gag. The situation spirals out of control and ends with Marge kicking everyone out of the house, including Homer.
From here, we find out that Homer is utterly incapable of functioning like a normal human being without Marge by his side. Within a day, his clothes are tattered, and he’s living in Bart’s treehouse. What’s particularly notable is how incredibly unromantic the episode’s ending is. Yes, Marge takes Homer back, but only when he admits just how useless he is without her. The one thing Homer can offer Marge that no one else can is complete and utter dependence. Recognizing how needed she is, Marge allows Homer to move back in. This ending is the ultimate example of how this episode shows Homer what the real world is like. Yes, he gets to stay with Marge, but he doesn’t get to save even a little bit of face. The only way he is allowed to re-enter the house, and by connection, society at large is to accept the fact that he’s a completely worthless human being. In no uncertain terms, Homer is given the cold, hard truth. Admittedly, Homer’s incompetence was exaggerated for the sake of making the episode’s point, but what we see is not far from the truth. Homer really can’t operate without Marge there to guide him through life.
This episode isn’t known for its experimentation in the way “Homer’s Enemy” is. Maybe it’s because the writers of the show have not spoken as openly as they have about that one. Still, it functions as a perfect companion; “Homer’s Enemy” answered the question of “what if someone from the real world met Homer Simpson” while “Secrets of a Successful Marriage” answers the question of “what if real-world consequences were applied to Homer Simpson.” In each episode, we’re reminded that Homer lives in a fantasy land, and he’s damn lucky for having that privilege.