"Homer Defined" is the fifth episode of The Simpsons' third season. It originally aired on the Fox network in the United States on October 17, 1991. In the episode, Homer accidentally saves the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant from meltdown by arbitrarily choosing the emergency override button via a counting rhyme. He is honored as a hero and receives praise from his daughter Lisa, but he starts to feel unworthy because he knows that his so-called heroism was just luck. Meanwhile, Bart is downhearted after learning that Milhouse's mother has forbidden him to spend time with Bart anymore.
The episode was written by freelance writer Howard Gewirtz and directed by Mark Kirkland. Basketball player Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers made a guest appearance in the episode as himself, becoming the first professional athlete to do so on the show. He appears in two sequences, one of which sees him calling Homer to congratulate him on saving the plant. The second appearance comes later in the episode in a basketball game sequence that Lakers sportscaster Chick Hearn also guest stars in.
The episode has received generally positive reviews from critics, particularly Johnson's appearance. In its original airing on the Fox network, "Homer Defined" acquired a 12.7 Nielsen rating—the equivalent of being watched in approximately 11.69 million homes—and finished the week ranked 36th.
At the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, employee Homer is eating jelly doughnuts. One of them splatters onto the core temperature dial, which is nearing the red zone. Homer is unable to see the warning and the plant approaches a nuclear meltdown. He seems to be the only person who can stop it, though he has no skills and cannot remember any of his training (due to being distracted and occupied with a Rubik's Cube). In desperation, he chooses a button at random and miraculously presses the button that averts the meltdown. Springfield is saved and Homer is honored as a hero. The owner of the plant, Mr. Burns, names Homer "Employee of the Month". Homer's family is also proud of him, especially his daughter Lisa, who starts to see him as a role model. Meanwhile, Homer himself is troubled by the fact that his so-called heroism was nothing but luck, and his gloomy mood deepens when he receives a congratulatory phone call from Magic Johnson, where Magic (having been asked a "hypothetical" question by Homer about his success) cheerfully tells Homer "People like that are eventually exposed as the frauds they are."
Burns introduces Homer to Aristotle Amadopoulos, the owner of the nuclear power plant in Shelbyville, Springfield's neighbor town. Amadopoulos wants Homer to give a pep talk to his plant's lackluster workers. Homer is hesitant to accept, but Burns forces him into it. At the Shelbyville plant, he gives a fumbling motivational speech. Suddenly an impending meltdown threatens the Shelbyville plant. Amadopoulos and Homer go to the control room, and Amadopoulos asks Homer to avert the meltdown. In front of everyone, Homer repeats his rhyme and presses a button blindly. By luck, he again manages to avert a meltdown. Amadopoulos thanks Homer for saving the plant, but then shows he is extremely angry at Homer because the saving action was so random, it isn't even clear what Homer actually did. Soon the phrase "to pull a Homer", meaning "to succeed despite idiocy," becomes widely used and is entered into the dictionary.
In the subplot, the relationship between Bart and his best friend Milhouse is tested. On the bus ride to school, Bart is upset to discover that Milhouse had held a birthday party the previous Saturday without inviting him. It turns out that Milhouse's mother, Luann Van Houten, thinks Bart is a bad influence on Milhouse and has banned her son from seeing him, a decision Milhouse is downbeat about but makes no effort to defy. Suddenly deprived of his best friend, a depressed Bart resorts to playing with his younger sister Maggie. When Bart's mother, Marge, finds out about the situation, she decides to visit Luann. Although Marge admits that Bart is a "bit of a handful," she explains that he and Milhouse are best friends and only have each other. She asks Luann to allow the boys to play together, and Luann changes her mind after seeing the impact her decision has on her son. Later, Milhouse invites Bart over to his house, and Bart thanks Marge for standing up for him.
The episode was written by freelance writer Howard Gewirtz. It was one of many stories he pitched to the producers of the show. According to executive producer Al Jean, Gewirtz's script ended up featuring one of the longest first acts (an act being the amount of time between commercial breaks) in the history of the show when the episode was completed. Gewirtz's script originally contained two uses of the word "ass", once from Bart and once from Burns. This was the first time a character in the show had used this word, and it led to problems with the network censors. Eventually, the censors forced the producers to remove one instance, so that Bart's line was changed to "bad influence, my butt."
Basketball player Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers guest stars in the episode as himself. He was the first professional athlete to do so on the show. Johnson appears in two sequences: first in a scene in which he calls to congratulate Homer on saving the plant, and later in the episode during a basketball game when he "pulls a Homer" by accidentally getting the ball into the basket after slipping on the floor. The recording of the episode was done during the National Basketball Association's regular season, so the producers had a hard time scheduling Johnson's session. With the deadline approaching, the producers traveled to Johnson's home to record his lines. According to the San Jose Mercury News, the recording equipment brought to his home did not work at first and "almost doomed the guest spot." Lakers sportscaster Chick Hearn also guest stars in the episode, commentating on the game that Johnson plays.
Another guest star that appeared in the episode was actor Jon Lovitz, who provided the voice for Aristotle Amadopoulos and a minor character that appears in a soap opera. This was Lovitz's third appearance on the show. The character Amadopoulos that he played was designed to look like the Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. The character's dialogue was written to emulate Lovitz's comedic style, such as his ability for rapid mood swings. Amadopoulos returned a few episodes later in "Homer at the Bat", though in that episode he was voiced by cast member Dan Castellaneta rather than Lovitz.
Milhouse's mother, Luann Van Houten, makes her first appearance in this episode. She was designed to look very similar to Milhouse. Maggie Roswell was assigned to voice the character and she originally based it on Milhouse, who is voiced by Pamela Hayden. The producers felt that her impression sounded out of place so she ended up using a more normal sounding voice. It was Gewirtz who in this episode gave Milhouse his last name, Van Houten, which he got from one of his wife's friends.
Reception and analysis
In its original airing on the Fox network, the episode acquired a 12.7 Nielsen rating and was viewed in approximately 11.69 million homes. It finished the week of October 14–20, 1991, ranked 36th, down from the season's average rank of 32nd. It ranked second in its timeslot behind The Cosby Show, which finished 24th with a 15.5 rating. The episode was tied with In Living Color as the highest rated show on Fox that week.
"Homer Defined" has received generally positive reviews from critics. The authors of the book I Can't Believe It's a Bigger and Better Updated Unofficial Simpsons Guide, Warren Martyn and Adrian Wood, described it as an excellent episode that added new depth to the show in the scene with Marge trying to convince Luann to let Milhouse play with Bart again. They added that Lisa's "faith in her heroic father makes a nice change", and said that the episode's ending, in which Homer enters the dictionary, "is most satisfying." Colin Jacobson of DVD Movie Guide commented that after the episode "Bart the Murderer", this episode marks a regression, saying it was almost inevitable that it would not match up to the previous episode. He went on to say that the subplot with Bart and Milhouse was more entertaining. Nate Meyers of Digitally Obsessed gave the episode a 4/5 rating, writing that he enjoyed the Homer story but found the Bart and Milhouse subplot more interesting. He added that "Milhouse's mom won't allow him to play with Bart because she thinks Bart is a bad influence. It's rare for the show to allow Bart to feel genuine emotion, but there is plenty of it in this episode that makes for a nice character oriented story."
Johnson's performance has also been praised. In 2004, ESPN released a list of the top 100 Simpsons sport moments, ranking his appearance at number 27. Sports Illustrated listed Johnson's cameo as the fifth best athlete guest appearance on The Simpsons. Meyers wrote that the episode "makes a lot of good points about the public making heroes in a rash, hysterical manner," and this point is made "with an amusing cameo by Earvin 'Magic' Johnson". The San Diego Union's Fritz Quindt said the animators "did [Johnson's] likeness good," and noted that in the game the "colors on the Lakers jerseys and the Forum court were correct. Chick Hearn and Stu Lantz were almost lifelike, announcing at courtside in Sunday-color-comics sweaters. And Chick's play-by-play was so real Stu couldn't get a word in." Johnson's appearance was broadcast on CNN's Sports Tonight the day before the episode originally aired, and host Fred Hickman stated that he did not find it humorous.
In his book Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality, Jonathan Gray discusses a scene from "Homer Defined" that shows Homer reading a USA Today with the cover story: "America's Favorite Pencil – #2 is #1". Lisa sees this title and criticizes the newspaper as a "flimsy hodge-podge of high-brass factoids and Larry King", to which Homer responds that it is "the only paper in America that's not afraid to tell the truth: that everything is just fine." In the book, Gray says this scene is used by the show's producers to criticize "how often the news is wholly toothless, sacrificing journalism for sales, and leaving us not with important public information, but with America's Favorite Pencil."
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