The following contains mentions of suicide.
Thanks to its flexible nature and long history, The simpsons covered more or less every genre imaginable. The series not only conjures up classic forms of comedy, but delves into horror, romance, drama, and many other kinds of story beats.
Fox’s animated series has notably always had a tragic side to it, a bittersweet acknowledgment that life can be tough, even when you have a loving family. In fact, the quintessentially buffoonish Homer has some pretty dark ruminations, with the show’s darkest joke emphasizing how The simpsons can become sometimes.
Season 24’s “A Tree Grows in Springfield” is a relatively minor long-running episode of the series. Directed by Timothy Bailey and with a script by Stephanie Gillis, the episode largely focuses on Homer – who has grown increasingly austere over the course of his life. He does, however, find happiness – first in the material possession of a new MyPad, then in the mysterious message of hope someone leaves for him. The start of the episode finds Homer at Moe’s Tavern as usual, but even harder on himself than normal. He then shares with Moe, “I’m in an abusive relationship with life. It just keeps beating me up, and I’m too cowardly to leave.” It’s a ridiculously dark line, especially coming from someone who’s a married man with three kids.
It’s the kind of line that would stand out even in tougher dramas like You better call Saul. Considering Homer’s life and the tone of the show he’s on, that’s not even an outlier. Homer is someone who, in the universe, has been through a lot of hardships. His mother left him when he was a child, and his father’s subsequent neglectful behavior had a major impact on him and the man he is today. He put aside many of his personal dreams and ambitions, ultimately sacrificing many opportunities to provide for those around him. Even Homer’s frequent habit of getting a new job for an episode could be seen as an extension of his attempts to take control of his life – and each time it ultimately fails and his status quo resets. He keeps getting bowled over by life, and his commentary takes an even sadder turn when we remember that Homer technically contemplated and even attempted suicide on several occasions (going all the way back to “Homer’s Odyssey” from the season 1).
Homer is far from the only character to deal with an almost mundane yet inflexible tragic side to The simpsons. The show repeatedly explored Lisa’s depression, Bart’s struggles with getting noticed, and Marge’s desire to learn more about life beyond being a housewife. Even the quintessentially comedic Grandpa Simpson was forced to reflect on his mistakes and deal with mental issues compounded by his age. Outside of the family orbit, there are the extended challenges that Ned Flanders has faced, and other characters like Moe, Smithers, and Mrs. Krabappel all have episodes where the characters end up in tears, broken by a world that doesn’t. never seems to stop.
In a way, it never does. One of the most powerful elements of The simpsons is the idea that no new job, relationship, or crazy plan will make life itself any easier. There will always be challenges, no matter how much money Homer makes at any given time. But that doesn’t stop Homer from supporting his family and finding happiness with them. That doesn’t stop Marge, Bart, and Lisa from getting together when they need to. Flanders, Smithers, Moe, and Krabappel (whose deaths were also a tragic turning point for the series) all endured their trials instead of overcoming them. Life will be tragic, unexpected and depressing, and sometimes they will be at the lowest they can imagine. But as “A Tree Grows in Springfield” points out, hope can — and will — push them through and keep them going even when things get dark. The Simpsons has always been one of the most quietly tragic shows on television – but it reacts to those bittersweet edges with a determination and happiness that can be inspiring.