In his review of the two newest episodes of Futurama, Zack Handlen of The A.V. Club (which: is one of my favourite websites. If you are a geek who adores crazy-in-depth pop-culture analysis, subscribe to it now) goes off on a thoughtful tangent in which he proposes that the episode ‘Homer’s Enemy’ marks “the beginning of the end” of The Simpsons.
If you’re not a Simpsons nerd and can’t identify episodes by their titles, ‘Homer’s Enemy’ is basically The One with Frank Grimes:
A fastidious new employee at the plant [Frank Grimes] doesn’t get along with Homer, who is anxious to make amends. Meanwhile, Bart comes into the possession of an abandoned factory.
Wikipedia rightly identifies ‘Homer’s Enemy’ as “one of the darkest episodes of The Simpsons“: Grimes, who’s “had to struggle for everything he ever got”, becomes increasingly furious with Homer and the ease of his accomplishments. It culminates with Grimes – nicknamed “Grimey”, against his wishes – impersonating Homer’s buffoonery, electrocuting and killing himself in the process. Homer then ruins his funeral by snoring during the service.
It is indeed dark. Handlen, while declaring the episode “hilarious, no question” (it is), argues that “it fundamentally and permanently undermines the series’ core” – The Simpsons, he says, is built on “family”, and the series “can’t support that level of darkness without losing its heart”.
I disagree (though I do agree with Handlen’s other point, that the episode is “a clever piece of meta-commentary on certain basic elements that have been with the show since the beginning”), because The Simpsons has always had dark elements, particularly concerning Homer’s behaviour – consider ‘A Streetcar Named Marge’, in which he flat-out tells Marge he doesn’t care about her interests, or ‘Lisa’s Substitute’, where he says pretty much the same thing to his eight-year-old daughter. Both stories are wrapped up tidily, though in neither does Homer really earn his redemption (I remember being shocked by his selfishness in ‘Streetcar’ even as a small child)1.
Note that both these episodes are from early on in The Simpsons‘ run (seasons four and two, respectively); Homer was a much darker, more selfish character before he morphed into the loveable idiot we’re familar with. ‘Homer’s Enemy’ really just combines those two sides of his character in a single episode.