Homer and Marge are going to legally separate in the upcoming season of The Simpsons, but I want to talk about The Simpsons Movie, American Dad, Family Guy, and Rick & Morty. Stick with me.
At roughly the halfway point of The Simpsons Movie, Marge does something which totally caught me off guard upon first viewing: she leaves Homer. The plot of the film is vintage Simpsons. It starts out as a somewhat random, joke-filled parade of set pieces and pop culture riffs (Homer becomes obsessed with a pet pig he names “Spider Pig”) before giving way to something very different (severe pollution caused by Homer forces the EPA to enclose the town of Springfield in a glass dome). Since pretty much everything is Homer’s fault, the town turns on the Simpsons, and the family narrowly escapes through a sinkhole, fleeing to Alaska. Eventually, Marge takes the kids and leaves, breaking up with Homer through a VHS version of “Dear John” letter:
“I’ve always stood up for you. When people point out your flaws, I always say, ‘Well, sometimes you have to step back to appreciate a work of art.’ Lately, what’s keeping us together is my ability to overlook everything you do, and I overlook these things because…well, that’s the thing. I just don’t know how to finish that sentence anymore,” with Julie Klavner’s voice cracking on that last line to truly communicate absolute heartbreak.
As the directors said on the DVD commentary, “Wow, you’ve never heard Marge like this before.” Part of that is due to circumstance. Julie Klavner braved a snowstorm to reach the recording studio, meaning she was already worse for the wear. Then, according to the commentary, she recorded that individual scene at least 200 times. As a result, she almost doesn’t even sound like Marge, but instead more like Klavner’s natural speaking voice, which is similar to Marge but with a lower pitch (if you’ve ever seen Robin Williams’ Awakenings, you might remember Klavner as the nurse/love interest). That was far from the first time Homer had pushed Marge too far:
However, that breakup in The Simpsons Movie blindsided us with how raw it felt.
It had to. The movie needed something extreme so that even though the ending was ultimately familiar i.e., Homer reforms and patches things up with the family, the journey to that conclusion felt somehow elevated above the storyline of a run-of-the-mill episode.
But that movie happened 8 years ago, and the show is about to start its 27th season. It’s time to break Homer and Marge up again.
While speaking at the recent ATX Television Festival, Simpsons showrunner Al Jean said that in next season’s premiere, “It’s discovered after all the years, Homer has narcolepsy, and it’s an incredible strain on the marriage. Homer and Marge legally separate, and Homer falls in love with his pharmacist, who’s voiced by Lena Dunham.” This story has gotten a ton of internet press.
For example, The Verge quickly pointed out that due to a glaring plot hole Homer and Marge were technically divorced in season 8 and did not officially remarry until season 20, and Uproxx thinks there are at least seven prior episodes which should have ended with Marge filing for divorce, almost all of them coming from the latter era of the show. Marge and Homer are so well-known it’s an instant click-bait to see a vague headline claiming the couple will break up. It’s one of those “I haven’t watched that show in years, but if they’re really changing things up like that I might drop back in next season” moments until you realize that just like “Secrets from a Successful Marriage” 21 years ago any kind of separation isn’t likely to last into a second episode.
But shouldn’t a lot of our married couples in animated shows be filing for divorce by now? There’s a grand tradition in sitcom storytelling of the obnoxious male paired with the eternally patient, far-too-attractive wife who’s usually a stay-at-home mom. It traces its history back to The Honeymooners, lived on in The Flinstones, was revived in The Simpsons, carried over to Family Guy and American Dad, and had a live-action renaissance with Everybody Loves Raymond, The King of Queens, etc. Of course, Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin have enacted far more severe evils upon their spouses than the likes Ralph Cramden or Raymond Barone because the freedom of animation has stripped their shows of any practical budgetary limitations and made certain acts more tolerable than they would have been if they had been perpetrated by flesh and blood human beings.
In the years since Homer merely shared intimate secrets about his marriage with relative strangers, he’s drunkenly married a Vegas floozy in a quickie wedding, attempted to use Bart as a suicide bomber sent to take out City Hall, framed Marge for a drunk driving accident he perpetrated, paid off mob debts by allowing them to secretly film an adult movie in The Simpsons house, and eavesdropped on Marge’s sessions with a therapist without ever telling her.
Heck, Stan Smith on American Dad bested Homer on that last one. Not only did he also eavesrop on his wife Francine’s therapy sessions he used his access to secret CIA technology to erase her memory of the session every time because they always ended with her wondering why she didn’t just leave Stan. So, just to be clear, every time he pushed her too far she went to a therapist and cried about leaving her husband, and he then erased that breakthrough from her mind, paying off the disapproving therapist to keep the charade going year after year.
That’s one example in a sea of marital murder across the 12 seasons of American Dad. However, the central premise of the show is to skewer conservative America by focusing on a Virginia upper middle class family with an aggressively masculine breadwinner employed by the CIA. The entire joke in the example I used is really a somewhat standard sitcom premise (a man’s man like Stan would naturally be reluctant to ever discuss his emotions) elevated to an animated extreme (thanks to Men in Black-like technology, he can just erase his wife’s memories, and avoid doing any real work in their relationship). Similar to The Simpsons, Stan’s divorce-able offenses have become increasingly extreme as the seasons piled up and the writers ran out of ideas.
But you just go with it because that’s what the show has always been. It comes from the Seth MacFarlane factory of animated TV shows, a list including Family Guy, American Dad, and the short-lived Cleveland Show, which are all pretty much recreations of the classic family sitcom formula. Where Home Improvement might have had an episode in which Tim Allen forgot his wedding anniversary, American Dad takes it one further by having Stan respond to forgetting his anniversary once again by having his wife committed into an asylum in order to prepare an over-the-top celebration.
Invariably, many of the standard (and not-so-standard) “dumb husband disappoints wife” sitcom storylines have been recycled on The Simpsons, Family Guy and American Dad. As befits the nature of their creator, the Seth MacFarlane shows lean much harder into cruelty, with Family Guy‘s Peter Griffin pretty much physically abusing his wife Lois on more than one occasion. However, you know that particular show almost never takes itself seriously. In one Family Guy episode, Peter has been just as horrible to Lois as Homer was to Marge in The Simpsons Movie, but when Lois finally explodes and similarly expresses uncertainty as to why they’re together anymore Peter diffuses the situation by reciting a solemn speech from some random 80s movie. It’s not even that Lois forgives him. She, in fact, has no real reaction. It’s more that the scene simply ends when Peter makes his speech and son Chris mugs for the camera and jokes, “Hah. Movie references.” That’s the level of commitment to genuine emotions on Family Guy, which is okay because you mostly just watch the show for the jokes and, indeed, the varied movie references.
In recent seasons, certain Family Guy episodes have ended with slightly new spins on the “dumb husband is forgiven by wife” conclusion whereby Lois will make some vague reference to ongoing marital strife (e.g., Peter: “So, we’re okay now?”/Lois: “No, we’re not.”/Peter: “Oh” [looks sad, episode ends]). Of course, it never carries over into the next episode. Ever quick to mimic The Simpsons, you have to wonder if Family Guy might now break up Peter and Lois with their own twist on it, like Lois being the one to fall in love with someone else.
Is any of this kind of disturbing? We just go along with husbands being so horrible to their wives because who takes cartoons seriously anyway? Or maybe we can argue that it’s all some kind of post-modern commentary on the artificiality of the classic family sitcom? Or it’s made tolerable because all of the discussed couples are surprisingly physically affectionate, displaying far healthier sex lives we’d ever see in a live action sitcom?
And that brings us to Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty, Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s tale of a mad, drunken scientist (Rick) and his dim-witted grandson (Morty) having intergalactic adventures together. In the set-up of the show, which is only one season into what will hopefully be a long run, Rick lives with Morty and his family, forever putting down the meek man who married his daughter Beth, the hilariously insecure Jerry voiced to perfection by Chris Parnell.
Being a Dan Harmon show, Rick & Morty lives to invert or defy standard sitcom formulas. Jerry and Beth are certainly not a warmed over Homer/Marge, Peter/Lois, Stan/Francine, etc. In fact, we meet them as a couple on the outs, with Beth openly wondering why they’re even together. She’s a veterinarian who specializes in horses, and he’s some kind of salesman, continually walked over by everyone. He’s not an oafish jerk continually testing the bonds of marriage with selfish behavior. Beth simply wants out because they may not be in love anymore, if they ever were.
A later episode revealed they only got married because he accidentally knocked her up, with Morty’s older sister Summer, and talked her out of getting an abortion. In another episode, when Rick gave the family access to a secret race of helper beings who pop out of existence after they’ve helped with whatever you needed Beth used her helper as a drinking companion to listen to her complain about her marriage. The end result, though, is that Beth’s dissatisfaction with her life (e.g., she wanted to be a normal doctor, not a horse doctor) is pretty much the only story beat she ever gets to play.
Is that preferable to the animate wives of The Simpsons and Seth MacFarlane giving into complete and utter dependence? I don’t know. I just know that Marge should have divorced Homer years ago, yet I’ve never really cared because that’s just always been the story convention of shows like The Simpsons.