Updated on June 11, 2015
D’oh! And also hmm: The Simpsons, it seems, are separating.
In an interview with Variety this week, show-runner Al Jean reveals that, in this fall’s premiere of the The Simpsons’ 27th season,
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 isn't the first time, to be sure, that the Simpsons have faced marital difficulties. The threat of divorce has long loomed over Springfield's bluest-haired and baldest-headed couple, the threat usually caused by something dumb and/or comically inconsiderate that Homer did. (There was also the episode in Season 20 that revealed that, because of a clerical error, the couple had been legally divorced since Season 8.)
But Homer and Marge have persevered, together, both in spite and because of the key fact of their marriage: The Simpson union features a clear reacher … and a clear settler.
How I Met Your Mother laid out the basic dynamics of the reacher/settler theory: In every relationship, the idea goes, there's a reacher and there's a settler. The roles are fairly self-explanatory—the reacher has gotten someone out of his or her league; the settler has, indeed, settled. Which isn’t to say that a reaching/settling couple don’t both love each other or get something equally fulfilling out of their relationship; it is to say, though, that according to traditional and occasionally superficial romantic criteria—looks, smarts, charm, whatever else you want to throw in there—couples will rarely be evenly matched. One will go up; the other will go down.
So. In the long-running union of Marjorie Bouvier Simpson (beautiful, smart, kind, patient, a good mother and a beloved daughter from a country club family) and Homer J. Simpson (unhealthy, possibly alcoholic, hot-tempered, not terribly smart or industrious or successful as a worker or a father), the reach/settle dynamics are obvious. So much so that they are one of The Simpsons’ longest-running jokes. He's a loser! Why is she with him? Questions like that, punctuated by examples of Homer’s terribleness and Marge’s long-sufferingness, have been a well of humor for Simpsons writers throughout 26 seasons of the show.
Which all makes the legal-separation plot line Jean describes … actually kind of infuriating. The arc, basically, is this: The couple separates. Homer falls in love with someone else. The reacher reaches away from the person who has settled for him. Marge’s long-sufferingness is now, ostensibly, even longer and more suffer-y.
Am I over-thinking the dynamics of a marital union whose bonds have been entered into by four-fingered cartoons who never age? Oh, totally. But also! The Simpson marriage is, after all, the longest-running fictional marriage on television. It has been, in its weird, static way, a source of stability for audiences across seasons and years and even generations.
And the Simpson marriage has existed, maybe more importantly, within a television environment that has also aired shows like The King of Queens and Family Guy and Modern Family and Two and a Half Men—shows that ask their audiences to blithely accept marriages and relationships in which women, by pretty much every observable measure, have settled for men. These shows don’t suggest, as The Simpsons has, that there’s humor in the reach/settle divide; they suggest instead something more pernicious: that the divide is completely unremarkable. That a woman settling is just The Way Things Are.
This latest plot line would seem to suggest that The Simpsons, too, is buying into that tired old assumption. In the Marge/Homer separation, it is Homer who falls for someone else. It is Homer who gets someone else to settle for him. While Marge—smart, beautiful, caring, patient, long-suffering Marge—is left alone.
Perhaps, though, that’s part of the point. After the publication of this article, Al Jean wrote in with more information about the Simpson separation. “When you watch the episode 9/27,” he told me in an email, “you will see Marge becomes very aware she is the ‘settler’ and drives the narrative from that point on. I can't give away more as it doesn't go where anyone has guessed yet.”
He added: “I just pray everyone who has tweeted us in a blind rage will save the date.”