211. Homer Simpson in “Kidney Trouble”

(originally aired December 6, 1998)
It’s usually a good idea to keep your protagonist likeable. Now of course you don’t want to keep him a saint, and there’s something to be said about the benefit of having an antihero lead, but in the case of a series like this, it helps if you’re on your main character’s side as he struggles with life’s many foibles. For almost the entirety of this episode, Homer is an awful, awful, awful human being. It’s this black cloud that hovers over the whole show; with all of the bizarre plot twists and poor attempts at humor through the tense situation, all I could focus on what a colossal ass Homer was. Going back to the antihero thing, one of my favorite episodes of South Park involves Kyle needing a kidney, and Cartman, being the only blood type match, says he’ll only give it up for ten million dollars. Cartman is a selfish, immature dickhead, but we still love him for it; he’s one of the greatest antiheroes in TV history. But seeing Homer act like this? Granted Cartman is an extreme, but Homer is absolutely the most despicable we’ve ever seen him here, and that’s not a trait you really want associated with your hero.

The only serviceable part of the show is the beginning at the ghost town, but even there the jokes are hit and miss: for every great line from the tour guide and the ridiculous gun fight, there’s all the dumb robot jokes and Homer acting like a asshole. Grampa ends up tagging along when the Simpson car stalls in front of the retirement castle, a bit that could have been funny on its own, but it only serves to remind me how much worse Homer’s treatment of his father will get. On the way home, Homer ignores his father’s begging and pleading to stop to use the restroom, ultimately causing both his kidneys to burst. This early on, I felt like checking out. Seriously? I don’t expect realism from this show, but come on. So Homer is already pretty goddamn deplorable at this point; giving up a kidney for his father is pretty much the only way he can get redemption, and at least he promptly agrees to it when Hibbert brings it up to him. A talk about the danger associated with the operation at the bar gets Homer worried, and on the operating table, right after his father tearfully says he loves him, Homer leaps out the window and runs off in cowardice.

I don’t even know what to make of the third act. Ashamed to go back, Homer becomes a sailor for two minutes aboard the ship of lost souls, who each have their own tale of debauchery, but Homer’s story enrages them all and they cast him out. My mind is so wired on concern for Grampa and absolute hatred of Homer, I’m in no mood for this wildly out-of-left-field shit, so whatever. Homer eventually goes back to the hospital, gets back on the operating table, and… runs off again. When that car fell on him at the end, I was so happy. At that point, it would have been a more satisfying ending if he had died and Grampa had taken both kidneys. And in the end, Homer is furious at his newly recovered father, a saint till the end. After watching this episode, I had to listen to the commentary to hear the defense. Of course being a Scully-era commentary, there wasn’t much information to be had, but boy did they laugh loud and hard: after every dumb Homer line, at the ship of lost souls, each time Homer runs off… During the driving home sequence, Ron Hauge comments Homer’s behavior is “awfully cruel, it borders on making Homer unlikeable.” Borders? And in response, Mike Scully just laughs. It’s pretty incredible to hear the people responsible for the show whooping it up over scenes you’ve just watched mouth agape. Bar none the worst episode so far, and probably one of the worst in the entire series.

Tidbits and Quotes
– I really do think the bit with Grampa walking to the car like a zombie and Homer desperately trying to start the car could have been funny, but in any other episode that didn’t involve Homer willfully leaving his father to die.
– Bloodbath Gulch is rich in its history (“Founded by prostitutes in 1849, and serviced by prostitute express riders who could bring in a fresh prostitute from Saint Joe in three days; Bloodbath Gulch quickly became known as a place where a trail hand could spend a month’s pay in three minutes.”) Marge isn’t thrilled (“I never realized history was so filthy!” “First on our tour is the whore house; then we’ll visit the cathouse, the brothel, the bordello, and finally the old mission.” “Oh, thank heaven!” “Lots of prostitutes in there!”)
– The robot jokes here are nothing we haven’t seen before done better like in “Radio Bart” and “Selma’s Choice.” Also it doesn’t seem to make much sense that they have the robots just sitting out in the open for visitors to go up and mess with. And the saloon dancers have flesh colored robot asses? I guess maybe it makes sense given the seedy history of the town, but I dunno. This opening bit is the only thing this episode has going for it, and there’s still lots of stuff about it that seems wrong to me.
– The number of horrible Homer lines in the show is staggering: assuring Hibbert he knows more about medicine than him, telling Marge to blow up the hospital, and Homer moaning, “This is everyone’s fault but mine,” when really it’s nobody’s fault but his. Really, did no one notice just how much of this episode comes off sour?
– I do like the flashback of how great a father Abe was, using NyQuill to knock out little Homer.
– Homer washes ashore to conveniently witness a father and son building a sand castle. He vows he’ll go back to the hospital and go through with the operation. And just if you thought he wasn’t enough of an asshole, he walks right through the castle, destroying it.
– That car lands right on top of Homer, he didn’t even have time to duck, it crushed him. It seems if it was not fatal, he should be way more banged up than he was. And really, he’s got a kidney shaped scar on his side? I know some of these are jokes I’m picking at, but this episode doesn’t even come close to earning laughs from absurdity. Never watch this episode, ever.

23 thoughts on “211. Homer Simpson in “Kidney Trouble”

  1. Agreed. This episode sucks. There’s usually some semblance of balance between Grampa acting super annoying and Homer treating him with impatience. It was completely out of whack in this episode though; Grampa did not deserve this kind of treatment at all. Homer’s actions are so ridiculously cruel, and I think really deviate from his previous characterization on the show. Sure, he’s no macho man, but I never got the sense he’d be a coward when it came to helping someone he really loved.

    1. I always hated that scene in the car causing grandpa’s kidneys to explode. like you say, unnecessarily cruel and not in the slightest bit funny.

      There is a world of difference between this and ignoring grandpa’s annoying musings (vs sexual inadequacy) or just dropping him back at the nursing home because he wrecked the tv.. atleast in those instances he kinda deserved to be ignored and mistreated

  2. Yeah, they took things a bit far on this one, in a bad way.

    I like your observation on an episode where you said that they still kind of know what’s funny. But… It just doesn’t WORK, in the end.

    I do wonder about your Cartman observation though. One of my problems with South Park is how unlikeable all the characters are. It’s not even that everyone’s a dick — Hank Hill is one of my all time favorite characters, for example, and he’s a fucking dick usually (especially season 1 of KOTH) — it just seems that there’s no rhyme or reason or any depth to their actions, beyond “oh, they’re spoiled selfish kids”. Something about South Park has always rubbed me the wrong way… I recognize Trey and Matt as clever and I like the jokes they often play on the audience, but the show comes off as very cold to me. While I agree with your criticisms of Homer, I don’t think it’s so wrong that they want to change his character, we’ve had 200 ish episodes of him acting a certain way so it’s natural they’d get bored/want to progress the character… but, and this goes with my South Park criticism as well, the problem is that the character just becomes cold. It’s okay to be unlikeable but to be completely disconnected from anything relateable to the audience probably isn’t a good idea, and definitely isn’t a good “progression” for the character.

    1. Cartman’s really the only spoiled kid; Stan and Kyle act as mouthpieces for Trey and Matt’s views most of the time, and are the likeable protagonists. But I could do a whole other blog analyzing South Park, so I won’t get too into that. But yeah, I have no problem with change as long as it’s sensible from what we’ve seen before, and Homer being an overtly insensitive asshole is not one of them. Homer telling his daughter “just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand” is wonderfully misguidedly cruel. Homer torturing his father to the point where his organs explode is maliciously cruel.

    2. i wouldn’t call homer’s change in character a progression at all; before, homer was a deeply flawed yet well-meaning man, and now he’s just a selfish, borderline-retarded, giggling lunatic. he’s lost dimensions to his character, just like the rest of the cast.

      and agreed, this is a pretty horrible episode.

  3. Oddly, I don’t hate this episode as much as most of the episodes since and including, indeed esepcially, Homer’s Enemy. I’m not entirely sure why, as there is a lot of incredibly hateful and stupid stuff going on in it. Perhaps there is some redemption in Homer donating the kidney after all, whether he wanted to or not. That said, Homer checking out Bart’s kidney at the end is extremely creepy. By no means even a decent episode, but this show still has a lot further to fall.

  4. Sadly there are worse episodes out there. In fact, the worst episode of the series goes to Season 17’s episode when Homer thinks Abe is not his father. -_-

  5. To be honest, I think this episode is probably the most underrated in Season 10. Homer’s behaviour on leaving Abe to die I feel is justified as he has to take a life or death kidney transplant so he’s more scared than acting like a total jerk in the episode. He does feel bad for leaving Abe to die too, so he finds himself stuck in a corner helplessly before being given the courage to try again a second time, but again the second time he bails out I feel it’s justified because he’s still frightened he could die. That’s how I see it anyway.

  6. I remember someone on No Homers saying the scene from “Cape Feare” where Homer inadvertently terrorizes Bart with the hockey mask and chainsaw was *worse* behavior than Homer leaving his father to die on the operating table.

    They just went on and on defending Homer’s actions in this episode and trying to rationalize them.

  7. actually to me Homers behaviour is not so despicable, cause its deeply human to be so scared of having an operation. and its showed how Homer is sad for his father and how much he feels bad for how he behaved. that all makes sense to me, more than a Homer giving his kidney with no problem. all of his feelings and acting are so human, and understandable, even if it looks despicable; but sometimes men are despicable and coward. its in our nature. so the only thing i would criticize is the second time he runs away, thats maybe too much, but again, Homers a weak man, and beside ethics and morals, hes just human.

  8. I remember one of the DVD commentaries (I don’t think it was the one for “Kidney Trouble”) mentioned the opening act of this episode, and how the script said “one of them digs a whole for some reason” during the shoot-out. They were using it as an example of how Swartzwelder uses phrases like “for some reason” quite often in his scripts. I let you draw your own conclusions.

  9. This episode gets a lot of shit, so I was surprised to find it was pretty funny. To me, anyway…

  10. I don’t have enough words to describe how much I hate this episode. Homer is a malicious asshole for most of it, almost none of the jokes work, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to take from this at all. It’s like the rest of the family doesn’t even hold Homer responsible for what he did. They instead pamper him and tell him how noble he is for doing this even though he was the one who contributed to it.

    Also, this is a small thing, but some of the dialogue was unnatural. Like when Bart calls himself “America’s bad boy” or when Marge says “You’ve shortened your life significantly, so that someone else could have a slight extension of theirs.” Is that a joke? Are you telling me that Homer did this for no reason because it’s not like his father is going to live for more than a few years? This episode is garbage.

  11. There are a few ways an anti-hero can work (non-exclusive list, I’m sure):
    1) The character can be someone who do unquestionably bad things, usually in response to or to prevent things that are arguably worse. Think the Punisher or Dirty Harry.

    2) The character can be indisputably bad, but entertaining to watch because he’s fascinating. Think Walter White or Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards.

    3) The character who is just such an extreme, irredeemable asshole that it’s funny. Think Eric Cartman

    Jerkass Homer is none of these. He’s an unfunny, unsympathetic, cowardly dick.

  12. This episode is just utterly despicable. I know people talk about Principal and the Pauper as if it ruined the series, and while I can totally see where that is coming from, this to me is the ultimate betrayal. Gone is the sweet innocent Homer who put his daughter’s needs over alcohol and in is an utter jackass who only cares about himself.

    Sure, you could say Homer ran away from the operation out of fear for his life, but the whole situation is his fault as he was the one who refused to let his dad go to the bathroom just for sake of being an asshole. Thus, everything that comes after is irrelevant to the argument.

    What’s saddening is that the show has had far worse episodes come about after this one. Nevertheless, this is definitely in my top 10 worst episode list.

  13. A putrid, atrocious episode. Definitely one of the worst of the series. I absolutely hate Homer here. There’s been plenty of examples of him being a major jerkass in the past few seasons, but this is the first really big example. Here, he’s willing to let his father die. It’s true that they were at odds with each other, but they still had some love and care for each other (see “Grampa Vs. Sexual Inadequacy” for instance). Now, Homer apparently wants his father dead, and also is willing to rupture his insides just because he doesn’t want to stop for the bathroom. What an asshole.

    Beyond that, there’s the dumb stuff with the opening set piece like the robots. Act 3 is complete garbage, too. The lost souls stuff is so dumb. Also, this is a pretty serious story about Abe nearly dying, so having this wacky lost souls stuff creates a very bad tonal clash that makes it hard to take the main story seriously. Oh, and Homer having a kidney shaped scar? That was pretty stupid, too. By far, one of the worst episodes to ever come from this series.

  14. It remains a source of great frustration to me that we’ll never know the inspiration behind this episode, as the commentary spent most of the time yukking it up to Homer’s cruelty and brain-dead antics, especially since Mike Scully was finally asked about bringing it up right when the credits began to roll and George Meyer, put on the spotlight as he pitched the idea, stammers since there’s no time left.

    For starters, there’s the scientific reality that kidneys don’t hold urine; it’s our bladder. The kidneys filter out the impurities in our bloodstream, which in turn become urine and get sent to the bladder to be expelled. However, bladder ruptures have happened (one such famous case was Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer whom people believed was poisoned upon his death), so I’m doubly surprised that for a show that, a few seasons prior, did research on open-heart surgery, all of a sudden can’t be arsed to figure out where our wee ends up before we take a whizz, not to mention the growing juvenile direction of the series under Mike Scully, they whiffed on the opportunity to name the episode “Homer Simpson in Bladder Trouble”. Also, there is something called “dialysis”, which people who have bum kidneys or are dealing with infections use to handle the filtration that human body normally would do, and while it’s a long and painful process that those individuals have to do regularly until they get treatment (usually a new kidney), the option was there for Grampa in the short term. Instead, the show just immediately put him on his death bed. I only choose to write in this manner not for the users of this blog, but for the people who worked on this show to remind them how badly they fucked up.

    Secondly, let’s talk about Homer. Yes, I get it; Homer’s human, and operations are scary. Homer, though, put himself in that situation by being a massive dickhead to his own father simply over the fact he wanted to watch Biography cover F. Murray freaking Abraham and couldn’t pull over for a minute. And this is not counting his actions at Bloodbath Gulch. He tries to do good for once, but then is scared over by barflies who decide to organ harvest him in the event something goes wrong (particularly parts of the body that can’t be donated), so he wusses out, then wants to become first mate on a taffy shop, and when he returns, he wusses out a second time! Some folks have even made the argument that Dr. Hibbert was in the wrong for trying to make Homer donate without telling him the dangers of the procedure and that they just took the kidney without his consent, and although I have my own problems with Hibbert’s character assassination later in the series (the show already had a quack; why did we need two?), Homer’s misconduct warranted the theft as lousy karmic retribution.

    I haven’t bothered making a “worst episodes ever” list in years due to not really watching much of the series, but I feel like retroactively, I can add this one to that list due to Homer’s behavior.

  15. Seeing the recent re-review, the episode does truly stand out as Homer’s absolute nadir in terms of character; he not only deliberately injures his dad, he only helps him because he’s urged to. Maybe if they portrayed it as a subconscious decision as revenge for how Abe treated him and his mother when he was younger, or perhaps have Homer undergo a crisis of faith, choosing whether or not to help his father or help himself. Hell, what about Herb? This could’ve been one of many times he could come in to help. They literally could’ve inserted one line saying “oh, unky Herb came to visit and give a kidney”, they wouldn’t even need DeVito to voice anything.

    But that’s beside the point. The rest of the episode, where Homer basically takes advantage of his family’s goodwill (not to mention the infamous “everyone’s fault but mine” line) and basically wimps out the moment he stops getting free stuff from it and actually had to go through the surgery, that could easily be the epitome of the trope TVTropes calls the Moral Event Horizon. It shows for all to see that Homer had two sides at this point- the insane, mentally deficient side that puts his and his family’s lives at stake, and the sneaky, deceptive, corrupt side that will take any horrible situation and somehow use it to get attention and praise for him. It’s hard to complain at this point, though, because this was the start of over 2 decades of a grim and depressing Flanderization.

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