“Attention, Homer Simpson, you have been promoted. You are now an executive. Take three minutes to say goodbye to your former friends and report to room 503 for reassignment to a better life.” – Mr. Smithers
Even in the freewheeling world of animation, where it’s just as easy to send Homer to space as it is to send him to the supermarket, every character on screen has a few well established traits that make them who they are. Burns is evil; Bart is a troublemaker; Barney is a drunk, etcetera. Messing with those traits, like having Burns try not to be evil in “The Old Man and the Lisa”, is one of the oldest tricks in the comedy playbook, and it often works quite well. You get to see the other side of a character and laugh as they are put in situations that make them react in ways that are anathema to who they usually are. Of course, this sort of switch doesn’t always have to be about someone’s personality. Physically changing a character can have much the same effect, which is exactly what the show did to Homer, in “Simpson and Delilah”, and Moe, in “Pygmoelian”.
By default, neither Homer nor Moe are what you’d call handsome, and neither is, to borrow Moe’s words from another episode, “fending off movie starlets with a pointy stick”. But, by giving Homer hair and giving Moe plastic surgery, both of them can be transformed into men who makes the ladies turn their heads and the gentlemen respectfully defer.
As is to be expected with any comparison between Season 2 and Season 11, not only is the latter repeating an idea, but it’s also shot through with plot holes, Jerkass Homer, and general nonsense. Homer’s new executive job makes sense, Moe’s soap opera gig does not. The secretary applicants all make “kissy faces” at Homer because they want the job, that odd assortment of hot babes at Moe’s just seems to be hanging out for no reason. Homer losing his looks flows from the first act, Moe losing his new look doesn’t have anything to do with the first act, or the second, or really even the third. Setting those aside, there is another enormous, glaring neon difference between how Season 2 and Season 11 employed the same concept.
In “Simpson and Delilah”, the story is about Homer, but the satire and jokes are mostly at the expense of the people around him. With his new hair, we see Homer impress Patty & Selma, we see him get promoted and succeed in the boardroom, we even see him go through with the big speech that could’ve turned him into one of the most powerful executives at the nuclear plant. That he fails in the end isn’t his fault, it’s because the social stigma of baldness caught up with him. In another of those evilly subversive endings The Simpsons tossed off regularly, we see the executives scoff at his presentation not because he screws it up or mispronounces the big words, but because:
Male Executive #1: This bald man has no ideas.
Male Executive #2: If this is a joke, I’m not laughing.
Female Executive: Some nerve, telling us how to run the plant. He doesn’t even have hair.
The joke here isn’t just Homer failing again, though there is that. The joke here is on the superficial people who can’t see past Homer’s hairless dome to the millions of dollars of savings he’s offering them. They don’t know that these are all really Karl’s ideas, they just know that no one who looks like Homer can possibly have anything to offer to people like them. It isn’t just Homer who fails here, it’s the power plant too.
By contrast, the soap opera in “Pygmoelian” isn’t really wrong about anything. After all, it’s a soap opera. They were right not to hire Moe before he was pretty; their operation didn’t skip a beat replacing Dr. Tad Winslow the first time, so it’s not like they can’t do it again; and if Moe hadn’t been dumb enough to listen to Homer, everything would’ve been fine. There’s nothing deeper going on in “Pygmoelian”, it’s just a (wacky) story about a guy who gets plastic surgery and then has a wall fall on his face.
So while “Pygmoelian” does a decent job of satirizing soap operas, that kind of thing had been done many times before (“Father McGrath, I thought you were dead!” / “I was!”), and it has nothing to do with Moe becoming pretty. The cosmetic prejudice that runs through every scene in “Simpson and Delilah” is totally absent in “Pygmoelian”, which leaves it with little more to do in most scenes than have Jerkass Homer act out as Moe’s newfound sidekick. Gone is Burns repeatedly mistaking Homer for brilliant (he promotes Homer completely because of his hair), gone is the life altering power of a minor appearance upgrade, gone is Homer traumatizing Bart by informing his son that one day he’ll be bald too.
By the standards of Season 11, “Pygmoelian” is pretty decent. The plot isn’t completely batshit, there are quite a few entertaining scenes, Azaria is fantastic, and, best of all, it’s got several memorable and useful quotes (“with sexy results” cracks me up any time I see a commercial for a TV show that teases a plot or an upcoming segment). But it can’t hope to stack up to Season 2, not only because it’s repeating an idea that had already been done, but because it repeats it in a thoroughly hollow way.