Barney Gumble has lost a lot of his prominence over the course of The Simpsons, likely due to his undeniable status as a tragic figure in the series.
The Simpsons is full of surprisingly tragic characters, with plenty of major figures from across the series suffering deeply painful defeats, but one of the most sad characters could be the one that hits the closest to the Simpsons family, as the show has morphed one of Homer’s oldest friends into Springfield’s resident sad sack. Barney Gumble might be the most tragic character in Springfield, and his struggles with alcoholism might be why he became an increasingly less prominent character in the series.
Barney first appeared in the first full-length episode of The Simpsons, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire.” Barney was quickly established as one of the frequent barflies at Moe’s Tavern, a close friend to Homer and a frequent drinker. The early seasons of the show leaned into this, with Barney being portrayed as Homer’s best friend from high school. Homer even introduced Barney to beer back when they were in their teen years, directly leading to Barney’s current status in Springfield as a job-less drunk. In the early seasons, Barney was also portrayed as having difficulty keeping down a consistent job, often turning to drinking at every available opportunity, even if it meant taking part in medical experiments.
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Despite this, flashes of Barney’s intelligence and artistic skill would shine through , such as opening a successful snow plow company in Season 4, Episode 9, “Mr. Plow,” his time with the Be Sharps in Season 5, Episode 1, “Homer’s Barbershop Quartet,” and even making a powerful short film about himself in Season 6, Episode 18, “A Star Is Burns.” Titled Pukeahontas, the short is a surprisingly stark and artistic look at Barney’s alcoholism and the ways it has destroyed his life. However, despite a brief moment where its top honors at the Springfield Film Festival could have inspired him to become sober, his grand prize — a lifetime supply of Duff Beer — led him to drink more.
Barney actually tries to become sober in Season 11, Episode 18, “Days of Wine and D’oh’ses,” and he remained so for a time, but eventually, he heavily relapsed. In later seasons, Barney has been increasingly shunted to the side in lieu of Lenny and Carl, with episodes even focusing on the tight friendship between Homer, Moe, Lenny and Carl, ignoring Barney all together. It’s not surprising, as Barney has transformed over the years to be one of the most tragic figures in Springfield, and featuring him in the more comical situations becomes impossible to do without his drinking also playing a major factor into the character.
His sheer potential could have made him someone who could have escaped Springfield and made a larger impact on the world, with Season 5, Episode 15, “Deep Space Homer” revealing he had the makings of an impressive astronaut after being sober and training for a short period of time, but he loses control upon drinking non-alcoholic champagne. The genuine tragedy of his relapse — and the way no one in town seems committed to helping him — makes his situation darker. Moe — one of his best friends — even manipulates him in multiple episodes to ensure that he continues to drink and bring money into the bar.
Barney’s problems also could draw more attention to Homer’s liberal drinking, which the series has long juggled as a comic and dramatic element of Homer’s life. With Barney’s out of control actions next to him, Homer’s drinking would be painted in a far more sobering and painful light. Barney’s place in the show’s main cast may have come early, but the implications he brought with his presence might just be too sad to see on a regular basis, especially after the series revealed that Barney is aware of the toll drinking has had on his life.
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