The Simpsons Turn 20
- Shawn McEvoy theFish.com Contributing Editor
- 2009 27 Sep
It needs no defense from me.
The Simpsons (season premiere "Homer the Whopper" Sunday night, September 27, 8:00 p.m. eastern) has now been around for more of my life than not. I'm 39 years old, and I love a cartoon that's been around since I was a teenager. And I don't feel like I need therapy from Dr. Marvin Monroe.
Nor am I above admitting that in recent years, I've felt like more episodes fall flat. I rarely watch the live broadcast anymore (preferring earlier episodes in syndication), and at times I have wondered if the show is nearing the end of its run… and whether that might not be a good thing, a thought that once upon a time would have prompted Flanders-like flagellation in punishment.
Still, that The Simpsons have managed to last so long at such a high level of cultural relevance and esteem is a testament to the brilliance of the writing and constancy of the vocal talents. You don't get the ratings to remain on television since the 80s without having some level of popularity among several demographics. This show has been popular with people younger and older, religious and secular, married and single, male and female (though infrequent has been my conversation with a female aficionado. When I do meet them, I wonder - briefly - if in one of the parallel universes Homer links to with his time-travel toaster we might be married).
But about those detractors… Among them are: my wife, my mother, my mother-in-law, my sister-in-law, even my brother-in-law. Every December my Christmas wish list contains the latest DVD compilation of The Simpsons… and every season there is no such item under the tree. How can that be? Why would they rather buy me a sweater? Don't they want me to have what I want? I'm not seeking, like Mr. Burns, to block out the sun, or even searching, like Comic Book Guy, for a way to find faster nudity. I'm merely adding to my collection of a show…
- …where everyone who finds out you are a fan shares a story about someone who is a bigger fan, or a college campus where you can enroll in a Simpsons class
- …about which I was able to craft a legitimate grad school paper about the show through the lens of Marxist economic criticism
- …that manages to construct change even in the midst of a medium that forces it to stay the same
- …that has spawned informative and entertaining reads about issues important to Christians, such as Mark Pinsky's excellent The Gospel According to the Simpsons (a highly-recommended read)
- …that deals hilariously and fairly with the issues of our times
In 2005, when my boss was hired, I did what any self-respecting employee would do and Googled his name. I soon had all the information I needed in order to feel confident in my new leader, for he had recently published an article for another Christian site titled, "Why We Love the Simpsons." And indeed we do… several of us evangelical Christians. So why, after so many years, after so much success, does the show remain polarizing? Why does one of my friends from college still claim he has never seen a single episode, not even by accident?
How Far We've Come
To some extent, there remains a residue of the unfortunate introduction America got to these characters in the first few years. Homer was less a hilarious-but-loveable dolt and more a stern grump. Bart lived up to the anagram of his name as a complete Brat. Supporting characters had not yet been fleshed out to provide richness to the show's tapestry. It was in-your-face, and none other than First Lady Barbara Bush got involved in the cavalcade of citizen criticism, calling the show "dumb," prompting many right-thinking patriotic Christian folk I knew to set the show aside. Even I didn't really get hooked on it until 1993 or so.
I said the show needs no defense, and here it sounds like I'm giving it one. But no. The brilliance has survived 20 years without anything close to 100 percent acceptance, and so it will - apparently - continue to do. The points I make in its favor, I realized long ago, are akin to telling haute cuisine health nuts that you have found the world's best bowl of macaroni and cheese, one you intend to eat every week, and you would love it if they would join you. It's not going to happen. You know they're missing out, because while it may be mac-and-cheese, it's made with hearty noodles and four kinds of gooey gourmet cheese, portioned just right, served at the proper temperature, in a non-lethal dose… but all they can picture is yellowy, from-the-box kid food. And that's a point I actually scored when having another loving argument with my wife about the value of such a show. We discovered she has an animation bias. Valerie was citing inappropriate words she had heard on the show, or adult situations. I asked her, "Are these greater offenses than the ones I would find if I watched Grey's Anatomy, or House, or any of your favorite shows?"
"No," she said. "In fact probably less. But no kids are watching my shows."
"Who said anything about kids?" I asked.
And there it was. "Because the show is animated," her mind argued without her even realizing it, "it must be aimed at children." Not a logical argument as far as I am concerned.
Granted, our kids, aged six and four, might hope to watch the show with me. To date, they have been allowed to view one pre-approved episode, the one where Homer can't afford lobster, so he buys a one-pound lobster to take home, fatten up, "and eat the profits!" But he grows attached to the crustacean, giving it a name. "We won't be eating Mr. Pinchy, he's a member of the family now. Pinchy, I made you some risotto." The kids and I quote lines from this episode and laugh about it regularly. They may soon earn another.
On the flip side, I would suggest that because the show is animated, it can be an even greater vehicle for exploring our culture, our issues, our lives. Nobody ages. Each episode sees a return to situation-normal by the closing credits. It does not move, the times move around it.
The weakness to such a system over time is a lack of dynamic characters. Is everyone static? Is nothing learned? Are no changes of value ever made? Well, actually, no! The creative team behind The Simpsons has even worked around this stumbling block inherent to their medium. Town drunk Barney Gumble overcame his raging and embarrassing alcoholism, and has not fallen off the wagon. Young Lisa once was a gluttonous gobbler of whatever was placed in front of her, just like the rest of her family. But once she got a conscience about eating meat, she has not betrayed it (even if she was disappointed that Homer served "steamed Maine cabbages" instead of Mr. Pinchy because she "likes the smell" of lobster). Even school bully Nelson Muntz has slowly but surely revealed a softer side ("The thing about huckleberries is, once you have fresh, you'll never go back to canned. If the berries are too tart, I just dust ‘em with confectioner's sugar"). As for young Bart? He too has developed into a much richer, less rebellious, more Dennis-the-Menace innocent version of himself. The show realizes how he used to come across. In one episode where Bart tries to gain everyone's attention by doing the "BartMan" song and dance on the school bus, one child yawningly states, "That is SO 1991…" These characters and writers have learned a few things since then. As we all have.
Religious Issues: Fair-Minded Foibles or Mean-Spirited Cruelty?
Another criticism leveled at The Simpsons from Christian circles is a surface-level disappointment in how it treats loud-and-proud evangelical neighbor Ned Flanders, the Bible, and the Church. It's not invalid disparagement if one bothers to dig no deeper. Take for example the following quotes from the show:
- Homer (talking about God): He's my favorite fictional character.
- Homer (answering a survey taker's question on his religion): You know, the one with all the well-meaning rules that don't work out in real life? Uh, Christianity.
- Reverend Lovejoy: Marge, just about everything's a sin (holds up a Bible). Y'ever sat down and read this thing? Technically we're not supposed to go to the bathroom.
- Homer: Everything's too expensive these days. Check out this Bible I just bought. Fifteen bucks?! And talk about a preachy book! Everybody's a sinner! Except for this guy…
- Flanders: Why me, Lord? I've always been good. I don't drink or dance or swear. I've even kept kosher just to be on the safe side. I've done everything the Bible says! Even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff! What more can I do?
- Homer (flipping quickly through the Bible during an emergency in church): This book has no answers!
- Reverend Lovejoy (upon being bothered with yet another minor issue by Flanders): Ned, have you tried the other major religions? They're all pretty much the same…
- Homer: Kids, let me tell you about another so-called "wicked"' guy. He had long hair and some wild ideas. He didn't always do what other people thought was right. And that man's name was... I forget. But the point is... I forget that, too. Marge, you know what I'm talking about. He used to drive that blue car?
Taken alone, quotes like this can be at best cringe-worthy, at worst insulting to genuine faith and perhaps even blasphemous. But as Pinsky's book takes great pains to point out, on the whole, the show uses quotes like this to talk fairly and openly about the real questions of religion, faith, and morality, questions for which we should not expect the world to know the answers. By comparison to a show like Family Guy, where these same questions are treated with an atheistic world view and disdain, on The Simpsons, they are used more like pin-pricks upon foibles and fair questions.
The episode from Season Four titled "Homer the Heretic" deals specifically with the issue of whether going to church is requisite for salvation (or whether not going is tantamount to damnation). A secondary question arises concerning whether any individual can just choose to worship God in his or her own way. As such, it has become required viewing in Religion and Ethics courses across the country. While most any true believer one year into her faith journey can tell you quite easily that "there is no way to the Father but by" Christ, and that going to church doesn't make you any more a Christian than being in a garage makes you a car, much of the world still struggles with these questions, and we do well to be aware of them and ready with real answers.
That Ned Flanders and family are easy targets also, to me, speaks more to the genuineness of their faith and how more Christians could stand to be like Ned, always ready to serve, give, or say yes to a need. The criticisms of Christians are not unfair; they tend to be honest (Maude Flanders explains that she was at Bible camp learning to be more judgmental, for instance), and are outweighed by the positives of being one of the few shows with a no-doubt-about-it Christian family.
Episodes where Homer gets involved in questions of faith or service are opportunities for the show to examine religion through the eyes of a simpleton as a way of getting to the root of what's important. The Season Eleven episode "Missionary: Impossible" finds Homer pledging $10,000 to PBS so they'll quit with their pledge drive and get back to the regularly-scheduled program about British hooligans. Soon, however, Muppets and Mr. Rogers are chasing him down, causing him to seek "Sanctuary!" in the church ("Oh why did I teach him that word?" -Reverend Lovejoy). The good reverend protects Homer by putting him on a plane en route to an island where he will do missionary work. "But I don't even believe in Jebus," Homer protests. Of course, as soon as the plane takes off, he shouts, "Save me, Jebus!" On the island, the natives have legitimate questions about shame, morality, and the Bible, which Homer is ill-equipped to answer ("God's palace is way up on the moon"). What we take home, though, is a more thoughtful approach to not going into another country with a big brash stick of westernized Christianity, but seeing that a humble, service-oriented, honest and biblically-sound approach is best.
We believers know that we know. We like to think we long ago settled our doubts and questions. But too often that leads to us giving answers like this:
The Rev. Lovejoy, Msgr. Kenneth Daly, and Rabbi Krustofsky, on their joint radio show:
Announcer: And our first caller is from Shelbyville Heights.
Caller: Yes, hi. With all the suffering and injustice in the world, do you ever wonder if God really exists?
Msgr.: Not for a second.
Rabbi: Not at all.
Announcer: Great, good conversation there. Our next call...
"Do you want to know the horrifying truth? Or do you want to see me sock a few dingers?" --baseball player Mark McGwire, in his guest appearance.
The episode referenced in the quote above is from 1999 - long before the steroids scandal wreaked havoc upon Major League Baseball. But in this episode, which brilliantly confronted both the issue of giving drugs like Ritalin (er, excuse me, "Focusin" is the Simpsons version) to students as well as the funny-at-the-time idea that MLB was spying on people as part of a cover-up, we get a fantastic combination of social commentary and "prophecy."
In one recent episode, the writers crafted a fantastic parody of Apple and Steve Jobs involving a company called Mapple with all its MiPods and MiPhones. The staff at the local mall's Mapple store ("It's so sterile!" -Lisa) are deliciously condescending and even dangerous, attempting to flay Bart with their earbuds after he sullies a broadcast from "Steve Mobs" direct from Mapple headquarters at the bottom of the sea. It's heart-warming to see that from time to time, this show can still come up with comedic and satiric brilliance.
My favorite episodes, however, remain the ones that allow an evergreen question such as "is it folly to be wise where ignorance is bliss" to be examined in a more up-to-date phrasing such as, "is it too difficult to be intelligent in a dumb man's world?" You take one Homer Simpson, explain his stupidity with a head x-ray showing a crayon that has been lodged in his brain since he was a child, and have said crayon removed. Suddenly he gets a 50-point bump in IQ, realizing his potential and finally achieving hero status in his brainy daughter's eyes. He even develops a love for reading, elementary and Seuss-ish though it is ("It was so tragic the way they hopped on Pop"). Gradually, however, his friends shun him, he becomes too smart to enjoy basic entertainment, and his increased work ethic leads to layoffs at the power plant. He contemplates how to go about returning to his old self. Near the end of the episode, Lisa notices a single crayon missing from her box. Marge explains that a missing crayon could be anywhere. Just then, Homer jumps through the living room window and pops up yelling, "Who wants lottery tickets!" To which Marge must acquiesce, "Okay, it's in his brain."
And what about all this Homer Simpson buffoonery? Is it damaging, as some have suggested, to a proper understanding of today's man? In movies and in many TV shows like Everybody Loves Raymond, Family Guy, Two-and-a-Half Men, etc., fathers and husbands are continually represented as doltish, clueless, incapable clods. It's a question deserving its own article and defense, but for my part I answer no, at least in Homer's case. His antics are so over-the-top and impossibly stupid that they are beyond the bounds of reality. I don't get the same warning signs watching Homer jab himself in the eye with a hammer and allowing Bart to get away with not brushing his teeth so long as he washes his mouth out with soda as I do at watching Ray Barone yet again get beaten down by his wife for wanting to play golf. The satire is obvious and escapist rather than all-too-familiar.
Looking Ahead So what's to come this season? Well, that's a question this article didn't spend much time exploring for a reason, which is: "more of the same." Thanks to our society, The Simpsons will never run out of material, even though it would seem they've already covered just about everything. Other animated shows like Family Guy, South Park, and more that have already come and gone not only owe much to The Simpsons' trailblazing, but often find it hard to be original in their shadow. South Park even did an episode once where nobody could come up with any fresh ideas because, "the Simpsons did it." This show has been there cataloguing our American life and times since 1989 to the point where you could write a version of Billy Joel's 20th-century revue "We Didn't Start the Fire" including all the Simpsons-eye views of events, issues, technologies, and celebrities that have come and gone. Oh…wait…
They already did that, too:
Ullman shorts, Christmas show,
Marge's fling, Homer's bro,
Bart in well, Flanders fails,
Whacking snakes, Monorail,
Mr. Plow, Homer in space,
Sideshow Bob steps on rakes,
Lisa's future, Selma's hubby,
Marge not proud, Homer chubby,
Homer worries Bart is gay,
Poochie, U2, NRA,
Hippies, Vegas, and Japan,
Octuplets, and Bart's boy band,
Marge murmurs, Maude croaks,
Lisa Buddhas, Homer tokes,
Maggie blows Burns away,
What else do I have to say?!
You'll never stop the Simpsons,
Have no fears, we've got stories for years like...
Marge becomes a robot,
Maybe Moe gets a cell phone,
Has Bart ever owned a bear or...
How about a crazy wedding?
Where something happens, and do-do do-do-do
Sorry for the clip show!
Have no fears, we've got stories for years!
Have no fears indeed. You don't even need to have a crayon up your nose to enjoy it for what it is while we have it.
Shawn McEvoy is Senior Editor at Crosswalk.com and a contributing editor for Christianity.com and theFish.com. He holds an M.A. in Writing from Virginia Commonwealth University and enjoys pop culture and the discussion thereof.