The Gospel According to HomerBy Tom Carson
© Esquire, July 1, 1999.
For prime time's most accurate and nuanced reflection of real life in contemporary America, tune in to TV's current crop of cartoons
So maybe I'm easy, but I decided I was a sucker for Matt Groening's Futurama about ten minutes into its late-March debut. On the lam from robot cops out to zap him with the "career chip" that would make him a delivery boy for life, the show's bumbling but game hero, Fry--a twentieth-century sad sack frozen by mistake on New Year's Eve 1999 and defrosted in the year 3000--had just dashed into the "Head Museum," presided over by a decapitated (but still unctuous) Leonard Nimoy. After making a lofty speech about the dignified life it had led, Nimoy's disembodied noggin docilely swam up for kibble at a cry of "Feeding time!"--a dada riff on the ickiness of fame, and even funnier because nobody gives a rat's butt about Leonard Nimoy's dignity. Seconds later, Fry knocked over a container holding Richard Nixon's head; it promptly clamped down on his forearm, growling and spitting like a maddened terrier.
I could watch stuff like that forever. But by now, no one this side of George Will would find it offensive; it's more like par for the course. So far as impact goes, The Simpsons, Groening's first series, is to today's prime time what Manet's Olympia was to modern art, and the answer to "How do you top that?" is that you don't. Proving just how much things have changed since Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie first turned up as weirdo lagniappe on The Tracey Ullman Show in 1987, Futurama premiered to a slew of high-profile rave reviews, not to mention blue-chip hoopla. Even so, the series lost five million viewers between weeks one and two, and even more after moving into its Tuesday-night doom slot. Most people I asked were disappointed with the debut, maybe because it had been overhyped and maybe because Futurama honestly didn't cut it for them. Pop surrealism, slacker gallows humor, slapstick alienation, Tricky Dick under glass--ho hum, what else is new?
Apparently, Fox agreed, since Family Guy, from twenty-five-year-old whiz kid Seth McFarlane, got the nod over Futurama for Sunday's plum post-Simpsons berth. That may have struck Groening as some thanks for helping to put the network on the map, not least because McFarlane's series is a slick version of the cynical yukfest that people once mistook The Simpsons for. No question that the early episodes were funny; if naming a porn flick Assablanca doesn't rate at least a chuckle in your book, you're probably my mom. But they were also terrifically glib, with hardly an element or wiseacre attitude that wasn't a recognizable hand-me-down.
You shouldn't be surprised to hear that the press kit called Family Guy "subversive" in its very first line. These days, sassing the culture is simply what TV cartoons are expected to do; on top of being more imaginative and just plain smarter than the rest of prime time, they also have license to be more sociologically caustic. Futurama's debut featured suicide booths where the "New New Yorkers" of tomorrow could off themselves for two bits--not a joke likely to turn up on Friends, no matter how many of us would gladly loan Ross a quarter. Even on the kiddie shows that now qualify as also-rans in this erstwhile all-kiddie medium, like Animaniacs and the 1066-and-all-get-out of Histeria!, parodic cracks at our postmodern pinata just come with the territory. In fact, audiences pretty much take it for granted that any new TV 'toon is going to be satirically impudent at some level, even if assuming they're all clever just makes it harder to spot the dumb ones.
Considering how easy that used to be, however, all I can say is that you whippersnappers don't know how lucky you are. Now that The Simpsons is as old hat as Ozzie and Harriet, it's hard to remember how lousy TV cartoons were before Groening's addled, chipper, hydrocephalic Springfieldites trooped into our living rooms. Aside from the fluke of The Bullwinkle Show, Hanna-Barbera was the class of the field--much to his dismay, Groening says, he still contends with animators who "got into it because they actually did love Scooby-Doo."
Then Homer opened the door--to snottiness and anything-goes ridicule, as far as most people into either low laughs or high dudgeon were concerned. Although the show's good-heartedness was its real trump card, trust George Bush not to know that. His comment that "we need a nation closer to The Waltons than The Simpsons" set up one of the decade's great TV moments: Bart sniping back that, just like the Waltons, his family was "praying for an end to the Depression, too." And okay, so the (first?) Bush administration had a knack for slipping on pop banana peels; if Bush the Younger has yet to rail against South Park, that just backs up the depressing (in my case) suspicion that he's brainier than Dad. Even so, this was the ultimate tribute to what Groening's series wrought: There was the president of the United States arguing with a cartoon. And losing.
Still, if Groening turned out to be the right guy to bring impish cutting-edginess to the mainstream, that's partly because, on the boho fringe where he got his start, he wasn't very radical. He's one subculture grad who was always in it for the culture, not the sub. Making something genially communal out of estrangement, Life in Hell, the comic strip he started drawing the year Never Mind the Bollocks Here's the Sex Pistols came out, might as well be The Family Circus of the anomie-too set. He's always assumed that popularity makes a difference and that pop culture is commercial culture by definition--even if, when it comes to claiming the contrary, there's an Eddie Vedder born, if not a Kurt Cobain driven bonkers, every minute.
Anyway, Groening's right: Sometimes popularity does make a difference. A decade ago, an animated series that was downright conciliatory by subcult standards could still look like the downfall of civilization to devotees of The Cosby Show, not to mention Let's Punch the Clock, Charlie Brown. It's hard not to cherish the memory of Bill Cosby explaining how The Simpsons could be improved--i.e., improving--if the scripts just raised valuable questions: "Why doesn't Bart Simpson want to do his homework?" Since then, the concept of "alternative" has been institutionalized on the tube, just as it has everywhere else. For Family Guy's McFarlane, whipping up a 'toon that acts rude and looks brash is clearly both child's play and a career move, and the only problem is that it shows; he doesn't appear to have any real feeling for his characters, pro or con, or any commitment to his material.
Just like Beatlemania, the success of The Simpsons cleared the way for originality as well as mimicry. After outdoing Groening at annoying the virtuous with Beavis and Butt-head, Mike Judge went on to King of the Hill, whose heartland lamentations I dote on even when its creator's neuroses about elitist pantywaists are driving me up the wall. You bet Judge's conservatism is genuine--if the Simpsons nettled Bush the Elder, Bush the Younger probably has Hank Hill's endorsement--but so are his mixed feelings about it. Maybe Bart-anagram-of-brat Simpson was the poster boy for early-nineties effrontery, but Bobby-anagram-of-Bobby Hill is no less emblematic of Middle America at decade's end--a fatalist waddling toward puberty with sixty pounds of half-digested SpaghettiOs clogging his innards. On the other hand, one of King of the Hill's running gags is making a fetish of Chuck Mangione in a kind of pop gallimaufry that's now familiar enough to have put Groening in the innovator's classic bind: His brand of humor has become such a convention that his own new series risks looking quaint.
But only compared with other animated shows, interestingly enough. TV cartoons benefit from a kind of cognitive dissonance that plenty of Simpsons fans probably share with the frosties who wouldn't tune in Bart and Homer to win a bet with Susan Sontag. In ways that go beyond poking fun at targets as hapless as Chuck Mangione, Leonard Nimoy, or even Nixon, animation has come to function as a sanctioned area for the TV audience, a place where it's okay to revel in unpleasant truths and taboo thoughts about the crumminess of modern life, the inanity of modern culture, and the abjectness of modern society--attitudes flesh-and-blood programs are afraid to acknowledge, much less endorse, but that are built into the premise of most animated ones.
The reason they have dispensation to get away with this sort of venting, of course, is that everybody knows cartoons are silly. Yet in their literal depictions of our contemporary environment no less than their jaundiced takes on it, animated shows are more realistic than conventional ones. Compared with the vapid locales of most live-action sitcoms, The Simpsons's Springfield--with its nuclear power plant, church, school, bar, and Duff Beer theme park, not to mention a socioeconomic layer cake that ranges from Apu the convenience-store wallah up to Mr. Burns--is as detailed as Dreiser. If South Park emulates that sense of place while upping the spitball ante by ragging on everybody from Kathie Lee to Jesus, King of the Hill emulates it while upping the naturalism quotient. Thanks to Hank Hill, we all know a lot more about the ups and downs of the propane business than we ever did about Archie Bunker's workplace. It also helps that cartoons are supposed to be funny. A lot of this verisimilitude is obviously easier to take in animated formats, considering that so much of what's being said is depressing. Besides being incredibly crass and obnoxious, South Park purveys a view of grotty, bombed-out childhoods so dismal that we might find it unbearable if we were watching real tykes instead of cutouts.
That was true of Beavis and Butt-head, too, and while King of the Hill is more sentimental, what the show is sentimental about is disconsolateness--it sings those white-suburbanite blues more plaintively (and poetically) (and ambivalently) than a live-action sitcom could make palatable. Even the father-son face-offs on Comedy Central's Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist are morose enough--the doc really is a well-meaning wuss, and Ben really is a hopeless pud--that a conventional sitcom would have to resolve the relationship, not treat it as a given. It's also telling that the projected live-action sitcom based on Scott Adams's Dilbert got scrapped in favor of UPN's animated version, while NBC's 3-D Dilbert knockoff, Working, was obliged to compensate for the material's basic dolefulness by parking lovable Fred Savage front and center.
Not that this dispensation jazz is always a boon. If it weren't animated, The PJs, the latest example of exec producer (and lead voice) Eddie Murphy's shrewdness in delivering the take on black Americans most likely to gratify white ones, would be getting a lot more brickbats for its Amos and Andy shtick. Nor am I a big fan of the animated Dilbert, which I find drearily mean-spirited; even if that can be excused as fidelity to the original, the show also strikes me as from-hunger derivative in a way the comic strip isn't. And while we're on the subject, forget Parker and Stone's blather about showing childhood as it truly is. Plenty often, South Park is crass and obnoxious for the hell of it, and even if that suits me fine, I'm not a parent. Groening is, and--in a nice twist, if you remember how Bart Simpson used to be attacked as the worst role model for impressionable tots since Patty McCor-mack in The Bad Seed--he doesn't let his kids watch it.
This month, of course, South Park is also doing something Groening's TV clan never did, namely coming to a theater near you--where Stan, Cartman, Kyle, and Kenny may stick out like sore thumbs, since the dispensation usually works in the opposite way at the multiplex; it lets moviegoers indulge in lush, romantic fantasies with old-fashioned sentiments that might embarrass them if done for "real." Live-action musicals are as dead as the dodo, but animated ones have made Disney's cash registers ka-ching for well over a decade; it's as if today's audience requires that extra layer of stylization--call it an unreality check--to respond.
All of which just means that animation can do things other visual media can't, and that's no discovery. Still, the things that only animation can do plainly fill a special need for today's audience, even if today's audience generally prefers to keep things compartmentalized--which may explain Futurama's wobbly Nielsens, because Groening, who was always as much humanist as smart-ass, now wants to move and charm people at the same time that he's sending up the world they live in. Even in its impudent heyday, The Simpsons always knew the difference between rude and nasty, and in recent years, as its creator's good-guy impulses have gained the upper hand, the show has often verged on sentimentality. So it's no wonder that his follow-up's new wrinkle, despite intermittently mordant jabs at everything from Disney World to the "Church of Robotology," is that it's downright sweet--using the parodic razzmatazz to which we're now accustomed as the platform for a surprisingly tender, antic take on human possibility. The suicide booths aside, the show's optimistic streak is actually close to Pollyannaish; after all, it's a thousand years later and the sky's still blue. In any case, Futurama is too relaxed to bother with coming on frantically hip, which is probably why so many viewers seem to think it's poky. But even if they wish the show were less benign and more outrageous, I don't. Largely thanks to the context that Groening's first series opened up, outrageousness now wears thin faster than you can say "Seth McFarlane"--which, I admit, really isn't all that fast.
Last updated on October 10, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)