'The Simpsons' Head for 12th Season© Reuters, October 31, 2000.
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) They have Ping-Pong ball eyes, mustard yellow skin and heads shaped like grocery bags.
They have not aged a day in more than a decade while enriching the pop lexicon with phrases like "Eat my shorts" and "D'Oh!"
America's favourite dysfunctional family and longest-running sitcom, "The Simpsons," kicks off its 12th season of animated social satire on the Fox television network on Sunday, Nov. 5, with its 250th episode, guest starring The Who.
The legendary British rock band are the latest of more than 200 celebrities ranging from Johnny Carson to Elizabeth Taylor to lend their voices, and in many cases their animated caricatures, to a guest appearance on the show.
Not since Hollywood stars vied for villainous roles on the campy 1960s "Batman" have guest spots on a prime-time TV show been such badges of honour for the showbiz elite. Even "Batman" star Adam West got to lampoon himself on the Fox show.
The cachet of a "Simpsons" cameo is testament to the show's enduring popularity and its status as a worldwide pop cultural phenomenon seen in more than 70 countries. Critics say the Emmy-winning show has managed to remain funny and fresh well past the point where landmark live-action sitcoms like "Happy Days" and "M*A*S*H" had lost their luster.
"It's consistently and spectacularly funny. It's hard to be funny every week for 10 years and they've certainly done it," said TV Guide editor-in-chief Steven Reddicliffe, who calls "The Simpsons" the "greatest animated show ever" and "one of the greatest comedies ever."
Robert Thompson, head of the Centre for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, goes even further, ranking it "among the greatest American comedies in all the arts and letters," not just on television.
"Mentioning 'The Simpsons' right next to Mark Twain does not bother me at all," he said. "There are more funny things in a single act of a single episode of 'The Simpsons' than there was in the entire run of 'Suddenly Susan.'"
He also credits the show with sparking a renaissance in prime-time TV animation, paving the way for such "grownup" cartoon fare as "Beavis and Butthead," "South Park" and "King of the Hill."
It also played a key role in establishing the Fox brand on TV. Thompson said he doubts the show could have gotten off the ground on any of the Big Three networks: NBC, CBS or ABC.
Starting as a series of cartoon shorts on the "Tracey Ullman Show" in 1987, "The Simpsons" debuted as a half-hour series on the then-fledgling Fox network in January 1990. It is the creation of Matt Groening, the cartoonist behind the "Life in Hell" comic strip.
At the outset, the series centred on the misadventures and hijinks of the wisecracking, underachieving 10-year-old Bart Simpson, a spiked-haired misfit who darts around town on his skateboard and drives his fourth-grade teacher crazy.
Family television with an edge
His favourite catch phrases such as "Eat my shorts," "Don't have a cow, man!" and "Ay, caramba" became ubiquitous T-shirt slogans during a wave of merchandising that accompanied the early years of the show. But as the series evolved, its focus shifted to Bart's bone=headed, beer-guzzling father, Homer, the head of the Simpson household.
Overweight, balding and lazy, Homer works in a nuclear power plant, scarfs doughnuts and punctuates his frequent mistakes with the anguished, half-syllable utterance, "D'Oh!" Thompson calls Homer the "great American everyloser."
Rounding out the Simpson brood are beehive-haired mother Marge, the sensible, good-natured anchor of the family, and Bart's two sisters -- pacifier-sucking baby Maggie, a silent observer of life, and second-grade prodigy Lisa, a baritone saxophone virtuoso and the intellectual of the family.
Behind them is a huge cast of regulars who populate the fictional town of Springfield: extended family members, neighbours, teachers and classmates at Bart's school, the characters on Bart's and Lisa's favourite TV shows, Homer's boss and co-workers, his pals at Moe's Tavern, Apu the convenience store clerk, police chief Wiggum and even the Comic Book Guy.
The show derives much of its humour from sharp-edged social commentary, skewering authority figures and such hallowed institutions as public education, politics, the medical profession, law enforcement and the entertainment industry.
Early on, the show drew denunciations from some parents, teachers and cultural warriors for its subversive depiction of American life. Among them was President George Bush, who once declared that American families should be less like "The Simpsons" and more like "The Waltons."
But TV Guide's Reddicliffe said detractors missed the point of the show, which he says ultimately embraces family values.
"This is a family that stays together, that loves one another, that goes to church," he said. "It's a show that has great values and a real sweetness to it."
"There's a great combination between the warm and the subversive," said actor Harry Shearer, the voice of several characters including Homer's tyrannical boss, Mr. Burns, and the saccharin, Bible-thumping neighbour, Ned Flanders. "It has sitcom warmth but it also has a very satirical edge, and that makes it appeal to a very wide range of people."
Executive producer Mike Scully said that while the show has a social conscience, we "don't wear it on our sleeve."
"I don't think you need a TV show to say guns are bad. But I think the show can say that someone like Homer Simpson should never be allowed to own a gun," he said, citing an episode in which Homer buys a gun for protection after a soccer riot but ends up using it to change TV channels and to open his beer.
The writers and producers also pride themselves on the raft of gags they pack into street signs, billboards and newspaper headlines of every show. In one episode, Homer repeatedly visits a trailer park where a small sign is posted updating the number of "days since last tornado."
Another secret to the show's enduring success, Shearer said, is its vast universe of characters, which provide a seemingly endless reserve of story lines to explore.
Still, after more than a decade, Scully says, "there's always a danger of not knowing when it's time to leave. ... Sometimes the only way to know you've been on too long is to stay on too long, so we're constantly mindful of that."
As for the coming season, the show returns with The Who helping Homer and the citizens of Springfield resolve an upheaval over a new telephone area code. Later in this series, Lisa joins eco-radicals to save the town's oldest redwood tree and Krusty the Clown learns he has an illegitimate daughter (Drew Barrymore) from a one-night stand during his military service in the Gulf War.
Last updated on February 21, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)