It's The Simpsons, Man

By Bob Remington

© TV Times (The Calgary Herald), Oct 26 1990, p10

It says a lot about television when members of a cartoon family are the most real people on TV.

So it is with The Simpsons, the working-class cartoon cretins with the home life that is so painfully close to the truth. Viewers seem to love the unattractive Simpsons because they are so flawed. Most TV families, on the other hand, are too perfect. Has anybody on Cosby ever let out a belch?

With animation, the producers of The Simpsons can get away with a lot more than they could with a conventional TV family. In the Simpsons household, dad Homer walks around in his underwear scratching places a real actor would never be allowed. And on what other show can you hear Mom yelling at her son: "Bart, quit taking pictures of your butt."?

This wickedly subversive, well-written series from the Fox Network has become the darling of TV critics and a full-blown phenomenon. Simpsons T-shirts are all the rage and a Simpsons soundtrack is in the works. Not surprisingly, Fox is taking full advantage of the show's popularity. In the most publicized ratings battle of the year, the networks is pitting The Simpsons against NBC's The Cosby Show on Thursday nights. Some Canadian independent stations have decided to do the same, sending The Simpsons into a rating battle against Cosby on CTV.

Matt Groening, the 35-year-old creator of The Simpsons, looks at the situation with amazement.

"I had no idea that it would snowball and get this outrageous. Although against Cosby... that may slow the snowball down. It'll probably melt the snowball entirely." (Ed. note: In early season ratings, Cosby was easily outdistancing reruns of The Simpsons in the ratings.)

Prior to becoming the architect of a pop culture sensation, Groening worked mainly in the alternative press on a comic strip called Life in Hell, which most mainstream dailies found too eccentric. He brought the same off-centre style to The Simpsons, which he created as filler on Fox's The Tracey Ullman Show. Like the double entendre humor of Pee Wee Herman and Rocky and Bullwinkle, Groening came up with a cartoon that has adult sensibilities. Parents can watch it without sacrificing 50 IQ points.

Yet, for some parents, The Simpsons are almost too real. An elementary school principal in Ohio tried to ban Bart Simpson T-shirts, and at least one Canadian independent station moved the series to a later time slot after viewer complaints. There are parents who love the show but refuse to let their kids watch.

It was one thing when Bart scribbled "principle Skinner is a wiener" on the wall of the school, but when a criminal featured on America's Most Armed and Dangerous (a spoof on Fox's America's Most Wanted) turned out to be the Simpsons' babysitter and tied up children Bart and Lisa, more than one set of concerned parents said the show had simply gone too far.

To Simpsons critics, Bart would simply sigh and tell them: "Don't have a cow, man." Groening adapts the same philosophy. It's all in good fun, so chill out, parent dudes.

"Whenever kids have too much fun at something, somebody finds that its not good for them," says Groening, a likeable, bearded man with kids of his own.

"I think the Simpsons are rather sweet. You know, it's amazing what people can be offended by in this show. There's something to offend everybody."

When Homer underwent shock treatment, Groening said "a guy wrote a letter outraged that we castigated shock therapy. A comic book fan was mad because a teacher threw a comic book in a garbage can. How can a cartoon show portray that comic books are bad?"

As for the Bart T-shirt the Ohio principal didn't want kids to wear (it says, "Underachiever, and proud of it, man"), Groening argues that people don't get the message. "Bart has been labelled an underachiever. He does not aspire to be an underachiever."

Some child development experts agree with Groening that Bart's message - that it's okay to fail once in a while - isn't such a bad one. They say the perfection exuded by most children on TV is a utopia that raises unrealistic expectations and creates inferiority complexes. If Bart is the best that he can be, isn't that good enough?

Whether viewers regard them as saints or sinners, there is little doubt that The Simpsons will continue to entertain as well as offend this season. In one episode, Homer will have to contend with homosexuality when a co-worker us attracted to him. It is a topic that normally makes advertisers and network executives squirm, something The Simpsons seems to be very good at making people do.

Transcribed by Bruce Gomes

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