More Than Sight Gags And Subversive SatireBy Jeff MacGregor
© New York Times, June 20, 1999. Television/Radio Page 27.
Contrary to what the Hollywood tabloids and most community college vocational counselors would have you believe, the career of a media critic is not all glamorous beer and glitzy skittles. Hundreds of squinty hours might be spent watching television so one can grind a midweek column out of why nobody on television can properly pronounce the words "temperature" or "February" anymore. Months pass, wasted, trying to manhandle "Geraldo" and "thong" into a single sentence for your big cable-news-in-review essay. Days go by trying to puzzle out the title of that TBS network rattlesnake-horror movie called "Silent Predators." Aren't rattlesnakes pretty noisy? Hence the name? Aren't they in fact, one of the only predators on the planet to provide a clearly audible warning? (And our nation's educators wonder why those standardized test scores are so low.)
P.S.: Don't forget that 2,500-word think piece deconstructing the simian semiotics of "The Chimp Channel."
It's a grumpy life, then, and dispiriting, even if most media critics do get to work at home in boxer shorts. Tracking the collapse of global civilization week in and week out as television shimmies the limbo bar of popular culture just a little lower for us all is a rough and unforgiving business.
Were it not for "The Simpsons," I'd have thrown in the remote long ago.
Since the passing of "Seinfeld" last year, "The Simpsons" is left alone as the only laugh-out-loud show on television. It is the antidote to what ails most of the medium, at once smart and anarchic, subtle and raucous. After more than a decade it remains colorful proof that "excellence" and "television" needn't be concepts of mutual exclusion.
Brainchild of the cartoonist Matt Groening, "The Simpsons" first appeared as a crudely drawn short subject on "The Tracey Ullman Show." Buying time for Ms. Ullman to run offstage and don yet another rubber nose was an inauspicious start perhaps, but in the dozen years since then the show has evolved into the funniest, most sophisticated comedy on television.
Hamstrung early on by terrible UHF channel positions on the young Fox network, "The Simpsons" still managed to become a breakout hit. Even hidden on channel 47B it was unlike anything else television had to offer at the time. Within a few years, thanks to a rabid core audience and a generation of doting critics, it had grown so explosively that its catch phrases ("Ay, caramba!") and its licensed merchandise ("Ay, caramba!" coaster caddies) were ubiquitous. Historically this should have been the time for the show to collapse under the weight of its own complacency - to hang on for a few lifeless seasons while the producers waited to cash out their millions and move to Maui. Weirdly, remarkably, the show just kept getting better.
The writing became sharper, more focused. The art got richer and more varied when the show brought in new animators. Year after year, like only a handful of series, "The Simpsons" has become funnier by maintaining its facility for surprising us even as it has become more familiar.
(A cautionary note here: Any discussion of the ways and means of comedy is completely subjective, so you'll just have to trust me on some of this stuff. Trying to analyze why something is funny is a deadly enterprise, as E.B. White first instructed us. If further proof is necessary, attend a graduate symposium on the mechanics of laughter or see this month's alarmingly unfunny "humor" issue of GQ magazine.)
That the show's executive producers - Mr. Groening, James L. Brooks and Sam Simon - have found the secret formula for refreshing the show and its staff on a regular basis deserves high praise. Thanks are due as well to the Fox honcho Rupert Murdoch for leaving the show alone. (One can only assume that he's never actually seen it; otherwise it would be billed as "The Simpsons: Assault on Sex Mountain.")
Like most successful prime-time animated shows of the past (and all truly fine comedy of any kind, really), "The Simpsons" works on several levels at once. Most children of my acquaintance enjoy the wrack and splatter of the visual gags while their parents delight in the crackerjack dialogue and its satiric subversions of the common wisdom. Then there are the semi-adults like me who enjoy both. It's like watching a NoŽl Coward play performed in a burning fireworks factory.
Each episode is a comedy primer, a night school master class in the nuance of the pratfall and the metronomic precision of a well-rendered double take. That the writers aren't hobbled by live humans on screen gives them an unfair advantage over other sitcoms. They needn't suffer the limiting insufficiencies of actors, or the pesky laws of physics, but can instead borrow liberally from the slapstick handbook of Keaton or the Stooges and reframe those classic gags in a world unhindered by gravity or pain.
But what makes the show such a standout, and perhaps accounts for its continued success, is its commitment to character. More human than the cardboard cutouts that pass for characters on creatively bankrupt series like "Jesse" or "It's Like, You Know..." the Simpsons are a fun-house mirror reflection of the "average" American family, as it still persists in our national imagination.
Marge, the long-suffering, infinitely patient proto-mom, is the solid presence of loving reason around whom the family orbits. She also has the toughest, and arguably most important, role on the show, that of straight woman to the rest of the cast. Her deadpan setups are necessary to "The Simpsons" as the very air.
Bart and Lisa, the scapegrace and the overachiever, the delinquent yin and bookish yang, id and superego of American children everywhere, are characters far richer and more fully evoked than the one-dimensional little wisenheimers so often seen dissing their parents on other sitcoms. Their fears and neuroses prevent these two from becoming simple punch-line delivery platforms in the manner of the Olsen twins.
Maggie, the baby, 10 years in and still speechless, remains eloquent and expressive in her silence. The Gielgud of the binky.
It is Homer Simpson, though, who drives the show. In the first few seasons, Bart and his vandal's antics accounted for most of the show's stories. He was the hottest character on television and on toy store shelves, and had the producers succumbed to the seduction of a series based completely on the catch phrase "Eat my shorts," the show would have lasted a few years, worn thin and then disappeared.
Wisely, though, around the fourth season, the show began more and more to put Homer at the center of things. A chuckle-headed Everyman in pursuit of happiness, of an easy day in the hammock or a lucrative used-grease concession, Homer is at once the best and worst of American dadness. He is forever wanting the things he'll never have, scheming to get them and failing, his appetites and disappointments as classic as the central conflicts from which all great theater and literature derives. Homer's struggle with an indifferent universe owes as much to the "Poetics" of Aristotle as it does to Ralph Kramden.
Thanks to a flawless cast and brilliantly consistent writing, "The Simpsons" is, quite simply, the best show on television. Undimmed by imitators and unbowed by age; it remains the most potent argument a cranky old media critic can make for owning a television set. And a pair of "Ay, caramba!" boxer shorts.
Transcribed by "HankScrpio"
Last updated on June 29, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (email@example.com)