Round Springfield

By Mark Douglas

© Warwick Boar, April 30, 2002.

The George Herbert Walker Bush presidency, which spanned the four years from 1989-1993, witnessed the worst race rioting in urban America for decades. Healthcare costs stormed to their highest point in American history, Bush was responsible for the biggest u-turn in American political history on tax rises and he issued a series of contradictory "family values" statements that tore at the very fabric of the American dream. But what really undermined the forty-first president of the United States was not domestic policy, budget deficits or chaos on the streets of Los Angeles: it was picking a fight with a ten year-old, yellow skinned cartoon character. "We need a nation closer to the Waltons than to the Simpsons," Bush declared at the Republican National Convention in 1992. In an episode that aired two days after Bush's ill-advised comments, the Simpsons were depicted as hushed, crowded round their television set listening to Bush. Bart pipes up, "Hey, we are just like the Waltons. We're praying for an end to the depression too.” Within twelve months Bush was unceremoniously dumped out of the White House, replaced by William Jefferson Clinton. Chalk one up for the Simpsons.

Such was the power of the Simpsons at its heady best: meshing satire, high culture references and toilet humour and somehow producing a TV show that trod the fine line between pretentious and just down-right, laugh out loud funny. In the form of the Simpsons, us generation X-ers have our equivalent to "I Love Lucy", the sitcom which depicted Lucille Ball's futile attempts to escape the domesticity of fifties society, or M*A*S*H, the irreverent anti-war sitcom set against the backdrop of the Korean War. These were great shows which viewers growing up in those generations cherished not only for their hilarious wit but for their knowing cynicism. Sure the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which like the Simpsons debuted on national TV in 1990, deserves credit for showcasing the first genuinely funny Black family in sitcom history, but when Will Smith and company were political, they invariably weren't that funny, and when they were funny, they weren't political. The Simpsons changed all that. Check out classic episode "Sideshow Bob Roberts", where the Machiavellian Sideshow Bob, Frasier's Kelsey Grammer as if you didn't know, is released from prison to run as the Republican party candidate for mayor of Springfield. Nestled among the razor-sharp one-liners – Homer reacting to a loud noise outside by squealing "Aah! It's the Rapture! Quick, get Bart out of the house before God comes!" – is some deadly political satire. Similarly, the Simpsons writers tackled the thorny issue of immigration with a sensitivity that was as admirable as it was rare. In this episode, "Much Apu about Nothing", Springfield becomes engulfed in anti-immigrant hysteria, with townsfolk bearing signs with legends like "The Only Good Foreigner is Rod Stewart" and "Get Eurass back to Eurasia". When Apu Nahasapeemapetilon - the outrageously stereotyped Kwik-E-Mart manager - is asked by a reporter whether he is Indian, he responds: "By the many gods of Vishnu, that is a lie!" He later repents, conceding that, "I cannot deny my roots and keep up this charade. I only did it because I love this land, where I have the freedom to say, to think and to charge whatever I want!" With tongue placed firmly in cheek, the Simpsons smashed another televisual taboo.

This satirical slant in the Simpsons has endeared them to critics and academics alike. On the eve of the new century Time magazine, that cultural barometer, awarded the Simpsons the accolade of "Best TV Show Ever", comparing it to Shakespeare and Chaucer for the way it "smashes barriers between high and low culture." Not convinced? Surely you've got to trust a doctor, even if he is a lecturer in religious and film studies at Stirling University. Dr Kris Jozajtis recently elevated Homer to the position of the "World's Best Dad" for the benefit of the Mirror newspaper. Jozajtis says that Homer, "may not always get the actions right but he cares about his kids, listens to them and is honest with them. We can all learn a lot from that.” Even conservatives and right-wing thinkers, with the honourable exception of those who are immediately related to the Bush family, manage to take something from the show's masterful wit. Jonah Goldberg, editor of the right-wing internet site National Review Online, branded the Simpsons "possibly the most intelligent, funny and even politically satisfying TV show ever, even lauding its political even handedness. He notes that The Simpsons celebrates most of the best conservative principles, "the primacy of family, scepticism of political authority and distrust of abstractions." Granted these ruminations probably don't feature heavily on most viewers "reasons to watch”, but the attempts to find cultural and intellectual relevance in what is essentially just an animated TV series point towards the Simpsons having a wider significance in Twentieth Century social history.

Like a musician struggling from chronic "Difficult Second Album Syndrome", though, recent episodes of the Simpsons have struggled to reproduce the kind of material that endeared them to audiences and critics alike. The first rumbles of discontent emanated from the die-hard internet fans. Jouni Paakkinen, webmaster for, the premier Simpsons online archive, believes the problems are long-term. He says that, "The quality slowly started to decline as early as the fifth season, when Homer's character gradually began deteriorating." Chief among his concerns is the shows recent descent into unbelievable situations and dumb physical comedy, "The reason that I became a fan of the show was that during the first few seasons, the show was realistic and that's what made it funny. It was a cartoon family, but you could relate to them and what happened to them. From season nine (late 1997) onwards, Homer hasn't been a believable character, he's been a selfish moron chasing the Loch Ness monster, elf jockeys and the like, and little or no attention has been given to characters with more depth." Added to this, the show's satirical element has become about as subtle as a sturdy punch to the groin. Bill Clinton's last appearance saw Marge Simpson berating him for the episode's weak moral: "That was a pretty lame ending", with Clinton replying, "Well, I was a pretty lame president."

All is not lost, however. From season thirteen, which starts soon in the US, the Simpsons will have veteran writer Al Jean as executive producer. Paakinen welcomes his return, "Judging from his comments to the media, he understands where things took a turn for the worst. I'm hoping he will try to convince the writing staff to bring back the realism, believable characters and that they'll give Homer his brain back." The Simpsons back to its rapier best? George W, you have been warned.

Reprinted with permission

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Last updated on May 3, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (