Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Simpsons Did It

One of the books I enjoyed while vacationing was Chris Turner's Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation. As it's both about the Simpsons and as a serious social critique, the book deserves a response here. While I did enjoy it, it was not what I had expected. Turner is a bit of a hipster intellectual who seems to have spent his 20's just loving the first decade or so of the Simpsons. (For a point of reference, I literally grew up with the Simpsons, starting when I was 10 and enjoying them all the way through high school, until at some point after the millennium the show's new episodes lost much of their appeal to me.) Some of the amazon reviewers are more than a bit unfair, complaining that the book doesn't tell the behind-the-scenes story of the Simpsons or has too many pages about Radiohead and Nirvana. But personally, I enjoyed the attempt to connect the Simpsons to other aspects of youth and alternative culture because it was in that frame of reference that the Simpsons thrived. We knew the show was great when we were 14- the media didn't think so until the show had been on for 10 years, at which point, it wasn't really as sharp as it had used to be.

The book is sprawling, really a long read, and at times tedious if you don't want to read about any other aspects of 90's popular culture. But for those willing to take the dive, it's a mostly fascinating account ... except for the part where Turner over reads the Simpsons politics as a mirror of 90's leftist activism, which unfortunately is most of the book. And because that's the sort of blogger I am, that's where I'm going to focus most of this critique.

Here's the not-so-big secret, right off the bat. Yes, the Simpsons politics always tended to lean left- however, the Simpsons was always first and foremost about satire, not about any grand political statements. If anything, the Simpsons has always combined a distrust of large institutions (be it business or government) with a belief that most of us can be hoodwinked quite easily. While politics can play a role in the Simpsons, the show has always been first and foremost about telling stories and making people laugh. Therefore, Turner's attempts to connect the show to everything from the WTO riots in Seattle to supposedly growing anti-consumer sentiment seems to be more than a bit of a stretch.

On one hand, Turner seems to get too caught up in the 80's style cultural criticism coming from the first Bush administration. Yeah the Simpsons was designed to be edgy, but it wasn't specifically a reaction to Regan-era family values. Barbara and George Sr. did criticize the show (or more precisely the Simpson family itself), but as was addressed in the George Bush episode later on, the show tackled this in the realm of the personal, not the political. Same goes for Bill Cosby, whose family friendly show aired opposite the Simpsons on Thursday nights for several years. To TV watchers today, the Simpsons seems almost quaint precisely because it's premise is rather conservative. For all their flaws, the Simpsons are a small town family that goes to church on Sundays and actually loves each other. There's no evil baby and there's no sadistic 9 year-old fat kid.

And on the other hand, Turner seems a bit too concerned with his preconceived notions of the socio-political nature of each individual character. According to Turner, Bart represents a sort of punk ethos, Lisa represents the 90's leftist activist spirit, Homer is the American everyman, Marge represents a sort of moral and family center, and an entire chapter is devoted to how Mr. Burns represents the evil of capitalism. (Or some such thing.) The problem is, the tags don't exactly work, and more importantly, they certainly don't fit with how most fans saw the show. In particular, Turner refers to Lisa as "noble Lisa" ignoring the fact that the show often mocked her over-the-top political beliefs. Additionally, Lisa was routinely found to be the least liked of all the main characters, with one-note Ralph Wiggum coming in ahead of her in several polls (as reported by Turner in the book). Why did Simpsons fans feel this way about Lisa? Precisely because she was this sort of over-the-top do-gooder who tended to ruin everyone's good time.

And then there's Mr. Burns. To read Turner's book, you would think that the writers of the show were dyed in the wool Marxists, protesting elite control of the means of production while the proletariat toiled in poverty. But that's not really the case. Personally, I always saw Burns as one side of the coin of power, where you had business on one hand, government on the other. (And to see government skewered, only look at the Simpsons movie in which the villan turns out to be the EPA.) Burns was pure evil because he could be. (And actually, in the case of a highly regulated industry like power generation, Burns literally could hold the people of Springfield hostage.) Just compare Burns to the every slippery Diamond Joe Quimby, Springfield's ever present corrupt mayor, who, despite being just as evil and power hungry as Burns, could never say the things Burns said because he had to actually worry about getting reelected. Ultimately, Burns is a caricature of power, who earned the screen time he did not because of any political message but because he was a ridiculously funny character for the writers to work with.

Personally, some of the politics of the Simpsons tend to fall flat to me, particularly while watching them 10 to 15 years later. For example, the dangers of nuclear power is often skewered, but time has tended to show us that nuclear power is much safer and cleaner than other options. But mostly, the politics of the early season are kept subtle so that they and the show remain enjoyable. (Just two character points for examples sake- Smithers's long standing closeted nature and Barney's in-your-face satire of alcoholism.)

The Simpsons started losing me when it became too much the show that Turner sort of wished it was. The episode that stands out for me is the tomacco episode, in which Homer grows a highly addictive tomato-tobacco hybrid. It sucked because of the ridiculous plotting it took for Homer to become a farmer (I believe he was escaping from a Texan he had slapped and challenged to a duel) and because the entire episode was a boring, over-the-top anti-tobacco message. Even at 18 I felt like my intelligence was insulted. We'd spent our lives learning that tobacco was bad and tobacco companies were selling an evil product that killed people, so seeing a satire on the subject was the basic equivalent of going to a punk show and hearing the band urge you to vote for John Kerry (which is another story in and of itself, but the same basic idea.) The point is, it wasn't edgy or risque, it was just boring and uninspiring.

If you can deal with the politics, the book is still worth a read, as it does rehash some great Simpsons moments and attempt to place them culturally. And culturally, I really think the book does make a lot of sense as far as what the Simpsons meant to the younger generations. But the politics just kill it, and be prepared to deal with that. Like any great work of art, the Simpsons at it's best can't be politically pigeon-holed, which is exactly why everyone can enjoy it. To try and fit the show in some 90's leftist framework? Just a waste of space.


Post a Comment

<< Home