The Simpsons and Us, Together Forever
FXX is throwing The Simpsons a party, a 12-day viewing party. In celebration of the sitcom’s 25th anniversary, and in recognition of its being the longest-running sitcom ever, the cable channel is airing every single Simpsons episode from the last 25 years. 552 episodes. Taking up nearly 300 hours. All of which can be viewed, in succession, from the first to the final episode of the most recent season.
Viewers can watch Homer Simpson transform from his early days as a shakily-drawn classic sitcom father with latent frustration and big dreams to the sleekly animated buffoon of recent years, his frustration fully realized. Oh, and his lack of ambition. Also his obsession with food. Not to mention his mental capacity, which has ebbed with each season, the needle moving closer toward Empty on what was already a precariously low tank of smarts.
While roundly skewering every type in every single town in America, The Simpsons always manages to make lemonade from our cultural lemons.When it premiered 25 years ago, the show was met with hand-wringing at a level reserved nowadays for first-person shooter video games and high fructose corn syrup. Adults whose job it was to monitor the suitability of TV shows for children in 1989 issued warnings about the content of The Simpsons, with sober injunctions to not be fooled by the fact that the show was animated. This was a cartoon that no decent parent would let their kid watch. Bart Simpson, with his casual cursing and surfer dude-inflected catchphrases, was a role model for exactly no one. In no time at all, kids everywhere would be shouting, “Don’t have a cow, man!” at the authority figures in their lives, with The Simpsons responsible for creating yet more cultural waste in an already crowded landfill.
25 years later, issuing warnings about the moral pitfalls of The Simpsons seems quaint, almost laughable, with the show tamed over time, its satirical edge dulled by the expectations of a generation accustomed to a steady diet of The Onion. And it is true that, while The Simpsons will probably never be cancelled (like an old married couple, one partner will have to die before the show comes to an end, and both 20th Century Fox and Homer are looking relatively spry), the show has definitely moved further from the center stage of public consciousness. The Simpsons’ profile is now generally so low-key that it’s easy to believe most of the people born since its inception haven’t even bothered to view it.
But even if this is the case, The Simpsons has been and continues to be an amazing show. Not only does it still manage to be relevant and funny, it has paved the way for every animated show targeting adults that has followed in the intervening decades, from King of the Hill (RIP) to South Park to the very adult Adult Swim, with its lineup of weird cartoons that makes every character on The Simpsons seem comfortingly familiar.
And this quality continues to be the enduring appeal of The Simpsons. In spite of the strangeness of Marge’s Bride-of-Frankenstein blue hair and the stupidity of Homer’s antics, the show depicts a world we recognize. From Principal Skinner to Apu to Moe to Nelson to Flanders to the Mole Man and all the characters in between, we know this place and these people. While roundly skewering every type in every single town in America, The Simpsons always manages to make lemonade from our cultural lemons. And it accomplishes this without being cloying, the acid still evident in every episode.
And Americans are in possession of a load of cultural lemons. A quick survey of how we are presented through our own domestically-produced TV shows reveals a sort of dilemma: Americans seem to be torn between the best and worst of ourselves, alternately declaring our belief in our exceptionalism while acknowledging that much of American life is laughable—our cultural excesses as comedic fodder. The Simpsons meets us where we are by making both possible. Yes, we are idiots, the show tells us, with our over-consumption of food and entertainment, our mall-crazed suburbs and pathetic education and health care costs, our willingness to break out the pitchforks and placards at the slightest provocation before disbanding at an even slighter provocation to head home in our giant SUVs (but not before we run through the drive-through to stuff our faces with greasy hamburgers and french fries). But, the show also tells us, we are also kind of awesome.
We have an endless supply of optimism and pluck, and a desire to pull together as a community, even if we’re not quite sure how to do it. The Simpsons manages to pull both threads into a single strand, showing respect for our humanity even while never ceasing to be amazed at how dumb we can be.
Over its many, many episodes, the show has offered countless insights into what makes America work. Or not work. The sight of Grandpa Simpson, alone and neglected at the old folks home where he lives, waiting for the phone to ring, or the rousing speeches Lisa gives as she takes on corporate moguls in her reign as Little Miss Springfield, or that moment where the power is cut to the entire town and all the kids emerge from the bowels of their houses where they had been sitting in front of their TV sets, out into the street. They stand, blinking in the sunlight, disoriented, before dispersing into the neighborhood to play. And not just play, but play with each other. The scene transcends the medium: watching cartoon kids skip rope and laugh as they ride bikes—it is powerful cultural commentary. And this is just a single example of the moments within episodes—sometimes not even the best episodes—when The Simpsons so clearly captures the essence of what it means to live in this place and time.
Of course, there is the more overt influence the show exerts as well, the seemingly endless quotes and catchphrases it has given to pop culture: D’oh, Woo-hoo! Mmmm. . . doughnuts—only a small sampling of The Simpsons’ legacy. And the legacy, taken wholesale, is massive. The scope of the show has always been both broad and surgical, providing equal opportunity satire. Nothing about the way we live escapes the scrutiny of its writers: family, work, energy woes, the environment, education, friendship, love, sex, race, authority, politics. Even religion.
Which in itself makes the show stand out, because religion is rarely depicted on primetime TV. Seeing religious practice, however imperfect, portrayed as part of the life of an average American family hasn’t been a regular feature of any network show for a long time. Yet there it is, right on The Simpsons as Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie head to church on a regular basis, the institution just another part of the rhythm of their lives. The show also portrays the family as they deal (or don’t) with the implications of all this church-going. Questions are raised, if not always fully answered: Does God exist? Does He care if we go to church? Why should we tithe? And what’s with organ music anyway?
Religion is also depicted in a more immediate sense on the show, since the Simpsons live next door to Ned Flanders, a bespectacled, mustachioed Christian. Ned, along with his sons Rod and Todd (rhymes with God!), practices his faith with a level of enthusiasm usually found only in children on Christmas morning or at the prospect of a trip to Disney World.
Yet in and out of season, Christmas morning or not, Ned’s good cheer never wanes. Homer can’t stand him. Especially when it comes to Ned’s way of speaking, a non-stop rhythmic sing-song that gives voice to the joy in his heart. The ceaseless, boundless joy of the Lord. Ned’s love for Jesus is so great, his optimism so incessant, that he even exhausts the good will and theological forbearance of his pastor, Rev. Lovejoy, the all-purpose Protestant minister who speaks in the sonorous tone of the seminarian who never quite returned to the real world, post-education.
Ned Flanders is a ridiculous character, with his piety displayed at a pitch that makes him an object of contempt for Homer and the whole Simpson family. But here’s the crux: no matter how annoying he is, Ned is not a hypocrite. His obnoxious brand of American Christianity is depicted as truly heartfelt, sincere, and consistent. While he may drive Homer crazy with his upbeat approach to everything, from bankruptcy to the death of his wife, Homer begrudgingly acknowledges the reality of Ned’s faith. And, in essence, this acknowledgement is what makes The Simpsons great. The citizens of Springfield are committed to living together, in plurality, the religious nuts mixed in with the regular nuts, the intellectually-challenged with the morally-challenged, all of them meeting at the steps of City Hall to berate Mayor Quimby from time to time, the mob together again. Unruly maybe, but always together.
25 years of The Simpsons. 25 years of satirizing Americans in our earnestness and excesses. It turns out that, in celebrating its silver anniversary, the show is really celebrating us. Which makes sense, because The Simpsons is our show, for better or for worse. So Happy Anniversary to The Simpsons. Woo-hoo, indeed.