The Simpsons, like Monty Python or Star Trek, is one of those cultural phenomena that drive its partisans to obsession. The animated show—on the air since 1989, the 10th-longest-running TV series ever—attracts not only defiant preteens in “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” T-shirts but also overeducated Internet groupies who dissect every episode into smithereens and inevitably claim that the object of their adoration lost its edge, oh, more than a decade ago.
Chris Turner, author of the exhaustive Planet Simpson: How a Cartoon Masterpiece Defined a Generation, inhabits this universe of obsessives. Turner is a Canadian writer who, as Springfield’s own Troy McClure might say, you may remember from such magazines as Shift, Adbusters, and the Utne Reader. He has carved out a niche as a cultural critic writing from the perspective of Generation X—the generation that graduated from college in the early ’90s, just as the show was hitting its stride.
To Turner’s credit, the book provides a thoughtful lens for viewing the show, like a late-night bull session with a motor-mouthed intellectual. His admirably jargon-free study includes dead-on interpretations of atomic-energy-plant drudge Homer (“an average idiot struggling to succeed in a bewildering world”), level-headed housewife Marge (“If the shadow of apocalypse looms menacingly on Springfield’s baby-blue horizon…then Marge points towards the way out”), bratty, rebellious Bart, and his younger sister, the wise-beyond-her-years Lisa.
Turner makes interesting points—about how the show mocks real-world celebrities even as it lures them on for guest appearances, for instance, and about how the simultaneous growth of Internet fanzines and chat rooms has made possible an exuberant fan culture. And he writes compellingly about how the show, almost alone among television sitcoms, grapples honestly with questions of religious faith. Most impressively, he expounds on the reasons The Simpsons has achieved such resonance in international markets. In the United Kingdom, he notes, Simpsons broadcasts account for one-fifth of all viewers on the Sky One channel, and the show has become a hit in reruns on two others. And the attraction goes beyond the English-speaking world, to such places as Russia, Japan, and Thailand; a Web archive widely used by the show’s partisans originates in Scandinavia. “In many of the seventy-plus countries where The Simpsons airs, it isn’t just watched but adored,” he writes.
Turner attributes the show’s popularity to the fact that it celebrates what’s good about America even as it satirizes what is bad. This ambivalent posture, he argues, jibes perfectly with the way the rest of the world feels about the United States—a persistent fascination with everything American, undercut by a feeling that the world’s only superpower unnecessarily lords it over everyone else.
But such modest and well-grounded arguments aren’t enough for Turner. No, he wants to prove how The Simpsons has embodied, even driven, nearly every major cultural trend in the past decade and a half. He asserts that the show, since its inception, has brewed a mix of killer one-off gags, laser-guided social satire, robust character development and pure comedic joy into a potion so intoxicating that it became by far the most important cultural institution of its time: the equal of any single body of work to emerge from our pop-cultural stew in the last century in any medium. It was the Beatles and the Stones. It was Elvis and Chuck Berry. It was that big, that unprecedented, and that important. And it also grew so monumental—so fixed on the cultural map—that it now seems impossible to imagine contemporary pop culture without it.
Now, the program does have a lot going for it. It’s an unfailingly hilarious half-hour of television, and its satire of serious issues—from commercialism to corporate and governmental corruption—is smart and mostly dead-on. The characters are well-defined and expertly voiced, and their emotional travails are often compelling. The show works on many levels to reach different audiences—and even if those sourpuss bloggers are right that the show has lost a step, it has still managed to stay funny and trenchant for nearly 15 years.
Such achievements would be enough for most people, but Turner sets a laughably high bar for the show—and for himself. In his quest to make the show the center of a grand unification theory of the ’90s, he drives chapters about major characters into riffs, even rants, about wider issues only tangentially tied to the subject at hand, from the fizzling of the Y2K computer glitch (“Western society never looked more Homer-like than it did in the year 2000”) to the death of Kurt Cobain (ask alternative rockers “a straight question, and they’d answer in the sardonic tones of The Simpsons”) to the mass killings at Columbine High School in Colorado (“It’s a safe bet, given their age and media consumption habits, that [Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold] had also watched a few episodes of The Simpsons in their day”).
Perhaps Turner, like the obsessives he chronicles, was a little too close to his topic. “It became the primary metaphor I would use in conversations with most of my close friends and colleagues,” he admits at one point, adding, “I’ve spent entire evenings speaking to close friends almost exclusively in Simpsons references.” At times, he digresses into personal moments of dubious interest to a larger audience: the boozy college hangout where he used to watch the show, his rapturous first hearing of the band Wilco, his footloose adventures as a backpacker, and the portable-potty shortcomings of Phish followers. He also lets his politics enable a mean streak that raises questions about his judgment, as when he blasts Ronald Reagan as a “senile ex-president” whose agenda was marked by “brutality.”
To be sure, Turner’s political views appear to be simpatico with those of the show’s writers. Turner quotes the writers at length—though always via secondary sources (because, for reasons he never adequately explains, no one involved in the production would talk to him). He notes that, when asked if there was a purpose to the show, writer-producer George Meyer told ABC’s 20/20 in 2002: “If there is, it’s to get people to re-examine their world, and specifically, the authority figures in their world.” And show creator Matt Groening has said that his motto is “Entertain and subvert.” But Turner extrapolates too freely from such statements. To him, Groening’s motto means: “This is all deliberate, kids. We want you to laugh, sure, but we also want you to think. To think and question and perhaps, yes, to reject this stinking pile of self-interested hypocrisy that is the established order.”
Turner could have used a little of the show’s celebrated skepticism. The MO of The Simpsons is to make provocative arguments, then to provide a strong counterargument—to feint one way, then zigzag back. So while the show is certainly liberal in its impulses, it forswears—defiantly—the role of propagandist, preferring to reflect real-world complexities. Though the characters are cartoonish, the narrative arcs are not—and Turner, stuck in a fan’s mindset, fails to see the difference.
This uncritical attitude impairs too many of his character studies. To him, Springfield’s corrupt, womanizing mayor, Joe Quimby, “is an extended study in lousy, hypocritical, self-serving politics” who “embodies all the unseemly shit that has tarnished the Kennedy myth (and big-time politics in general) in the decades after his death.” Maybe, but I’d wager that Quimby is written less as a primal scream against politics than as an easy target for laughter, coasting on Americans’ already well-ingrained distrust of politicians. Suggesting otherwise seems to take him too seriously.
Similarly, Turner sees C. Montgomery Burns, the obnoxious rich man who owns the nuclear power plant where Homer works, as “The Simpsons’ most strident critique of authority.” Others “might be just as unworthy of the public trust as Burns is, but it’s usually because they’re merely stupid or incompetent or hypocritical or greedy. Only Burns—only this figurehead of Big Business—is pure evil.” There’s little doubt that Burns, as written, is pure evil. But Turner seems to miss that he’s also pure cartoon. Whenever he takes pleasure in humiliating his employees, playing Russian Roulette with the town’s health, or killing endangered species for his clothes collection, it’s always clear that Burns is more caricature than character. He’s surely not, as Turner posits, “a somewhat typical example of the contemporary CEO.” Just the opposite: Burns’ very unreality is what makes him so funny.
Then there’s Lisa, the know-it-all do-gooder: “[I]n the myriad causes Lisa has taken up over the years, in the long list of injustices she has decried and the many acts of corporate and political malfeasance she has opposed, we can see a microcosmic history of the rebirth of political activism in the 1990s,” he writes. “If the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 took the world’s political elite and mainstream press by surprise, it was only because they weren’t paying enough attention to Lisa Simpson.”
Ignore the question of whether even a single WTO protester was thinking about Lisa Simpson as he marched through tear gas and smashed windows at Starbucks. Leave aside, too, the question of whether the WTO protests have actually morphed into an effective and long-lived political protest movement. Rather, focus on Lisa’s activism.
Though Lisa is certainly cast as someone who cares, sometimes ridiculously so, about liberal causes, she is also too smart to become an extremist. When she discovers inconsistencies in the history of Springfield’s founder and prepares to blow the whistle at a citywide celebration, she backs down, because the myth has brought out the best in people. When she becomes a Buddhist, she still finds it in herself to celebrate Christmas with her family. And when she ruins Homer’s barbecue party with an attempt to shame others out of eating meat, she apologizes. Turner does acknowledge that “the show’s satire plays no favorites, not even with the character who most closely resembles its creators.” Yet this knowledge only rarely informs his analysis. In one particularly glaring passage, he argues that Lisa is satisfied when the feminist doll she creates sells one unit, compared with a flood of purchases of the Barbie-like Malibu Stacy. “You know,” she says, “if we get through to just that one little girl, it’ll all be worth it!” Turner writes: “For Lisa…reaching that one girl is enough.”
Bullshit. The sale of one platitude-spouting doll, while surely admirable, is not a victory. And you wouldn’t know it from Turner’s analysis, but Stacy—the doll-mogul character who has sponsored Lisa’s project—immediately responds to Lisa’s optimistic spin by adding, “Yes, especially if that little girl happens to pay $46,000 for that doll.” Notwithstanding Turner’s interpretation, Lisa’s venture into dollmaking is a world-wise comment on the knocks of life, nothing more. In the show’s finely tuned balance between hope and failure, and between righteousness and reality, it couldn’t be any other way. CP