Thursday, June 10, 2010

Making the Idiot Box Smarter

 A few months ago, I had an interview for a company in Madison. I had to give a 10-minute presentation on anything I wanted. I chose to do a presentation on The Simpsons, but in a way that connected it to the ethos of the 90's, and how the show was an important critique of modern culture. After I started preparing for the presentation, it dawned on me how similar this show and what is generally considered the best TV show ever, The Wire, are. The Wire was a show on HBO that centered on the drug trade in Baltimore, but it was also a show about how the institutions that drive the world are corrupt and let us down. The local government, police force, public school system, and media are institutions that are supposed to aid the people, yet because of funding, red tape, and sensationalism they let us down. In its own way, The Simpsons does exactly that. What follows is a rough outline of what I said during the presentation. I may not have gotten the job, but it did allow me to think deeper about two of my favorite TV shows.

Like many people my age, I grew up on the Simpsons. Every day after school, I would come home and watch it in syndication, and every Sunday Night was devoted to new episodes. I loved the humor of it. Just like every other kid, I wanted to BE Bart Simpson. I had all sorts of merchandise; the t-shits, the spiky hair, the action figures. Some of the first books I read were simple episode guides: they were just full of plotlines, synopses, and quotes from each episode that had been aired. I devoured the Simpsons, and I still do.

I still watch the Simpsons religiously. I speak Simpson-ese as a second language. I can’t even recall how many times I quote the characters, often on accident. It isn’t often that a TV show resonates with popular culture the way the Simpsons did. It broke all of the rules of television: a cartoon prime-time sitcom? Unheard of, at the time. Without the Simpsons, there would be no South Park, no Family Guy, no Adult Swim. But it goes far beyond that; it’s not a stretch to think there would be no Arrested Development, no 30 Rock, without the residents of Springfield. Read on (if you dare) to think much, much deeper about "Our Favorite Family."

I think the Simpsons is a cultural institution for a number of reasons, but mostly because it connects with different people on different levels. As a kid, I liked it simply because it was funny; on the surface, it’s a show about a bumbling nuclear family, an inept father, and a bratty, rebellious spiky-haired boy. But, now that I’m older, I appreciate the show for what it really is: a complete critique of organizations, institutions, American Culture, television, and comedy itself. It even has ties to post-modernism, blending the “low culture” of television with “high culture” through a huge number of literary and cultural references and allusions. I don’t know if it’s possible, but I’m going to try to get you to think about the Simpsons in a much deeper way.

If there’s one over-arching theme of the Simpsons over its 21-year run, it’s that institutions are not to be trusted. You should question authority. The 90’s disillusionment with organizations can be seen throughout each episode of the show. Religion, energy, local government, sports, and the media itself are all targets. The show urges the viewer to ask questions, to not blindly follow authority. Each head of these institutions, from Reverend Lovejoy to Nuclear Power Tycoon Mr. Burns to the Mayor are corrupt and fallible in some way. The Simpsons is a very powerful tool of critique of the people behind these institutions, and their failure to stabilize the lives of the citizens.

Take religion, for example. The writers don’t have a problem with the concept of religion or God, but are unhappy with the people that run the churches. The church in Springfield is run by a narcissist whose wife is the town gossip. In one episode, he sold advertising space on every piece of the church, monetizing church to the point of causing Lisa Simpson to become a Buddhist. This plotline ties in with the increasing monetization churches have actually gone through; religion is no longer holy, but an opportunity to sell. Yet, the Simpsons family still attends church each Sunday, as does most of the town. Religion may be corrupt, but the residents of Springfield still see value in taking part in it.

The Public School System, and its complete lack of passion or effectiveness, is another American institution that keeps the Simpsons’ writers flowing with material. The teachers are bored, alcoholic, lonely people who would rather show an out-dated film reel. The principal still lives with his mom and is completely out of touch with the needs of his students, and only exists to please the Superintendent and his mother. If there is one character who completely embodies for failure of Public Schools, it is fan-favorite Ralph Wiggum. The borderline-retarded son of borderline-retarded Police Chief Wiggum (himself an example of the incompetency of Law Enforcement), Ralph is someone who can’t go in the deep-end of his sandbox, who doesn’t get to use pointy-scissors, and who utters such memorable phrases as “Me fail English? That’s unpossible!”

Capitalism and the American Corporation is lampooned in the show through a character described by Conan O’Brien as “infinitely old and infinitely evil,” Mr Burns. Personally, he is my favorite character. Mr. Burns is evil enough to literally steal candy from a baby. This is a man who blocked out the sun in order to increase demand for nuclear power. He follows this simple idea: “Family, friends, religion; these are the three demons you must slay in order to succeed at business.” Mr. Burns really is a stand-in for the cold, profit-driven, hate-filled stereotype we have been given about the CEOs of major companies (something that is continually reinforced by real-life events; thanks Enron, BP, Goldman Sachs, and Bernie Madoff). He praises the almighty dollar and will stop at nothing to be richer. Blocked off from the rest of his minions by Yes-Men like his right-hand-man (and secret admirer) Smithers, he doesn’t even remember most of his employees’ names. He represents the greedy, money-obsessed, impersonal American Corporation because he IS an evil billionaire tycoon.

Media and popular culture is a huge target of much of the early Simpsons comedy, which is a pretty bold thing for a show actually on television to make fun of. The main cartoon all of the kids watch, “The Itchy and Scratchy Show,” is a vehicle to show what is wrong with television: there is no plot, only sensationalistic, violent imagery. Yet, the kids are entranced by it. The show’s other favorite television target is Krusty the Clown, the host of the show that airs the Itchy and Scratchy cartoon. In “real life,” Krusty is an alcoholic, tax evading, violent and unhappy person, yet the kids idolize him. He puts his name on any product, no matter how unsafe (Gum with spider eggs, cereal with a jagged toy in the box, Krusty Brand Pregnancy tests that “may cause birth defects,” to name a few). The takeaway is that you can‘t trust your idols on television any more than your idols at church. The people behind the masks and makeup are just as fallible as the rest of us. Then there's Troy McClure, who “you may remember from such self-help films as ‘Smoke Yourself Thin!’ and ‘Get Confident, Stupid!’” Troy is a washed-up actor still riding on the coattails of a past success, always trying to get his name out there to reclaim his former fame. This is an early pre-cursor to the celebrity-laden Internet, TMZ, and our inability to look away from the train-wreck lives of Lindsay Lohan and Brittany Spears.

This being the Simpsons, it leaves plenty of critique for itself. This style of meta-comedy is something that EXPLODED since the Simpsons first began to invade the airwaves, and is a favorite of my generation. It constantly makes fun of itself, its legacy, and its merchandising. As early as the third season, episodes were making fun of all of the shameless products with the Simpsons brand on it; t-shirts, toys from Burger King, Butterfinger Bars, multiple CD’s, and countless bootleg items. There’s an episode of the show where “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” is slipping in ratings and brings in a hip, badass younger character named Poochie to save the show, and in the same episode the Simpsons brings in a hip, badass younger character named Roy. It makes fun of all of the “wacky adventures” their characters go on, and how if they just ride it out and say a few wacky catchphrases, everything will return to normal.

Because I’ve already spent more than 1,000 words writing about the Simpsons, I’ll stop there. It goes without saying that a show like the Simpsons will forever be linked to late-20th-century culture, and will likely go down in history as one of the greatest and most important television series of all time. But if you take the time to really analyze the satire, you'll end up getting the message: don't trust authority.

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