by Paul Deines
Last week, FXX finished breaking my brain by airing all 552 episodes (to date) of The Simpsons (as well as the movie). I’d be lying if I said I didn’t put my life on hold to watch the marathon. I didn’t watch the full retrospective, as that would have killed me, but I DVR-ed much of the show’s first decade. And I wallowed in it. Oh, how I wallowed!
There’s such joy to this series, which pinballs between the hilarious and the poignant. Its humor runs the gamut from referential (the annual “Treehouse of Horror” episodes) to absurdist (the Stonecutter saga) to the post-modern (“22 Short Films about Springfield”). Its classic catalogue is equal parts unhinged goofiness and character-driven pathos. I’ve suspected it for a while, but after mainlining the first 11 seasons, I can confirm that this era of The Simpsons – 1989 through 2001 - is the seminal culture achievement of that era. I’ll put it up against Nevermind and Ready to Die, Pulp Fiction and The Decalogue, the early writing of David Foster Wallace, Angels in America, The Sopranos, Twin Peaks ... you name it.
Springfield is our generation’s Grover’s Corners, a microcosm of the world where characters contend with life’s large questions simply by living. Homer is our Rabbit Angstrom, a discontent man pushing against his mental limitations at the expense of all around him. Rebellious, self-destructive Bart is our Holden Caulfield. Lisa, that bookish idealist, may yet be our Jane Eyre.
The scope and intelligence of The Simpsons makes it the key text for understanding how post-Reagan America coped with, well …
The Simpsons was Fox Television’s second hit sitcom: first was Married … With Children. Older audiences blanched at the Bundys, a family drained entirely of sympathetic attributes. The Bundy family cursed each other, lied without remorse, frequented nudie bars and were generally awful. They were also working class in a way that was not even remotely romanticized. The Simpson family is similarly down-market, both socially and economically. Early critics conflated the two families but they missed one essential difference: unlike the Bundys, the Simpsons want to be better people.
What’s more, they support each other. Homer and Marge’s courtship begins with a meet cute in high school detention and proceeds to an accidental pregnancy precipitated in a mini-golf windmill. Their devotion to each other develops not through courtship but through marriage. Marge is tempted by a lothario bowling instructor (also, by Ned Flanders), Homer by a country music singer (also, by a foxy coworker voiced by Michelle Pfieffer), but they always find their way back together, and always stronger for the experience. And they are reunited, generally, through personal sacrifice. In Season 2, with “The War of the Simpsons” Homer throws back a legendarily elusive catfish he’s harnessed to prove his love for Marge. Marge throws the powerful energy magnate Montgomery Burns out of her house for insulting Homer for his weight. In seasons that followed, husband and wife will grow closer through community theater musicals, chili-fueled spirit quests and even a month-long court-ordered sobriety.
For me, though, the most touching illustration of familial support comes in The Simpsons’ first season in “Moaning Lisa.” Still imbued with the ennui of Matt Groening's Tracey Ullman Show shorts (the show’s origin), this episode begins with Lisa glumly narrating her own life: its small degradations, disappointments and ultimate meaninglessness. Of course, no one around her can understand what she has to feel sad about. Even the jazz mentor she meets – “Bleeding Gums” Murphy – offhandedly notes that she has “no real problems.”
Only Marge can reach Lisa, and only by connecting her daughter’s sadness to the picket fence cheeriness she was forced to emit as a child. “Moaning Lisa” is revolutionary because it not only doesn’t explain Lisa’s emotions but also validates them as a key part of being alive. Sometimes we look at the world and despair and those around us can only support us while we go through it. The lovely sentiment Marge expresses to Lisa about riding it out together is something I hold onto for my own child.
I think the cultural turning point for The Simpsons came in 1994, when Evangelical theologian Lee Strobel (at the behest of a reader) wrote an essay entitled “What Jesus Would Say to Bart Simpson,” part of a series on Jesus’ message in the modern world. Strobel’s assertion is that Jesus would not scold Bart but rather embrace him for his desire to be better. He also makes note of the Simpson family’s commitment to attending church and regular communion with God through prayer.
There’s plenty of spirituality in The Simpsons, but there’s also advocacy for organized religion. True, it makes regular sport of the out-of-time fussiness and silly pageantry of the church, but the Judeo-Christian God is un-ironically present. No more is this true than in Season 4’s “Home the Heretic” when Homer decides he doesn’t need to go to church to be a good Christian. The episode comes unequivocally down on the side that true godliness means taking an hour every Sunday. Anyway, Strobel’s imprimatur gave a sort of heartland credence to a show that, as noted above, was in its early days dismissed by moral leaders (and one American president) as trash.
The best episode about religious devotion has to be Season 4’s “Bart Sells His Soul.” It begins with our preteen protagonist making a fool of Rev. Lovejoy by slipping some “rock and/or roll” librettos into the hymnal.
While serving his punishment after services, Bart asserts that there’s no such thing as a soul, and to prove his point he sells his to friend Milhouse Van Houten for five dollars. The creators have fun physically manifesting the effects of Bart’s soullessness, from robbing his breath of condensation and leaving him unable to laugh to illustrating it in a dream sequence in which all the world has an identical companion except him.
Bart endures a nighttime journey from Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag (possibly my favorite B plot ever) to Milhouse’s Grandmother’s house on the bad side of town, and finally to the Android’s Dungeon where Milhouse traded the soul for Alf pogs. He finally finds his soul in Lisa’s possession. It’s a heartwarming moment between two siblings, yes, but it also a portrait of a sinner finding grace through toil. I can’t think of another bit of mass-entertainment that deals so plainly and hopefully with faith.
As The Simpsons moved into a third season and beyond, writers began building a more detailed world around the titular family. This unlimited scope and cast was the privilege of an animated series. How the Simpson children, in particular, interacted with this world became a constant illustration about how the world makes us grow up, even if we’re not ready.
Bart Simpson, the perpetual preteen, has fallen in love several times, two of which are truly poignant. In Season 4, he falls for his babysitter, voiced by Roseanne’s Sara Gilbert, only to realize that you cannot expect every crush to be reciprocated. In Season 6, it’s Jessica Lovejoy (Meryl Streep) who teaches him that affection and manipulation often go hand-in-hand. And just like any 11-year-old boy discovering the wide world, he experiences a lot and learns very little.
As is often the case, the life-affirming lessons come to Lisa, and my favorite must be her foray into popularity with the Season 7 finale “Summer of 4 Ft. 2.” Ostracized at the end of the school year, she resolves to spend her summer vacation at the beach developing a new persona. She leaves her clothes and microscope behind and buys a new outfit that, as Milhouse notes, makes her look “like Blossom!” She befriends some local skaters (including Christina Ricci), and for the first time in her life she feels included. Watching this episode, I’m thrown back to the first play I did in high school, where I met my first girlfriend and several folks I still consider my closest friends. I think of that first week of college, when I discovered I could sit up all night with people I just met, drinking Old Milwaukee and talking movies and art and dirty stories, and it was the best time of my life to that point.
“Summer of 4 Ft. 2” is not merely about finding good friends, though. It’s about the fear of losing them. Bart, jealous of is sister for perhaps the first time, reveals Lisa’s nerdy past to the skating crew. She’s mortified, enraged, ashamed. She doesn’t even wait to see their reaction but flees. Bart repents and offers a gesture of apology, but the key reversal in the episode is that Lisa’s friends like her, not in spite of her nerdiness, but because of it. They are her cool friends, yes, but she is their smart friend. She lives the beach town knowing for once that she’s deserving of inclusion.
Ah, Springfield. The apex and nadir of modern American life. Its defining characteristic is its credulity, which more often than not manifests itself in an angry mob. The mob is rarely well-reasoned, whether resolving to burn down the observatory to prevent asteroid collisions or just deciding to get cider at the old mill. The first mob appears in Season 1’s “The Tell-Tale Head,” pursuing Bart and Homer to avenge the desecration of the town founder’s statue. In Season 6’s “Lemon of Troy” the town rallies to invade hated neighbor Shelbyville to reclaim their beloved lemon tree. So we can see the mob mentality can be craven and civic-minded. Or a combination of the two.
But the first episode I can recall that places the dynamic of the community as its central conceit if “Marge vs. the Monorail” in Season 4. To begin, the narrative is set into motion by Springfield’s dual Boss Tweeds: Mayor “Diamond” Joe Quimby and Monty Burns. Burns’ power plant has been caught disposing of nuclear waste and Quimby, after taking his cut of the penalty fee, puts it to the town how to spend the funds. This leads to perhaps the best of the Simpsons musical numbers:
Here we see the desire of Springfieldians to prove themselves exceptional, even at the risk of their own physical and fiscal safety. The monorail is, of course, a disaster, nearly killing scores of people but for Homer’s quick-ish thinking. And Marge ends the episode in voice over saying that it was the last folly the town ever embarked on, except a popsicle-stick skyscraper … a giant magnifying glass … and an escalator to nowhere. This heedless ambition is uniquely buffoonish and uniquely American. It’s probably what makes us the strongest and most stable nation on earth.
POLITICS AND CULTURE
There’s something perfectly middle-of-the-road about The Simpsons’ political worldview. On the one hand, it seems distrustful of the welfare state, as Grandpa Simpson illustrates when he says of his Social Security, “I didn’t earn it; I don’t need it; but if they miss one payment I’ll raise hell” On the other hand, the writers are clearly distrustful of bootstraps conservatism, which they lambast – among other places – with the Ayn Rand School for Tots. This daycare in which Maggie is placed is lined with such objectivist platitudes as “Helping is Futile.”
The sensibility is simultaneously Harvard-egghead and blue collar. It allows anyone to relate to its worldview. This sets it apart from something like, say, South Park, which can feel reactionary in Bush-era heartland sort of way. The Simpsons fits perfectly into the Clinton era moderate-to-progressive mold. In its golden era, it represents the socio-political transition this nation was undergoing.
As a reaction to the Reagan era, we can look to the fourth season episode “Last Exit to Springfield.” That title is a reference to Hubert Selby’s novel Last Exit to Brooklyn which touches on union corruption. Certainly the workers’ union at the nuclear power plant is corrupt. Mr. Burns remembers a Hoffa-era organizer promising the union will succeed and eventually become bloated and compromised. By the time Homer is a member, they’re trading away the dental plan for a keg of Duff beer, and his ascent to union president is solely guided by his desire to get Lisa a good set of braces. Anyway, like much of the series’ narratives, this one is less driven by grand ideals than by selfish desires. Nonetheless, the writers seem to imply that even self-serving impulses can improve the lives of all. The workers unite, Mr. Burns is reduced to an impotent Grinch, and (perhaps most important) Homer is relieved of duty.
Where The Simpsons looks forward to the social progressivism of the Obama era is in Season 8’s “Homer’s Phobia,” guest-starring gay film pioneer John Waters as a kitschy vintage store owner who befriends Homer. The golden part of the episode is the brief window where Homer is smitten with his strange lively friend that he doesn’t realize is gay. Homer’s just so charmingly oblivious, and when Marge finally tells him, he’s gob-smacked. Yet his incredulity is less due to prejudice than by confusion about a spectrum of society he’s not encountered before.
Homer is a stand-in for so many men (and women, but really, mostly men) I’ve known over the years: they don’t have any moral objection to homosexuality. They’re averse to it for the same reason they aren’t sure about visiting Paris. It all just seems so unfamiliar. But as the decades have passed (this episode aired in February 1997) this sense of foreignness has largely evaporated. Of course, homophobia still exists, but the tide of public opinion has shifted. And it didn’t require, as John surmises, every gay man saving the life of a straight guy.
If there’s one weakness in the series it’s the exploration of life’s end. In the first few seasons, we saw the passing of jazz man “Bleeding Gums” Murphy and Maude Flanders, but neither episode reached the level of poignancy we hope for in the best of The Simpsons. Probably the most affecting death of the series was that of fourth grade teacher Edna Krabappel, whose passing was remarked upon only briefly in the Season 25 episode “Four Regrettings and a Funeral.” Of course, this loss was more affecting because of the actual death of voice actress Marcia Wallace.
Perhaps the true exploration of death has been the lingering of the show itself. After 25 years of admittedly diminishing returns, it has become Grandpa Simpson, forgotten at the Springfield Retirement Castle. I hate it say this – though I’m certainly not the first to do so – but The Simpsons has become repetitive, bloated and to a large extent irrelevant. Indeed, even as I guffawed at golden age episodes, I was brought back to earth with previews of the queasy making crossover episode between The Simpsons and that shit-smeared repository for socially regressive, laughless humor: Family Guy. The brand has undoubtedly suffered in the last 10 years.
So, I guess I’m ending on a dark note. But look at all the joy expressed above. This is a long, gushy article because this series is so deeply a part of my life. My fiancé and I exchange affection through Simpsons quotes lobbed back and forth. Over dinner, on a long car trip, on the subway. And we’re not alone. That’s my final endorsement of this show: that individual quotes from it serve as suitable replacements for “I love you.” That must count for something. Hell, I’d say it counts for a lot.
 And I wasn’t alone. FXX fared damn well with this 12 day marathon gambit. The difference between the numbers FXX is putting down and the numbers of its previous incarnation, Fox Soccer, are night and day.
 Another show that manages this dual absurdity/catharsis balance was Community in its first three seasons. That it fell off so dramatically with Dan Harmon’s departure and could not rebound with his return illustrates the trickiness of the tightrope walk,
 In this regard, the show has more in common with the other series of that era with a loving and lovably imperfect family, Roseanne.
 Fun fact: this show was a mid-season replacement, premiering with a Christmas special and a short first season. Hence the first Treehouse of Horror did not air until Season 2.
 That the Simpsons never age is at once the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of the show. Yes, the writers avoid some the pitfalls that come with actors again, but 25 seasons in, it’s a bit infuriating that no character ever moves on with life. How many times has Bart completed the fourth grade?
 I cannot say exactly why, but Milhouse is my favorite character in the show by a mile. The certainly with which he expresses the most naïve notions (“When she sees you’ll do anything she says, she’s bound to respect you”) endears him to me so much.
 That was during Greg Daniels’ tenure (1993-2009), and you can see the Springfield-Shelbyville dynamic repeating itself in the Pawnee-Eagleton feud of Daniels’ Parks and Recreation.
 See also, good Christian Ned Flanders on what taxes pay for: “Everything! Policemen, trees, sunshine! And let’s not forgot the folks who just don’t feel like workin’, God bless ‘em!”
 Quick non sequitur endorsement: if you haven’t seen the lovely documentary by Jeffery Schwartz, I Am Divine, about Waters’ muse, do so immediately. It’s been on Showtime lately, and as of today it’s available to stream on Netflix.
 Though one could also mention the offscreen sort-of death of celebrity psychiatrist Dr. Marvin Monroe.
 Example: Grandpa has twice given his family their inheritance early.