Before The Simpsons became a cheap Family Guy clone, it was perhaps the most significant show on television. During the 1990s, The Simpsons was not the gag-reel that it is today. Instead, the show was a scathing review of American society.
It came at a desperate time. Back in the ’60s, pop culture and subversive politics were united, as the Beatles demonstrated. Come the ’90s, pop culture was thoughtless. It’s astonishing to think that goofy-sounding yellow caricatures were giving the masses their most needed teachings.
Growing up, my parents let me watch The Simpsons — but scorned the show’s values. These creatures with overbites challenged their deepest beliefs: namely, Christianity. As churchgoing parents, they didn’t like hearing a fat drunk say “I work hard and I love my kids. So why should I spend half my Sunday hearing about how I’m going to hell?”
But The Simpsons’ take on Christianity was never cheap. To me, it revealed how narrow-sighted and hypocritical some Christians can be — like when Reverand Lovejoy calls another religion “nothing but a pack of weird rituals and chants, designed to take away the money of fools.”
Still, The Simpsons was careful to remind people of “The Good Christian” — namely, Ned Flanders. Ned’s a guy who will “turn the other cheek” whether Homer steals his air conditioner, family photo albums or his roof.
Homer, on the other hand, is “not a good man, or even an adequate man.” Perhaps the show’s biggest joke was that an alcoholic who dropped out of high-school would rise so high. To uninitiated viewers, Homer was merely a slapstick comedian, the kind of guy who gets his head caught in a drawbridge.
Cartoonishness aside, the point to Homer was that deadbeat fathering — and all-day drinking — was acceptable, even relatable, to Americans. Marge tells Homer to have a “frank talk with Bart about girls,” so Homer gets blackout drunk and gives the talk. Even Lisa’s music practice must be stopped so he can drink beer and watch TV.
Homer Simpson-types were (and still are) ubiquitous in our society — a society that toasts “Alcohol! The cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems.”
In the ’90s, the show’s writers seemed remarkably familiar with mainstream society, especially considering half of them graduated from Harvard, like Conan O’Brien. Apart from the brilliant writing (and constant jabs at Yale) one would hardly know the show was made by such well-to-do people.
Their writing depicts all too clearly the unenlightened America, the land of prejudice. Homer likes to remind Abe that “old people are useless,” while Lisa’s wisdom is belittled because she’s a kid. In Springfield, an Indian man who graduated at the top of a seven million student class can only find work at the Kwik-E-Mart. Homer freaks out when a really cool man he assumes to be straight turns out to be gay. To avoid confusion, Homer wants his “homosexuals fa-laaaming.”
The Simpsons showed that all but one group of Americans faced some prejudice. Homer sums the point up well, saying, “I’m a white male aged 18-49. Everyone listens to me.”
Clearly the Harvard grads took their social agenda seriously with The Simpsons. But they still weren’t afraid to poke fun at serious issues. They show the best stance a politician can take on abortion: “Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.” Edgier still, a Duff beer ad shows two guys spraying feminist protesters with beer — transforming the women into bikini-wearing party-girls.
Perhaps the most biting argument of ’90s Simpsons was that America’s greatest villains are the ones in charge. Mr. Burns, the richest man in Springfield, declares that family, religion and friendship are “the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.”
Then there’s Mayor Quimby, who vacations the Bahamas when his town is struck by an epidemic of Osaka Flu. Funnily enough, that episode came out before George W. Bush’s “Katrina fishing trip” incident. Most of all, the writers are damning of the police. Cops are always shown as incompetent, corrupt and totally indifferent to public welfare.
The best example of this is when Chief Wiggum answers the phone with “Uh, no this is 912.”
With all the bright colours and silly voice-acting, it was easy for people to miss the “college humour” in ’90s Simpsons. Sure the show is great when you’re drunk and stoned, but it’s also a work to be studied. University could have given me no better gift that this: a richer understanding of The Simpsons.
On the other hand, university has burdened my Simpsons viewings. The critical thinking I have accrued reminds me how vulgar and trite The Simpsons became this century. And while I can’t unlearn what university has taught me, I can always make use of it by turning on the TV — basking in it’s warm glowing, warming glow.
image: 20th Century Fox Television