Crazy for The Simpsons

By David Owen

© TV Guide, January 3-9, 1998.

I don't like to cook, my wife hates golf, and our children think fishing is cruel. Just about the only things we do as a family are argue about table manners and watch The Simpsons (Fox, Sundays, 8 P.M./ET). Not every family in America considers The Simpsons wholesome viewing. Doesn't Bart, in one episode, put on his grandfather's dentures, bite the ceiling fan and spin around? Doesn't the show feature a cartoon within a cartoon in which a sadistic mouse routinely disembowels a hopelessly credulous cat? And doesn't Homer invent an irresistible cocktail whose secret ingredient is cough syrup? We have friends who forbid their children to watch; they are shocked when we say we plan meals around it.

We watch The Simpsons because we think it's the best thing on TV. My favorite episode is the one in which Homer skips church on a frigid winter morning and ends up having the best day of his life. While Marge and the children shiver in their pew, Homer turns the living-room thermostat to 100 degrees, makes his "patented, space-age, out-of-this-world Moon Waffles" (a bag of caramels, waffle batter and liquid smoke cooked on a waffle iron and then wrapped around a stick of butter), and watches the Three Stooges on TV. "Moe is their leader," he says to himself with ineffable contentment as he lounges on the couch in his bathrobe. When Marge and the children return, Homer makes a case for never going to church again, saying, "What if we picked the wrong religion? Every week, we're just making God madder and madder." Later, 8-year-old Lisa asks, "Why are you dedicating your life to blasphemy?" Homer pats her on the head reassuringly and says, "Don't worry, sweetheart. If I'm wrong, I'll recant on my deathbed."

Like many of the best Simpsons episodes, this one manages to be hilarious and subversive but also, somehow, uplifting. In fact, if the episode has a moral, it's probably something like "Going to church may not be a terrible idea." Yet you never stop laughing. When Reverend Lovejoy refers to Apu's religion as "miscellaneous," Apu indignantly says, "Hindu. There are 700 million of us." Lovejoy smiles at him uncomprehendingly and says, "Oh, that's super."

The Simpsons' most impressive feature is its textual density. Nearly unique among TV comedies, the program has no laugh track because canned guffaws would occupy airtime that could otherwise be used for dialogue. Every episode takes about eight months from conception to broadcast, and during that year every script is painstakingly fine-tuned and rewritten by a team of as many as 20 writers. Perhaps that's why the characters, although they are literally two-dimensional, have more emotional heft than the flesh-and-blood characters of other sitcoms. Although they have evolved through the years -- in early episodes, Homer was a surly authoritarian; today, he is a dreamy dumbbell -- the Simpsons have remained that rarest of modern TV species, the intact two-parent family. And although they are almost surreally dysfunctional, they love one another in the idiosyncratically complicated way that real family members do.

Beyond the Simpsons themselves, the show boasts an ensemble of secondary characters worthy of a Preston Sturges movie: Lionel Hutz, the incompetent shopping-mall lawyer who, in one episode, refers to a mistrial as a "bad court thingy"; Principal Skinner, the hapless head of Springfield Elementary who refers to the puma, the school mascot, as "the principal of the mountains"; the Flanderses, the Simpsons' evangelical-Christian neighbors whose seemingly perfect life drives Homer to distraction.

The Simpsons is the only television show my children watch without simultaneously talking, reading or fighting: They don't want to miss anything. They can quote long stretches of dialogue from memory and identify uncredited guest appearances, such as that of Dustin Hoffman, who supplied the voice of a substitute teacher. The Simpsons is now in its ninth season, but to me the show doesn't seem tired. Animation is a blessing in that regard. Leave It to Beaver declined irretrievably when Jerry Mathers hit puberty. Bart, in contrast, will never have to graduate from fourth grade. The show will last until viewers' tastes change or the writers lose interest. I hope that doesn't happen for a long, long time.

David Owen's most recent book is The Lure of the Links (Atlantic Monthly Press).

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