The Simpsons as Quality Television

By Dan Korte

Over the years, "quality TV" has come to be known for its generic style and formulaic code. In the preface of his book, From Hill Street Blues to ER: Television's Second Golden Age, Robert J. Thompson outlines the formulation of a quality TV program with eleven primary criteria which result in a twelfth criterion, that of recognition and achievement which solidify its place in television history.

In December of 1989, the first animated prime-time series since the 1960's was introduced to American culture. The Simpsons displayed a unique wit and sense of humor based on the comic art of Matt Groening, whose characters were among the first emotionally "real" ones that TV audiences had ever seen. With character development of the family and community as the focus of the show, social commentary and satire have been brought to the forefront in cartoon format. Still thriving today, The Simpsons has enjoyed incredible success as a program which succeeds in its mission to teach a lesson, be funny, and sustain an audience while at the same time making a profit. In this essay, I intend to show that The Simpsons is a "quality" program according to Thompson's defining criteria, and is worthy of inclusion among the most highly regarded shows of our TV generation.

The Simpsons is produced by Gracie Films for Twentieth Century Fox and the FOX Network. It began on April 19, 1987 as a series of interstitials for The Tracey Ullman Show, and premiered as a series on December 17, 1989 in the FOX Sunday, 8 p.m. time slot. Regular broadcasts began in January of 1990, debuting as the network's highest-rated program, earning instant praise from both critics and the network's accountants.

Centering on a nuclear family and the people of an "Anytown, USA" (Springfield), The Simpsons rarely fails to surprise as it satirizes the diverse social, political, sexual, and aesthetic norms defining American culture. The Simpson family shares certain qualities with other TV families of the past, like the Bunker's, Bundy's, and Huxtable's, but the way their personalities are explored is unique.

Evolution has laughed at Homer Simpson. He is characterized as the lovable, if not terribly intelligent father who tries hard to please his family, his boss, and his friends, to varying degrees of success. A fumbling but devoted husband, Homer works as a safety inspector at the hilariously unsafe nuclear power plant. To him, it is a basically meaningless job that he does not particularly like, but is resigned to, and even comfortable in.

Homer's wife, Marge, is a patient and devoted woman. The lady of the towering blue beehive hair-do runs the Simpson family home, caring for her husband and children like a stereotypical American mother, serving as the model of morality and wholesomeness. Unlike traditional sit-coms, though, on The Simpsons, the wife is considerably more intellectually gifted than husband Homer (though that may not be saying much). However, very much in accordance with traditional patriarchal programs of the past, she never asserts herself even though she's always right. Marge's moral qualms are a frequent episodic theme, and developing the personalities of the family members and townspeople through moral issues is a common occurrence.

Bartholomew J. Simpson is ten years old and is the constant prankster. In becoming the countercultural icon that he is, Bart (which is an anagram of "brat") irritates his parents, sister, and teachers with pranks that range from the classic (flushing a cherry bomb down the school's toilet, ), to the unique (painting the lines in the faculty parking lot closer together so the teachers can't get out of their cars ). Additionally, his rebelliousness manifests itself in an alternate form-- his refusal to see life the way adults dictate he should. Bart Simpson knows what many people suspect, but never act upon: that authority figures do not know all the answers, and frequently are clueless. People tend to ignore him since he is a mischievous child, an "underachiever, and proud of it." Very often, though, his cynicism about authority enables him to expose things others do not see, thus becoming a vehicle for satirizing people's blindness towards the injustices and contradictions in the world. When the show began, Bart, the eldest Simpson child, was unquestionably the favorite. However, today, Homer is arguably the star of the show. While a case could be made that the lead is played by the charismatic townspeople of Springfield (among whom the Simpsons belong,) Homer has been the most emphasized character in any given episode.

The brains of the family, Lisa Simpson is particularly marked by her impressive, though unrewarded, intellect. She is also the "sensitive poet" of the show, with a deep respect for jazz (she plays saxophone) and the arts. Often sharing insights belying her age, Lisa is close to a perfect child. In addition to her intelligence, she is kind, honest, talented, and endearing. By escaping the control of people's great expectations of her, she is able to point out flaws in Springfield's society that adults would never be able to. This makes the social commentary in a Simpsons episode more pointed; one would expect to see an adult discover injustices in society, not an eight year old girl. By portraying Lisa as one of Springfield's forces for honesty, The Simpsons comments on our inability or unwillingness to confront corruption in our lives by using an uncorrupted child as its muckraker. Since many viewers feel the show is a child's adventure; this increases the effect of the social commentary by disguising it, making it more accessible to people who tend to shy away from heavy-handed social commentary.

Although Bart and Lisa Simpson are two radically different characters, they both are societal muckrakers and fit well into an established tradition of using children in satire to cue viewers who dislike political or societal commentary. It is perfectly evident that the two children with speaking roles know far more about real life, street life, and pop culture life than either parent.

And then there is the youngest child, Maggie, who is a baby. She has nursed a pacifier and toddled unsteadily throughout the eight year run of The Simpsons. In the title sequence, the camera descends into Springfield, meeting the family members at the close of their working day, much as The Flintstones did. In fact, the similarities between the two are too apparent to be merely coincidental. The Simpsons plays on the famous opening credits of one of the last animated series to be on prime-time, as the five "yabba-dabba-doo" their way home from a typical day in the life of the Simpsons. The family leave their places of work (for Homer, the nuclear power plant; Marge and Maggie's shopping trip; Lisa's music rehearsal; and Bart's after-school detention) to converge at home, settling in front of the television set to watch, of all things, The Simpsons.

1. According to Thompson, the first criterion of a quality television program is that it is not regular TV. It must break the established rules of television and be like nothing that has come before it. Ed Bishop of The Riverfront Times eloquently makes the point that The Simpsons is a revolutionary show:

"I know other shows on television are funny. But the appeal of The Simpsons goes beyond its humor. There's an angst, a kind of doom, in The Simpsons that's unlike anything else on television. The Simpsons are a family of losers and they know it. Homer and Marge will never get beyond their debts and the middle-class values they actually hate. Lisa will grow up and marry someone like her father, never opening up the poet inside her. Bart will likely die in a drag-racing accident. Yet, though there's angst and even self-pity in these characters, they are not defeated. Their awareness of their limitations and their struggle against them are a rare combination for television sit-coms. This is not a humorous twist on what psychologists like to call a dysfunctional family. On The Simpsons, it's the world that's dysfunctional. In other words, unlike the narrative neatness on even the best TV shows, these cartoon characters have a reality about them. A kind of joy exists in that."

The critical humor, self-reflexiveness, intertextuality, and form of The Simpsons serve to set the show apart from its predecessors as well as others that would seek to imitate it.

The most visible way in which The Simpsons is not like "regular" TV is in its presentation of humor. However, unlike most humorous shows on television, it does not employ the use of a laugh track to cue the viewer in to when it is being funny. Dozens of jokes, asides, and funny references are made in the course of an episode but, due to the lack of a cue, go largely unnoticed. There are so many of these allusions in a given episode that often, one can watch that episode over and over again and pick up new ones each time. The Simpsons is a program unique in its use of humor without a laugh track, in the way that it invites the viewers to pick out for themselves the lines and actions they think are funny, based on their own personal experiences and awareness of popular culture.

Unlike many shows on TV, The Simpsons works to encourage critique, demanding that viewers be active in their consumption. Without hesitation or apology, it ridicules the advertisements, slanted news stories, and inane talk shows that appear on their own beloved TV set. Other societal institutions are similarly targeted. The systems of law and justice, religion, the medical profession, the political structure, and the educational system all are revealed to be hollow and almost always, narrowly self-interested. Very little is sacred on The Simpsons. The ability of The Simpsons to entertain us while at the same time pointing out things that we might not otherwise see about ourselves, our beliefs, and our institutions, is surely a mark of quality.

Mark Sinker of New Statesman & Society notes that there had never really been a mainstream program where the mockery of the very idea of parental authority was so total. Indeed, this is what helped the show break ground in the way it dealt with family issues.

In addition to family issues, The Simpsons covers the most serious of topics. More than most live-action shows, the program has candidly covered scores of sensitive social issues in its nearly eight years in prime-time. These include: sexuality, the corruption of our political and legal systems, the stratification of society, homosexuality, prejudice, parenting, the moral decay of society, bigamy, the plight of the elderly, TV as "vast wasteland," violence in society, media bias, and the crumbling education system. Plenty of shows touch on these topics, but how many mask them with the humor and yellow fleshtones that The Simpsons does? Not in many cartoons will viewers find such serious issues addressed as in this animated family sit-com.

2. Quality television generally is produced by people of quality aesthetic ancestry, who have honed their skills in other areas, particularly film. The primary creators of The Simpsons each had specialized talents that allowed them to collaborate and create such a tremendously successful program. Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon, along with scores of others, came from their already established careers in all sorts of fields, joining forces to create The Simpsons in all its animated glory.

The subversive comic sensibility of Matt Groening has probably influenced as many kids as Joe Camel. The cartoonist started drawing as a release for his frustrations at his miserable existence in Los Angeles after graduating from Evergreen State College, WA, in 1977. His "Life In Hell" caught the attention of James L. Brooks of Gracie Films, who planned a production meeting with Groening to discuss a TV project involving the cartoon. Realizing that would force himself to give up a substantial amount of royalties from the strip, Groening decided to sketch an animated family of five while waiting to see Brooks about the animation project. The Simpsons were born in 15 minutes.

Groening drew a balding, overweight father, a mother with a mile-high beehive hairdo, and three obnoxious, spiky-haired children. He then named the characters after the family he knew best-- his own. The Simpsons are named after, but not based on, creator Groening's own relatives: Groening's father and son are named Homer, his mother is Marge and he has two sisters, Lisa and Maggie. These characters were intended to represent the average American family, which he then gave the typical American surname, Simpson.

One of Matt Groening's intentions in creating The Simpsons was to make the audience forget they are watching a cartoon by portraying a fuller range of human emotion than that presented in most live-action sit-coms, emphasizing individual responses to moral dilemmas and specific character traits. In doing so, he is able to convey his own politics through the Simpsons' daily activities, such as Homer's job. At the nuclear power plant, there is constant danger of meltdown, and in each episode dealing with the plant, disaster is flirted with. Indeed, that is one of the benefits of being a creator of the show-- the ability to make political statements and observations. Maggie, in the opening of the show, is accidentally scanned by a bar-code reader in the grocery store and is listed as costing $847.63, a figure once given as the amount of money required to raise a baby for one month in the U.S. Subtle observations such as this are commonplace on The Simpsons.

Matt Groening is credited as the primary creator of The Simpsons. Today, he is officially known as the show's Creative Consultant, and has a hand in almost every phase of the production process. His name appears on all Simpsons merchandise, by agreement with the 20th Century FOX Film Corporation, who bought the rights and ownership of the program.

As primary creator of the show, Groening works in an overseer capacity, supervising character design, working over the story boards other artists have created, directing the complicated animation, and co-directing the dialogue. However, writing is his major concern, a task he shares with co-producer Sam Simon and executive producer James Brooks.

Without James L. Brooks, it is doubtful "Simpsonia" would have swept America. In the beginning, he sponsored The Simpsons by hiring Groening to contribute his cartoonery to The Tracey Ullman Show with The Simpsons skits before and after commercial breaks. Fellow creator Sam Simon says of Brooks, "It was Jim Brooks who had the vision of what this series could be. The breakthrough was Jim's marching orders to do a show based on the emotional inner lives of its cartoon characters, and that's really never been done before."

An alumnus of the prestigious MTM production company, Brooks is a deity in the comedy world. The Simpsons was a giant leap from his previous projects, as producer of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, The Tracey Ullman Show, and director of the films Terms of Endearment and Broadcast News.

Sam Simon has also been a key player in the success of The Simpsons. At the time of creation, he was a co-producer of the Tracey Ullman Show, where he, Brooks, and Groening decided to spin The Simpsons bumpers off into a show of its own. Famous for his work on Taxi and Cheers, Simon contributed his skills in sit-com writing to the show. Later, he became a producer of The Simpsons.

3. The third element of quality TV according to Thompson is that it attracts a blue-chip audience. These programs were perhaps once loathed by the elite, and are now embraced by them. Particularly attractive demographics of such quality TV programs include upscale, well educated, urban and young viewers.

Unlike many quality shows which suffer early on from low ratings, within two months of its series premiere in January 1990, The Simpsons had jumped into Nielsen's Top 15. This is an astonishing performance, considering that the FOX network reached only 80% of households in the country at that time. Even more amazing than that is the series' demographics. Not only does The Simpsons consistently rank in the top 10 among the young, but it draws plenty of older people as well.

In addition to Simpsons fans being young, they are also smart. At least their writers are. "There are jokes you won't get," says Groening, "unless you've actually attended a few classes in college." It also helps if you know old movies. Simpsons plots have spoofed King Kong, Citizen Kane, Thelma & Louise, Cape Fear and countless Hitchcock films. The writers work in as much material to appeal to more educated viewers as they do for the maintenance of plot.

Indeed, there is not much mystery as to why the show rates highly among young viewers. The series, in the opinion of critic Harry F. Waters, "shamelessly panders to a kid's eye view of the world: parents dispense dopey advice, school is a drag, and happiness can be attained only by subverting the system." The reasons for the show's captivation of older viewers is a bit more complex. Baby boomers who grew up watching The Flintstones and The Jetsons, the last cartoon families to make it in prime-time, undoubtedly hold a soft spot for animated antics. This cartoon, though, is loaded with sophisticated satire and cultural asides that only adults would fully comprehend. And only then, the most pop-culturally aware of adults.

Clearly, TV research data supports the fact that The Simpsons is successful among viewers possessing attractive demographics, thereby qualifying the show in yet another regard as quality TV.

4. It is common for a quality television program to struggle against non-appreciative audiences for a time. Bad time slots, prior cancellations, and other unfortunate instances have been known to encompass quality TV shows. Further, success for these programs has often come after conflicts between creators and network executives over creative bounds or finances, as well as other unusual circumstances. This has certainly been the case for The Simpsons. Once a fledgling project of The (doomed) Tracey Ullman Show, The Simpsons took a risk in ultimately branching out on its own. The FOX network took a big chance in taking on a show by an alternative cartoonist. Revolting against the common formula for success in TV, FOX's gamble has paid off thousand-fold by The Simpsons, the most memorable animated prime-time family serial in decades.

In the beginning of its syndication run, Twentieth Television was faced with the dilemma of choosing a target audience in strategically marketing The Simpsons. Twentieth ended up emphasizing the adult appeal of The Simpsons to target 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. access periods. Competitors contended that because the cartoon is not a classic adult situation comedy, it should be targeted to children. Twentieth executives supported their decision and countered criticism by citing that The Simpsons regularly beat or tied The Cosby Show during its Thursday 8 p.m. airing years earlier. The decision to make adults the target audience was a difficult one to make because there was no precedent of an animated series airing in prime access, where stations can determine if it has the straight adult appeal of a live-action situation comedy.

After being aired as a successful Christmas special in 1989, the show consistently scored high ratings in its prime-time slot on Sunday evenings. Since The Simpsons was a success from the outset, it cannot be said that the show suffered with cancellations or the like, as is common to many of the quality prime-time dramas. In fact, for a time, it was stacked up against the extremely successful The Cosby Show, and Twentieth Television executives noted it often beat out Cosby head-to-head in the ratings. Time slots have always generous to the program. In addition to its developing a following after becoming independent of Tracey Ullman, The Simpsons' primary problem (if it can be labeled as such) with respect to this criterion of quality was merely trying to find a niche audience for advertising purposes.

5. The fifth element in Thompson's definition of what comprises a quality TV program is a large ensemble cast which allows for multiple plot lines. This criterion is particularly evident in The Simpsons. In addition to the Simpson family, scores of citizens of Springfield also play prominently in the show. Among them are the extended family--Abraham "Grandpa" Simpson, Homer's father who lives at the Springfield Retirement Community (where a sign outside the front door reads "Thank you for not discussing the outside world."); and Patty and Selma Bouvier, Marge's sisters who have never liked Homer (the feeling is mutual). Integral characters include the owner of the town's nuclear plant, Montgomery Burns and his obsequious personal assistant, Waylon Smithers (one of the few homosexual characters on television). Seymour Skinner, Bart's nemesis, is the Principal of Springfield Elementary, the featured site of many an episode. There, Bart's teacher Mrs. Krabapple, school bullies Dolph, Kearney, and Jimbo Jones, and Groundskeeper Willy frequently appear. Plot lines have also revolved around Bart's closest friend, Milhouse Van Houten, and his parents Kirk and Luanne.

Krusty the Clown plays the role of "hero," while his sadistic counterparts, Itchy & Scratchy, entertain the children of Springfield. Krusty's right hand men, Sideshow Bob (and later, Sideshow Mel) have also been major centers of attraction. Religious do-gooder Ned Flanders and his wife Maude, and sons Rod and Todd, play key roles as meddling but good-natured Simpson neighbors. Organized religion is spoofed as Reverend Lovejoy takes the pulpit each Sunday in Springfield. Corporate America (one corporation, in particular) is lampooned by Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who runs the Kwik-E-Mart convenience store. At a recurring setting reminiscent of Cheers, Homer often frequents Moe's Tavern, a place where everybody knows his name and where story lines are known to develop. There, owner/bartender Moe Szyslak and the ever-present Barney Gumbel lead the laughs.

The town is run by the Kennedy-esque Mayor Quimby, the news is reported by Kent Brockman, and the law is enforced by the slothful and humorously careless Chief Wiggum and his sycophant deputies. All of these characters and many more form the backdrop of Springfield, a fictional town founded by Jedediah Springfield, whose statue stands in the public square.

In addition to the huge number of regular characters appearing on the program, the Simpsons have a large variety of famous friends who drop in frequently. Guest voices on the show have included Bob Hope, Donald Sutherland, Danny DeVito, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ringo Starr, Johnny Carson, Darryl Strawberry, Aerosmith, Bette Midler, and Dustin Hoffman. "For some reason," says Groening, "a lot of Hollywood big shots are curious to see how they'd be drawn with bulging eyes and no chin." Over one hundred characters have been portrayed on The Simpsons, easily attaining the "large ensemble cast" criterion of the quality TV formula as defined by Robert J. Thompson.

6. Another element in the quality TV definition is its memory. Such programs are known to refer back to previous episodes and even prior seasons in the development of plot. To illustrate such an occurrence in The Simpsons, in the Nov. 2, 1997 episode, two references were made to previous episodes in a mere two minute span. Homer was at a gun shop trying to buy a handgun. As the five day waiting period passed and his application was being reviewed, the clerk made mention of his tendencies to drink heavily, and then said, "it says here you got in a fight with President Bush." Avid fans will remember the episode in which George and Barbara Bush moved to Springfield and quarreled with their new neighbors, the Simpsons. After his purchase, Homer brought the gun home to proudly show the family. Marge was taken aback by the "gift," complaining that she would not have a gun in her house, because, after all, "Don't you remember last year when Maggie shot Mr. Burns?"

Marge's question referred to the final show of the sixth season, a cliff-hanger which carried over to the following season, where it was resolved with much fanfare. All too reminiscent of the celebrated "Who shot J.R.?" episode of the prime-time 80's series Dallas, The Simpsons began the Fall, 1996 season by solving the mystery of "Who shot Mr. Burns?"

Relying on its penchant for parodies as a general rule, The Simpsons made a special effort to use this one of Dallas to carry its loyal audience into the next season, counting on the memory of the audience (and some hefty advertising dollars) to bring the fans back for another year.

7. The seventh criterion of quality TV according to Thompson is that it defies genre classification by creating a new one. It does so by mixing several established genres. In addition to being considered a prime-time animated sit-com, The Simpsons also shows flashes of drama, mystery, action/adventure, romance, and musicals, often all in the same half-hour. In effect, The Simpsons defies ordinary genre classification because of its mixture of so many varieties of programs. Another unique characteristic of the show is that it does so in the form of a cartoon! Everything from drug use, censorship, racism, violence, and hatred to contemporary social movements, pop culture, and politics has been etched in celluloid by individuals who realized that the pastel colors of animation often blind the censors to their biting critiques of the world. Despite its animated form, The Simpsons takes several different genres of television and blends them together to produce one of the most stylistically varied programs on the air.

8. It is largely because of the style of The Simpsons that it fits the eighth tenet of quality television. The principle is that quality TV tends to be more literary than regular TV, and the writing is more complex. Because The Simpsons is animated, this almost has to be true for it to achieve success. After all, the acting of the cartoon characters on the show is not going to win any awards on its own.

Richard Corliss has this to say about the writing of The Simpsons. "After all these years, they can still surprise you. Part of the fun of watching is trying to figure out what the main plot line will be; the first few minutes of any episode are so packed with comic detail that the story could go in any of a dozen directions. This is one show whose writers seem to have too many good ideas."

Furthermore, Joe Morganstern has said that The Simpsons is "livelier and more vividly human than most live-action shows and has some of the most incisive writing on TV."

Indeed, The Simpsons has to rely on its writing because there is no real acting, only voice acting. The scripts must be that much more complex and thoughtful to make up for the lack of real actors and the drama that people can convey. The voices--all of which are done by only a handful of people, are a huge part of the show's success.

Hank Azaria, Dan Castellaneta, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, and the rest of the voice actors work just as hard as dramatic on-screen actors to bring us an entertaining show, but go largely unnoticed as compared with live actors in other quality shows. Perhaps these voice actors work even harder than do live actors. In live-action, the actor's voice and image are always unified. If the viewer does not understand the spoken words, the actor's body language can fill him in. But in animation, a tremendous amount of work must be done by the voice artists to use their voices, alone, to convey the cues body language otherwise fills in. For example, one cannot see the conviction in Nancy Cartwright's voice when Bart Simpson apologizes to Lisa in "Bart vs. Thanksgiving." One cannot see the love in Dan Castellaneta's eyes when Homer tells Marge how he feels about her. It all has to come from the voice. And it works. Indeed, the success of the show is due in large part to the writing, which leads to credible voice acting. It is the exceptional writing of the show that allows the viewer to believe that the characters could be real, despite their animated form.

9. The Simpsons is a show made famous by its sharp social and cultural criticisms. By tuning into a single episode, one can catch at least dozens of cultural references and allusions to popular culture, just as one would expect to see in an established quality program, according to Thompson's definition. Some hit the viewer over the head with a brick in terms of their subtlety, and others are much more obscure, recognizable only to those well-informed on the intricacies of pop culture.

A plethora of obvious references to popular culture can be found on The Simpsons. Music is just one way in which these references are made. Stuck-in-the-70's character Disco Stu dances to The Bee Gees' "Staying Alive." Homer waits out the five day background check period prior to his purchase of a gun to Tom Petty's "The Waiting." One-hit-wonders are particularly fair game for being the butt of Simpsons jokes.

In-jokes are made about current and dated songs, hit movies and Broadway plays, as well as about fads such as the Macarena, the hula hoop, and Cabbage Patch Kids. It can only be a matter of time before The Simpsons works today's fads into its narrative. Indeed, the writers pay a tremendous amount of attention to the detail that goes into their scripts, humorously referencing people, places, and things--including itself.

The Simpsons is a program that takes pride in its ability to recognize and poke fun at itself and its competitors in television. Several examples of its self-reflexivity come to mind immediately. In the Nov. 9, 1997 episode, Homer is the coach of a pee-wee football team, where bully Nelson Muntz is the star quarterback. When calling the signals to snap the ball, starting the play, Nelson barks, "5F03, hut, hut!!!!" Die-hard fans recognized that 5F03 is the production number of that particular episode. It often takes keen senses of hearing and/or sight on the part of the viewer in order to pick up on the obscure but purposeful references to itself. But they are most definitely there in abundance.

Other examples of its self-consciousness include the Simpson family gathering in their living room to watch themselves on television. Furthermore, over the years, several references are made indirectly to the Tracey Ullman Show, the first home of The Simpsons before it went solo and hit the big time. In one episode, Bart and his friends watch a dramatic episode about their hero in the Krusty the Clown Story, a show within a show, which makes fun of itself and its characters. In the Nov. 9, 1997 episode, Hank Hill and family from King of the Hill, the animated FOX series right after The Simpsons, appeared at the football game in which Bart was playing and Homer was coaching.

But The Simpsons does not draw the line at poking fun at itself and the FOX network. It is an equal opportunity critic, as in the same Nov. 9 episode, it spoofs the Warner Brothers network's Michigan J. Frog mascot as being an overworked, bitter spokesman for a failing network. In reference to one of the strangest programs ever to appear on television, Homer retrospectively slams FOX rival ABC when watching an episode of Twin Peaks, summing up the feeling of the American people who were left clueless by the series, saying, "I have absolutely no idea what's going on."

A more obscure example of the attention to detail that the writers give to bashing their competitors can be found by taking a closer look at Homer's workplace. The nuclear power plant can be interpreted as a satire of one of the FOX network's rivals, NBC. General Electric, the biggest builder of nuclear energy plants in America, owns NBC. Hence, the writers take a shot at their ratings rival by depicting those who own and manage nuclear power as openly articulating their acceptance of life-threatening risks to workers and nearby residents as not important when revenue and profits are at stake. Seemingly nothing-- no plot line, spoken word, nor visual image is an accident on The Simpsons.

10. The tenth item on the list of qualifications for quality TV is that its subject matter tends toward the controversial. In combining entertainment and subversion, The Simpsons angers some people as much as it amuses others. In addition to its humor and surface entertainment, The Simpsons deals with some serious issues. The show's ability, as a cartoon, to discuss issues such as work and relationships and love, sex, violence, and death have taken critics aback. One reason for this is that not much is expected of an animated sit-com. Despite its mixture of genres, as previously discussed, not many "lessons" are supposed to be taught in such a program. It has been claimed that television is such a frivolous medium that when The Simpsons' writers write about subjects that actually cause people anxiety, the people are surprised by it. Joe Rhodes of Entertainment Weekly noted that "The Simpsons at its guerrilla TV, a wicked satire masquerading as a prime-time cartoon."

Funny though it is, The Simpsons has attracted a great deal of serious analysis for the way it deals with contemporary life. Like Roseanne and Married With Children, The Simpsons certainly seems to be part of a trend where sit-coms look at the often unpleasant underbelly of working-class families. The Simpsons has caused controversy in the U.S. over some of its stories. In one, Homer's wife, Marge, contemplates having an affair. Many episodes of The Simpsons, such as this one, also seek dramatic undertones to create emotional situations to help strengthen their messages. "Thematically, the network was very worried about it, and I think that was one of our real breakthrough episodes," says Sam Simon. "It was the first time I watched the show where I really felt I'd never seen anything like it before.

While Simon says the show is not out to grandstand, he is proud of how The Simpsons occasionally addresses topics. He says:

"I don't want to be misunderstood. I think we do have 'issue' shows, and I'm glad the show attracts sufficient (interest) for people to want to analyze it. For all I know, they may be more correct about their conclusions than the people who write and direct it! I'm very proud that we've tackled issues, but in American television, when you do a show with a point, it usually becomes one of those 'very special episodes' and you stop being funny for a week to make a statement."

11. The eleventh element of quality TV, according to Thompson, is that it aspires toward realism. The Simpsons is perhaps the best example TV viewers have of a realistic family show. Matt Groening described them as "people who love each other and drive each other crazy." The characterization is so much like real families that many people suffer the shock of self-recognition. Simply put, people can relate to the humor that The Simpsons creators extract out of "normal" family life. We can identify with the feelings of each character during the good times and the bad, in a way most family-based shows never acknowledge. Springfield is somewhat realistic in its "Anytown, U.S.A." depiction. Though no doubt stereotypical in its portrayal of people, places, and things, there is a degree of realism to Springfield.

Matt Groening elaborates on the show's authenticity: "The world kicks Homer in the ass but he doesn't resent it. And that's because he doesn't get it. A lot of people identify with being kicked around, so it's fun to see someone not understand it and struggle through fairly happy anyway."

Richard Corliss expounds on the authenticity of the main character: "Homer isn't bright, but he loves his brood. The poor patriarch is so dull witted that he probably couldn't count to 16 if he used all his fingers and his toes. But he is a faithful husband, and if he often derides his kids, he will do anything -- go skateboarding off a cliff, defy his boss, buy Lisa a pony -- if the tots scream loud enough and if Marge gives him a lecture."

Indeed, perhaps what has made the show as popular as it has been is its portrayal of the American family. Before its arrival, by the late 1980's and early 1990's, television comedy had become stale. The typical sit-com family was an upper-middle-class professional family with wise parents and generally well-behaved children, as in The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Growing Pains. Seeing a family more like themselves, with a well-meaning but boneheaded father, a mother whose greatest accomplishment is keeping the family members from killing each other, a lazy, mischievous son, and a sweet and intelligent, but moody and self-pitying daughter, has been a breath of fresh air for viewers. For we see the Simpsons as more like ourselves than any television family of the recent past.

12. The final element of quality TV, according to the outlined definition, is less its own criterion as it is a result of the successful combination of the previous eleven. This outcome is that those series' which exhibit the eleven characteristics of quality TV are recognized and appreciated by critics, and showered with awards and critical acclaim.

In September, 1990, The Simpsons picked up an Emmy award for best animated series. The award was won for its animation despite a decision by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences to finally include The Simpsons for consideration in the best situation comedy category for its Emmy awards. This broke the ATAS's long-held position that the series could be considered only in animated series categories. That decision set the precedent and opened the floodgates for further recognition. The Simpsons went on to win Emmys for "Outstanding Animated Program" in 1991 and 1995, also winning a Peabody award in March, 1997.

The Simpsons began its syndication run in September, 1994, a little while after reaching its 100th show. Currently running in the prime access hour from 6-7 p.m. in a large percentage of American homes, The Simpsons still enjoys considerable success in its 8 p.m. Sunday time slot on the FOX network. Seemingly overnight, The Simpsons emerged as a breakaway ratings hit, as well as an industry trendsetter, a merchandising phenomenon, a cultural template and among its most fanatical followers, a viewing experience verging on the religious. Remarkably, at issue is not a serious, thought-provoking, hour-long drama, but a half-hour cartoon.

Cartoon or not, has there ever been a prime-time series which has so mercilessly exposed the hypocrisies and the clichés which exist in American society and the beliefs which hold it together? Dave Berkman cites four examples of these: self-centered child rearing; screw-your-fellow-man religiosity; environmentally abusive corporate greed; and its uncompromising exposure of the deceits perpetrated by American education.

Although they may be crudely drawn characters, the Simpsons embody a genuine social force. It can be argued that television mirrors us more than it molds us. In so doing, The Simpsons sends out an intriguing message about ourselves. As viewers, we begin to revolt against television's idealized images of domestic life, while at the same time lovingly embracing "our favorite family." The genius of The Simpsons is that it deconstructs the myth of the happy family and miraculously leaves what is real and valuable about the myth unscathed. Based on past TV programs such as the Walton's and the Brady's, in our national delusion, we have been hit with the idea that the life of the sit-com family is the way things are "supposed" to be.

Indeed, TV has become the family ritual and has come to reflect its context in its content, becoming the ritual of and about the family. Everything is okay, and even the most outrageous problem can be resolved within the half hour of screen time. And the ending clincher, double-take, or final one-liner brings audience approval with the promise that the gang from Springfield will be back next week.


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  • The Simpsons: “The Cartridge Family” (FOX television broadcast, Nov. 2 1997).
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© Dan Korte (, November 1997.

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Last updated on October 13, 1999 by Jouni Paakkinen (