A Reflection of Society and a Message on FamilyBy Eric Garrison
In December of 1989, Matt Groening had a new idea that differed from all the other show ideas at the time. While the other shows on ABC, CBS, and NBC consisted of such dreary soap operas such as General Hospital and other instantly forgettable shows, Groening decided to go into another direction, animation sketch comedy. It was a rare formula that hadn't really been done in the years since The Flinstones. The result was the new jewel of Fox's prime time lineup: The Simpsons. It started out as a few shorts on the Tracy Ullman Show and quickly earned enough of a following to develop itself into it's own time slot on Sunday nights.
It's been about 12 years since then, and The Simpsons doesn't look like it'll be stopping for years. To understand such a phenomenon and it's own effect on the general public, one must look at the general messages and morals of the show. In the heart of things, The Simpsons is a satire first and foremost. But despite any good intentions that the show may offer "in the spirit of good fun", many of the general public see it as subversive and ultimately harmful to their own well being. President George Bush at the time was heard as saying "The Simpsons is a bad influence on children". Some critics even think that where the show once had decency and clear-cut values, it is now a sloppy mess that should be taken off the air. To analyze these problems and to find a solution to them, the Potter Box must be applied to the whole Simpsons phenomenon. The problems will be identified; the values of the show will then be looked at, and some of the guiding principles. Finally, who gains to benefit from The Simpsons, the viewers or the show's producers?
When it started out, The Simpsons was a picture of the modern America nuclear family. Homer was " the loveable oaf", as described by the show creator Matt Groening. A well-meaning Dad, Homer had his ups and downs in the following years. Then there was Marge, the well-to-do housewife. She was at the start and is currently, the only restraining voice of the household. Lisa is the shy but inquisitive genius of the household. She started out as any normal genius child would; she would constantly analyze every situation in the Simpson's household, and attempt to try to find a solution for it. Bart was every boy child in America. A modern day Dennis the Menace with no clear inhibitions. Maggie was the silent infant one of the household, and would only make sounds from her pacifier.
IDENTIFYING THE PROBLEM
Already, the show had a few stereotypes, or portraits of the modern American family. The first few seasons of The Simpsons pointed fun at many American issues and provided their own ethical solutions to many moral dilemmas. In the seasons to come, more characters would enter the show, and the show itself would grow from a small cast, to a cast of hundreds. One of the main issues that some of the public would begin hold to against the show was stereotyping.
Apu started out in concept as a simple convenience clerk. According to show writer Mike Reiss though, when Hank Azaria (the voice of Apu) started to voice act the script, Azaria couldn't help but give Apu an Indian accent. "We couldn't help it" Says Reiss, "Once Apu was given an Indian accent, Apu Nahasapeemapetilan was born". In the following seasons, Apu is given to many stereotypical jokes and situations. In one such episode, an indignant Apu approaches a calm Reverend Lovejoy for calling his religion 'miscellaneous':
"Aw, that's Super". (Owen)
Not only does Lovejoy smile and nod at what Apu says, but also it's in a condescending way. It's here where the dividing lines between stereotyping and religion itself comes into question.
Christianity is one that is constantly mocked through some of the show's back characters, both Ned Flanders and Reverend Lovejoy. Reverend Lovejoy pictures God as harsh and vengeful in the weekly town church meetings. In one episode Lovejoy points out Ned Flanders as "the fallen one" for a mere traffic offense (Sohn). In the seasons to come, many of the show's creators found themselves being pushed by the Fox Network to not make fun of one religion: Catholicism.
The show's creators were furious about the whole matter. The show's writer Mike Scully says the following thing about the topic:
In excluding Catholicism, the whole show's values were put at stake. After all, The Simpsons has always been making fun of everybody. By excluding someone, the shows own morals and values were put at risk.
Where the whole problem of Catholicism resulted from was a Simpsons episode during the Super bowl. Spoofing an old ZZ Top Video, the commercial in the show showed a car pulling up in front of a gas station. An average guy then honks the horn, as nobody is there to serve him gas. Suddenly, dancing to rock music, three scantily clad attractive women emerge from the station and take the nozzle from the gas pump and insert it in a very seductive way into the man's car. They then open the hood of the car and one of the other girl's bends in front of him and the guy can't but help look at her sizable cleavage, hanging in front of it is a cross. The narrator of the commercial then says:
With such criticism against them, how can the show continue to operate as it is?
IDENTIFYING THE PRINCIPLES
Behind all the satire though is the driving force of the main message of the
show: family. While religion itself has been scrutinized under a watchful eye,
it also has been shown as force to be reckoned with in time of family crisis.
In one episode, religion is being scrutinized again, but in a more friendly
way. Homer approaches God in a dream about his own crisis of faith:
Homer: No. They moved to Phoenix. (Mullin)
God isn't shown as a vengeful God; here he is shown as a caring father, to one of his own children. Homer mentions his own family values, and God praises him for it. The show itself says here, religion shouldn't be what it's all about; it should basically be about being a good person and taking care of your family.
While the show may go in many different directions, show creator Matt Groening has a lot to say on the subject:
Family is supposedly one of the driving forces of the show in the early seasons. But somewhere along the line, the show seemed to lose a little focus. There isn't an exact point, but the show dropped it's own family focus, and decided to stretch it's own boundaries into an all out satire. In the earlier seasons, Bart was constantly seen as the protagonist of the show. Many fans fondly remember when Bart did all the crank calls at Moe's tavern. While then it was Bart's antics that were applauded, now its Homer's antics. The main brunt of the later changes in the show is now through the now main character, Homer Simpson.
In the first few years, Homer was the well to do dad. In the very first episode, "Simpson's Roasting On An Open Fire". Homer takes a job as a department store Santa to help pay for the family's Christmas. It is through Bart's own use of getting a Tattoo that causes the lack of funds in the Simpson family. At the end of the episode, through a sheer force of accident, they find the new family Christmas present, the dog, Santa's Little Helper at the racetracks. Marge lovingly looks at Homer and says "God bless him". Once again, the mottos of religion and family are tied together to present the show's own morals. Christmas is saved through Homer's good will or random luck of the moment.
Fast-forward a couple years. Homer is transformed from a hard working Dad, to a spur of the moment oaf in the blink of an eye. Gone is the Dad that works hard to pay for the family's debts, replacing him is Parody Homer. It is about season 7 where the transformation has been made complete. In the often-panned 'Frank Grimes' episode, we find the new worker around the Power Plant, Frank Grimes, being disgusted on just how lazy Homer is. Near the end of the episode he carelessly says to Homer, "You are what's wrong with America Simpson".
Homer is the lazy oaf riding on the shoulder of the average working man, Frank Grimes. At the end though, Grimes can't stand it anymore, he goes nuts and kills himself in a Homer like situation. He messes with the plant's power and electrocutes himself. At Grimes funeral, Homer is sleeping soundly and says, "Turn the channel Marge". The rest of the town then laughs at Homer's antics and the side character Lenny says "that's out Homer".
Where are the messages of family that had so once been in the show? Instead we just find a parody of the average American worker. "Don't bother working", the episode says, there will always be a Homer to cut you off. Be lazy! It was a funny episode though, but gone were the warm messages that The Simpsons once had in yesteryear. Through Parody Homer, all of society is being scrutinized, but underneath it all there is no family values or ethics of those values being used today.
George Meyer, who many other Simpsons writers refer to as the real writer of the show has this to say about the 'evolution' of Homer: "Homer has become a lot more volatile and mercurial. He will go from sentimentality to furious rage and then fall asleep all in the space of 10 seconds". Mike Reiss agrees with what Meyer says. "Absolutely. Homer has become a sort of paradox of sorts. Do we know anybody like him in real life? He has to be like he is; we have no one else to make fun of in the real world. If anybody in real life was made fun of all like he is in the show, they'd have killed themselves multiple times over by now".
Here we stand shocked, the actual creators of the show basically admit one of
the shows more long standing problems. They're running out of ideas. Reiss is
once again the first to admit. "We've been going on for 10 years plus!
Every topic you can imagine has already been covered. Next season Lisa will
be becoming a Buddhist, if the show keeps on going on after that, who knows?
We might have to make her a lesbian".
WHO GAINS TO BENEFIT?
For about 12 years now, The Simpsons has been chugging along through parody
and morals of family. Now that the show seems to be losing its edge, shouldn't
it be put out of its misery? The creators seemed to be divided on the matter.
In one interview with Newsweek, Groening had this to say about the show's content:
Here is where the real factor of the The Simpsons comes in, money. In a recent interview with Dan Castallena (Homer's voice), the following fact was revealed; that the voice actors received a $1,000,000 signing bonus to stay on the show for another 2 years. In addition to that, the actors would be paid $100,000 per episode (Johnson). There are no obvious complaints coming from the actors about the question of the show's longevity.
Groening had this to say in a later interview about the 'dilemma' that the voice actors were facing. "I have sympathy. They are incredibly talented, and they deserve a chance to be as rich and miserable as anyone else in Hollywood ... Hold out for as much money as you can get, but make the deal (Chocano)". Where are the ethics that Groening previously voiced about the show running out of ideas? It has been reported that the producers would stop the show-once it was out of ideas. In recent years, episodes of The Simpsons have been more episodic than anything. Even the infamous Grimey episode had more plot than some of the more recent episodes.
In a recent episode, dated in mid December 2001, Moe the bartender had the dilemma of being sick of running a hole in wall bar. With the advice of his old schoolteacher in college, Moe decided to run a ritzy new version of his tavern. Homer and his buddies were kicked out of the bar, and Moe found himself yet again unhappy about the new changes to his bar. Meanwhile Moe's teacher revealed to Moe that he was dying of cancer.
In front of Moe, the teacher then walks into a pool to drown himself. There was no visible reactions from Moe to help the teacher, instead Moe was caught up in his own troubles and went back to his bar dilemma. The conclusion of the episode ignores the teacher's death and has Moe still bored with his bar life. He ends up going back to the status quo, and has Homer and his friends once again enter the bar.
Already, the episode shows too much of a convoluted plot. While the Grimey episode had a general message about the work force, this episode of the show seemed to have no general message. Fans in recent years have criticized The Simpson's for its lack of plot and lack of story depth. The TV Internet Newsgroup Alt.TV.Simpsons, has many people that are against the direction that the show is now being directed toward.
One of the lead protestors on the group is Ondre Lombard who says Simpsons has "turned into a cold, cynical, anything-for-a-joke series with one-dimensional characters" (Weinman). The show's creators have recently funded their own private war with these protestors through their character, The Comic Book Guy. It started in a 1997 episode, where the Comic Guy in seeing a bad Itchy and Scratchy episode says:
Bart: "What?" "They've given you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possible owe you? If anything, you owe them".
Comic Book Guy: "Worst episode ever"
This passage sums up well the writers' own contempt on how scrupulous fans can be in analyzing the show. It obviously annoys the writers that they're episodes are being received poorly, but despite any misgivings, the Simpsons franchise looks like it'll keep plunging ahead. A conclusion must be made. Do the writers' of the show actually hold any responsibility to the series' fans?
PHILOSOPHIES AND CONCLUSIONS
Out of all the philosophies out there, 2 philosophies can be used to apply both to the creators and the fans themselves. One that applies to the show's creators thus far is that they're egoists. That is, they have really used the show as a vehicle for maximum benefit for themselves. From the beginning of the show, the creators have been quite vocal in how the show really, it is just for them selves. If they heeded every complaint to the show, The Simpsons would just become another sub par, boring politically correct television program.
But despite any vocal assertions that the show is for the creators themselves, the Simpsons have always been a creation of many. Matt Groening may have created the concept, but it is other writers such as George Meyer and Mike Reiss that have given the show its own originality. So where does responsibility to the fans come in? The writers' do bear a responsibility in that the show should be entertaining. It hasn't been for quite a while. Parody Homer, while fresh a few years ago, is an old staple of the nineties. If The Simpsons will want to remain on the cutting edge, it will have to adapt for the upcoming '2Ks'.
The philosophy that bears this in mind is Relativism. That is the writers' should still write what they think is right for the show, but they shouldn't be egotistical about it. They deserve much of the money that comes to them so far; they don't deserve the money though in making a mediocre show. Like in the case of Catholicism, there has been much censorship to the show itself that has prevented it from reaching the full potential that it once had. Gone are any simple messages or sharp satire, instead the show has become a vehicle for mediocre, outdated ideas. New blood should be hired into the show to keep it fresh.
Another reason the show has become stale is the staple of money. Greed in some cases has prevented them from searching for any kind of new status quo for the show. George Meyer had this to say about the program's beginnings:
With new restrictions by the networks and greed among some of the writers, The Simpsons has entered a rut. What it needs is new blood, or an end present syndication. That is the responsibility that The Simpsons will have to its viewers.
While many people have been offended by some of the shows' often scathing humor, one must remember that The Simpsons is a satire. No one is disincluded, and that's what keeps its one step ahead of most shows in its competition time slot. If the show's writers actually listen to what some of the fans are saying, then maybe the show can return to its former glory. If not, it's time for The Simpsons to make a fond farewell.
Jaime J. Weinman
© Eric Garrison (email@example.com), November 12, 2001.
Last updated on April 28, 2002 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)