:: Article

Sixty-Four Slices of American Cheese

By Max Dunbar.


Simpsons Confidential, John Ortved, Ebury 2010

‘We’re going to keep trying to strengthen the American family,’ George Bush pledged at the 1992 Republican Convention. ‘To make them more like the Waltons and less like the Simpsons.’ Three days later, a repeat of the show was preceded by a scene where the family watch Bush’s speech. Bart responded: ‘We’re just like the Waltons. We’re praying for an end to the Depression, too.’ This was The Simpsons at its best: concise, irreverent and grounded in reality. ‘It was a repudiation of the fantasy values Bush was pushing,’ John Ortved writes, ‘and a reminder that there was an ongoing battle with poverty that no prayer or culture war would win.’

Nowadays The Simpsons does kind of seem like The Waltons. In opening the door to adult animation it created followers who would take the medium into dark places where Homer would never dare tread. As Ortved points out, the worst thing Bart Simpson ever did was cut the head of a statue: Eric Cartman, South Park’s resident bully, has tried to exterminate the Jews. Family Guy‘s most popular character was the relentless sexual predator Glenn Quagmire, with his trademark leer of ‘gigidy-gigidy-gig‘; coming across a cheerleader bound and gagged in a toilet cubicle, he exclaims: ‘Dear Diary – jackpot!’

The Simpsons always had unquestioned rules. The family argue and shout but they are at heart decent people who love each other. The marriage of Homer and Marge has its disappointments and frustrations but it is a full and happy one: neither will cheat on the other, despite many opportunities. The outside world is fair game. Springfield is populated by rapacious businessmen, corrupt cops, indifferent teachers in crumbling schools. Its alienated residents seek solace in worthless consumer products, poor quality television, absurd and contradictory religious doctrine – and of course there’s Moe’s Tavern, the bar where no one knows your name.

Homer works in a nuclear power plant run by the megalomaniac Mr Burns, an ageing tycoon with aspirations towards cartoon supervillainy. He keeps safety precautions and workers’ rights at the bare minimum, and poisons the town with radioactive waste – if there’s a single image that sums up the Simpsons philosophy, it’s that of Blinky the three-eyed fish. The first time I saw the show, I was amazed that anyone would dare to show authority figures in a critical light. How did this stay on the air?

In fact, it’s a sustained irony that the Fox network made its name with a programme that has obvious liberal bias and subversive edge. Opinions are divided as to whether the show is screwing Murdoch from the inside or has simply accommodated itself with him. Academic Bill Savage says that ‘Rupert Murdoch will appear as a character on The Simpsons as a greedy, billionaire scumbag if the ratings are good enough and they make money on it… I don’t think any capitalists feel particularly threatened by leftist ideas.’ Still, there were frequent clashes with execs: Ortved gives the example of the ‘whore gun,’ a device Homer invents for women who need to put on makeup in a hurry. Dismissing Marge’s objections (‘Homer, women don’t like being shot in the face,’) Homer tests out his innovation, blasting his wife with a layer of exaggerated rouge lipstick and eyeliner. ‘Damn,’ he muses. ‘I must have left it on whore setting.’

The early episodes had a focus on low-key problems – job insecurity, marital boredom, inexplicable childhood sadness. There was a sense of decaying infrastructure and a world geared towards capital rather than individuals and families. The American family holds each other tightly on a train hurtling towards the cliff’s edge. In this sense, it was far more realistic than The Waltons, and had far greater emotional punch. Perhaps because they were animated, the identical Springfield houses and its empty suburban streets carried a sense of absolute isolation. You’re on your own, and it’s going to get tough.

Who could forget the episode where Lisa’s dull, cynical grade-school teacher comes down with Lyme Disease and is replaced by a brilliant, inspiring supply man who recognises Lisa’s intellect and tells her she can be anything she wants to be. Inevitably Mr Bergstrom (‘feel free to make fun of my name; two suggestions are ‘Mr Nerdstrom’ and ‘Mr Boogerstrom”) leaves to take a job in a tough inner-city school. A distraught Lisa runs to the train station to see him off. ‘That’s a problem with being middle class,’ Bergstrom says, ‘anybody who really cares will abandon you for those who need it more.’ Before boarding the train, he gives Lisa a folded piece of paper: ‘Whenever you feel like you’re alone and there’s nobody you can rely on; this is all you need to know.’ When the train is gone, Lisa unfolds the note. It reads: ‘You are Lisa Simpson.’

There’s a consensus among TV critics and hardcore fans that the show has long lost the qualities that made it great in the past. Later episodes lacked not only the emotion but the edge. Ortved highlights a 24 spoof with Principal Skinner trying to stop Bart from letting off a stinkbomb. He argues that 24 was exactly the kind of mindless McBain-style bullshit that The Simpsons would have torn apart in better days. Instead the episode was ‘little more than a marketing video for both series.’ Celebrities appeared on the show to be flattered; South Park laid into Tom Cruise with such ferocity that the Cruise episode has not been shown in the UK for legal reasons.

Still, this is the most important television series of our time, and it still makes you smile. There’s a touching moment in Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind where she writes about her father’s love of comedy and relates how they watched the entire box set of Fawlty Towers just before his death. Growing up, I shared a bond of comedy with my dad and we’d lie on opposite sofas on weeknights watching sitcoms. I recall that I didn’t feel comfortable with the show unless my father was also laughing. Reading Simpsons Confidential, I was laughing like hell on the commuter train, not at the book but at the memories of classic Simpsons scenes, and looking to the opposite couch, where my dad was laughing too.


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is Manchester’s regional editor of Succour magazine, a journal of new fiction and poetry, and reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 1st, 2010.