So I realized that I do, in fact, own the first ten seasons of “The Simpsons,” which is one season plus what I consider to be the show’s “golden age.” Also I realized that I had actually been with the show all through that era, beginning with “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire.” Because I can never lack excuses to
waste valuable timebuild up my writing portfolio, I thought I could start doing what I’ve been doing with “Doctor Who” and just reflect on the episodes – what made them work and why I was in love with the show for so long.
So without further Apu (rimshot)…
“The Simpsons” are the Beatles of my generation.
Honestly, I don’t think that’s hyperbole or pop culture blasphemy. More than a TV show, it was a cultural event that, on one level, was just generating the usual wrong-headed and easy-way imitators, cheesy music videos, and shitty video games (I think trying to get through “Bart vs. The Space Mutants” was a rite of passage for anyone who was a kid and owned a Nintendo in the early ’90s), but on another level it molded the way an entire generation thought about animation, social satire, and even humor itself. Like it’s impossible to imagine a world where Archduke Ferdinand was never assassinated or what rock music after 1990 would have sounded like if Black Francis and Joey Santiago were never dorm mates at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, a contemporary American cultural landscape where Matt Groening was never commissioned to produce cartoon bumpers for the “Tracey Ullman Show” is likewise beyond our comprehension.
Even though the show was clearly a rare successor to “The Flintstones” as a prime-time animated sitcom for adults, the FOX marketing gurus had unleashed an advertising blitzkrieg aimed toward children and adolescents, which for a long while skewed the public’s perception about what “The Simpsons” basically was and helped cancel out any long-term success the show might have had in showing that animated shows were not inherently juvenile (an idea still with us, in spite of the most optimistic pronouncements of anime geeks and the like, if the way the Oscars treat the animated film category is any indication). Anyway, since I was not only in elementary school when “The Simpsons” first came out but actually saw the Christmas special that first detached the Simpsons from “The Tracy Ullman Show” (I wish I could claim I was there from theabsolute beginning, but I don’t think I was even aware of “The Tracey Ulman Show”‘s existence*), I was at ground zero. I even remember kids wearing t-shirts that showed a black version of the Simpson family.
Of course, it was all about Bart Simpson, the twentieth century’s Dennis the Menace. In hindsight I can understand the appeal, since he came along after it became less acceptable in Hollywood to show adolescents and children, especially young children, acting and talking like foul-mouthed adults – in other words, to show them like they fairly often are in real life. Yet it was always clear that the writers did not mean for Bart to connect with the kids, but to remind adults of their own precocious (genuinely or rose-colored precocious) childhoods. Now it’s hard to imagine that “The Simpsons” was ever seriously pushed as a kids’ show. That may be because the show has been on so long that the audience literally grew up with it, but also it was not all that long before the show’s focus unquestionably shifted toward Homer. Even the video game spin-offs have moved from being about Bart to starring the entire family. Speaking for my very young self, I never got some thrill from seeing Bart defy authority figures and spout off allegedly relevant slang, but because the show felt honest. It seemed refreshingly true about what school was like, how adults and especially my parents and teachers treated me, and about the society around me in ways that barely, if at all, existed in anything else that was on television or even in most mainstream movies at the time. I can’t be sure, but I suspect it was like that for many of the other kids my age who tuned in.
To really understand why “The Simpsons” was so quickly successful and came along at the right cultural time, you have to remember that they were riding the crest of a “backlash against a backlash.” The Norman Lear philosophy of the sitcom, that they can address the social and political concerns of the day, was one of many casualties of the cultural wing of the Reagan Revolution. The dominant species of ’80s sitcom was in the main sanitized celebrations of middle-class life, designed to assure audiences that personal happiness really can come hand-in-hand with financial security. Even sitcoms with potentially controversial premises, like “My Two Dads”, tended to be straight and without bite. While you did have “Cosby Show”-esque sitcoms all through the ’90s too, I still think you can say that the sub-genre was dying out by at least the early ’90s. After all, nothing signifies the death of a sub-genre or of a specific approach to a genre like seeing it boiled down to its purest, most nauseating element. And what represents that happening to the typical ’80s sitcom better than “Full House”?
Where was I? Oh yes, the backlash. I don’t think there’s a question that the very last years of the ’80s brought about a significant and lasting backlash against “The Cosby Show”-esque television; in fact, I’d argue that the late ’80s/early ’90s were a period of revolutionary television that hasn’t been matched in network TV since. Suddenly instead of more Cosby clones, we had shows centered around single, liberal Jewish New Yorkers; about single women in their 50s enjoying active sex lives; and a working-class Chicago family who were poor, miserable, and built around a dysfunctional marriage. Most strikingly, all three of these shows had the audacity to be tremendously successful, and if it weren’t for the late ’80s backlash there probably would be no FOX network.
Even the family sitcom did not go unaltered. There were the “Roseanne”s, which purported to offer a “realistic” reflection of working and lower middle-class life, and the “Married With Children”s, which went one step further by answering the successful, loving, upper middle-class family of “The Cosby Show” with impoverished, cynical, and self-loathing lower-class families, offering a kind of deconstructed “hyper-reality,” arguably (it’s no surprise that an early working title for “Married With Children” was actually “Not The Cosbys”). As much as the show stands out now in hindsight, “The Simpsons” was meant to be sitcom in this vein, only animated. Believe it or not, but in the first season “The Simpsons” was actually intended to also be realistic. Instead of presenting a distorted and satirical view of American life, at first it was supposed to give viewers a family that had actual financial struggles and interactions that were at least somewhat relateable.
This is probably why not many people, even people who claim to be diehard fans of the show, actually like the first season. In quite a few ways, it’s a completely different show from what “The Simpsons” became by the third season, even by the standards of all long-running and popular shows that experience an inevitable process of evolution. I’ve met people who say that they want to collect every DVD set of “The Simpsons,” but they still feel free not to bother with DVD sets of the first two seasons. Is this omission warranted? Is “The Simpsons” v1.0 any good at all?
Technically “Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire” was the first episode, even though it was the eighth one to be produced. Ironically, though, it works as an ideal introduction to the series, even in hindsight, since the characters really haven’t changed all too much. Lisa is intellectually precocious, gently but logically explaining to Aunt Patty that mocking her father will damage her perception of manhood and affect her adult relationships; Marge is the long-suffering but eminently forgiving mother; Patty and Selma are the joyless sisters-in-law (although they have yet to capture the je ne sais quoi of female, working-class, midlife singledom); and Bart is the softcore delinquent (if anything, he’s toned down over the years; I can’t imagine him saying “I’m Bart Simpson. Who the hell are you?” in any of the recent seasons of “The Simpsons.”) Surprisingly it’s Homer who is the least recognizable. He’s much less “borderline insane” and far more “disgruntled lower middle-class patriarch”, although there is a point where he has no idea who Tiny Tim is.
I honestly don’t have too much to say about the first episode, partially because I feel like I cut down too many digital trees already giving the background. Even with the gap between “The Simpsons” circa season one and circa season three, quite a bit of what makes “The Simpsons” great can already be glimpsed. The show is already just able to grab at the essence of American life: the pathetic nature of the elementary school play (and Lisa’s bizarre effort to breathe some life into it); the false and forced sense of “family” in work settings (although the writers do tip their hands a bit when Mr. Burns brags that safety costs have not touched management’s salaries); and Homer’s overriding sense of responsibility. There’s even a taste of reality about the way children think in Bart’s fantasy about why his mother would be overjoyed at the sight of his “MOTHER” tattoo. Even the strange logic of children is captured here and will stay on display, as we get to see more of life at Springfield Elementary.
To be honest, it’s not a particularly funny episode, especially if you’re used to the gag-a-minute nature of the later seasons. But it’s still quite good, a look at the very core of what will drive the show for years to come. Plus, even the stone-hearted among you have to admit that the plot – a desperately poor family salvaging a crappy Christmas by taking in an abandoned dog – is pretty damn sweet.
Favorite Lines and Gags
I don’t know why, but Maggie’s immobilizing star-shaped coat never fails to crack me up.
“And now, our boss and friend, Mr. Burns…”
Manager: “Do you like children?”
Homer: “What do you mean? All the time, even when they’re nuts?”
Homer stealing a Christmas tree from someone’s property – pretty funny. The fact that he apparently didn’t notice the birdhouse in it when he put it up – hilarious.
*Like 99.97% of all Americans, apparently. Zing!