Sitcom Satire at its FinestBy Kirstyn Miller
In a society where television is dominated by unrealistic and over-glamorized police and courtroom dramas, hokey emergency room tragedies, and ridiculously-more-hilarious-than-real-life office sitcoms, shows about "run-of-the-mill" middle-class family life are typically overlooked. Typically, but not always. For the past several years, the popular FOX animated sitcom The Simpsons has reshaped the mold of a television sitcom and truly (and intelligently) defined itself as a tongue-in-cheek (and surprisingly realistic) take on the modern American dream--an evolution of such "realistic" sitcoms from time past as All in the Family, Roseanne, and the pioneer of them all, The Honeymooners (snpp.com).
The Simpsons are presented to viewers as a "typical" working class family--"they eat meat loaf, watch tenpin bowling on TV, go to truck races and have trouble making ends meet" (Flew 1). The Simpsons is a breath of fresh air, thriving on the art of parody amongst the pallid mainstream attempts such as South Park. Packed with a cast of intelligent and believable characters, a realistic plot, a message to children, and parodies of American icons galore, The Simpsons has made its mark on pop culture and has accrued an enormous following and distinguished recognition in its twelve seasons.
The Simpsons characters are distinct, realistic, believable, and well-illustrated, despite their satirical origins. Rooted in Springfield, U.S.A., (its state of residence is a mystery), the characters are quite typical to a small-town setting. The plot revolves around the mock-quintessential American family--The Simpsons, a surname that literally translates to "son of a simpleton" (snpp.com). Homer Simpson, to whom the popular defeat-laden term "Doh!" is attributed, is a lovable simpleton who is constantly making stupid mistakes. In one particular episode, Homer attempted to foil his boss, Mr. Burns. Homer went to the post office and tried to confiscate Mr. Burns's mail, saying, "Hello, my name is Mr. Burns. I think you have a letter for me." The postal employee said, "Okay, Mr. Burns. What is your first name?" Homer, being the darling dolt that he is, replied, "I don't know." But such is life for Homer. Under the tyrannical rule of Mr. Burns, Homer is an indolent, dead-end employee of the local nuclear power plant. While on the time clock, he adores donuts and frequent breaks.
Although undoubtedly lazy at work, some would also call Homer a lazy father-figure. At first glance, he may appear to be so. But a deeper look into the show reveals a different side of Homer--the side that cares for his family and protects its best interest. Homer obviously loves his family--in one episode, he sold his lifetime fantasy (riding in the Duff beer blimp) to enter his daughter Lisa in the beauty pageant of her dreams. Homer generally tries his best to do the right thing and clumsily loves his family, especially his wife, Marge.
Bearer of the family burdens, Marge remains optimistic, cheerful and hard-working. A hippie-feminist-turned-housewife struggling to hold her family together under the heat of financial troubles, Marge struggles with constant feelings of wasted potential (her dreams of being a professional painter were thwarted through the pursuit of full-time motherhood), but puts on her best face for her family. She's the typical lunch-packing, scrape-kissing, lullaby-singing, tang-and-rice-krispie-bar-making American mom icon. She and Homer love their three children Bart (her "special little guy"), Lisa, and Maggie.
Bart, the misunderstood catch-phrase king who coined such obnoxious expressions as "Don't have a cow, man!" and "Eat my shorts!", is an overly-curious, charmingly ambitious, and mildly destructive representation of the ten-year-old population who spends many hours serving detention. He skateboards like a maniac, tries to impress the older bullies with his antics, and even has a heart sometimes.
Lisa is a genius of language and music whose creativity and skills are stifled in a school system unable to meet her academic needs. Her passions lie in everything educational and healthy--she is an avid vegetarian, environmentalist, political activist, jazz musician, and model student. She suffers from a severe case of "nerditis" (complete with braces and prescription shoes), which makes her virtually unable to obtain coveted popularity. Lisa struggles with fitting in, making friends and the looming threat of "losing her perspicacity," as she struggled with in one particular episode.
Maggie, the six-month old baby, communicates quite effectively with an occasional "suck-suck" on her pacifier. She can stand for a few seconds before collapsing in a quiet heap. Maggie never cries, never talks, never changes facial expressions, and has seen much more than any six-month-old ever should.
The believability of these characters stems from their perfection in imperfections. So often, sitcoms create characters too perfect to be human. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, created five very flawed yet lovable characters to weave a plot laced with the same imperfections lacking in so many sitcoms of this era. Bart Simpson is openly failing the fourth grade as his interest lies in the exploration of everything mischievous and scandalous--he once got a tattoo, but had it removed immediately after Marge discovered it and he was also caught shoplifting. Lisa Simpson's "nerditis" forces her to wear the stigma of a social misfit, a model child, and political and environmental activist. Homer Simpson drinks habitually, overeats, and constantly complains. Marge Simpson struggles with a gambling addiction and constant reminders of failure from her two overly-masculine sisters who strongly disapprove of her marriage to Homer. Maggie Simpson is stuck in a perpetual state of youth (as are all the Simpson characters) and is generally disregarded by her father and siblings. Groening uses these imperfections to create a plot much along the same imperfect lines, taking the modern American dream and revising it to fit a more attainable standard.
Family sitcoms of times past typically portrayed the modern American dream as something it never was: a happy family where disagreements are laughably mild and easily resolved, the kids succeed in school, social handicaps are easily overcome, and finances are rarely a problem. Full House, a prime misrepresentation of the modern American dream, ran for several seasons in the late 80's and early 90's, thriving on this sort of dream world, helping Americans escape reality while inadvertently shunning them for not having attained the level of perfection that the Full House family maintained.
The Simpsons, on the other hand, is a more realistic take on the modern American dream--a content family headed by a reasonably stable marriage fueled by a lot of hard work and healthy (and sometimes heated) arguments, fed by modest income from a middle-class, low-skill job, and ultimately ruled by three kids who face actual problems and disappointments relative to today's society. Economic problems are obvious as the Simpson family doesn't have much money, but is content living simply. Truly, this is a more grim view of society today, but it is a reality. This more somber portrayal of the modern American dream speaks directly to the working class viewers--the Simpson family helps re-establish the line of "normal" in terms of social class, substituting human-like qualities and blatant faults for unattainable perfection in the equation of the standard American family as defined by the media. But this portrayal isn't all grim--many episodes center around a plot leading to a small victory for a member of the Simpson family, reminding us all that the small victories combine to feel like a complete triumph. Truly, the imperfections of The Simpsons characters and plot are directly proportional to appeal of the show as a whole.
The Simpsons also operates brilliantly as children's television (Flew 2). Often times, parents complain of the raunchy language and daft antics of the characters, but these same traits appear in many popular sitcoms and are often executed less effectively and appropriately than on The Simpsons. Whereas many children's television shows constantly bombard youth with notions that they are subordinate to adults, The Simpsons presents the children and adults of Springfield on a more equal level than most family sitcoms (2). A deep look into the show reveals instances in which Springfield kids excell--the children know they can make a difference; they know their voices will not be ignored. In several episodes, Lisa Simpson has organized a protest against a cigarette company, activated vegetarianism, and successfully combated pending problems of pollution, animal rights and other problems of the world. In Springfield, eight-year-old Lisa Simpson has a voice with as much sway as any respected adult.
Deep messages aside, the show is downright hilarious. The Simpsons bases much of its carefree humor on satire and parody. The opening credits parody the beginning credits of The Flintstones; the local television network air an extremely violent cartoon starring a cat and mouse called Itchy and Scratchy, which is reminiscent of Tom and Jerry. The Springfield networks also air Smartline, a parody of Nightline, 20/20, and other nightly news programs (Flew 3). Songs are also parodied: "In a gadda da vida" by Iron Butterfly was sung at a church service (as one of Bart's pranks) as "In the Garden of Eden" by I. Ron Butterfly; Sammy Davis Jr.'s "Candy Man" was parodied as "The Garbage Man Can," and the popular Village People's hit, "Macho Man" was turned into a hilarious crooning dubbed, "Nacho Man" (snpp.com). Character parodies also reign supreme. Other than the immediate Simpson family, Springfield is crawling with hilarious characters all typical to a small-town setting. Influences for these characters run rampant: Ronald McDonald, Charlie Brown, Bill Cosby, Pat Boone, Johnny Carson, Monty Python, Charles Manson, Desi Arnaz, John Kennedy, Walt Disney, The Beatles, John Travolta, Willy Wonka, The Three Stooges, Jim Morrison, Scrooge, and the popular Barbie doll, to name a few (snpp.com). Each parody is a testimonial to Groening's creativity, versatility and intelligence, thus establishing the show as an intelligent comic standout among the commonplace crude shows such as South Park, which relies heavily on raunchy jokes (often too crude to be funny) and has little moral value, (the cruel death of a character "Kenny" is often the source of "humor"...).
Groening's creative efforts as an animator have not gone unnoticed. Fans abound and their following is obvious--high ratings have kept The Simpsons in a prime time slot on the FOX network for twelve consecutive seasons. Syndicated episodes are aired in Australia, Canada, England, Germany and Belgium. The Simpsons has also received 33 Emmy nominations and 15 wins, six Annie Awards, and a Peabody award (snpp.com).
In a day and age where new cartoons grow like weeds and die just as fast, survival of the fittest is a goal only the finest shows can obtain. The Simpsons has reached that mark of quality and is truly a standout show. If The Simpsons is proof of an evolution of the sitcom, more power to the fit.
Flew, Terry. "The Simpsons: Culture, Class and Popular TV." Metro. 3 Mar 1994. <http://wwws.elibrary.com/> 11 Mar 2001.
"The Simpsons Archive." <http://www.snpp.com/lists.html> 4 Mar 2001. 11 Mar 2001.
© Kirstyn Miller (email@example.com), March 22, 2001.
Last updated on June 26, 2001 by Jouni Paakkinen (firstname.lastname@example.org)