A Homeric Odyssey

By Noel Holston

© Newsday, April 27, 2003.

Don't have a cow, but after 13 years and 300 episodes, even conservative viewers are not watching 'The Simpsons' religiously

Seeing Bart Simpson's callow, yellow face staring up at you from a Butterfingers store display is no big surprise. Nor is encountering his whole clan at Burger King in the form of bendable action figures or night-lights. But Bart on the cover of Guideposts for Teens, the youth spin-off of the magazine founded by positive-thinking minister Dr. Norman Vincent Peale? Ay, carumba! What's this world coming to, an end?

Its senses is more like it. As "The Simpsons" finishes a 13th season that included its 300th episode, its ratings are up and its acceptance has never been wider. That's no small achievement for a show that, week after week, scrutinizes our American way of life and commerce with the all-encompassing, trifurcated gaze of that mutant fish found downriver of the Springfield nuclear power plant. "The Simpsons" has always been a show for those of us who recognize our absurdity. Now, though, more of us get the joke.

That's a significant shift. In the first few years after "The Simpsons" was expanded from its bit part in Fox's "Tracey Ullman Show" in 1990, it was denounced as feverishly as Elvis Presley and "Peyton Place" were in the 1950s. Preachers and politicians saw in the animated comedy proof of America's moral rot, maybe even a sign that the apocalypse was at hand. President George Bush got an ovation at the 1992 National Religious Broadcasters convention when he declared that we needed to be a nation "closer to the Waltons than the Simpsons."

The truth, however, is that family for family, we're at least as much like Bart and his folks as we ever were like John-Boy's idealized clan. When we watch "The Simpsons," we're just giving ourselves some love. It's all our foibles writ large - or, rather, drawn in primary colors - and a good bit of our sweetness and moxie, too.

"They said we were going to bring down America back in 1990," Matt Groening, the comic-strip satirist who created Bart, Homer, Marge, et al, told me earlier this year. "We had people very upset about the show. Now, either our critics and enemies have come around or they've given up. I think it's the nature of pop culture. Today's outrage is tomorrow's beloved classic. Who gets upset about 'South Park' now? Or 'Beavis and Butt-head'?"

Actually, a lot more people than get bent out of shape by "The Simpsons." And that's understandable. There's more substance to "The Simpsons," more heart and soul. It was there from the beginning, too, even if, as cast member Harry Shearer put it, some people took longer to find "that part of the elephant."

"My measure of how the impact of the show has turned is, when we started, there were all these stories about how the show was subversive and Bart is a bad role model," says Shearer, who provides the voices of, among other characters, Montgomery Burns, Springfield's bloodsucking mogul, and Ned Flanders, Homer's devoutly religious neighbor. "In the past two years, I've done interviews with three Christian magazines about 'The Simpsons' being the most moral show on television."

The show changed, not just the perception of it. "In the first two or three seasons, the focus was on Bart, the bad boy," says Orlando Sentinel religion writer Mark I. Pinsky. He's the author of "The Gospel According to 'The Simpsons'" (Westminster John Knox Press), a lively study of spiritual and theological themes in the series. He believes the days when Bart was running wild through Springfield, sneering "Eat my shorts!" or "Don't have a cow, man!" at any adult who challenged him, drove a lot of conservative viewers away.

"By about season four, the narrative focus shifted from Bart to Homer," Pinsky says. "The show changed. The plots became more sophisticated. They began using religion more."

Allison Payne, the Guideposts for Teens (GP4T) associate editor who wrote its April-May cover story about TV and religion, believes "The Simpsons" suffered some guilt by association early on. "Because the show started when Fox was kind of this rogue network that was doing some really edgy stuff, I think it kind of got a stigma attached to it." she says. "Yet many of the examples I cite in the article are from the first and second seasons. The one where Homer steals cable, that was from the second season. If you watch it from start to finish, it's one of the most religious episodes of the series."

In the cable-TV episode - "Homer vs. Lisa and the Eighth Commandment" - Homer justifies an illegal hookup on the grounds that the cable companies routinely rip off customers, so why not? Ultimately, he gives in to the moral pressure of his 8-year-old daughter, Lisa, who fears for his soul. It's not that different in its ultimate point from last Sunday's episode, in which Homer won the Springfield Community Church in a negligence lawsuit and turned it into a party palace. Floods and lightning ensued, stopping only when the displaced Rev. Lovejoy returned to entreat God to ease up. It may have scandalized some viewers to see the Almighty on a cloud sharing a bucket of popcorn chicken with his friend Col. Sanders, but the redemption theme is as old as the New Testament.

According to various academic assessments, as many as 70 percent of the series' episodes have some sort of religious reference, and about 10 percent are constructed on religious themes - for example, the wise and funny one in which 10-year-old Bart sells his soul to his pal Milhouse for $5 and suffers terrible feelings of emptiness until Lisa helps him regain it.

But wider recognition of "The Simpsons'" parable-like quality is not the only reason it has gained acceptance. The longer it stays on the air, the more its reruns pop up, the harder it is for anyone to be unfamiliar with it or to deny its funhouse-mirror reflection of who we are.

Satire is rare enough anywhere on television. In prime time, it's almost nonexistent. "We're pretty much it," says Shearer, who also is host of "LeShow," a weekly satirical series carried by many public-radio stations, including New York's WNYE/91.5 FM Monday nights at 9. "There is topical comedy on television. I think that's different, though. Doing 'George Bush is so dumb that...' jokes, I don't consider that satire."

Shearer says that because "The Simpsons" is painstakingly animated overseas, topicality is impossible, save for an occasional drop-in line or Bart-at-the-blackboard saying. So of necessity, it focuses on aspects of American life and culture - gluttony, hypocrisy, impatience, family unity - that change slowly, if at all. And in doing so, the producers and writers can't help but turn out a show that has fewer elements that will date it.

"We tend not to be of the moment," says Al Jean, the current executive producer. "It think it helps the show stay timeless, and it's one reason we've been on the air so long.

It doesn't hurt that the cartoon characters don't age like, say, the casts of "Friends" or "Frasier," although they have gotten more pleasant-looking over the years. It's about the only way the show has softened.

Just as last week's show managed to satirize everything from self-serving prayer to our ongoing litigious fervor, Sunday's 7 p.m. episode, a rerun of the 300th, makes fun of products aimed at hyper-fearful parents (an anti-bad-breath patch for babies!), celebrity endorsements and athletic equipment designed expressly for klutzes, all against the backdrop of a surprising dramatic story about a father's fiduciary responsibility to his son. A first-run episode at 8 p.m. has Homer and family fleeing to a fancy dude ranch to escape his fluke western hit song - the big score that he and just about every other American is forever wishing and praying for.

The writers of "The Simpsons" have a tendency to make a stinging point and then undercut it with the next joke. But despite the equal-opportunity aspect of its lampooning, it's not aimless. "I think there's still a critical sensibility there," says Pinsky, who has pored over the series like a Talmudic scholar. "Although you would be hard-put to argue for a consistent ideological view of America, I think it gives people the right to be skeptical and to mistrust institutions of authority. That's the one consistent theme. You don't get much of that elsewhere."

Shearer is amazed and heartened that the show has attained the status that it has. "Satire is one of those things like jazz that gets a Newsweek cover about every 10 years," Shearer says. "'It's back!' But it's always in this little corner, you know. I think 'The Simpsons' is a landmark in terms of making a statement that that kind of humor can be commercial if handled correctly."

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