THE FAMILY THAT NEVER GROWS UP
The Simpsons is twenty years old and whether you like it or not there is no denying
the enormity of its cultural influence.
The longevity of the cartoon show is a function of some of the sharpest writing on TV. Its appeal is cleverly pitched: young children adore the brightly coloured figures and how so many stories are seen through the eyes of Bart and Lisa, the delinquent son and earnest over-achieving daughter, while adults love the one-line gags and sophisticated satire they know have been pitched over the heads of children at them.
If you doubt the show’s seriousness, here are just a handful of the issues the programme has addressed in its time: marital fidelity, environmentalism, immigration, gay rights, gun control, sexual harassment, American settler myths, bereavement and women in the military. This is in addition to the continuing satire over a crumbling nuclear power plant with a buffoon like Homer in charge of safety; school life, with issues of truancy, bullying, playground crushes and lack of resources; the frustrations of a bored but capable housewife; and TV violence, satirised gruesomely in Itchy and Scratchy.
The show is routinely criticised in the United States for its portrayal of Christianity. One survey showed that the best known Christian in the country was not Billy Graham, Rick Warren or Bill Hybels but Ned Flanders – the limp goody-two shoes next door neighbour of the Simpson family. The representation of Christianity deserves closer inspection because God, the Church and prayer feature heavily as part of everyday life. No other TV programme takes religion as seriously as The Simpsons. The show’s producers are too cynical to give it an easy ride but in giving it prominence they dignify the relevance of contemporary Christianity.
A quick glance at the ambiguous treatment of Christianity gives you a clue. Church is presented as dull (OK, not an unreasonable criticism in some cases); the Reverend Timothy Lovejoy preaches boring sermons in a patronising and sanctimonious voice (let’s not go there please); the late Maude Flanders was witheringly self-righteous in her faith (we’ve all seen that too). Homer is a regular guy however and he goes to church along with bright kids (Lisa), slow kids (Milhouse), over-qualified housewives (Marge), lonely people (Moe), rich people (Burns), poor people (Cletus), rock dudes (Otto), gay people (Smithers and Selma), big businessmen (trigger-happy Texan guy), small shopkeepers (Ned), people who struggle with drink (Barney) and people who can’t make friendships (Comic Book Guy). These each find a place in the church.
In the storylines, God is shown to intervene, sometimes crudely as when he sends a streak of lightening to answer Ned’s prayer to save his son from drowning; and sometimes subtly, as when Bart’s soul is restored to him. In one programme the reality of pastoral burn-out in the clergy is handled with some insider knowledge. There are times when I wince at its portrayal of Christianity but at least in engaging with it The Simpsons holds up a mirror both to the hypocrisy and aspiration of faith.
There are broader ethical issues that the immediate treatment of religion. The Simpsons is deeply pessimistic about human institutions. The police, politicians and business leaders are variously corrupt, lazy and incompetent. The school is lousy and even the professional clown exploits children for financial gain. Men are losers and women are competent but held back by men. Beyond the sexist joke, neither portrayal is fair and encourages more cynicism than it should.
By contrast the nuclear family is celebrated with all its love and foibles. Fidelity triumphs over adultery and despite the family’s eccentricities the children are well looked after with Homer being more hands-on than most dads, even if this means wringing Bart’s neck from time to time. This is also a community where people know one another which is a counter-balance to those damaged institutions. Access to the head teacher, the boss, the chief of police, the mayor and myriad walk-on celebrities is readily available in ways most people could only dream of.
And three of my favourite lines?
Mayor Quimby: ducking this issue calls for real leadership (always a handy motto for a vicar)
Homer Simpson: just because I don’t care doesn’t mean I don’t understand (a nice description of pastoral burn-out, actually)
Homer Simpson (again): Space aliens, don’t eat me, I have a wife and kids – eat them!
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