The 'Anti-Nuclear' Family; Bursting the American Bubble without a Fallout Shelter.
From 1989 to about 2004 (even though the show is still running, I consider 2004/s14 to be the show’s post-climax of quality and importance) , the jaundice-skinned Simpsons series dominated mainstream television- which is a giant feat for the likes of an animated television show. But why? The likes of an animated show featuring your average nuclear family seems outdated in contrast to the myriad of past programs, of which have been centered around the same aesthetics. You don’t have to be young or old to enjoy the multiple layers of satire and parody present throughout the series, just as you don’t have to be a certain age or demographic to buy into the show’s humor. Why? Why has a show like The Simpsons become so immensely popular and significant? I argue that the show’s importance and popularity arises from its critique every cultural aspect of the American way of life through a variety of comedic styles (satire, parody, lowbrow, and highbrow). Furthermore I postulate that the show’s unique blend of comedic styles and subject critiques makes it more accessible to both domestic and global audiences.
Growing up, I loved watching The Simpsons mostly because of all the ridiculous shenanigans, whether they pertained to Homer’s buffoonish and drunken disposition, or Bart’s anarchic and hyperactive personality. Even today I still watch the show but I’m blown away by the number of satirical references and cultural critiques that were previously well over my head. This is something that makes the show into an all-Americana-consuming conglomerate; even if you’re unaware, you’re still not safe. But the aesthetic blend of comedic styles compliments and allows for the show to function as a vehicle of criticism towards everything- nationally or internationally. This differentiates the show from being considered crude and “obscene” (I say that loosely) compared to the likes of South Park, etc.
Let’s examine a few different episodes and the devices employed within. In the episode ‘Helter Shelter’ (s14), Homer receives skybox tickets after agreeing not to sue the power plant for physical bodily damage. As the family nears the stadium they realize that the tickets are for a hockey game, to which they all groan, before the shot cuts to the rest of the crowd realizing that the event is a hockey game, rather than something “more enjoyable.” Even as a gross over-dramatization of what’s perceived as an exciting sport, we’re left to agree or disagree with the show’s treatment of hockey as more boring than something like basketball. Perhaps this two second fragment stands to poke fun at what could be considered Americans’ limited attention spans and desire for sports with a more “productive” pace.
What is so unique about the Simpsons world is that the environment is constantly changing, as if Springfield is a labyrinth existing in some marginalized bubble of America, meaning that no matter where the Simpsons family goes, the background crowd is almost always made up of recognizable and recurring characters. During the hockey game we are introduced to an establishing shot of some never before seen Springfield mega-arena, where the family and rest of the town presently preside.
Cut inside and we’re presented with a critique and satire of the differentiation between “normal seating” and “skybox seating.” The Simpsons family is the only group of people in line being ushered to a red-carpet-escalator entrance and greeted by a butler, while the rest of the people wait in an adjacent and congested line. The butler offers Homer some cologne to which he obliges and asks for one made of ‘ground up whale.’
While pompously spraying the cologne, we see one of Homer’s best friends, Lenny glaring at him from the ‘cheap’ line. “What do we get?” he asks the security guard, only to be greeted with a punch to the stomach. Even though I blew this small situation out of proportion, it highlights a wealth gap and preferential treatment that money or status entails. Furthermore it employs Homer as a dysfunctional buffoon from the lower middle class, who treats complimentary skybox tickets and treatment the same way that one would expect someone of similar demographic to do so in real life. Kids are laughing at Lenny and other recognizable characters being punched in the stomach, while older viewers chuckle at the whale-based perfume (BlowHole) being offered as a perk for buying skybox tickets to a hockey game; America.
|"Are we supposed to tip these guy, or what?"|
From Grey’s Imagining America: The Simpsons and the Anti-Suburb Go Global, he poses that “Homer is playfully drawn as a drone-like ideal consumer, subject to any and all fads and advertising plugs,” which reinforces the origins of his behavior while waiting to enter the skybox. Though these American behavior patterns do not pertain exclusively to Homer, as we later see Bart, Maggie, and Marge mimic Homer’s drone-like consumerism while watching the actual hockey game. Everyone except Lisa (who remains one of the few characters actively aware of her surroundings) is enjoying the dramaticized perks of the skybox such as an unlimited amount of sushi, a hot tub, and a snooty French artist offering to paint portraits. These are unfathomed and ridiculous perks that would cease to exist in a real life scenario, but again the Simpsons universe employs excess as a way to critique American and consumer culture. We’re then given a high-angle shot (from the skybox) to where regulars, Barney, Moe, and Lenny quote, “Hey’ Homer’s looking down his nose at us, let’s take Mr. Figgy Pudding down a peg,” clearly a pun that operates on a few different levels, both high and lowbrow. As the regulars attempt to form a chain to reach the skybox, Homer snobbishly retorts, “tsk, tsk, why can’t they be happy for my success?” before dumping a cauldron of hot fudge onto them.
Now this is so ridiculous but characteristic of the show and series, as these comedic antics serve as innocuous surface humor, while illustrating the sheer ridiculousness of a consumer activity mirroring flaws and insecurities of contemporary American society.
I’ll be brief but the episode progresses to where Lisa frees herself from the skybox antics, advises one of the Russian hockey players how to score on the goalie, and then receives his hockey stick. Homer nails the stick above Lisa’s bed and the following morning the house begins falling apart, where it’s eventually concluded that the hockey stick has infested the house with Russian fighting termites. Even in a small scenario as such The Simpsons’ bubble draws all corners of the world (even figures like country presidents (ie: GB senior) into its dysfunctional interpretation of American culture and the quintessential nuclear family.
The show further treats every character as a passive consumer incapable of having an authentic opinion, and instead highly polarized. In Marge vs. The Monorail, a slick salesman is able to throw around some choice words and convince the entire town to invest in a fucking monorail, while Marge remains the only rational voice. But she’s thrown under the bus and when the project fails, everyone is instantly polarized back to “well, whose fault is it for not convincing us that we didn’t need one?” I argue that each episode ends with little comfortability and closure (with some exceptions), hardly ever coming full circle. Instead the audience is given a certain amount of intricate and layered critiques of aspects from the American way of life, and left with just that. Make what you want about it but The Simpsons does whatever the fuck it wants, the universe exists in Everytown, America, in a bubble littered with excessive paradigms of American consumer culture that often expands into foreign domains (Russians in s14e5). Combined with a unique blend of comedic styles, The Simpsons is not only easily accessible to anyone from Americans to people in countries where they maybe feel the show to be a remedy towards the impacts of cultural imperialism.
Hi I’m Troy McClure, you may remember me from such films as,
-Alice’s Adventures Through the Windshield Glass
-Mommy, What’s Wrong with that Man’s Face?
-Man vs. Nature; the Road to Victory
-Christmas Ape Goes to Summer Camp
-Hydro: the Man with the Hydraulic Arms
-Lead Paint: Delicious, but Deadly
-Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House
-An American in Toronto
-The Frontier Family Gets Deer Ticks
-Human Fondue: Surviving the Wisconsin Dell’s Cheese Factory Explosion
1. Gray, J. (2003). Imagining America: The Simpsons and the Anti-Suburb Go Global. Conference Papers -- International Communication Association, 1-23. doi:ica_proceeding_11428.PDF
2. Kaiser, R. (2014, April 20). The Simpsons:. "Two Bad Neighbors" · TV Club · The A.V. Club. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/simpsons-two-bad-neighbors-203626?utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=feeds
3. Ellis, I. (2013, June 23). Is 'The Simpsons' TVs Most Sacred Show?. PopMatters. Retrieved May 1, 2014, from http://www.popmatters.com/column/172555-the-simpsons-tvs-most-sacred-show/
4. Episodes: Helter Shelter, Marge vs. the Monorail, Two Bad Neighbors.