“I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” – Bart Simpson
“I’m Dave Shutton, I’m an investigative reporter who’s on the road a lot and, I must say that in my day we didn’t talk that way to our elders.” – Dave Shutton
“Well, this is my day, and we do, sir.” – Bart Simpson
The Simpsons premiered just two weeks before the 1980s ended, instantly going beyond “hit show” and becoming a cultural sensation. 1990 was the year of “Bartmania”, famously epitomized by t-shirts emblazoned with a picture of Bart underneath the word “Underachiever”; slingshot in hand, he declared “And proud of it, man!”. The huge reaction to the show, both positive and negative, was greatly abetted by all those years of timidity and repetitiveness on the part of the three major networks. The revolt had begun with shows like Married . . . with Children and Roseanne, both of which took as a given a working class, explicitly anti-“Cosby” mentality.7 But while those shows had the attitude, they were inherently limited by their laughtracked, live action, living-room-with-a-couch setup. The Simpsons had no such restrictions, and cast its scorn over everything.
The reaction was as intense as it was polarized. For Americans who more or less liked television and America the way they were, The Simpsons represented a near blasphemous rejection of things they held dear. For Americans who felt ignored on television and in general, The Simpsons was a perfect send up of everything they’d been told to love but actually hated. Both groups had been inured to dumb and inoffensive programming, and something that was neither came as a shock.
The people who loathed the show, up to and including the sitting President and First Lady, had become accustomed to a television landscape that was rife with families that looked like them and messages that confirmed their beliefs. The Simpsons, especially Bart, enraged them for not conforming to the usual television morality. That it was animated made it even worse. Cartoons were considered children’s programming and, in a classic case of the “Think of the children!” mentality The Simpsons would skewer later that year, Bart and Homer were derided as terrible role models who would surely lead America’s youth astray.
The people who loved the show had the opposite reaction but for the same reasons. They too were desensitized to the repetitive blandness of most television, but they embraced The Simpsons wholeheartedly. Suburban white kids, city black kids, and every non-stereotypical demographic in between tuned in every week. Soon even the repeats were scoring big ratings, merchandise of various legality was consumed in a frenzy, and Bart became the literal poster boy for what was wrong with America.
The hysteria was due at least in part to the way The Simpsons deliberately attacked the sacred cows of American television. Unlike all those shows where things always work out and kids learn lessons, in Springfield there isn’t a single institution that’s run by an honest and caring public servant. The local government is presided over by a corrupt womanizer modeled on the worst aspects of the Kennedys. The police force is staffed by morons and commanded by a man whose incompetence is matched only by his corpulence. The school is run by a principal who is ramrod straight in public but who doesn’t particularly care that most of the kids in his charge aren’t going anywhere in life. Likewise, the teachers and the staff go through the motions but are contemptuous and comprehensively apathetic toward the children they are theoretically educating.
Generations of television shows had treated these institutions with deference and respect; The Simpsons mocked them harshly and relentlessly. The mayor’s adultery wasn’t a scandal; it was taken for granted. The same was true of the indifference of the teachers and the incompetence of the police. There weren’t any crusading journalists or hero cops. There weren’t any reforming politicians, caring teachers, or righteous lawyers who locked away the guilty and kept the innocent from prison. Every person with authority or responsibility was resigned to the crappiness of the system.
Authority figures like these weren’t usually mocked on television, and when they were, it was only in the gentlest of ways (think Don Knotts on The Andy Griffith Show). The Simpsons didn’t merely disrespect them, it was outright contemptuous of them. Season 1 mocked the police, the schools, the government, and the churches, all while portraying their leaders as wretched human beings. There were gullible school administrators, quack therapists, dimwitted preachers, and a justice system so poorly run that its mistakes could be spotted by a ten-year-old. The show took as its axiom an America that sucked and failed not because of laziness or moral collapse, but because it was run and inhabited by idiots and assholes. Above all, the show went after the holiest of television holies, the Teevee Dad.
The first episode shown, “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” is a half hour of total patriarchal failure. Homer Simpson is incompetent, stupid and insecure. He does everything in his limited power to give his family the kind of Christmas that television families have long enjoyed, but tinsel and trimmings are simply beyond his reach.
Though things end on a happy note when Homer brings home an abandoned racing dog, even that is the result of his failures. His family falls in love with the dog, but Homer doesn’t realize he’s saved Christmas until after it happens. He doesn’t take in the dog because his family will love him for it; he takes in the dog because he recognizes a kindred spirit in the serially defeated pooch, saying of Santa’s Little Helper “He’s pathetic! He’s a loser! He’s . . . a Simpson”. Unlike countless other Christmas heroes, Homer is just smart enough to know that he’s a failure, but far too dumb to do anything about it.
The fourth episode broadcast, “There’s No Disgrace Like Home”, began, as uncountable numbers of family sitcoms have, with two siblings having an argument. Bart and Lisa, becoming increasingly heated, repeatedly shout “Oh, yeah?” and “Yeah!” at each other. Homer, playing the part of every television dad from Ward Cleaver on down, rushes in to break it up:
Homer: Hey, what’s the problem here?
Lisa: We were fighting over which one of us loves you more.
Homer is moved by this, and gets a little teary eyed at the idea that his kids love him so much that they’re actually arguing over it. Touched, he lets them continue:
Homer: You were? Aw, well, go ahead.
Bart: You love him more!
Lisa: No, you do!
Bart: No I don’t!
Lisa: Yes you do!
Bart: No I don’t!
This open loathing of traditional authority wasn’t completely unprecedented; Married . . . with Children had been on for three years at that point. But Married . . . with Children was a live action show with scantily clad women, raunchy jokes, and obnoxious hooting. It was clearly adult entertainment. The Simpsons looked like something you could safely put your kid in front of, but it directly attacked the assumptions that undergirded most of television since its beginnings.
Going all the way back to the besuited patriarchs of the 1950s, Teevee Dads existed to give advice and personify Boy Scout notions of American manhood. They robotically set good examples, dealt honestly and forthrightly with everyone, and dispensed wise counsel each time their kids didn’t quite measure up. Though it was tweaked many times, the formula of a child character getting a little out of hand before being gently corrected was a durable staple of American sitcoms. The very first episode of Baby Boomer classic Leave It to Beaver was about an all-American kid who got advice from his Teevee Dad about the importance of telling the truth. The Simpsons would have none of that. Consider a landmark exchange in “The Telltale Head”, broadcast in February of 1990:
Bart: Dad, can I talk to you about something?
Homer: Sure, boy, what’s on your mind?
Bart: Well, I was wondering, how important is it to be popular?
This is a classic setup, the son asking the father for advice and hopping up on the old man’s knee to receive the official wisdom. On top of that, it’s the “popularity” question, one of the ur-issues of middle class childhood. Whether in a sitcom, a movie, or an after school special, every parent, teacher and adult knows the answer to the popularity question is to say that popularity isn’t everything, that you should be yourself no matter what. Just as consistently, every kid watching – popular and not – knows that answer is bullshit. The brutal social environments of the playground and cafeteria make that clear every day. Just as they rejected so much television convention, The Simpsons rejected the usual answer:
Homer: I’m glad you asked, son. Being popular is the most important thing in the world!
Bart: So, like, sometimes you could do stuff that you think is pretty bad so other kids will like you better?
Homer: You’re not talking about killing anyone, are you?
Homer: Are you?
Homer: Then run along you little scamp.
That exchange was genuinely subversive. Here, at long last, was a show not only refusing to toe the official line, but willing to go in the other direction, to admit the unpleasant truth and then make it funny. The episode doesn’t end with Bart learning a lesson about popularity, nor do he and Homer hug. It ends with them defending themselves from a murderous mob that includes Bart’s teacher and principal, Homer’s boss, and the local reverend. There’s no schmaltz and no character growth, and if there is a message, it is only that laughing is all you can do.
The show made its bones striking against the smiles and sunshine of regular television. Finding itself in virgin territory, it hit every target that had long been shielded behind unofficial taboos and the official sentimentality of “Very Special Episodes”.8 In just the first season, Homer contemplates suicide, Marge considers cheating on him, and the whole town is portrayed as a mess. Bart and Lisa whack their babysitter over the head with a baseball bat and hog tie her. The beloved television clown is revealed to be a gambling, chain smoking illiterate. Bart even gets rewarded for cheating on a test, an act which would have almost certainly resulted in moralizing and hugging on any other program.
People in positions of authority, be they teachers, principals, police officers, politicians or parents, were ridiculed at every turn. This was a show that was willing to admit that life could suck, and as the series came into its own in Season 2, the list of targets expanded to virtually every cherished notion American television had long protected, including the June Cleaver Teevee Moms who had previously been on a pedestal thirty years high.
“Itchy & Scratchy & Marge”, first aired in December of 1990, is the kind of “attack in all directions” satire that made The Simpsons what it was. Previously untouchable moral guideposts like Helen Lovejoy and Maude Flanders were held up as authoritarian hypocrites. But their enemies, the profit-at-all-costs entertainment industry people, got it just as bad. Studio heads and their employees were shown as nothing more than remorseless, uncaring hacks that saw children as walking dollar signs. Along the way, the episode does everything from referencing Alfred Hitchcock to mocking Nightline and fine art. Nothing is spared and no one comes out unscathed.
Throughout its run, The Simpsons was relentless and uncompromising in its depiction of America as a dumpy, half-broken place that got along on apathy and greed and little else. The local news anchor is an airhead, the nuclear plant is a breeding ground for mutants, no part of the government works, and the old people who remember a better time are senile codgers who are probably deluding themselves.
As if that weren’t affront enough, it was a cartoon that seemed to be deliberately aimed at America’s kids. You can ask Socrates about what societies do to people who attempt to corrupt the youth, and that was something in which The Simpsons reveled. When questioned on that, the people behind the show always pointed out that this was a program where the family routinely went to church, and so what if they hated going. Don’t you? The family on their show stuck together no matter what, so what if they didn’t like each other? Plenty of people have a jerk for a father and siblings they loathe.
On The Cosby Show, Leave It to Beaver, and every other family sitcom, the world was only occasionally unpleasant, and temporarily at that. By the time the credits rolled, everyone and everything was back to their pleasant defaults. The Simpsons painted a very different picture of contemporary life, one where the basic assumption was the opposite of domestic bliss. The Simpson family didn’t bond by overcoming issues or learning lessons; they bonded over being so dysfunctional that the therapist paid them double their money just to go away.
The Simpsons was a show about characters with yellow skin, giant eyes, and no chins, but it lived in a world that was far more recognizable than the one television usually portrayed. It didn’t assume happy outcomes or happy families. It didn’t pretend that the world was just. It certainly didn’t think the people in charge deserved any respect. It rejected the strain of authority that ran through other shows, and for that it was hated and loved.
Continue to Chapter 4: You’re Watching FOX, Shame on You
Notes and Sources