The 500th episode of “The Simpsons” aired on February 19th, and it brought back a rather random college memory of mine that I hadn’t thought about for years. It’s funny how sense memories can be activated like that; I’ll be reading a story about something and flash on a related thing that happened many years ago, and I can’t figure out why my brain chose that particular thing to dredge up when it can’t remember simple things like other people’s names.
A brief nostalgic digression
Back when I was still very much flailing around in my identity, I went on a string of random Craigslist and Nerve Personals dates, most of which were actually quite delightful. I met an assortment of interesting people, some of whom ended up becoming my friends. One of them was an engineering student who was just as socially awkward as I was, and we ended up spending a lot of time together, mastering the companionable silence.
I once dragged him on a hike and realized that we’d been tromping through poison oak, so insisted that we take a cold shower when we got back to my house. In my countrified innocence, my first concern was POISON OAK AND HOW MUCH IT SUCKS, so I didn’t think about the implications being made by stripping off his clothes, sticking him in the shower, and getting in after him. I just wanted to save water, I swear.
The poor man was deeply embarrassed by the somewhat inevitable consequences of being shoved into a small shower with someone as devastatingly attractive as myself.
“Eh,” I said. “These things happen. Can you soap my back?”
In retaliation, he once took me on a long rambling drive where we ended up in the middle of nowhere and had to beg a very creepy farmer for directions. I mean, I grew up around creepy farmers, I am friends with creepy farmers, I love creepy farmers, and this guy completely surpassed previous creepy farmer experiences. Kudos, creepy farmer somewhere in Napa County (I think). Thanks to the days of smartphones, these sorts of adventures don’t happen nearly so much now.
Okay really though, “The Simpsons”
Anyway, Engineer and I both really loved “The Simpsons,” so I have this vivid memory of hanging out at his house and watching it. His roommates couldn’t quite figure out what the deal was; apparently mutual television-watching was supposed to lead to hanky-panky, but it never seemed to, no matter how many times they found an excuse to amble past his door looking nonchalant.
“The Simpsons” has woven this kind of constant thread through my life. I have not watched every single episode, and I haven’t unreservedly loved every single episode I’ve watched, but I have a deep fondness for it. I love the embedded commentary, I love the cascading pop culture references, and I have long dreamed of being famous enough to get a guest role on the show. I mean, my voice is amazing, so obviously I’m ideally suited to a brief moment of fame as a cartoon character.
It’s such a huge part of our cultural landscape. Bart and Maggie and Homer and Marge and Maggie are known to so many of us; even people who don’t watch the show can often catch references to it and understand them because they are so woven into the fabric of US culture. Sometimes I think we’re not fully aware of how much we owe to “The Simpsons.” And how astutely the show’s creators can put their fingers on our cultural pulses and diagnose our ailments, soothing them with fine, fine television dusted with wry and sharp commentary.
I know it takes a certain sense of humor to appreciate “The Simpsons,” and not everyone has it. The point of pop culture is not to please everyone all of the time, though, and the creators have done a great job with keeping the show focused on its original culture, voice, and mission. There have been some changes over the years, but it has stayed highly consistent, and viewers don’t seem to mind that Bart, Lisa, and Maggie are the slowest-maturing children ever, because watching that family dynamic is so delightful.
The show presents this entity that seems kind of mythical to so many of us, the working class dad and stay at home mom and their three children living in a middle class neighborhood with their dog. So many of us are living outside of and beyond the nuclear family, and culturally we are shifting away from that as an ideal. Yet, we still sit down to watch every week, because under this surface wholesome life, there’s a subversive undercurrent.
That’s probably most overtly represented in Lisa. She’s bookish and nerdy and cares about social issues and is passionate about her activities, and she’s a central character, and she’s cool and fun within a certain subset of society that isn’t used to seeing people like them represented on television. Lisa is totally the kind of person we want to hang out with. Well, I want to hang out with her, anyway. As a bookish, nerdy person who often struggled to feel accepted when I was a young thing, I could always retreat to some old episodes and commune with Lisa, sympathizing with her troubles in a harsh world.
With the growing global outrage over abuses by bankers and wealthy individuals and institutions, Mr. Burns is also really starting to enjoy his day in the sun. I’ve always been a fan of him because he’s the most delicious cartoon evil capitalist, and I love that “The Simpsons” has been speaking to class issues and financial abuses for 23 years now; at the same time Homer is supposed to be bumbling and laughable, he’s also a working class hero. While he may be an object of humor, he’s also sharply critical of cultural norms.
And while Marge is a stay at home mother, a member of a population often maligned in feminist communities, she’s not someone to be written off that easily. She’s sharp and insightful and resourceful, and she’s a rich, complex character who isn’t overshadowed by her husband or her children. And she’s a commentary on the “happy housewife” stereotype, for viewers who read between the lines instead of taking her on simplistically.
Even if you’re not watching the show for all these things – and you certainly don’t have to! – it’s just plain good fun much of the time, and that’s more than I can say for a lot of television. Making awesome entertainment that both satisfies the desire to be simply, purely amused while also taking some sharp hits at society is an art. Keeping that television fresh and relevant for 23 seasons is an art too. “The Simpsons” team has a knack for it.
“The Simpsons” has had staying power – 500 episodes worth of it – more than almost any other television show. And that says something both about “The Simpsons” and the people who are watching it. It’s feeding something inside of us.
And I bet some of you have favorite (or most-hated) episodes you want to talk about in comments. And let’s talk characters, please! Because I left out so many, and there are a myriad of ways to read and talk about the cast of “The Simpsons,” so I’m interested to hear your thoughts.