The Simpsons Folder

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The Simpsons Folder


Satire Still Superior On the Simpsons
September 25, 1998 © Las Vegas Sun, Inc.

I’ve been taking “The Simpsons” for granted lately, and I’m sorry. Even as I’ve continued to tout the Fox show as the sharpest thing on TV, I’ve been watching it less. Fewer daily reruns, hardly any first-run episodes. Maybe it’s because I’ve always got “Sports Center” on and the times conflict, or maybe it’s because friends have said “The Simpsons” has lost a little something off its screwball lately. For whatever reason, I’ve been pretty yeah-whatever about it.
That ended Sunday night, when I made a point of checking out the season opener. The premise was typical “Simpsons”: Inspired by Thomas Edison, Homer quits his job to become an inventor, much to the chagrin of his family. Immediately, the show’s distinctive quick-cut absurdism, bent dream sequences and speedy jabber delighted me in a way TV almost never does anymore. I’d forgotten: Lisa Simpson has more humor in her overbite than Jay Leno has in his whole jaw.

It wasn’t even among the show’s funniest episodes, but by the time Homer tested an invention on Marge — a double-barreled makeup gun “for the woman who only has four-fifths of a second to get ready” — I realized that even so-so “Simpsons” is funnier and more engrossing than, say, any of the (admittedly few) “Seinfelds” I’ve seen.

Considering “The Simpsons” now, it’s paradoxical: It seems as if the series has been on forever — how many news cycles ago was it that alarmists actually worried about Bart’s bad influence on Our Youth? — but once you realize this is its 10th season, you think Really? Ten years? Yep. It’s the longest-running animated series in TV history.

While it’s accrued the trappings of TV success — airing in 70-odd countries, oodles of ancillary merchandise — the show no longer gets the buzz it used to. The animation edge, so it’s said, has been taken over by “South Park.” It seems I’m not the only one taking the show for granted.

And yet it’s not really just another show. One reason among many: While in the rest of dumbed-down America, political satire has drooped to the level of calling Rush Limbaugh a big, fat idiot, and endless, uninspired jokes about President Clinton (have you heard he’s been signed to an endorsement deal by the makers of Squirt? Ha. Ha.), it’s alive and well on “The Simpsons.” “(It) has managed to be the only consistently funny, consistently smart source of political humor in mainstream American culture,” asserted essayist David Kamp in GQ magazine recently.

Long before Bimbroglio, “The Simpsons” depicted Springfield’s mayor as a debauched Kennedy manque. When the local Republican party meets, it’s as a cloak-wearing sect in a haunted house. And then there are We the People. “Episode after episode,” Kamp notes, “deals with how the residents … are constantly being rallied like dim sheep into believing in any absurdly simplistic solution to their problems …” In one show, after a meteor nearly destroys Springfield, the mob decides to destroy the town observatory “to make sure this never happens again.” It’s a note-perfect satire on the uncritical herd mentality that’s sadly distinguished much of our national affairs. “Springfield,” Kamp wrote, “is, in essence, a town full of Perot voters.”

Maybe I’m not “with it” anymore, but I’ll take “The Simpsons” over “South Park” any Nielsen period. It’s not that “South Park” isn’t funny — any show with a bigfoot creature whose left leg is Patrick Duffy is funny, and it’s often shocking. But in the ’90s, how much of an achievement is it to be shocking? Remember, “South Park” is one of two cartoons to have featured talking feces.

Its Bartscapades aside, “The Simpsons” aspires less to be shocking than intelligent. Also, believe it or not, decently human. “Not only is ‘The Simpsons’ smarter, sharper and more allusive than any other show on television,” wrote New Yorker cultural critic Kurt Andersen, “it’s also TV’s oasis of … believable warmth as well.”

Sure, the Simpsons are famously dysfunctional, but, unlike their onetime Fox stablemates, the screwed-up Bundys of “Married … With Children,” they seem — when pressed — to genuinely care for each other. Consider the episode in which the kids were placed in foster care: Whereas Al and Peg would have been thankful for the respite, Homer and Marge moped and fretted, plotting to get their kids back. Homer is constantly struggling to make right some outrage he’s committed against his family.

I fled the vanilla precincts of prime time because “Home Improvement” and its ilk were no improvement over the domestic comedy of real life (especially when you’re raising three boys). “Sports Center” every night was preferable. However oafish, I find Homer more sympathetically human than any of the caricatures on “Seinfeld” and funnier than a barrel of Drew Careys. I’m not taking him for granted any longer.

“The coming season,” creator Matt Groening told an interviewer, “is as good as any we’ve ever done or better.” OK, OK, I’ll watch! Six nights of “Sports Center” is probably enough anyway.