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TV Series Review

My 23-year-old son has never known a world without The Simpsons.

Fox's landmark animated show, which snagged its own half-hour sitcom slot back in 1989, has spoofed four sitting presidents, spanned 12 Olympics (summer and winter) and survived 25 "Treehouse of Horror" Halloween specials. It predates the World Wide Web, a united Germany and Forrest Gump. It has given us the Oxford English Dictionary-approved interjection D'oh! while peddling literally billions of dollars of merchandise. It is now the longest-running scripted primetime series in American history, outliving even Gunsmoke and Lassie.

Here's what all that means: The Simpsons has been around a long time—so long, in fact, that this review may not be able to tell you anything you didn't already know about this show. You've probably already made up your mind about Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. Either you watch (and consider The Simpsons to be a cogent, witty and surprisingly warmhearted satire of the American condition) or you don't (and think the cartoon is crass, lewd and morally impaired).

To both camps, we have this to say: We couldn't agree more. [*Insert asterisk here.]

Whatever you think about The Simpsons, there's no question it's become an indelible part of American culture—perhaps because in all its paradoxes, it resembles America itself. It's rebellious and conservative, wayward and moral, both woefully corrupt and whimsically cool. The Simpsons is like a funhouse mirror that may distort who we are, but there's enough of a resemblance that we instantly recognize ourselves in its crudely animated outlines.

In the beginning, parents and pundits lambasted the show for its crude humor and lack of viable role models—while T-shirts featuring the grinning visage of Bart and the words "underachiever and proud of it" blanketed the country. The Simpsons was the family no one wanted to be but secretly wanted to visit, if only for a vacation from themselves. Their show for many (including a fledgling entertainment-review publication that would soon be called Plugged In) was both a symptom and a cause of a steep decline in our culture. Others thought, "It's about time we all loosened up a bit!"

Underneath it all, something else was happening. Homer and his clan, for all their many, many faults, loved and cared for one another—and still do. In some ways, now in the second decade of a new century, they seem almost counterculturally old-fashioned. As our world tries to now decide if family—any sort of family—is needed at all, Springfield's first fam holds together, never minding the pressures of school, work, politics, media and the occasional natural (or unnatural) disaster. Indeed, Homer and Marge have stuck it out for better than three decades through thick and thin, sickness and health, high hair and no hair.

Indeed, this bright-yellow family of five, for some Americans, has become shorthand for the nuclear family.

But now we must come back to that asterisk inserted above. Because those Simpsons are nuclear in more ways than one—and not just because Homer sometimes comes home from work with radioactive trinkets in his pockets. Their show is still (and increasingly so) edgy, rebellious, lewd and crude. Homer is one of the worst dads … ever. Bart's loud and proud when it comes to underachieving. Sexual double entendres scatter out across Springfield like so much fallout. Over-the-top animated violence and gore doesn't restrict itself to just the embedded Itchy & Scratchy Show. Homer drinks beer like a dehydrated water buffalo. Patty and Selma smoke like Mr. Burns' power plant after Homer throws a wrench in the reactor. And Mr. Burns' lovesick assistant, Smithers, would do anything to start up a whole different sort of family with his usually oblivious boss.

Speaking of such things, Patty "outed" herself 16 seasons in, and Homer has even officiated a same-sex wedding. Foreigners in Homer-land are, as London's Telegraph puts it, downright "weird, remote and funny." And while the Simpsons may wind up in church every Sunday (when Homer decides to skip in one episode, his house nearly burns down by way of "judgment"), the overall tone of episodes dealing with Christianity is skeptical at best, mocking at worst. (Note that creator Matt Groening is an equal-opportunity jokester in this arena. Hinduism, Judaism and Islam have all felt the searing heat of his sarcasm.)

Many other potholes dot this primary-color landscape: Suicide, nudism, masturbation, bestiality, bullying and drug abuse are but a few. In short? Springfield's Simpsons does not exemplify an ideal family. Fox's Simpsons does not exemplify an ideal TV series. Neither was ever intended to. And thus, this show and its family may indeed be a symptom of a culture gone terribly wrong.

Which can make it hard to see that it's also at times a symptom of what we've done right.

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Episode Reviews

Simpsons: 5-4-2014
Simpsons: 2-19-2012

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ComedyAnimation

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Cast

Voices of Dan Castellaneta as Homer, Grampa, Barney, Krusty, Groundskeeper Willie, Mayor Quimby and others; Julie Kavner as Marge, Patty and Selma; Nancy Cartwright as Bart, Nelson, Ralph, Todd Flanders and others; Yeardley Smith as Lisa; Harry Shearer as Ned Flanders, Mr. Burns, Smithers, Rev. Lovejoy, Principal Skinner and others; Hank Azaria as Chief Wiggum, Moe, Apu, Comic Book Guy, Carl and others

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Fox

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Reviewer

Paul Asay

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