My 21-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 11 Olympics (summer and winter) and survived 22 "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!" peddled literally billions of dollars worth of merchandise and aired more episodes than all but two American series (Gunsmoke and Lassie).
Here's what all that means: The Simpsons has been around a long time—so long, in fact, that this 500th episode-inspired review may not be able to tell you anything you didn't already know about this show. And 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 warm-hearted satire of the American condition) or you don't (and think the cartoon is crass, lewd and morally impaired, not to mention the inspiration for even more egregious shows like South Park and Family Guy).
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 of sorts. Their show for many (including a fledgling ministry 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 each other—and still do. In some ways, now in the second decade of a new century, they seem almost counter-culturally old-fashioned. As our culture 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, hair and no hair.
We sometimes lament how traditional families don't have much of a face on television these days, and we're right to do so. But never at the expense of the Simpsons, a bright-yellow family of five that, 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 their show is still (and increasingly so) edgy, rebellious, lewd and crude. Homer is in fact one of the worst dads … ever. Bart's still 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 Itchy & Scratchy Show. Homer drinks beer like a dehydrated water buffalo. Patty and Selma smoke like Mr. Burns' nuclear 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 nuclear family with his usually oblivious boss.
While gays and lesbians (Patty "outed" herself 16 seasons in) get something of a pass (Homer has even officiated a same-sex wedding), foreigners are, as London's Telegraph puts it, downright "weird, remote and funny" in Homer-land. And while Homer and Co. may wind up in church every Sunday—and when Homer decides to skip in one episode, his house nearly burns down by way of "judgment"—the overall tone of scores of episodes dealing with Christianity is skeptical at best, outright mocking at worst. (Note that creator Matt Groening is an equal-opportunity jokester in this arena. Hinduism, Judaism and Islam also have felt the searing heat of his sarcasm.)
Many other potholes dot this primary-color landscape, and they're not all made of marijuana: 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 makes it pretty hard at times to see that it's also a symptom of what we've done right.
"At Long Last Leave"
To celebrate the show's 500th episode, the city of Springfield decides it's fed up with the family that made it famous and runs them out of town. The Simpsons wind up in the quaint-and-lawless Outlands. Then, one by one, as if they simply can't live without their neighborhood troublemakers, Springfield's citizens uproot and resettle in the Outlands too, re-creating their old metropolis by way of a Wild West-style motif.
We're offered a nice thought or two about acceptance and neighborliness. But mostly the gags here center on flatulence, drugs, alcohol, homosexuality, masturbation, defecation, urination, drunken driving, physical abuse and underwear (or the lack thereof). Homer and Marge sneak back into town to find romance once again in their barricaded bedroom. "There's no sex like fugitive sex," he says, naked (but covered) in bed.
They're caught. And Rev. Lovejoy suggests the family be crucified and buried. "Screw the bolder in tight" this time, he adds. Friends and foes alike force the Simpsons to participate in a "Simpsons go to hell" parade featuring a pitchfork-wielding demon. Someone suggests killing any Simpson they see wandering the street, trading their "pelts" in for a free soda.
We hear "d‑‑n," "jeez" and a misuse of God's name.