“Planet Simpson” Review

Aquarian Weekly 12/29/04 REALITY CHECK

In Praise of The Simpsons & An Engaging New Book That Hits The Mark

The Simpsons“And so it has gone for the Great American Joke, from Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken to Lenny Bruce to National Lampoon. If you look closely at a recent map of the United States of America and find a chasm where the Great American Joke lives – scenic, satirical Hypocritical Gap – there you find Springfield, U.S.A.” – Chris Turner from “Planet Simpson”

For 16 seasons The Simpsons; the sharpest, most biting satire ever unleashed outside the underground and splashed onto the global mainstream, has managed to affect the cultural landscape while simultaneously ripping its fabric to hilarious shreds. It is the most subversive kind of art, sprung from the very medium it attacks, gaining the popularity and relevance of an international icon, while also being its most uncompromising critic. For a mere TV show, a cartoon one at that, it is unique in its construct, dissemination, and finally its vast and varied audience, which include poet laureates to head’s of state, rock stars, and scores of professors from the loftiest heights of academia. So now finally we have a study of its brilliance and influence worthy of the subject. It is a 400-plus page tribute, dissection, and investigation entitled “Planet Simpson – How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation” by Canadian journalist and pop culture essayist, Chris Turner.

Someone had to do it, and for all true fans of what could be deemed (as many critique circles already have) the best show in television history, it would appear the right man for the job did.

“When many critics or fans discuss they’re favorite rock band or filmmaker, they’re convinced that whatever is happening within that phenomenon will change everything,” Turner told me in our discussion earlier this month. “But there are so few cases when that is actually the case. The Simpsons are one of those.”

From The Simpsons’ heralded and over hyped infancy to its Golden Age of the early to mid-90s’, which Turner calls “an awesome achievement in pop art”, all the way through its incredible level of consistency in writing, voice-acting, production, and direction, “Planet Simpson” expertly reviews and defines the longest running prime time television comedy by leaving no philosophical or cultural query unturned. Turner’s astoundingly encyclopedic research on the hundreds of episodes and thousands of key moments pleases the discerning fan while also deftly presenting the show’s highlights for the novice. The best compliment for any book of this ambition would be that it serves as a practical explanation for why we all love The Simpsons as much as we do, and “Planet Simpson” does this in spades.

“Unlike many other television shows that have limits to its relevance, it seems The Simpsons holds up to this kind of obsession,” Turner reflects. “I never get the feeling from the big-time fans that they’re using the show to escape the realities of the world around them, just the opposite. The Simpsons actually tends to bring you closer to reality in a lot of ways.”

Turner’s Simpsons is a juggernaut of pop iconoclasm wrapped in the astute blade of cutting humor hitting so resolutely close to the bone its existence is nearly a wonderful mirage. The author states emphatically, “You almost felt in the early seasons that The Simpsons was too good, too smart, and too biting that it would be taken off the air. It didn’t belong somehow.”

It is the most subversive kind of art, sprung from the very medium it attacks, gaining the popularity and relevance of an international icon, while also being its most uncompromising critic.

“Planet Simpson” begins by laying out the groundwork for what Turner dubs “The Simpsonian Humor Principle”, which is somewhat based on the satirist/comedian Lenny Bruce’s “What Should be…” vs. “What is…” riffs; the false assumption that it’s human nature to base our judgments of the world at large on “what should be” like God, country, principle, morality, and open, selfless dedication to each other and our environment, an almost superman vision of society. The “What is…” is the actual maddening complexity of human nature filled with greed, insolence, power-struggle, jealousy and pettiness. According to Bruce, and the best The Simpsons have to offer, by ignoring the imperfections and fears of our world and replacing them with rose-colored fallacies we create the framework for disappointment and disillusionment.

“There is only what is,” scoffed Bruce in 1964. “The what-should-be never did exist, but people keep trying to live up to it. There is only what is.”

From here “Planet Simpson” takes off in several provocative directions, highlighted by Turner’s strong grasp of the socio-political landscape of the world that The Simpsons draw material from weekly. Whether it is a study of the consumerism lunacy of 90s’ America, the power of corporate tentacles throughout the civilized world, or our silly obsession with celebrity, Turner tells us where and how and why The Simpsons seem to have it nailed and consistently get away with pushing an envelope other art forms wish they could touch.

Turner agrees with Simpsons’ creators like Matt Groening and Sam Simon who have stated that because of the two-dimensional façade of a cartoon, much more is accepted and allows for the writers a greater palate with less limitations.

“The example I often use for this is where Homer is giving Bart advice on how to deal with women and ends up getting inexplicably drunk during it,” Turner cites. “He comes to no conclusion, blathering incoherently. Whereas the normal sitcom dad might have some bland, formulaic advice, we get poor frustrated Homer getting inebriated.”

The book cleverly breaks down The Simpsons’ family members into defining chapters, encapsulating their individual and collective luster and why they have resonated under the satirical umbrella of “what is” so effectively for so long: Homer; goofy, lovable father or gluttonous, consumer-addled hedonist? Bart; misguided imp or rebellious punk icon? Lisa; smart, compassionate voice of reason or pompous intellectual finger-pointer? Marge; the show’s patient moral center or enabling nag-victim? Each character is studied for its reflection of human nature and how their image has represented us hilariously and so vividly without apology for the show’s incredible run.

Then, of course, there is Springfield, U.S.A. and its inhabitants, which run the gamut of society’s ills and thrills from politics in the overtly slimy Mayor Quimby; “I propose that I use what’s, uh, left of the town treasury to move to a more prosperous town and run for mayor. And, uh, once elected, I will send for the rest of you” to organized religion in the blatantly judgmental Reverend Lovejoy; “And as we pass the collection plate, please give as if the person next to you was watching” to corrupt attorneys in the dangerously inept Lionel Hutz; “Mr. Simpson, this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film, ‘The Never-Ending Story'” to our mediocre crop of educators in the overwhelmed Principle Skinner, “God bless the man who invented permission slips”.

The Simpsons uses its medium as well as any art uses its medium,” Turner told me in closing. “Over the past half-century high art has been all about transcending its medium, playing with pop icons and commenting on society at large, from Andy Warhol on down, and The Simpsons does that as well or better than all of them. Without hyperbole, I believe it is to television, a powerful 20th century art form, what theater was to Shakespeare during his time.”


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