America’s long, national nightmare is nearly over. After a painful, 169-day hiatus, new episodes of The Simpsons finally return to Fox TV Sundays at 8:00 P.M. Eastern.
The characters who debuted in animated shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show in April 1987 launch their 14th season on November 10. The Simpsons now ties The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet as history’s longest-running comedy series.
How has it flourished so long? The Simpsons’s knack for making viewers laugh out loud is obvious. However, among its secret ingredients, intellectual rigor is key. The uninitiated still assume The Simpsons is a children’s cartoon show. In reality, it is both incredibly adult and, I sincerely believe, television’s single most intelligent offering today.
The program’s brilliant writers are steeped in history, literature, science and philosophy. Episodes refer to Random House cofounder Bennet Cerf, the Van Allen Belt, the 1920s Teapot Dome scandal, hyperbolic topology and the posting of Martin Luther’s “95 Theses” on a German church door in 1517. After residents loot stores during a blackout, Otto, the local school bus driver, sneaks past the Simpsons’s house carrying Pablo Picasso’s chaotic masterpiece, Guernica.
The show works as well because the Simpsons — despite their foibles — deep down, truly love each other. They inhabit a tightly knit community of generally endearing neighbors who, somehow, all get along.
But Springfield is no sentimental River City. The Simpsons scores because its social commentary bites like a sarcastic cobra.
A local parade’s salute to American Indian culture includes a huge model of the Cleveland Indians’ controversial, grinning mascot. “Interesting side note on this float,” says a broadcaster covering the procession. “The papier-mâché is composed entirely of broken treaties.”
“Order! Order!” school principal Seymour Skinner tells fidgety students at a Model United Nations meeting. “Do you kids want to be like the real U.N., or do you want to squabble and waste time?”
After being evacuated, Saigon-style, from the roof of the U.S. embassy in Australia, Homer Simpson asks if they will land on an aircraft carrier. “No, Sir,” the helicopter pilot replies. “The closest vessel is the U.S.S. Walter Mondale. It’s a laundry ship.”
Conservatives and libertarians should appreciate The Simpsons for regularly showcasing much that they hold dear.
“There’s no ideological requirement to work here,” executive producer Al Jean says by phone. Though free marketeers and liberals write the show, Jean says they agree on this: “We mistrust authorities and people who try to hold people down. We believe more in individuals and families.”
The Simpsons are a nuclear family led by an atomic power-plant engineer and a stay-at-home mom. They regularly attend church and occasionally seek spiritual advice from their minister, Reverend Timothy Lovejoy. Marge Simpson even homeschools Bart when he is expelled for misbehavior.
Springfield’s mayor is “Diamond Joe” Quimby, a corrupt opportunist whose voice echoes that of Ted Kennedy. When citizens approve casino gambling, he expresses his ambition to “grow fat off kickbacks and slush funds.”
Springfield’s government elementary school is lampooned mercilessly. As she hands students an exam, teacher Edna Krabappel tells them: “The worse you do on this standardized test, the more money the school gets, so don’t knock yourselves out.” While Lisa Simpson is sharp, many others learn nearly nothing. “Me fail English?” asks little Ralph Wiggum. “That’s unpossible.”
Trial lawyers endure severe ridicule. When Homer remains hungry after devouring everything at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, he takes the establishment to court. Accepting the case, Lionel Hutz — an attorney at I Can’t Believe It’s a Law Firm — tells Homer, “this is the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since my suit against the film, The NeverEnding Story.”
Even the EPA gets skewered. The Simpsons must nurture an endangered “screamapillar” that wanders into their koi pond. After Homer accidentally injures it, he is prosecuted under the federal Reversal of Freedoms Act of 1994. The loud, rare caterpillar sits in court, wearing a neck brace, as Homer is convicted of “attempted insecticide and aggravated buggery.”
The Simpsons also clairvoyantly predicts the news. After doctors prescribe Bart a new drug called Focusyn for his attention deficit disorder, he becomes a model student. But he quickly devolves into paranoia, wrapping himself in foil and donning a metal garbage-can lid to shield himself from a surveillance satellite operated by Major League Baseball. Five months after the chuckles faded, President Clinton hosted a White House conference on over-drugging school children.
In another installment, Lisa envisions a 2010 newscast on “CNNBCBS, a division of ABC.” On October 21, Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner said of a possible merger between CNN and his ABC subsidiary, “I’d like it to happen.”
Amid rivers of laughter, this show still displays such verisimilitude. How does The Simpsons remain hilarious after 14 years? As Homer J. Simpson himself once said: “It’s funny because it’s true.”