Why isn’t The Simpsons funny anymore? That question is provoked by this week’s Simpsons episode, “Panic on the Streets of Springfield,” which made it clear that the best-paid wits in showbiz have gone beyond mere political partisanship into a power exercise: unabashed, shameless meanness and character assassination.
The answer to the question is bigger than the series itself and more important than each routine announcement of its corporate sensitivity in which millionaire cast members change their participation (ceasing to play roles that don’t match their ethnicity) simply to appease social fashion.
Right on the heels of the extraordinary, compassionate film Shoplifters of the World, about the cultural impact of the British pop group the Smiths, comes this “Panic on the Streets of Springfield” episode (titled after the 1986 song “Panic” by the Smiths) that besmirches lyricist-singer Morrissey. The foul, sour premise attempts to revise cultural history in an opposite direction from the movie Shoplifters.
Lisa Simpson, the show’s eternal eight-year-old, belatedly discovers a band called the Snuffs and its leader named Quilloughby. She mistakes his iconoclasm for her own lonely superiority and makes him her imaginary friend, but she soon finds him unkind, unacceptable, and politically incorrect. This caricature (featuring Morrissey’s large, sprung-coif hairstyle and effete mannerisms) posits that the Smiths’ Eighties music — timeless herald of an age — was the work of an insensitive, inhumane bigot. Joining social-media-mob complaints that led BMG records to drop Morrissey’s recording contract last year, the episode is a cartoon version of cancel culture.
It’s obvious that The Simpsons’ makers meant to be defamatory (scriptwriter Tim Long disingenuously claimed that Quilloughby is a composite of Ian Curtis and Robert Smith). The Shoplifters movie proved that the Smiths reached deeper places than The Simpsons. But that little eco-terrorist vegan Lisa was always the show’s sponsored character, a stunt that liberal viewers enjoyed and conservative viewers tolerated. (Homer was its Archie Bunker.) Are the Simpsons colored yellow because the show is cowardly, its one-time edginess just a relic from before the days of PC fascism?
When The Simpsons stirred animated television 32 years ago, with cartoonist Matt Groening’s eccentric alternative-press satire of the American-family archetype and sitcom vet James L. Brooks’s professional finesse, it was the acme of modern wit. Now, it’s been outwitted by its evil twin, Seth McFarland’s Family Guy (which regularly bashes famous conservatives). It’s just another example of modern decadence. The show’s creators have given up being funny and opted instead to scold and censure. It’s the same peculiarly decayed savvy and perverted social perception that ruined late-night television comedy. The Simpsons crew is another Hollywood outfit intent on dividing America and the pop audience.
This insult goes to the heart of contemporary cultural betrayal. The Smiths’ “Panic” is an evergreen song about the effects of the political tyranny — it’s strikingly relevant today. But The Simpsons avoids noting the song’s prescience and chooses cheap mockery. Unlike past Simpsons celebrity parodies (Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith), this pointedly political offense exposes today’s craven showbiz practices. Not surprisingly, Quilloughby was voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch, an actor who ironically won fame and an Oscar nomination (for playing Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) through Harvey Weinstein’s influence.
The Simpsons slams Morrissey by ridiculing and misrepresenting his animal-rights stance and repeating media calumny that accuses him of racism. Lisa comes out and says it: “You’re a huge racist!” Lisa’s fractured psyche compels her need to attack others. When the empowered Left eats itself, no hypocrisy is out of bounds. One cultural institution viciously attacks another. Instead of teaching the complex moral lessons in Morrissey’s art, The Simpsons continues its practice of PC superiority. (One Simpsons actor apologized to the nation of India for the portrayal of the Apu character, yet the show’s producers have never apologized for the Reverend Lovejoy and Ned Flanders characters that trash Christianity.)
Don’t let press chuckling over this episode get in the way of recognizing its offense. None of the Internet writers are informed enough to mention that Morrissey has had a long battle with the media, at least since the right-on 1991 song “Journalists Who Lie.” Morrissey won pop-star status — and enemies — for romanticizing unconventional, misunderstood passions. His songs for the Smiths were trailblazing inspiration for the acceptance of social perspectives and emotional sensitivity that cool hipster rock had forbidden.
Morrissey’s response to all this has been characteristically pithy: “In a world obsessed with Hate Laws, there are none that protect me — free speech no longer exists.” Now The Simpsons attempts to cancel him as it patronizes its audience. By perpetuating the shallowest perception of the Smiths legacy, the episode is designed to keep audiences dumb and smug, like Leninist Lisa herself. How wrong can a once-great show be?