Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009

How the Simpsons Animate Us

December 17, Los Angeles, U.S.

There are indie movies, indie music and indie publishers. But because of the way the television business worked — series produced for millions of dollars to reach millions of people — there was never much that you could call indie TV. Until The Simpsons.

I realize that is an absurd claim to make for one of the most popular television shows in history, produced by a mammoth multinational media company (Fox), which has generated billions of dollars in merchandising and licensing revenue. But before Springfield's most famous yellow-skinned residents came to rival ubiquitous corporate mascots like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny, the Simpsons were an outgrowth of that most indie of art forms, the alternative comic.

Since the late 1970s, Matt Groening had been publishing Life in Hell, a bleakly wry comic about an existentially alienated rabbit named Binky. Veteran producer James L. Brooks asked Groening to adapt the strip as animated shorts in The Tracey Ullman Show, but he instead created a family based loosely on his childhood, representing himself as Bart (an anagram for brat).

When The Simpsons debuted on Dec. 17, 1989, it was an utterly familiar thing on TV: a sitcom about a middle-class family. (Its very first episode was one of TV's hoary fixtures: a Christmas special.) But it quickly became clear that this was no Cosby Show.

Where classic sitcoms were essentially optimistic — in the end, father, mother, doctor, cop and teacher knew best — The Simpsons was set in a world where the authority figures were uniformly ridiculous. Bart's principal was an idiot, his teacher a bitter chain-smoker. His dad, Homer, was an incompetent technician at a nuclear power plant with an evil plutocrat for a boss; his TV idol, Krusty the Clown, a cynical hack peddling dangerous toys. No institution was safe: there was a jaded reverend, a doughnut-gobbling police chief, an ambulance-chasing lawyer and a stoner school-bus driver.

What allowed The Simpsons to cross over from alternative satire to mass hit was its likeable family and the vast world it built around them. Homer, Marge, Lisa, Bart and Maggie were a nuclear family in more ways than one, and not just because of Homer's job: they were the nucleus around which a vast cloud of satellite characters would revolve. As a cartoon, not limited by live actors and realism, The Simpsons had the freedom to go wherever and depict whomever it wanted, and it used this freedom to create a universe.

This meant that where its contemporary Seinfeld was "a show about nothing," The Simpsons was a show about everything. Through insufferably wholesome next-door neighbor Ned Flanders, the show became about religion. Through fatuous local news anchor Kent Brockman, it became about the media. Through Springfield's venal Mayor Quimby, it became about politics.

Above all, The Simpsons was a pop-culture phenomenon that was about pop culture itself. The show internalized the early criticism that it was a bad influence by creating the ultraviolent show-within-a-show Itchy and Scratchy, in which a homicidal mouse tormented a cat. It contained an entire fictional Hollywood: the Schwarzenegger-like action hero Rainier Wolfcastle, the superhero Radioactive Man (whose 1950s TV show was sponsored by Laramie cigarettes) and, of course, the fans, embodied in pudgy, fanatical Comic Book Guy, whose "worst episode ever" pronouncements echoed the show's own demanding critics.

That might explain why a show that was so specifically about America became the most popular TV export worldwide. Whether you lived in Springfield or Springbok, you could understand not just the universality of the family stories but the ubiquitous, disposable mass culture the show satirized.

The Simpsons' triumph is so absolute and its reach so total that it's hard to realize that there was a time when its dense, rapid-fire allusions weren't the lingua franca of comedy, when irreverence wasn't the default mode of popular culture. But its success was both a sea change and, in retrospect, a no-brainer: there is no one thing that unifies people more than the belief that they, like Matt Groening's funny-haired yellow wonders, are misfits. The world's biggest alternative entertainment turned TV inside out, by making outsiders in.