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Some of my fondest memories growing up involve spending weekends lazing on the couch with my dad watching decade-plus-old episodes of The Simpsons that had accumulated on the DVR over the course of the week. As a twelve-year-old boy, nothing I’d seen on network television up until then could match the show’s combination of cultural awareness, real depth, and sheer wit.
Now, as a jaded twenty-two-year-old man, I’ve changed in almost every way, yet the above judgment still applies. The comforting role of my father’s arms has been taken over by my girlfriend’s embrace, the laughs that fill the room emanate from my friends instead of my little brothers, and the copious sweets my dad allowed me when Mom was away have been replaced by more debaucherous goods. Yet, the feeling I get when I watch this cartoon is no different.
Before I go any further, I should clarify that this article pertains mainly to the series’ golden years, which lasted from about season three to season nine. There is endless debate among hardcore fans about why the show declined in quality (and among the most dedicated followers about if it even has), but my experience is with the show’s generally agreed-upon peak in quality.
The most important factor that makes The Simpsons so effective is its incredible relatability. The show’s writers know exactly who their audience is and play to it by turning the television screen into a fun-house mirror image of America. The titular family probably looks exactly like yours and mine when they cram in front of the television at the end of the iconic opening couch gag. Your favorite movies, books, TV shows, and subcultures have almost certainly been lampooned or even made a cameo in the show. Put succinctly, you are the Simpsons. We all are.
Of course the relatable TV family existed before the show’s 1989 debut. Before The Simpsons we were entertained by The Flintstones, I Love Lucy, Happy Days, and any number of other father-mother-son-daughter-house pet ensembles we could see ourselves in. The difference is that none of them portrayed us and everyone around us – no matter who ‘you’ are – as frankly and subversively as Matt Groening’s lovable creations.
Homer is stupid, ugly, lazy, and extremely accident-prone. At the same time, he’s genuinely caring and well-intentioned enough that you’re willing to call him a great father and husband after he repeatedly brings everyone around him to crisis and back. This dimension of his character is driven home by baby Maggie’s moments in the limelight. In the flashback episode “And Maggie Makes Three,” Homer quits his miserable job at the nuclear power plant to pursue his dream job at a bowling alley, but then returns to the power plant to earn a higher salary for his family. When his tyrannical boss mounts a coercive plaque reading “DON’T FORGET: YOU’RE HERE FOREVER” in his office, he covers the text with pictures of Maggie so that it says “DO IT FOR HER”. Memorable moments like these reveal the strength of Homer’s character by showing how much love motivates him.
The season four episode “Lisa’s First Word,” sees Homer struggling to support his growing family and pay equal attention to his kids. The episode ends with Maggie’s uttering “daddy”, her only word in the series to date, after Homer puts her to bed, revealing that in spite of the family’s constant feuds and dysfunctions, Homer’s unequivocal love is reciprocated. The latter is the only moment in television that has brought this writer to tears. There are similar moments in the show when Homer’s and Marge’s marriage is put on the line and he puts aside his big, dumb oaf personality to demonstrate his commitment to his wife. Homer is a screw-up and a borderline alcoholic, but he has a sincere heart and a well-tuned moral compass. It makes the family’s snug togetherness on the couch all the more believable and meaningful.
The same is especially true of the Simpson kids. Troublemaker Bart sells himself as a tough guy with his “El Barto” graffiti tags and school-sucks ‘tude, but he’s much more than a one-dimensional prankster. His actions often place him in situations in which he is forced to confront the outcomes of his decisions. Even something like the threat of having to repeat classes (which might get a one-off mention from a similar character in other series) in “Bart Gets an ‘F’” is enough to bring out his frailty. The season ten episode “Bart the Mother” sees him accidentally kill a bird with a BB gun, only to find out that its eggs actually belong to an invasive species of lizard, and then try to protect the reptiles out of his innate compassion for living things. He not only faces consequences for his actions, but actively decides to do the right thing because he’s a sympathetic kid under his hooligan exterior. Not only does this add to the character’s believability, it reminds the younger audience who might identify with Bart that no one, no matter how tough or playground-savvy, is immune from the emotions that make us human. The way in which Bart expresses his feelings also teaches us an important lesson about the nature of morality: he expresses his disdain for authority in subversive, disrespectful ways, but the fact that he always tries to do right for those around him reminds us that he doesn’t do bad things because he’s a bad person.
Bart’s character reminds us why The Simpsons is so great: its characters resemble people we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives (the posse of schoolyard bullies, the gross nerd with the unrequited crush, the mindless action movie star, etc.), but they’re also the focus of genuinely deep stories. These stories tend to feature amusingly ridiculous locales like beer-themed amusement parks or silly props like huge aboriginal sculptures, but they put the characters in situations that demand that we feel for them. Plus, they make dozens of clever quips and cultural criticisms along the way. It’s a way of interweaving the real worlds of personal life and society at large with the absurdity that no other TV show has been able to do as effectively.
Overachieving middle child Lisa is an especially interesting case. She’s a proto-hipster whose deep, esoteric interests and lack of street smarts bring about alienation and an identity crisis. Over the course of several Lisa-centric episodes, we see her come to terms with the family relationships, peculiar talents, intellectual pursuits, activist politics, and spiritual beliefs that make her a beautifully unique person despite generally being unable to fit in with other kids. We all know people, male and female, who could identify with such a character as they attempt to establish self-identity with similarly liberal-minded pursuits. Hell, pretty much anyone can identify with her longing for friendship and acceptance, both internal and from others.
Lisa is simultaneously a girly girl who spends her time thinking about makeup, dolls, and cute boys. Expressing universal identity struggle through an unquestionably female child character helps to normalize cross-gender understanding. Middle school and high school kids are the likeliest demographic to identify with characters like Lisa and her peers. In this light, we can view her Simpson as a liberating, progressive character. Adolescent boys can watch her move past struggles similar to their own and learn that it’s okay to have female role models because girls aren’t so different than boys. This is important because asserting one’s masculinity is a major aspect of teenage boyhood. By equalizing women in the eyes of boys at an age when words like “faggot” and “pussy” constitute much of the day-to-day schoolyard interaction, Lisa Simpson can help garner understanding for a more accepting young adulthood.
The strength of Lisa’s character is also emphasized in her interactions with the family. Episodes that focus on other family members’ problems often turn around when Lisa provides insight with her broad wisdom. At the same time, she never really knows it all, despite her wealth of diverse knowledge, and she often needs the other members of her family to provide a more grounded perspective. For instance, the interplay between her and Bart sees the siblings providing equal amounts of emotional support for one another in tough times. Again, these interactions affirm the value of straying outside of what’s conventional, but don’t present the iconoclastic view as always correct.
Even secondary characters have human feelings to contextualize their roles in the show. For example, Marge’s older sisters Patty and Selma Bouvier are always out to humiliate Homer like the archetypal in-laws they are. They’re a pair of conniving, old, chain-smoking, hag twins whose primary role in the show is to create tension for the father we love like they did to their sister in childhood. On the other hand, we have episodes like “Selma’s Choice” in which Marge’s sister realizes that her biological clock is ticking closer to midnight and she might die alone. The episode ends with Selma’s adoption of a pet lizard, which is as goofy as it sounds but also genuinely heartwarming. In another episode, “Alone Again, Natura-diddly,” the wife of the Simpsons’ neighbor obnoxious, evangelizing neighbor Ned Flanders permanently dies off of the series due to a payment dispute with her voice actor. Episodes likes these resemble the moments in our own lives in which we realize that the people in our lives outside our immediate circles are more multifaceted than the impressions we form of them based on our perceptions.
Most other sitcoms, animated or otherwise, don’t use their episodes to develop their characters in the same way that we’ve seen America’s favorite family grow (in mind if not in body). Programs like The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, and Married with Children’s superfluous spinoffs present the same sort of archetypes and cultural references that The Simpsons does, but emphasize popular relevance, cheap laughs, and love-it-or-loathe-it catchphrases over commentary and thought. Simpler comedy certainly has its place when we want something easy to digest, but it’s unlikely to get a series canonized as great, or even remembered a few months past episodes’ debuts save for a few choice jokes. Characters in The Simpsons are worth remembering because they have fleshed-out personalities and that makes their stories connect with deeper emotions.
The every-man connections go deeper than the characters’ personalities. The choice of bright yellow skin is not only charming and iconic, but also serves to remove the majority of characters from real-world concepts of race. Whether or not we like to admit it, we consciously and subconsciously make judgments about people (including fictional ones) based on what they look like half a century after the civil rights movement. At the same time, it’s impossible to accurately represent America without acknowledging race, so there are some characters with more realistic, browner skin tones. "Much Apu About Nothing" from season seven even touches upon the issue of immigration policy from both the immigrant and the white American perspective.
Maybe The Simpsons’s essential element of self-awareness is why a lot of people are more attracted to less deep comedy series. Self-examination is uncomfortable. The United States still has very strong patriarchal values and racial hierarchies. No one really wants to admit that they might be a little bit racist or sexist, even if it’s culturally ingrained, because we consciously know it’s wrong. Grappling with self-identity is extremely difficult. I also imagine a lot of viewers are put off by the way religious institutions are represented in the cartoon, even if the content of religious texts is never scrutinized. It’s much easier to live in our society and accept what’s around us because the alternative produces anxiety.
At the same time, I think that early exposure to these issues through the accessible medium of cartoons made me and a lot of people more open-minded and aware of the world around us. Simpsons-style lighthearted lampooning of culture calls attention to the flaws in the world around us without rejecting it entirely. The Simpsons has earned its preeminence because it deconstructs the American cultural zeitgeist, looks the people who created it straight in the eye, and hands it back to them, all its flaws, absurdities, successes, and best features exposed.