Saturday, March 8, 2014

The Simpsons

Bigger than the Beatles, probably. Via Rolling Stone

Growing up, I was an easily impressionable kid. Whatever the TV presented me with, I soaked up like a sponge. I remember the first time I had the quintessential "water cooler" experience of Must-See TV: third grade, Full House, the episode where the monkey gets loose and everyone freaks right out. My classmates and I talked about it the next day, reciting the jokes and acting out the monkey shenanigans; it was also, embarrassingly, the first time I really realized that television had a schedule—it wasn't just randomly showing whatever the whimsy of the gods required in that moment. I made a mental note to start tuning in to Full House, because it seemed to do good things for me, socially.

Shortly after that—a primal, connective episode in my young life—I was banned from watching Full House because it made me "too snarky."

It will come as no surprise to hear that The Simpsons were completely of bounds. I was six when it premiered, eight when it started becoming a cultural juggernaut, and by the time I began high school, it saturated the atmosphere. Television is an easy way to create bonds—"You see that episode last night?"—and in the last decade before streaming, dowloading, TiVo, and Netflix made scheduled broadcasts completely irrelevant, it was the glue that held some friendships together. You know exactly what I'm talking about: friendships between teen boys that were comprised 100% of quoting The Simpsons at each other while they ate Pop-Tarts and played video games on the couch. Some of those boys worked Simpsons quotes into their best man speeches at each others' weddings.

My mother was skeptical of the Simpson family: they're low-brow, crude, and their treatment of each other can be ugly. Bart, who was the show's breakout star, was often on the receiving end of Homer's choking rage; Bart himself was a prank-calling, sister-tormenting, detention-getting agitator. Homer was stupid, Marge was deluded, Lisa was bossy; hell, even the baby had shot somebody. We were emphatically not allowed to watch it, and even well into my teens, I felt uneasy when my babysitting charges would tune into CBC at five o'clock to catch the iconic opening credits.

Now, over five hundred episodes later, I've seen The Simpsons. Not as much as my boyfriend, who could probably recite entire seasons in his sleep, but enough that I know Johnny Cash's immortal lines to Homer, or get excited when the Simpsons visit a place I've been—Iceland! Er, Toronto!—or work a Simpsons quote into regular conversation. This is par for the course in 21st century pop culture: the expectation that, if you're between the ages of 25 and 40, you're well-versed in The Simpsons golden seasons (three through nine, by most accounts), and have a favourite character, a few favourite lines, and will be excited by Simpsons-inspired fashion. It's just how the world works these days.

Watching the show now, I can see where my parents grew thin-lipped. Itchy and Scratchy are terribly violent, and Bart is a trickster on par with Loki or Puck (the Shakespeare character, not the Real World doofus). But! The Simpsons turned out to be kind of a really great family role model. They go to church. They work—not too hard, but enough to provide for their families. They have friends, and complicated relationships with their parents and employers. They love each other when it gets hard to even like each other. Homer and Marge have been together for decades, and they still find passion and love for each other. They forgive each other.

Unlike the paper-thin characters on Full House (sorry, Uncle Joey, but it's true), the Simpson family has developed some real heft. Characters have died. Divorce papers were signed. Babies—many, many babies— were born. They've also inspired some of the best animated series out there: South Park, which is raunchy and practically clairvoyant in their satire; Archer's crystalline animation; the family focus of Bob's Burgers.

While I would argue that, despite Bart and Lisa's ages, the show is not, and never has been, a kids' show (you were right, Mom), the skewering of American family values and 21st century living is perfect for a bright pre-teen of any era. Those constant send-ups of wealth, of religion, of masculinity, of small-town life, are the best kind of gateway drug for people who will eventually end up guffawing over The Onion and performing in execrable sketch comedy troupes; they're also perfect for people who will end up poring over Harper's and writing detailed analyses of David Foster Wallace short stories. There's something in The Simpsons for everyone.

Including, as much as she would hate to admit it, my mom. Hey, at least it's not Bob Saget.