The Simpsons

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Not to be confused with the unrelated Simpson's paradox
The Simpson family in fabulous 3D! Barney Rubble can be seen coexisting with a dinosaur in the background.

The Simpsons is an animated sitcom from the Fox Network first broadcast in 1989.[1] It is often hailed as one of the best American TV shows ever, if not the best.[2][3][4]

Its central focus is a family of five Simpsons:

  • Homer Simpson (voiced by Dan Castellaneta) — the father, a nuclear power plant worker, who's stupid, motivated largely by emotion and appetite
  • Marge Simpson (Julie Kavner) — the kind, loving, put-upon wife of Homer
  • Bart Simpson (Nancy Cartwright) — the oldest child, mischievous but with occasional hidden depths
  • Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith) — the middle child, an intelligent, vegetarian, Buddhist
  • Maggie Simpson (no regular voice actor) — the baby, who doesn't do much despite occasional silent adventures

However, what distinguishes the show is its vast range of additional characters, mostly voiced by a core cast including Castellaneta, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, Pamela Hayden, Tress MacNeille, and in early years the late Phil Hartman.[5]

Controversy surrounding the series include claims that it has an uncanny power to predict the future; allegations of racism; and its treatment of rationalism and skepticism.

Predicting the future[edit]

There are claims that the Simpsons has uncannily predicted the future, including the following:[6][7][8]

  • Donald Trump's presidency, correctly predicted in the episode "Bart to the Future" (production code BABF13, original air date March 19, 2000)[9]
  • Lady GagaWikipedia's W.svg playing the Superbowl, including a depiction of her performance flying through the air — supposedly predicted in 2012 in "Lisa Goes Gaga", happened in 2017. Snopes rated this a mix of true and false, because The Simpsons did show images of Gaga performing that resembled her later Superbowl performance, but in the show it wasn't actually at the Superbowl, and it copied a previous 2011 show where she'd entered on a zipwire. This alleged prediction was complicated by many people sharing doctored images and images from other episodes that were unrelated to Gaga or the Superbowl: the show had done other Superbowl episodes, but not featuring Lady Gaga, which may have added to the confusion.[10]
  • Smartwatches in "Lisa's Wedding" which shows a vision of the future including Lisa's fiancée Hugh talking into a watch with a screen and some kind of keypad; the episode first aired March 19, 1995.[11] The idea of watches with built in phones or communication devices was much older: Dick Tracy had a watch with a built in two-way radio in the 1940s, as the lengthy TV Tropes page on the concept will tell you.[12]
  • The 2003 Siegfried and Roy tiger attack, eerily predicted with a thinly-veiled parody of the duo in the episode "$pringfield (Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling" (1F08), first broadcast Dec 16, 1993.[13] While it's a striking coincidence, you don't need to be a genius to guess that people who work for years with dangerous animals will eventually be attacked.
  • Disney buying 20th Century Fox, correctly predicted in "When You Dish Upon A Star" (5F19) first aired November 8, 1998[14]
  • The Rolling Stones playing on forever, correctly predicted in "Lisa's Wedding" on March 19, 1995, still happening in 2018.[15] Since the Stones began performing in 1962, predicting a lengthy career wasn't much of a stretch.
  • 9/11, supposedly predicted by the cover of a brochure which says $9 and has a photo of the Twin Towers (which could be taken to be the number 11), in the episode "The City of New York vs Homer Simpson" (4F22) first broadcast September 21, 1997.[16] This could be taken as something creepy, but is easily explained as a minor coincidence stretched to fit later events (much like the prophecies of Nostradamus).
  • The mass of the Higgs boson, predicted by Homer on September 20, 1998 in the episode "The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace" (5F21) and not discovered until 2012. This can be explained by the fact that writer David Cohen knew a lot about physics and used a plausible guess that was already hypothesised.[8][17]

Identifying such coincidences is entertaining for fans, but can generally be explained by the show's incredibly lengthy running time. While largely set in present-day America, The Simpsons has had several episodes set in the future, such as the previously mentioned "Lisa's Wedding", as well as the fantastical "Treehouse of Horror" anthologies which break the continuity of the main show to present science fiction or horror stories. A study reported in 2018 found that The Simpsons over its 30-year run had made about 1224 predictions about the future, which allows for a lot of correct ones even if the overall rate is very poor.[18]

And sometimes the show cheats: there's an episode, where Lisa predicts the Superbowl winner, that has been altered for subsequent broadcast to update the teams.[8]

Likewise a lot of other shows have predicted spooky things (that are almost certainly just coincidences), for instance The Lone Gunmen had a plot about terrorists flying a plane into the World Trade Center, broadcast a few months before the actual 9/11 attacks.[8]

Racism[edit]

The Problem With Apu[edit]

Allegations of racism centre on the character of Apu the convenience store clerk. He is often considered a caricature of an Asian-American, working in a stereotyped job. The show has given him a variety of more-or-less stereotypical plotlines including an arranged marriage. When the show started, issues of representation were less commonly discussed, but Apu has recently become more of an issue (partly because the number and visibility of Asian Americans has increased). The criticisms were given focus by comedian Hari Kondabolu's 2017 documentary The Problem with Apu:Wikipedia's W.svg Kondabolu emphasises that he is a Simpsons fan but finds Apu racist and suggests the character encourages racist abuse of Indian-Americans.[19][20]

The controversy has received a variety of responses from the show. Hank Azaria, the in-no-way-Indian actor who voices Apu, has been sympathetic to concerns, suggesting an Asian actor could be cast as Apu.[21] Creator Matt Groening has equivocated.[22] Show runner Al Jean has defended the show, mocking criticism in the episode "No Good Read Goes Unpunished".[23] This episode sees Lisa and Marge reading an old book full of inappropriate content, as is often experienced when returning to problematic childhood faves like Enid Blyton's character Nigger the Golliwog in the Noddy books; Marge wants to re-write the book but Lisa has a dream where she's visited by the book's creator and then delivers an on-the-nose speech telling the show's critics (in an address direct to camera) "Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive, is now politically incorrect. What can you do?" The program then shows a photo of Apu, and Marge says, "Some things will be dealt with at a later date," and Lisa replies, "If at all."[24]

The criticisms of the show's portrayal of Apu involve a number of related points:

  1. Indian-Americans are under-represented on television and hence a prominent character such as Apu has the responsibility to represent actual Indian-American lives and experiences in all their complexity, rather than relying on out-of-date stereotypes like convenience store workers, Hindu gods, and arranged marriage.
  2. Apu's catchphrases have been used (mainly by children) to mock and bully Indian-Americans.
  3. It's wrong to have a white (non-Indian-American) actor playing Apu, because it offers a caricature where an Indian-American could do a better job. (And deprives an Asian actor of work.)

The criticisms have not been universally accepted, with lots of conservatives and fans of the show taking the point of view that there's no problem. Pradeep J Shanker argued in the National Review that Apu is a praiseworthy character: a good father to octuplets, extremely religious, a gun-owner, and a businessman (not all of which are universally-beloved attributes, and as a store-owner he's shown to sell out-of-date and unhygienic food amongst other violations). Shanker acknowledges the lack of representation of Asian Americans, particularly in the recent past, but denies that name-calling is a significant form of racism.[25] It's certainly true that Apu's portrayal is far from the most racist thing in American society, but that doesn't make it right (a prime example of Whataboutery from Shanker). And even if Apu's character has been fleshed out over the years, the show undeniably mocks and stereotypes Hinduism, Indian culture, and Indian-Americans; even though it also mocks Christianity and American culture, there is a difference between mocking the mainstream (where there are many other representations, powerful people can offer alternative views, and most of the population have considerable knowledge already), and mocking minorities.

People differ on what to do but there are some commonly advanced solutions:

  1. Leave Apu as he is, it's only a joke (Al Jean's preferred solution)
  2. Quietly disappear him (as other characters have disappeared, but normally due to the death of a cast member)
  3. Recast with an ethnically appropriate actor and/or
  4. Change the character to be more representative/realistic, maybe getting in more Asian-American writers

It's hard to see why the show's writers are so hostile to simple solutions, such as recasting. Maybe they fear that if they got rid of one stereotype they'd have to get rid of all of them, or recast all the minority characters played by whites. Or maybe they just take badly to any kind of criticism, having been told for 20 years that the show's not as good as it used to be.

Other representational issues[edit]

The show has other characters that might be problematic, although they're often excused by the show's focus on offending everybody.[26]

Its African-American characters are very different from Apu in that they're very specific and unique individuals rather than standing for an entire race, although white actors are still commonly used. The main ones are:

  • Dr Hibbert (voiced by Harry Shearer), a chuckling family doctor modeled in part on Bill Cosby
  • Drederick Tatum (voiced by Hank Azaria), a heavyweight boxer with a strangely camp and effeminate voice.
  • Carl Carlson (also voiced by Hank Azaria), a friend and colleague of Homer who also has a close friendship with the white Lenny Leonard (in early episodes there seems to have been some confusion by production staff over which one was Lenny and Carl).[27]

There are also stereotypes of hillbilly characters, notably Brandine and Cletus, with their billion children, bad teeth, stupidness, references to incest, and other cliches about Appalachian mountain folk.[28] This is a meaner cliché than Apu, but people aren't so bothered about attacks on rural whites (partly because they're less likely to be killed for who they are than other minorities).

There is also a stock Italian character; Luigi, a chef, who is like Apu in being an obvious ethnic stereotype.

Sexism[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Sexism

Allegedly, a writer called Mimi Pond was considered for a staff position when the show first started but rejected because producers wanted an all-male writers' room.[29] Since then there have been female writers such as Jennifer Crittenden but the writing staff is still largely male.

Rationalism[edit]

"Lisa the Skeptic"[edit]

In this episode, Lisa discovers a skeleton that appears to belong to an angel. All the townspeople except her are convinced it is some kind of religious omen and the end of the world is nigh. Eventually it turns out to be a PR stunt not an angel, and Lisa was right all along.[30] (On the other hand Lisa is a Buddhist in later episodes.)

Nuclear power[edit]

The show takes a mocking or hostile view of nuclear power, which is far safer than scary hydroelectric generation. However, this is largely for the humour, as C. Montgomery Burns's nuclear electricity generator is intentionally portrayed in ridiculous ways.

It's important to remember the context in which The Simpsons was created. When The Simpsons was initially created in the late 80's, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and many other nuclear accidents were fresh on everybody's minds. The idea of a bumbling idiot being a nuclear power plant inspector was a funny joke at the time.

"The Springfield Files"[edit]

An early episode parodied popular 1990s show The X-Files, dealing with themes of supposed aliens that have an actual rational(ish) explanation.[31]

References[edit]

  1. See the Wikipedia article on The Simpsons.
  2. What's the greatest TV show of all time? Easy. The Simpsons, The Guardian, 7 Sep 2016
  3. Why The Simpsons Is the Best TV Show Ever, The Vulture, Sep 2016
  4. 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, Rolling Stone
  5. See the Wikipedia article on List of The Simpsons cast members.
  6. 'The Simpsons' remain our psychics, Lisa Respers France, CNN, 15 Dec 2017
  7. Every time The Simpsons predicted the future – ranked in order of weirdness, NME, 15 Dec 2017
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 ‘The Simpsons’ Has Predicted a Lot. Most of It Can Be Explained, New York Times, 2 Feb 2018
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Bart to the Future.
  10. Did ‘The Simpsons’ Predict Lady Gaga at Super Bowl LI?, Snopes
  11. See the Wikipedia article on Lisa's Wedding.
  12. Gadget Watches, TV Tropes
  13. See the Wikipedia article on $pringfield (or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Legalized Gambling).
  14. See the Wikipedia article on When You Dish Upon a Star.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Lisa's Wedding.
  16. See the Wikipedia article on The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson.
  17. See the Wikipedia article on The Wizard of Evergreen Terrace.
  18. Here's How the Simpsons Keeps Predicting the Future, Mic, 2018
  19. My Epiphany About the Problem With Apu, Jeet Heer, New Republic, April 2018
  20. The Problem With Apu, AV Club
  21. On The Late Show, Hank Azaria says recasting Apu "seems like the right thing to do", AV Club, 25 April 2018
  22. Matt Groening says Apu critics "love to pretend to be offended", AV Club, 30 April 2018
  23. Simpsons showrunner Al Jean still seems pretty sure there's no problem with Apu, AV Club
  24. The Simpsons respond to Apu stereotype controversy in new episode, The Independent (UK)
  25. Why the Apu Simpsons Controversy Bothers Me as an Indian American, National Review, Pradeep J Shanker, April 2018
  26. The Simpsons’ response to The Problem with Apu recognizes times are changing, but rejects progress, The Verge, 10 April 2018
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Lenny and Carl.
  28. The Simpsons, Satire, and American Culture, M. Henry, Springer, 2012
  29. Does The Simpsons Care About Its Racist Caricatures?, GQ, April 9, 2018
  30. See the Wikipedia article on Lisa the Skeptic.
  31. When Mulder and Scully Went to Springfield: An Oral History of the ‘Simpsons’-‘X-Files’ Crossover, Wall Street Journal, 21 Jan 2016