How Great Thou, Bart

“By their own follies they perished, the fools.”
— Homer, The Odyssey

Operator! Give me the number for 911!”
— Homer Simpson, The Simpsons

I’m far from alone in taking The Simpsons seriously as a force to be reckoned with in American culture. After 400 original episodes over 18 full seasons — the longest run by far of any sitcom in U.S. television history — a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, a dubbing by Time magazine as the “20th century’s best television series,” and a new, rave-reviewed box-office smash motion picture, The Simpsons is anything but obscure and avant-garde nowadays. It’s downright mainstream.

College courses are taught about The Simpsons. Modern philosophers have waxed existential about what the fictional family means for humanity. Social and political pundits have opined about the series’ relevance and impact on American culture for years. Even our language has been forever changed by that dysfunctional Every-family from Springfield, U.S.A. — in 2001, the Oxford English Dictionary added Homer’s trademark exclamation “D’oh!” to its comprehensive catalog of the lingo…

In fact, so many articles — more than 300, as an educated guess — have been written about The Simpsons since their first TV appearance more than 20 years ago (as a comedic sketch on The Tracey Ullman Show ) that I had trouble coming up with an original title for this essay. Options I labored to come up with that were already in print included gems like “Homer’s Odyssey,” and “The Tao of D’oh!” Both have been used, multiple times.

But all this is beside my point. What I want to talk about today isn’t that The Simpsons has become a staple of American TV and a permanent fixture of Americana itself — or even whether or not it’s a good influence on the culture. My goal is to reveal just how IMPORTANT Homer and company are to America’s freedom.

Yes, that’s right: The Simpsons play a vital role in the preservation of our liberty.

Homer’s Homer of a Flick

Everyone who’s ever seen The Simpsons on television knows that — at least on the surface — the show is largely pointless. Like an animated Seinfeld, the storylines are basically vehicles for the writers’ creativity and barbed (yet remarkably clean) humor. It doesn’t aim to be the social conscience of a culture or to reflect the zeitgeist of an age. Nor does it attempt to preach at us like some animated after-school special for adults.

Therein lies The Simpsons’ beauty and genius.

Because its fundamental goal is to spread laughs instead of lessons, the show’s writers are free to skewer everyone and everything in America without fear of undermining any overarching agenda. And this they do — gleefully freed from the shackles of political correctness by their two boorish bards, Bart and Homer Simpson. In fact, The Simpsons is such an equal-opportunity heckler of the American condition that it’s really the only thing on the Fox network (or any network) that truly approaches “fair and balanced.”

True, if one looks really hard, the slightest suggestion of a skew to the political left can be detected in The Simpsons. But it’s so light-handed as to be almost irrelevant — and it tends to highlight general issues (chiefly, the environment) more than any particular political party. In fact, recognizable caricatures of politicians from both sides of the aisle get roasted regularly on The Simpsons.

In my opinion, the fact that there are no sacred cows in Springfield is one of the reasons why the show is still running strong after 18 seasons. What’s lampooned mercilessly in one episode (like organized religion) might be glorified in the next. In simplest terms, The Simpsons is like that box of chocolates in Forrest Gump. You really never know what you’re going to get in the way of satire. And as you’ll see in a minute, this is integral to the show’s relevance as a beacon of freedom…

However, even more important than this satirical even-handedness is that year in and year out, the show’s primary gag-fodder isn’t political movements, pop-culture icons, or high-profile figures in the news or current events (though all of these make occasional cameo appearances) — but rather, the media, big business and government. And specifically, the hypocrisy and corruption rampant in these institutions.

I was afraid that, in the movie version of The Simpsons, these elements would be diluted or tempered in pursuit of the wide-reaching mega-appeal summer blockbusters strive for. I needn’t have worried. This dissenting spirit is not only alive and well on the big screen, but applied with such alternately brutish and near-subliminal expertise that, in my humble opinion, The Simpsons Movie sets a new American cinematic benchmark (not to mention sounds a new wake-up call) for the criticism of government, Big Business and the major media in this country…

But especially the government.

In fact, the entire premise of the movie casts government as the antagonist. Basically, the plotline is that after the town lake becomes hopelessly contaminated with all sorts of pollutants (Homer himself administering the toxic coup-de-grace), the Environmental Protection Agency seizes control of Springfield. In short order, the entire town is wiped off maps and GPS grids by the government, then sealed under an impregnable glass dome and left to implode into an anarchic, might-makes-right state that’s like something out of Lord of the Fliesor Hobbes’ Leviathan. When this plan fails, the EPA chief decides to nuke the city inside the dome — then convert its vast annihilation crater into a “new grand canyon” tourist attraction. The Simpson family, having escaped the dome through a sinkhole in their backyard, first flees to Alaska, then return to save their hometown and foil the Feds…

Of course, The Simpsons Movie is farfetched and nonsensical. But it’s also brilliantly crystalline in its illustration of the very essence of government — how it does exactly the wrong things, for the wrong reasons (like their own enrichment and expansion), while selling it to the public under the auspices of acting in their interests.

It’s simultaneously stupid slapstick camp and quasi-polemical high art. And it’s hilariously funny, especially if you’re alert. An unbelievable amount of stuff is happening in the margins of the screen or in the background of scenes here that’s pure comedic gold. If you take a bathroom break from this 87-minute film, you’ll miss five good chuckles at least…

Among the funniest highlights in The Simpsons Movie that poke a hot stick in the eye of government are:

  • When EPA Chief Cargill — a business wizard who was appointed to bring his PR savvy to the largely invisible agency — presents President Schwarzenegger (they never show his face, but he’s remarkably similar in voice and background to a certain West Coast governor) with dossiers outlining five options for dealing with the environmental crisis in Springfield, he chooses one at random, offering the heavily-accented justification “I was elected to lead, not to read.”
  • Later in the movie, the same scenario plays out in the Oval Office after the containment dome plan begins to show weaknesses that could backfire, hurting the EPA’s image. Villain Cargill again presents the President with five options — but hints and prods and coaches him until he picks Option 4, which calls for the nuclear annihilation of Springfield. At other points in the film, we discover that Cargill’s conglomerate had a hand in making not only the bomb, but also the dome that originally sealed off the town.
  • Not exactly a MENSA candidate himself, Homer outwits a jack-booted military guard (and breeches the dome to rescue the town) by appearing out of the bushes dressed in a gold-piped, epaulette-equipped hotel doorman’s outfit. Consulting the uniform’s nametag, he pretends to be General “Marriot Suites” and orders the guard away with an official-looking letter — written on a leaf!
  • In an attempt to win public support for the creation of a “new Grand Canyon” where Springfield used to be, the Feds enlist the aid of uber-popular Tom Hanks to appear in a public service announcement, in which he says: “Hello, I’m Tom Hanks. The U.S. Government has lost its credibility, so it’s borrowing some of mine…” And later, “Because if you have to trust a government, why not this one?”
  • When Cargill calls in the troops to protect Springfield from Homer’s attempt to rescue both his family (whom the EPA has taken prisoner) and the town, one of his minions calls him on the carpet — accusing the bureaucrat of having let power go to his head. Cargill answers: “Of course I’ve gone mad with power! Have you ever tried going mad without power? It’s boring and no one listens to you!”
  • Having fled Springfield as wanted fugitives, the Simpson family takes refuge in Alaska. But after seeing the Tom Hanks commercial about the “new Grand Canyon” coming soon to where Springfield is on the map, Marge realizes that the EPA plans to nuke her home. But Homer refuses to help save the town, so she takes the children and leaves him, heading back to Springfield with no real plan except to sound the alarm and do whatever else she can. While on a train across the tundra, they talk openly, Marge assuring the kids that they’re far from the prying eyes and ears of government. Just then, the conductor — who’s actually a surveillance robot — picks up and starts transmitting their conversation to a vast installation of the NSA, where hundreds of Federal agents are eavesdropping on thousands of conversations across the nation. The pointy-headed geek who hears them jumps up and gleefully screams to the whole cavernous room: “The government finally found someone we were looking for!”

These are just a few from many of the comedic barbs The Simpsons Movie hurls at our government. And it would take multiple essays to catalog even the most obvious shots the film takes at the media, popular culture and big business. If you see the film (and you should), keep an eye out for Bart’s almost under-the-radar swipe at Disney. It’s priceless!

But I digress. Again. I’m here to talk about why The Simpsons is important to America, and why — even if you can’t stand them — you should cheer their very existence…

The (Free) World According to Bart

As I alluded to earlier, it’s my opinion that what The Simpsons does better than any other television show, radio gripe-fest, blog or anything else on the scene today is reveal the hypocrisy in a lot of establishment institutions. This is a very necessary thing for the care and feeding of a proper democracy — in America and elsewhere in the free world.

But what’s really scary these days is the fact that so much of this type of healthy dissent gets quashed — by the media’s political correctness, the increasing hyper-sensitivity of a litigation-happy victim state, or by the bullying (or outright mandate) of government and the courts. This should make us all a bit leery. When the most biting, accurate and poignant kinds of dissent in our society have to be delivered with animated pratfalls, quips and pranks in order to be palatable to the masses and those who rule them, something’s wrong…

Then again, perhaps I’m being too dramatic here. It could be that the lightest form of comedy — not the earnest, dire commentary of somber-faced, over-educated talking heads — really is the best vehicle for simplifying and exposing the root of institutional hypocrisies. Perhaps the ambiguity of the inane and farcical creates the perfect receptive condition in the mind for the realization of just how screwed we really are by those whom we’re trusting to look after our interests on a larger scale.

But regardless of WHY The Simpsons are able to speak truth to power whilst so many others are muzzled, one thing’s clear: Biased, culturally destructive or not, Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie and their friends reflect more accurately than anything else in mainstream culture the things Americans from all points on the political spectrum should have in common: A healthy, objective, and constant skepticism of not only our government, but the other institutions that rule over or influence us by virtue of their position, doctrine, proximity, wealth, mythology, dogma or technology…

That’s what I mean when I say The Simpsons can save America. If only we will let them.

Riding along on a Homeric odyssey,

Jim Amrhein
Freedoms Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

August 13, 2007