The Simpsons is both the hottest and the most controversial program on television. At first sight, a cartoon show for children and adults is not promising material for “equality” TV (remember The Flintstones? The Jetsons?). Worse, the graphic style of the show is as disturbing as any drawing we have ever printed in Chronicles: The Simpsons themselves are only grotesque, but other characters, like the bartender, have sinister, bestial faces.
The most controversial aspect of the show is not the graphics, but the portrayal of a family of chronic underachievers. There are Simpsons T-shirts that bear the slogan: “I’M AN UNDERACHIEVER AND PROUD OF IT.” Drug Czar William Bennett takes this seriously enough to lash out at patients in a Pittsburgh drug-treatment center. According to the AP story, when Bennett spied a poster of Bart Simpson, he exclaimed: “You guys aren’t watching The Simpsons, are you? That’s not going to help you any.” A spokesman for the show confined himself to a dry rejoinder: “I am not aware of any one TV program that will help teenagers kick the drug habit.” But, considering the impact of television on its young viewers, Mr. Bennett had raised a legitimate question.
The trouble is, The Simpsons may be among the most moral TV programs ever offered to family audiences. By “moral,” I mean concerned with questions of right and wrong. One episode found Bart asking his father if popularity was really important. Informed that it was the most important thing in the world, the boy goes out and decapitates the statue of the town’s founder, as his friends had pressured him to do. When the town goes into shock and mourning, the boy eventually confesses to his parents. His father willingly assumes responsibility and helps the boy take the head back, but not before the two of them are captured by an angry mob. What are these immoral themes? Family loyalty, local patriotism, the willingness to accept blame.
What really upsets America’s ruling class is the notion that average Americans don’t want or need them or their false values. Bart, the underachiever, is in one episode sufficiently tempted that he cheats on an intelligence test and gets sent to a school for gifted children, all of whom turn out to be cruel snobs. But the most populist episode finds Bart sticking up for his hero, a TV clown accused of committing an armed robbery to which Bart’s father was a key witness. At first the boy trusts the evidence but later comes to believe in his hero’s character. As it turns out, the real villain is the clown’s sidekick, who always wanted to improve the tone of the program. He reads improving books (obviously from a list prepared by the Department of Education) to the kiddies. And whose voice is that of the cultivated poseur? Kelsey Grammer, otherwise known as Dr. Frasier Crane on Cheers.
Illusion and reality. We want our kids to grow up reading the right books and thinking the right thoughts, speaking in a Harvard-professor accent, but when (as in the case of Mr. Grammer) they do, they get arrested on a DUI charge and violate their probation. Perhaps-it.is.better to be an underachiever, if that means working a steady job, taking care of the kids, and muddling through like The Simpsons. If the success of their show is any indication, it means that the 80’s—the decade of Yuppies, networking, LBO’s, power breakfasts, designer tennis shoes, and the high-priced watery vinegar they call New Beaujolais—are finally over.